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In John Preston Arthur’s Western North Carolina: A History, published in 1914, a description is given of the town of Jefferson. Arthur writes, “The three rows of black-heart cherry trees on the main street give not only shade, but an air of distinction not noticeable in newer towns, while the colonial style of several of the houses indicates a degree of refinement among the earlier inhabitants sadly missing from many places of equal antiquity. Like Charleston, S.C., Jefferson has the air of having been finished years ago.” To a modern visitor, this description of Jefferson from 100 years ago is unrecognizable. Over the course of this prior century, the town of Jefferson, once so quaint and colonial, has undergone massive modernization, fundamentally reshaping itself into the town we know today. However, hidden among these new buildings and four lane highways are remnants of Jefferson’s former self. The most notable of these historic structures is the Adam Roberts house, located on Long Street. This large four square brick home, with hip roof and wraparound one story porch, is one of only a few brick homes in Ashe County dating from the mid 19th century. The large home is given added significance by its former inhabitants. Adam Roberts, who built the home along with his wife, Winnie, was a black Union army veteran who had been raised in Jefferson by his adopted mother, Mary Milam. After the Civil War, Roberts returned to Jefferson and became one of the town’s most successful entrepreneurs. He operated a blacksmith shop at the corner of Long and Academy street, as well as a water powered grist mill along Naked Creek. Roberts’ success in Jefferson during the years of reconstruction runs counter to many narratives of black life in the South and helps to underscore the unique community that had developed around Jefferson.
At the end the intersection of Long and Academy Streets, a few hundred feet from the Roberts house, is another of Jefferson’s oldest residences. This property was sold by Adam Roberts to B.V. Idol and his wife, Elizzie, in August of 1905. The single acre cost $30. On this lot, Idol would build a very unusual T-plan home with two story polygonal bay windows. The Queen Anne inspired ornamentation, and general quality of the home’s construction, provides an insight into its builder. B.V. Idol, who built the home himself, was a well known local carpenter, who is thought to have also built the large home on the hill at Mouth of Wilson, Virginia. That house also features a bay tower in a similarly unique polygonal shape.
Aside from the 1904 courthouse, the commercial district of Jefferson features almost none of the buildings that would have been present in John Preston Arthur’s day. George Bower’s Brick Inn, the Mountain Hotel, and the Transou Store have all been slowly erased from the town. One of the oldest buildings still standing in this district in its original location is the Jefferson United Methodist Church. This church has undergone several expansions over the years, but the tower entry chapel dates to around 1904, the same year the historic courthouse was completed. This brick church was built on the site of an earlier church building, which had been constructed with slave labor. This original church featured a second story balcony for non-white parishioners and separate entry doors for men and women. The “modern” Methodist church was built using bricks produced a few thousand feet north along the road to Bristol. These bricks were baked in kilns by Jim McGee, a resident of Boone.
Moving out of town to the west, the Neal home still stands, a monument to one of the most important families in Jefferson at the turn of the century. Built by Benjamin Joseph Neal on land inherited from his father, Quincy, the Neal home was completed some time around 1893. This large house, with Queen Anne inspired embellishments along the gables, is a two story, T-plan design, featuring a front bay window and large side gable. Benjamin moved into the house with his wife, Amanda Waugh, who was the daughter of another prominent Jefferson family. Their son, Frank, would go on to marry Chessie Barr, the daughter of Felix Barr, who operated a grist mill in Jefferson.
Together these structures, along with the other remaining historic buildings of the town, provide a glimpse of Jefferson as it once was, a town that John Preston Arthur noted was “looking to the future with pride in her past and a determination to achieve greater and greater results.”
Note: This article was featured in a prior edition of the Ashe County Historical Society newsletter. To receive quarterly newsletters, featuring new articles about Ashe County History, join the Historical Society.