Historic Elmwood – Magnificent plantation mansion on the Catawba River
Elmwood was one of three mansions along the Catawba River in Lincoln County
By Ken H. Fortenberry
Although some beautiful million-dollar lakefront homes now line the shores of Lake Norman, nearly 200 years ago the Catawba River in Lincoln County was home to three elegant mansions the likes of which we may never see again.
One of the mansions was Elmwood, the magnificent plantation home of John Davidson Graham, son of Revolutionary War hero Gen. Joseph Graham, and a member of one of North Carolina’s most distinguished families. The Grahams were politicians, soldiers, businessmen and community leaders.
Elmwood sat on a gentle hill above the river, near the end of present-day Ranger Island Road, off Unity Church Road. The homesite is now beneath the waters of Lake Norman, the historic plantation home now just a fading memory being kept alive by proud Graham ancestors.
“It was the most beautiful house I have ever seen,” recalls Anne Sherrill Eudy, granddaughter of Jennie Graham Long, the last family member to live in Elmwood, a community gathering place for generations.
“You’d walk in to a big wide hall and you’d see a big winding stairway all the way to the top. And once you were on the top floor you could see everywhere, the river and everything,” she said.
“There was a room as big as this whole house that went from the front to the back. They called it the parlor, and they had square dances there all the time.”
Elmwood hosted weddings, political events, church socials, and dances, but most of all it was home to generations of Grahams. It may have been an historic site to others, but it was their home, the place where their ancestors were born and their children were raised. Where old folks told stories of days long gone, and when they passed away, family members rocked on the porch and talked about their loved ones and the beautiful house they all loved.
“My grandma Mae (Mulvina Graham) was born there and got married there. She got married when she was 16, right in the kitchen. She married William Marvin Sherrill from what they used to call Ringdom.
The house itself was surrounded by a 1,200-acre plus cotton plantation, a huge farm where the land was worked from dawn to dusk – first by slaves and later by family members as they tried to hold onto their home place when money became tight in the Depression.
In a way, the story of Elmwood is the story of east Lincoln County – from pioneer days along the river to modern times when the river was consumed by progress and turned into a huge recreational lake.
John Graham, the general’s eldest son, was likely born just across the Mecklenburg County line when his father, the general, worked a few miles away with his father at Vesuvius Furnace, a major producer of iron products for many years.
In those days, a stagecoach road ran between Lincolnton and Salisbury right through what was called the Beattie’s Ford community and over to Vesuvius. It was in the Beattie’s Ford community that John Graham decided to build Elmwood not long after he retired from the iron furnace business.
English carpenters and Graham’s slaves took five years to build Elmwood, one of the finest Georgian mansions in the region. It had marble walls with beautiful wood molding and a stunning winding staircase with hand-carved banisters that ran from the wide open main hall near the elegant parlor (they called it the Big Room) to the second floor. Much of material for the ancestral home came from France, but the bricks for the two-story structure were handmade from clay in the Catawba River
“All of the bricks, every one of them, was hand-made,” said Anne Eudy, who still has one of the bricks.
Another feature of the mansion was a full basement with iron-barred windows just above ground level.
“The slaves who were trusted slept in the office at night, but those who were not trusted were chained up at night in the basement,” said Catherine Long, whose husband, Grady, was born in a small brick building nearby that was the plantation office.
“I always heard that the ones they could trust, they didn’t have to tie up at night….I heard grandma say one time that her daddy paid $100 for some of the slaves,” said Anne. “Some of them wanted to run off, but I don’t know where they was going. There wasn’t
anywhere to run off to. I believe they had a hundred slaves.”
She and Catherine recall hearing family members talk about the same chains that kept the slaves restrained before they were freed were the same chains that were rattled more than a hundred years later to trick neighborhood children on Halloween night.
“At Halloween they’d go down there it would be dark in the cellar and they’d rattle the chains to scare the kids,” said Catherine, laughing at the memory.
Another unusual feature of the house was a lookout post on the roof that was used during the Civil War to keep an eye out for Yankee troops.
“There was a closet upstairs that opened onto a hatch on the roof. The boys would go up there and raise the roof up and they could watch for soldiers coming,” said Catherine.
Anne said some of the children were warned not to go up on the roof.
“If you wasn’t scared to go up there…they used to tell us when we were growing up that Tall Betsy was up in there to keep us from going. I went up there one time. You had to go up in this narrow place. It wasn’t hardly big enough to get through, and you could look out. God knows, you could see everything from up there.”
Anne was born in a house on Unity Church Road. that still stands.
“It was one mile down a little dirt road to the brick house, and we’d walk that road every day going to the brick house.”
The brick house is what everyone in her generation called Elmwood.
“Just walking down that road I thought that was the finest house I’d ever seen in my life. It was about the best you could find,” she said.
“I think everybody went down there because they knew they were going to eat a good dinner. We’d sit on that porch and at just about anytime you could see people coming down that road walking. We’d say ‘yonder they come.’ and we wouldn’t even know who they were ‘til they got there but everybody would stay and eat. Oh, Lord yeah, I remember everything about that house. Yeah, I remember going there and eating there every day. It didn’t matter who went and how many. They always had country ham and everything you could think of on that table. Aunt Jennie’s daughter, Bonnie, did all the cooking.”
“It was nothing for twenty to twenty-five people to be there for lunch every Sunday,” said Catherine.
The Grahams were members of Unity Presbyterian Church, and many church members frequently walked down the road to Elmwood for Sunday dinner.
Anne has fond memories of her aunt Jennie Graham Long, the general’s great-granddaughter.
Jennie, who lived at Elmwood for more than 82 years - from her birth to its final days – once vowed that she would stay in the house until she was “laid out.”
In an interview with the Charlotte Observer not long before the river was dammed and Elmwood was doomed, Jennie talked about the planned demise of the historic plantation house.
“They say it’ll be three years yet. I’ll be dead by then. Maybe it’s just as well. Things been changing from bad to worse it seems since the old days.”
Anne recalled her Aunt Jennie as a quiet woman who was accustomed to being waited on by others.
“Ever since I remember she dressed with some kind of scarf or a bonnet on her head and an apron. Every time I ever saw her she had it on.”
That was strange, she said, because Jennie never seemed to do any housework.
“She just always told us that them three (the Long sisters including Claud and Mae) never had to do nothing. The slaves did all their work and washed their hair. They just did everything, washing, ironing…they (the sisters) didn’t have to do nothing.”
“Slaves waited on them hand and foot. They didn’t have to do a thing,” said Catherine.
Elmwood stood on an expansive lawn that, like the house, was a gathering place. A huge elm tree provided shade for visitors and family.
And of course there was cotton, not only during the plantation years but for generations afterwards when family members, and not slaves, picked it.
“Everywhere you looked was cotton. On both sides of the house, all behind the house, down to the river, just rows and rows of cotton,” said Anne. “I picked fifteen dollars worth of cotton one week and I bought a coat!” she remembered.
Long before Anne was born Graham’s Ferry – just down the hill from the house – crossed the Catawba River.
“They would go down and get on the ferry with their horses and buggies to go to the other side. Grandma said it took a day or more to get to Charlotte.”
During Anne’s childhood, Elmwood remained a gathering place. She recalls swimming in the river and cooking out along its banks.
“The sandbar was always way out there. On Sundays we’d go down there and build fires, right down by the river. That was our meeting place. There’d be 15 or 20 of us and we’d make a fire. We’d take potatoes and fatback and stuff, and cook it. It was always a Sunday meeting place. for everybody around here.”
Elmwood was not only a Sunday meeting place, it was an entertainment center for the community – from its beginning to its final days in the late 1960s.
“When I was growing up they’d come from Davidson and everywhere to go to the brick house for the square dances,” recalled Anne.
“They had somebody from over there who’d come and do the music. Oh, good God, the parking lot would be full. The front yard would be full of people.”
But the grandeur of Elmwood began to fade over time, and some of the family members were more land-rich than cash-rich, and the plantation – no longer worked by slaves – became somewhat of a burden.
“The place was given – the house and so much land – was given to the youngest brother, Joe. But he couldn’t sell it. He got it when he was 16 but he couldn’t do nothing with it, sell it or nothing, ‘til he was 16,” said Anne.
“But when he got of age -he was the one who like to run around a little bit and everything, grandma said – and he sold the place to Duke.”
Duke paid the Graham family about $30,000 for Elmwood and hundreds of surrounding acres.
“Uncle Joe, he done away with a lot of things that was very valuable in that house or sold them or something. After he got of age and it was put in his name, he just sold it,” she said.
“They (Duke) got it cheap during the depression. They bought all the land up and down the river,” said Catherine.
Most people didn’t know it at the time, but Duke planned one day to dam the once-mighty Catawba and turn it into the biggest lake in North Carolina.
Joe sold family furniture at auction, and many of the family’s heirlooms were lost forever, now owned by antique dealers.
Even though Duke now owned Elmwood, the company didn’t make the Grahams move – just yet.
In fact, the Grahams stayed on the property for two decades, and Jennie’s son, Fred, became a tenant farmer on the family’s old plantation. He paid Duke one-third of whatever he made from farming the land. He and Anne’s father took “eggs, rabbits and everything the could get a hold of and took them over to Smithville, a black community over near Cornelius and sold them,” according to Anne.
Jennie, Oscar and Fred stayed in the house and did their best to keep its history and its traditions alive.
But the name of progress finally came knocking in 1959, and the Grahams were put on notice: they’d have to move from Elmwood, the last of the riverfront plantation homes, to make way for what would become Lake Norman.
Duke had plans to dismantle the house and restore it in Old Salem so the Grahams moved out.
The house was torn down brick-by-brick. Each brick and each part of the house numbered so it could be rebuilt in Winston-Salem.
“It was a sad thing,” recalls Catherine.
“We watched the water come up.
We’d ride down there and watch the water come up…it was a couple of months. It was a beautiful place. It’s a shame it had to go,” said Catherine.
Anne said everyone in the family was sad when the great house came down.
“Oh Lord, everybody was just heartbroken about having to take the brick house down. It had a lot of memories, you know.”
Anne says she tried to encourage her mother and other older family members to keep anything from the house, not just their memories.
“When they was tearing that house down, I told grandma and all of them ‘ya’ll are crazy for not going down there and getting some of that stuff.. We’d walk down there every day or two and watch them take the big oaks down. They’d cut them down and all, and then they took the house down. They tried to take it down so they could put it back, all that marble, mantles and stuff.”
The last thing Anne remembers about Elmwood is what was left after the historic ancestral home was torn down.
“It was just a bunch of old brick and stuff laying around everywhere.”
Today, there just a few photos remaining of Elmwood. The magnificent house was never restored to its old glory.
A fire in the Winston-Salem warehouse that stored the house destroyed everything but the memories, and those will endure for generations to come.