Abram Brower House, Liberty

Southwest corner of Fayetteville and Raleigh Streets (destroyed)


Warren Dixon is working on a history of the Town of Liberty, and found this photo in the Town’s walk-in safe. It is captioned “the old house on the corner of Fayetteville and Raleigh St.”

Writes Warren: “Supposedly the Brower house, the first house built in Liberty, at the corner of Fayetteville and Raleigh Streets. I had seen the house in a 1939 clipping from a newspaper [article about] the 50th anniversary of Liberty’s incorporation. In the clipping, the house (a different photo, but faded) was described as “the first house built in the community 160 (sic) years ago by Abram Brower, who owned the land on which the town now stands. The house is still in use.” Well, this would date the house to 1779 [and] even I… don’t believe this. Anyway, this is the Brower house that stood on the lot Abram Brower first owned. It’s certain that James Washington Brower 1813-1875 lived in the house and many of his children. Swannanoa Brower, b. 1864 and her brother, Henry Lilly Brower, b. 1866 (and Liberty’s first mayor) grew up in the house.

Another clipping, dated June 1, 1960 (and with quite a few errors) says the house was torn down in November of 1957. Wachovia Bank now stands on the lot.

Across the street, where the Lutheran Church is now, stood [Brower’s] store, on Lot #1. The Brower house would be the southwest corner, Lot #1 the northwest. Then lots 2-6 run behind lot #1 to the west.”

Local historian Francine Swaim wrote portions of a history of Liberty called “Our Town” where she states that “James Patterson Montgomery who bought lot #1 in the “new town of Liberty”, was a cabinet maker. He was paid 4.00 for the casket he made for pioneer Christian Brower when he died in 1819. At his death in 1814, Col. John Brower owned lot #2 on the northwest corner of the public square in Liberty. Jacob Brower, guardian of John’s minor children, sold the lot to William Dicks in 1817.  Given the fact that William Dicks paid $58 for the lot, while Abram Brower paid only $20 for his two lots on the opposite corner of the square, would lead one to believe the building in which William Dicks had his store (said to have been the first store in Liberty) was on lot number two when he bought it. When William Dicks died in 1831, Abram Brower purchased the store and lot from the heirs of William Dicks, who lived in Guilford County.”

Warren continues that “Other than the photo, another interesting item in the safe was an account book dating 1834-35. Whoever had it had started a scrapbook in it, pasting…on the first few pages. Thus I was unable to see whose account book it was. I need to go back and copy the numerous names from it. Sandra [Warren’s wife, a former Town Clerk for Liberty] said that Judy Reitzel donated the collection to the town before she died. I knew Judy, she lived just down the street. Judy and her husband Armp had no children. A little research showed that Judy’s husband was the son of Guy Reitzel and Sallie Patterson. Sallie’s mother was Sarah Lavina Brower b. 1845, a dt. of James Washington Brower and granddaughter of Abraham Brower, b. 1785. Guy Reizel and his brother Roy (Liberty mayor who put in water and sewer and was immediately voted out of office) married sisters, Nellie and Sallie Patterson, daughters of Dr. A.J. Patterson and the aforementioned Sarah Levina Brower. There are account books from Dr. Patterson in the collection as well. Looking through Francine’s material again, I found this note: “Records of licenses issued in 1833 list a peddlar’s license to Abram Brower. A store account book in the possession of Delene Reitzel, a descendant of Abram Brower who grew up in the old Abram Brower home place, would indicate the store may have been operated by the Brower family for numbers of years.”  Delene Reitzel was an unmarried cousin of Armp and this would explain how the account book came to be in Armp’s wife’s hands and then later donated to the town. So it seems right now that this is Abram Brower’s account book.”

Warren asked me to examine the photo and tell him what I could tell about the house. I first look at it overall, to form a general impression; then I look at specifics. If I have the original photo, I’ll look at it with a magnifying glass, as early photographs have amazing definition and detail. Scans, not so much: though photo viewers allow really convenient magnification, to have a really high resolution scan takes a huge amount of memory.

The house stands at a crossroads of some sort (houses usually face toward the main road; this one has a road running by its side so the main road must be out of the photograph). That may be some kind of gravel sidewalk between the house and the road. The shade trees in the side yard are rather young- less than 10 years old, surely. I would date the photo itself to circa-1890; the enclosed garden is a clue; not the garden itself (it has some beautiful detailing, such as the arched flower arbor and the wooden palings, which probably date to the 1850s-70s at the latest), but the fact that it is enclosed by the fence at all. The “stock laws” passed in the 1890s required livestock to be fenced “in” by their owners; previously the law had allowed livestock to forage in “the common lands,” and homeowners were required to fence livestock “out;” so enclosed gardens became uncommon after the turn of the century.) The glass-ball lightning rods are also a late-19th/ early-20th-century feature.

It is a two-story, four-bay gable-roofed clapboard house, one room deep, with a hipped-roof porch and an attached one story rear wing. In the South, rear wings like this were almost always originally a separate kitchen, separate to isolate the house from the heat of the fire burning in the fireplace every day and night, all year. The real giveaway of the identity of the little one-story wing is the size of its chimney— 3 ½ bricks deep and 6 bricks wide, while the end chimney of the house is only 2 1/2 bricks deep and 5 bricks wide. A chimney that large in a wing that small can only be designed for cooking. The free-standing kitchen was often attached to the house by an open passage, which sooner or later became an enclosed dining room as fireplace cookery gradually turned into wood stove cookery (starting in the 1840s, and becoming nearly universal by 1900). Here we see what may be an open passage separating the house and the kitchen (or it may be a side door into the kitchen wing- hard to see exactly).

My read is that the house we see here is an 1850s-era expansion of a much earlier house. There are several clues.

The house is four bays wide; that is, it has four second-floor windows on the principal façade. However, the windows are only symmetrical on the side to the left of a vertical board dividing the clapboards of the third of the house to the right from the 2/3s to the left. There is a chimney marking this same division, and I read this as saying that the original house was expanded at some point. I’m saying the date of the expansion is the 1850s, because of the construction of the roof. It has a deep overhang, along the dripline and along the gable ends. Early roofs were almost flush at the gable and dripline- look at any house in Williamsburg. As the 19th-century advanced, roofs of southern houses especially began to widen, so as to shed water farther away from the house. This is exactly the kind of roof that was built on the 1850 Columbia Manufacturing Company mill, and exactly the same as that of the Franklinsville mill when it was rebuilt in 1852 after the fire.

Another big clue toward house dating is the design of the windows- early windows have smaller, more numerous panes of glass. Here the windows are concealed by the closed shutters (it’s obviously summer from the vegetation, so it makes sense that the shutters are closed: they are the functional equivalent of window screens, so when the windows are open, the shutters should be closed. The one visible window in the kitchen wing is a six-over-six sash, which was a common size before 1880.

Many people might read the expansion and assume that the 3-bay section is the original house because it is the symmetrical side (at least on the second floor level—the vegetation along the porch hides any look at the layout of entrances doors). The symmetry of this section of the house is even more emphasized by the fact that the center window is slightly longer than the two on either side. So it is visually natural to think that the original house was a two-story frame house with chimneys at each end. I think this is incorrect, mainly because of the chimneys. The end chimney facing the camera is smaller than the chimney which is now in the center of the house. The center chimney is 3 ½ bricks deep and 7 bricks wide- even larger than that of the kitchen wing. As a general rule, the earlier the house, the bigger its fireplaces, and bigger fireplaces require bigger chimneys. So my deduction is that the original house is the section with one window to the far right, and that it was originally a square, or almost-square, two-story house with one end chimney and fireplaces on both floors. That configuration would be what 18th-century people called a “mansion house” (two stories, two full rooms on each story with a fireplace on each floor). The fact that it was square, and had only a single window suggests to me that it may have been a log house, though that is just my assumption.

The hipped-roof of the porch is an 1850-ish feature; hip roofs were common in the Italianate style which became popular in that decade. The openwork porch posts are also from that period- I first saw them in a book of house plans written by A.J. Downing in the 1850s, They were easy for a carpenter to build, and didn’t require a large turning lathe as did the later porch posts we call “Victorian.” And as we see here, they provided a built-in trellis for the climbing roses and vines that gardeners loved so much in the 19th century.

That’s about all the story I can tell from this picture. Can you see any more?

Brower House in Snow

Brower House in Snow

4-3-09

Warren found another photo of the Brower house in a scrapbook.  It’s from a much later time- possible 40 or 50 years after the first picture.  The second window to the left has been blocked up, it seems.  The Victorian garden fence has been removed, and some new trees have been planted at the intersection.  And there appears to be a concrete well cap in the front yard, which I’d date no earlier than the 1930s or 40s.    As Warren said earlier, the house was torn down in 1957, so this is obviously what it looked like late in its life…

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