By Michael Doan
Long before the Civil War--long before slaves were free---an African-American quietly emerged as a titan of the Southern furniture manufacturing industry. When trailblazers are honored during Black History month in February, this entrepreneur is often overlooked.
From 1820 to 1860, this businessman, Thomas Day, had dozens of workers, both white and black (including his own slaves), handcraft and later machine-craft architectural elements and furniture. He became the largest furniture manufacturer in North Carolina with his uniquely designed beds, wardrobes, chairs, cabinets and mantels.
More than 150 years later, the talented free black man is finally gaining recognition for his craftsmanship and his bold business sense by the Smithsonian Institution, the Museum of History in Raleigh, N.C., his hometown of Milton and the region’s tourist industry. All have displayed and promoted this craftsman’s handiwork.
Collectors and museums, are discovering and buying his works at auctions. The Halifax County Historical Society, in South Boston, Va., is identifying about 20 houses with Day’s works. His handiwork will be featured in an upcoming issue of American Furniture magazine. He’ll be a character in an upcoming play, “The Five Miltons.”
Recognizing the appeal of this groundbreaking cabinetmaker’s accomplishments, a group of bed and breakfasts nearby is sponsoring a tour of this unique man’s works throughout the area.
“We think that people of all races would like to see some of Day’s unusual and high-quality work placed in the homes of everyday people in Virginia and North Carolina,” says Pickett Craddock, proprietor of Oak Grove Plantation Bed & Breakfast in nearby South Boston, Va.
Day was famous for his designs that included undulating shapes and spiraling forms with S-curves. The governor of North Carolina bought 37 of his pieces for the statehouse, giving Day an amazing two-month deadline.
Though black, Day was one of the wealthiest people in the region until the Panic of 1857, when his business went to pieces. He had overextended himself and was unable to collect from white debtors. Though his shop in Milton, N.C., survived, his business was wiped out by the Civil War, and he died in 1861.
In Milton, local people of all races have raised money to restore the home and factory where so much furniture was made. Hundreds of his works still exist throughout the Dan River Valley, which meanders near the North Carolina and Virginia borders. This craftsmanship is what these Halifax County, Va., innkeepers want visitors to see. Among places with Thomas Day works:
--Historic Woodside House, Milton. Thomas Day, who lived in the same town, built the carved mahogany newel post and decorative stair rail in the entrance hall. The cabinetmaker also hand carved all of the fireplace mantels in the house. The inside panels of two doors were painted in his “faux painting” style, which makes ordinary wood look like mahogany. The Greek-revival style home was built in 1838 by the Caleb Hazard Richmond family. www.thewoodsidehouse.com.
--Breezy Oaks Farm, Alton, Va., is a country residence surrounded by farmland. The house features double leaf doors built by Thomas Day, and a mantel in the living room that displayed many of the techniques Day employed. A large fieldstone chimney on the north side is thought to have been built by a traveling group of free black stonemasons. The original section of the house, built around 1800, is one of the few remaining planked log houses in the county. www.virginia.org/Listings/
--Oak Grove Plantation Bed and Breakfast, Cluster Springs, Va., was built in 1820, about the same time that Day started his business in Milton. Oak Grove has three mantels, baseboards, windows, doors, stairs, newel, sidelights and transom that can probably be attributed to Day’s shop in Milton, according to Day historians. The innkeeper can take you on a hike to an uninhabited building, now a hay barn, with a Day-produced doorway and a transom and sidelights typical of Day’s work. www.oakgroveplantation.com
Guests will be given these suggested other stops:
--The Oak Tree Tavern at Virginia International Raceway, Alton, Virginia, which has two mantels and a staircase built by Day. The entrance is made up of Day’s double-leaf-with-panels doors, surrounded by a large transom and sidelights, which are contained within ornate fluted pilasters. The staircase has Day’s curved step brackets. A Day-built mantel is in the ladies’ room.
--The Thomas Day House in Milton, a few hundred feet south of the Virginia border. Restored in 1989 after a fire, Day’s home and workshop contain much of his furniture, mantels and tools of the era. Two films also can be seen of his life and his contributions. The museum is often open by appointment by calling 336-234-7366 or 336-234-7331. In early August, the play “Milton Days” will be given for five days in Milton, honoring not only Day but the five other towns in the U.S. with the same name. The museum was featured on “N.C. Weekend” by UNC TV in Chapel Hill last September.
--The South Boston-Halifax County Museum in South Boston has two Thomas Day sofas as well as other interesting exhibits while it is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday (434-572-9200). Both the Bistro 1888 and Molasses Grill are nearby for a great meal. The Molasses Grill has a Thomas Day sideboard on display.
*Note that Thomas Day works mentioned in this article are in the style of the Milton cabinetmaker but have not been documented by an original bill of sale. Day’s business records are lost. There are signatures on only a handful of pieces. Therefore, attribution of furniture and architectural elements is difficult.