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Homes tour to feature work of Thomas Day

South Boston News / October 25, 2011

On Saturday, Nov. 19, at 9:30 a.m., as a part of the upcoming home tours, a reproduction of a Thomas Day era cabinetmaker’s workbench will be dedicated at the Milton, N.C. location of Day’s workshop. The open house at Milton and the home tours in Halifax County are a cooperative effort of the Thomas Day House/Union Tavern Restoration, Inc. and the Halifax County Historical Society.

In the fall of 2010, Herbert and Henry Caudle, local members of the Mid-West Tool Collectors Association, along with the Thomas Day House board began a process of planning and building a historically accurate reproduction of a nineteenth century cabinetmaker’s workbench. Brian Coe of Old Salem completed the historical research and designed the bench. Ed Hobbs of the M-WTCA organized the effort. Bill Anderson and Roy Underhill (of the PBS series “The Wood Wright’s Shop”) assisted Brian and Ed and other volunteers in constructing the workbench at the Wood Wright’s School in Pittsboro, N.C. The recently completed workbench was built exclusively with hand woodworking tools.


A free man of color born circa 1801 near Emporia, Thomas day came to Milton in 1823. He worked with his brother in their cabinet shop and built furniture according to the popular designs of the time. After his brother left to pursue other interests, Thomas continued in his craft. In 1830 he married Aquila Wilson of Halifax County. He made furniture for North Carolina Gov. David S. Reid and other leading citizens of the state and farmers and plantation owners in the valley of the Dan River. Day was the largest furniture manufacturer in North Carolina by 1850. A collection of his furniture is on permanent display at the Museum of History in Raleigh, N.C. A 6,000 square foot exhibition of his work and life story will continue at the museum in Raleigh through next summer.

Day’s architectural interiors can be seen in several early 19th century houses in Caswell (N.C.) and Halifax counties as well as in other counties along the Dan River. Classical mantels, S-shaped and totem like newel posts, intricate arches, and artistic door frames reveal the individual style of the “Master Craftsman”. He was also commissioned to furnish the interior woodwork for the first major extant building at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

In 1848, Day bought the Union Tavern of Milton’s main street which became his workshop and residence. Architecturally, the circa 1818 building is one of the finest of the few known taverns still in existence in North Carolina. An imposing commercial structure of Federal design, the site once served as a regular stagecoach stop between Richmond, and Hillsborough, N.C.

Thomas Day collaborated numerous times with the noted builder Dabney Cosby (Thomas Jefferson’s brick building assistant).

In 2010, the University of North Carolina Press published a definitive work on Thomas Day, his cabinetry, and his life. Entitled Thomas Day, Master Craftsman and Free Man of Color, it was authored by Patricia Phillips Marshall and Jo Ramsay Leimenstoll with photographs by Tim Buchman.


From the mid 1830’s to the late 1850’s Day made and installed intricate architectural elements in as many as eighty homes. Most of these homes still exist in Caswell County, NC with at least 20 having been built or renovated with Day elements in Halifax County, VA.

South Bend (Virginia International Raceway’s “Oak Tree Tavern”) is one of these Thomas Day houses. Resting on land in the southern most bend of the Dan River this home is a “world class” example of restoration and adaptation of a “tobacco boom” plantation house. The plantation was originally developed when the Dan River was the most important mode of transportation in Halifax County. The house has numerous architectural elements attributed to Thomas Day’s workshop. This property is the only Thomas Day house open to the public on a weekly basis in its adaptation as a clubhouse and restaurant. The VIR organization spent much time and treasure in the restoration of the house and surrounding property.

Built by Fielding B. Lewis, Alexander Bruce acquired the property in 1856, and later traded this property to his brother Wilkins Bruce. Wilkins Bruce and his wife Kate Pennington kept South Bend as a Bruce residence until 1907. Not long after her husband’s death, Kate Bruce placed South Bend up for public auction. E.B. Foote purchased the home and its contents, along with 1,158 acres for $17,500.

Day elements are numerous and of high quality throughout the house. The entrance is made up of double-leaf-with-panels doors surrounded by a large transom and side lights which are contained within ornate fluted pilasters with intricate detail above the transom. These elements are repeated on the interior of the doorway. The central hall has a curvilinear newel post, curved step brackets, tobacco stick balusters, baseboards, and door facings attributed to Day. Recessed niches on either side of the mantels indicate this home contains some of Day’s most ornate work.

The property and South Bend is currently under a long term lease by the Foote family to VIR.

Harvey Siegel and Connie Nyholm co-own, organize, and manage Virginia International Raceway.


Thomas Day House/Union Tavern is sponsoring an open house on Saturday, Nov. 19. There is no charge for this open house, but tax deductible donations are encouraged, and receipts can be given to donors. The Halifax County Historical Society is sponsoring its Fall Foliage Home Tour on Nov. 19 and 20. The Saturday tours emphasize Thomas Day houses with Sundays featuring the work of the Cosby’s. Sixteen homes and buildings are included on the tour for a small charge. Revenues from the tour will be applied to the historical society’s publishing costs of An Architectural History of Halifax County.

The following homes will be open on Saturday, Nov. 19 from 10 a.m.-5 p.m.: The Thomas Day House/Union Tavern, South Bend (Oak Tree Tavern), Breezy Oaks B&B, Brandon-on-the-Dan, Brandon Plantation, Riverside, Springfield, Glenmary, and Magnolia Hill.

Open on Sunday, Nov. 20 from 1-5 p.m. are the following:

Halifax Courthouse, Courthouse law offices, Halifax Masonic Lodge, St. John’s Episcopal Church, Carrington House, Fox-Bennett House, and Grand Oaks.

Tickets for the tour are $20 for the two days or $15 for one day if purchased ahead of time. On the day of the tours the price increases to $25 and $15.

Tickets are on sale in South Boston, at Electric Service and the Chamber of Commerce. Sale locations in Halifax, are at Triangle Florist and the Exchange Store. Tickets can be purchased by mail by sending a check to the Halifax County Historical Society, PO Box 601, South Boston, VA 24592.

A tour brochure which includes a map of the locations and brief descriptions of the homes will be given or mailed to ticket purchasers.

Box lunches are available on Saturday at a very attractive and comfortable location. Lunch tickets for Saturday must be purchased no later than Tuesday, Nov. 15. Lunch tickets are available at the above listed locations and by mail.

Refer questions to the tour committee chairman, Joe Graves (434)822-8967 or email .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

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