Brandon Plantation

(41-157) VLR: 10/18/95: NRHP:04/26/96.

This southern Piedmont plantation was originally the homestead of the Brandon family who settled in the area in the mid-eighteenth century. The principal resource is a two-part vernacular farmhouse built in 1800 and enlarged ca. 1842. The enlargement includes noteworthy interior woodwork: plain but forthright 1840s mantels and stair attributed to Thomas Day, the well- known black cabinetmaker of nearby Milton, North Carolina. Day has achieved national attention as a symbol of successful black entrepreneurship in a time and region where the majority of his fellow African-Americans were legally enclaved.

An equally important feature of the property is the rare, carefully preserved ca. 1800 kitchen/slave house with an unusual extended cornice. This outbuilding is an example of the fast-disappearing service buildings that once were a prevalent feature of the Southern agrarian landscape. It and the earliest portion of the dwelling house were built during the ownership of William Brandon. The section with the Thomas Day woodwork likely was constructed after 1841 when the property was inherited by Brandon's son, William Byrd Brandon.


The Brandon family traces its origins in the region to 1746 when Francis Brandon purchased land in the Halifax County portion of what was then Lunenburg County from the Byrd family of Westover, Charles City County.' In 1750 a William Brandon purchased land in the area from William Byrd II' In 1758 David Brandon and William Brandon were appointed "processioners" by the vestry of Antrim Parish, the Anglican Parish that formerly incorporated all of Halifax County. "' Although kinsmen, the precise relationship of these various Brandons is uncertain.

In his will filed July 16, 1778, David Brandon left the "land and plantation whereon I now live, containing three hundred and thirty acres," to his eldest son William. It was this William Brandon who most probably built the oldest part of the present dwelling house on Brandon Plantation as well as the existing kitchen/slave house. The general construction date of the house and outbuilding, ca. 1800, has been determined by stylistic evidence rather than documentation and could vary at least a decade.

William Brandon, known as William Brandon, Sr., died in 1841 leaving his property, to his son William Byrd Brandon. Because stylistic characteristics of the east section of the dwelling house suggest a date of 1840 or later, it is a reasonable to assume that this portion was added by William Byrd Brandon soon after he received title to the place.

The Brandon family typifies the middling gentry who occupied Halifax County in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. They were slave owners and lived in reasonable prosperity, yet they were not on the level of such leading families as the Bruces of Halifax County who lived in architectural splendor and owned thousands of acres worked by scores of slaves. The Brandons' dwelling illustrates the type of housing inhabited by people of their rank: a commodious vernacular building of little pretension. Although twentieth-century alterations have compromised the integrity of the interior of the ca. 1800 section, the ca. 1842 section retains its most significant features.

The mantels and stair of the ca. 1842 section set the house apart from other examples of rural antebellum architecture by being attributed to the shop of a noted black cabinetmaker and carpenter, Thomas Day. While the attribution is based primarily on stylistic evidence, Day is know to have worked for the Brandon family. In an 1844 estate accounting of the estate of Francis Brandon, the two executors, William and Jessee (sic) Brandon, notes a payment of $14.00 to Thomas Day.

Day was a free black who operated a cabinetmaking shop in Milton, Caswell County, North Carolina, a hamlet just a few miles away from Brandon Plantation. He became an established craftsman in the second decade of the nineteenth century. By the time of his death in 1861 he and his assistants had produced woodwork for houses throughout the Milton region, in both North Carolina and Virginia. His shop also produced quantities of strongly built furniture. Day's work, although provincial interpretations of sophisticated Greek Revival and Empire designs, is bold and self-assured, and has a personality that sets it apart from other work of the period. He made extensive use of strong S curves in both furniture and woodwork. The serpentine friezes of the Brandon Plantation mantels are example of his penchant for curves. The mantels are also interesting for preserving their original marbleized finish, probably executed by Samuel Shelton, a painter also from Milton.

The ca. 1800 kitchen/slave house on the property is one of the better preserved domestic outbuildings of its period in the region. A rare feature is the overhanging eaves on its east side, a treatment not observed in any other outbuildings in that area of Virginia. Also of interest are the rare batten hatches used in place of windows on the south end. The building is currently undergoing a scholarly restoration. A similar restoration is planned for the main house following completion of research and examination under the sponsorship of the current owner, a descendant of the original owners.

From the standpoint of historic geography Brandon Plantation was situated directly in the path of several important historical patterns of development. The first included the opening and settlement of southside Virginia by Governor Spottswood in 1720, the General Assembly's Tax Exemption for southside settlers in 1738, and the implementation of one of the earliest successful colonial development schemes -- that of William Byrd, II. The land which constituted Brandon Planation along with other adjacent Brandon land was purchased from the estate of William Byrd, land which he had procured after participating in the survey of the dividing line between Virginia and North Carolina. Moreover, Lunenburg court records note that in 1750, Thomas Brandon and others partitioned the court for the building of a road from the mouth of county line creek (Milton, N.C.) to Boyd's Ferry (South Boston). This road would probably have run through or alongside Brandon Plantation.

The second was the final phase of the southern campaign of the American Revolution in 1781. This phase included the "Retreat to the Dan" by General Nathaniel Greene with Lord Cornwallis in pursuit, followed shortly by Greene's return to Guilford Court House and the strategically successful battle there. This maneuver "led-- indeed forced Cornwallis to Yorktown, where the power of Britain in the American states was shattered." Carrington in his History of Halifax County writes that "It appears that Greene and Cornwallis passed through Halifax County twice in the month of March 1781. The armies followed what is known as the 'River Road' from Milton to Blank's Ferry (Irwin's Ford), where Greene seems to have crossed and recrossed on the track of the southward-moving British army. The road to the Dan taken by General Greene and Cornwallis may very well have been the one petitioned for by Thomas Brandon and noted above. The proximity of Brandon Plantation to this Southern Campaign explains the levies on it and other plantations for forage, boats, rifles, horses, etc., and the fact that a least one of the Brandon men, Francis Brandon, Jr., joined the 2nd Virginia Regiment of Volunteers and went down to participate in the Battle of Guilford Court House. " Later that same year, Brandon was detailed to guard the prisoners taken at Yorktown.

The third was the development of the agrarian slave economy leading up to the Civil War. Brandon Plantation was situated in the area where the regularized production of bright leaf tobacco was developed in the 1820s, an industry requiring slave labor. The Brandons had numerous slaves and most likely used them for tobacco growing, resulting the in the prosperity that enabled the construction of the ca. 1842 wing of the residence. The kitchen/slave house is also an artifact of the slave economy as is the walled cemetery with its labor-intensive construction.

It is ironic that the surviving physical parts of the property which contribute most to its historic significance are the kitchen/slave house, associated with the institution of slavery, and the artistic work of a free black, Thomas Day, noteworthy as an example of an early triumph of American free enterprise.

The Gazette-Virginian
Wednesday, January 19, 2005
by Beth Robertson

The restoration of a Halifax County home earned the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities' Frederick D Doveton Nichols Award for the "best domestic architectural restoration project in Virginia" last night in Richmond.

John R. Brandon was presented the award during The APVA's 34th Annual Awards ceremony.

The project, which included restoration of the home and several outbuildings, began following Brandon's purchase of Brandon House in 1992.

The project ties Brandon to centuries of Halifax County history.

In 1746, three Brandon brothers bought 1,400 acres of and in what was to become Halifax County, Virginia, from William Byrd's widow, Maria, according to records.

In 1992, John Brandon bought a portion of the original acreage.

On the land, approximately 140 acres, stood an early house and several outbuildings.

Jim Melchor, the project manager for restoration, worked with master carpenter Doug Noe and Tommy Thompson over a 12-year period as Brandon had the house and it dependencies "meticulously restored."

"It has been very interesting,"said Brandon."It has not been cheap, but it has been almost like a duty once I knew what the property was and the history behind it. I felt I had a responsibility to restore it in the most elegant way possible ... and to leave a window to the past open on one small sector of our country's history."

Work first began on the slave quarter/kitchen, a section described as "a rare and possibly a unique survivor with its overhang to the east," by historian Marilyn Melchor in the nomination submitted to APVA.

Jim Melchor researched the architectural history of the structure. A new foundation and roof led the agenda as Brandon moved to save the structure that would later be filmed as part of a video documentary for the Ellis Island Museum.

Char Bah, descended from black families in the same Halifax County area, was filmed at the Brandon farm for the documentary, although Brandon said Bah's family was not connected to his farm.

In her APVA recommendation, Melchor also noted "an addition to the main house, circa 1844, retains the mantels, staircase and woodwork crafted by the shop of Thomas Day, a noted free black who owned a woodworking/cabinetmaking shop in nearby Milton, North Carolina."

Key elements in the restoration included uncovering and preserving original marbleizing on the stair risers and baseboards, the installation of a Thomas Day door and surround, and removal of the circa 1960 exterior aluminum siding.

"The most challenging thing in restoration is reading the evidence on the bare-bones of the house," said Jim Melchor. "You do your restoration work based on the evidence you have."

In pursuit of clues, the restorers looked at every nail hole, scratch, everything there," he explained.

The detective work paid off as workers removed an existing porch and aluminum siding from the two-story house. Melchor said "paint ghosts" were keys to what had been.

The architectural historian is also quick to compliment Doug and Hilda Martin, who previously owned the house. At one time, Martin considered razing the old house and building a new home, but Melchor said Mrs. Martin wanted to keep the old house.

Although some changes were made, restorers were delighted to find missing architectural pieces still on the property.

"Inside was pretty much intact," recalled Melchor. A mantel that was reinstalled was still on the property and two doors were put back in original locations, according to restorers. The doors, too, had been saved.

"We knew a door was in a wall," recalled the project manager. "When we pulled the siding off the house, the door frame was in the wall and we found the door."

During the restoration, all mechanical and electrical elements in the house were replaced.

"We wrapped it up by putting functional shutters back on the house. With hardware," added Melchor.

The home's amazing trek through time probably opened with limited multi-use space, "a hall/chamber arrangement," but its extended metamorphosis included adding bedrooms and new living space, according to Melchor.

Under John Brandon's care, the property now reflects the history of those who came before him.

The retired Nayy captain's forebears have a long history of military service.

"Three Brandons fought at Guilford Courthouse," said Brandon, recalling Cornwallis' pursuit of Colonial forces across North Carolina to the Dan River near South Boston in February of 1781. Another Brandon, who fought in the French and Indian Wars, is recorded as seeking compensation for a horse and a watch lost in those campaigns. "He got a horse, but no watch," added John Brandon.

John Brandon speaks of "duty" when asked about undertaking the time-consuming and costly renovation of Brandon house, but his work also inspires.

"Mr. Brandon was able to preserve many of the original elements of the structure," according to an APVA press release. "This successful restoration offers inspiration to those wishing to restore domestic dwellings."

For Brandon, the restoration reaches across centuries to Brandons who helped chart the nation's history; it is about family, about duty.

The Brandon complex is listed on both the Virginia and National Registers of Historic Places.

This information is provided by TheVirginia Department of Historic Resources
and is being republished here with the consent of
the Gazette-Virginian & the Halifax County Chamber of Commerce Tourism Committee.

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This page was last updated on Febuary 4, 2005 .