It is hard to imagine today, amid the noise of street traffic and the flow of pedestrians, that the white-columned building standing at the corner of Tanner and Main Streets in the textile town of Spindale, North Carolina was once the seat of a prosperous backcountry plantation surrounded by fields of cotton, corn, and rolling pastureland.
Three generations before the first bolt of cloth and spool of yarn was manufactured in Spindale a house was built on the headwaters of Stonecutter Creek that in time would become the symbolic heart and geographic center of the mill community. Francis Sidney Coxe, the original owner of the home and surrounding plantation, was the son of Tench Coxe, Sr., of Philadelphia, one of the wealthiest men in America during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Tench Coxe was the assistant secretary of the United States Treasury from 1789-1797, during the presidency of George Washington. He also served as a paid advisor to the Secretary of State during the Adams and Jefferson administrations. A vast collection of letters and journals held at the time of his death reveal a close association with just about every prominent political figure of the time from Washington and Jefferson to Benjamin Franklin and Henry Knox.
In addition to his governmental career Coxe was a land speculator who purchased hundreds-of-thousands of acres of land in western North Carolina in hopes of reselling at a higher price. That endeavor steered his son, Francis Sidney Coxe, to the state’s foothills region in the early decades of the 19th century. Francis Sidney Coxe was heir not only to his father’s fortune but to the world of responsibilities and work that it took to maintain and manage such riches. It was his desire for a country home that led to the creation of one of western North Carolina’s most important antebellum landmarks.
A two-page contract dated June 25, 1849, shows that Francis Sidney Coxe and his wife, Jane McBee Alexander Coxe, contracted with J.H. Wilkins, of Rutherfordton, North Carolina to build their plantation home in exchange for 334 acres further down Stonecutter Creek. Coxe was meticulous in his record keeping as the house began to take shape in a grove of oak and walnut trees two-and-a-half miles east of the Rutherford County Court House. Field slaves and a few hired craftsmen were engaged in building the house.
Construction details of the home’s staircase, banisters, shutters, windows and flooring, as well as the cost of needed materials, were recorded by Coxe. The bricks for the plantation home were manufactured on Cleghorn Creek in the nearby town of Rutherfordton and hauled to the site on horse-drawn wagons. The lumber needed for construction was felled and sawn on the property by Coxe slaves.
While the dwelling was small in comparison to other plantation mansions across the South, and belied the Coxe family’s wealth and influence, it gave the family the requisite home necessary for entertaining in style. It was a one-and-a-half story, brick structure with four principal rooms on the first floor and two rooms above. The first floor faced a single-story veranda running the entire length of the home’s front façade.
On the main floor a well-appointed parlor and dining room flanked a wide center hall. Those rooms were ornamented with fine millwork, including mantels, window trim and door casings. To the rear of these spaces was a library and bedroom, both of which opened onto the back logia. The kitchen was a separate structure located behind the home.
The plantation house faced the main road running through rural Rutherford County. It was surrounded by a collection of support structures including slave cabins, a stable, smokehouse, and barns. As was the custom of the time when the house was complete the Coxe family gave the home a name, Sidney Villa, in tribute to plantation master.
While no inventory survives to indicate how the home was furnished there are receipts among the Coxe family papers that give insight into the lifestyle of the family. Purchases for the Coxe household in the late 1840s and early 1850s include English china, sterling silver serving pieces, clocks and watches, gilded mirrors, a sideboard and eight matching chairs, bedsteads, music boxes, a cellaret (wine cooler), chamber porcelains, and a spinet (piano). In addition, numerous lengths of expensive fabrics were ordered for the home including silk damask, velvets, and lace.
At the time of the home’s construction, Francis Sidney Coxe had been a resident of Rutherford County for more than 20 years. Two of his sons, Franklin Coxe and Tench Charles Coxe, were born in Rutherfordton. The family’s reputation was strong throughout the region. In addition to land sales, Coxe was a successful merchant. Surviving ledgers from the 1830s and 1840s show that many of the prominent families of Rutherford County kept open accounts with the Coxes and depended on their mercantile to order and acquire supplies from faraway places like Philadelphia, Boston and New York.
Francis Sidney Coxe was not able to enjoy his new home for long. Two years after its completion he succumbed to tuberculosis, which had plagued him for years, and he died on April 8, 1852. He was buried in the Rutherfordton City Cemetery. An estate inventory conducted following Coxe’s death indicates that the plantation consisted of 700 acres and 25 slaves.
Mrs. Jane Coxe continued to live on the plantation for much of the next two decades. In the late 1850s the management of all farming operations on the plantation fell on her shoulders while her sons were attending Furman University, in Greenville, South Carolina.
A letter written by Mrs. Coxe in December 1859 reveals that the plantation had produced more than 60 bales of cotton during the previous autumn and more than 80 hogs had been raised that year for slaughter. Agricultural production would soon come to an end on the estate with the coming of the Civil War. During the war years Mrs. Coxe stayed at neighboring plantations with relatives and friends.
After the war the house became the possession of Col. Franklin Coxe, who had served in the Confederate Army, and who had returned from the war to take charge of his family’s business endeavors with even greater skill and tenacity than his father. Col. Coxe had married Mary Matilda Mills, of the Green River Plantation, near Rutherfordton, in 1861.
The coming of the railroad to Rutherford County in the late 1880s brought changes to the landscape around the plantation. In 1887, a line of the Charleston, Cincinnati & Chicago Railroad was completed from Charlotte to Rutherfordton. Later, the Carolina Central Railroad followed the same route and crossed the tracks of the CC&C Railroad in front of the old plantation home. This resulted in the community surrounding the house becoming known as “Coxe’s Crossing.” In time, the railroads would become the Southern and Seaboard Airline Railroads.
After Col. Coxe’s death in 1903, the home was used by his wife’s aunt, Matilda Carson Thruston, until 1908. After Mrs. Thruston died the home sat vacant and then was leased by the Coxe family during World War I, before it was operated as an inn in the 1920s. The home was purchased by textile magnate S.B. Tanner, Sr. in 1922, and donated to the newly-formed Town of Spindale for use as a community meeting hall and recreation center the following year.
At the time of Tanner’s gift the old plantation house was remodeled by architect Martin E. Boyer, Jr., and a portico upheld by four Doric columns was erected on the front of the structure replacing the earlier wooden porch. Alterations and changes made to the home during the 1920s and 1930s greatly diminished the original character of the interior spaces leaving very few clues of the home’s plantation past.
Without concern for the architectural or historical integrity of the building the main rooms on the first floor were converted into offices for town personnel. The dining room was refitted for use as a public library and the town’s police department was located in the former master bedroom. The two upstairs bedrooms were converted into a suite to serve as the residence of the town’s athletic director and his wife.
Those alterations were minor compared to the changes that were soon to come. In an effort to provide amenities and recreational opportunities to mill families, the town council soon began the construction of a full gymnasium, and later a bowling alley, that opened directly from the rear of the original plantation home’s main hall. In the years following World War II, a commercial kitchen and 200 seat dining hall were added above the gym’s locker rooms on the ground floor. On a weekly basis thousands of local citizens streamed through the old plantation home that had been transformed into a multi-purpose community center.
Outside the home the changes to the landscape were equally dramatic. After the Town of Spindale was incorporated in 1923, seven manufacturing plants were constructed directly across the main road from the old plantation home. Stores and restaurants, a bus station, theater, automobile garages, churches, schools, and hundreds of homes soon lined a grid of streets encircling the antebellum landmark.
Today, the façade of the home still serves as a beloved symbol of the town. But, much of its antebellum appearance has been lost or is covered by 20th century elements. While the home’s two front rooms, the original parlor and dining room, survive to give some semblance of their earlier use, the quality of those spaces has been greatly diminished due to the installation of acoustical tile ceilings with recessed lighting. The bed chambers above have become a maze of air cooling ducts and electrical conduit making it difficult to imagine how the spaces would have looked before the Civil War.
While much of the home’s architectural significance has been lost there have been some positive developments made in preserving its history. Beginning in the 1980s, a group of concerned citizens began gathering Coxe family memorabilia and furniture to display in the home’s original parlor in an effort to create a heritage room for the community.
Coxe family descendants donated an American Empire sofa, square grand piano, Eastlake-style fainting couch, and a pair of ornamental sconces originally used in the home as anchors of the heritage collection. Complementing those pieces was a collection of framed family portraits and a landscape photograph of the home from 1909 that was hung over the mantel in the parlor. The Greek-Revival style mantel, original to the home’s construction, is one of only a few remaining pieces of millwork to survive from the 1840s.
“So much has been lost here in respect to the history of the home,” says Spindale mayor Mickey Bland. “But, the people of this town love the story of this house and what the Coxe family meant to our community. Our town can’t afford to go back and undo the alterations that were made to this property more than 85 years ago. There is a desire to preserve our history, but we don’t have the resources that we once had.”
Like many other textile towns across the South, Spindale’s future appears to be hanging by a thread. Since 1997, the majority of the manufacturing plants have closed and thousands of jobs have been eliminated. Tax revenue has been reduced by more than 40% since the beginning if the new century, and town leaders have had no choice but to reduce the budget for operating the recreational facility. Few civic clubs use the property, and the heritage room is rarely opened.
“We keep hoping for a miracle in Spindale,” says town librarian Amy Taylor. “I think people here respect the story of Coxe family and the old plantation home. But, it is too difficult for people to focus on the past when they are worried about putting food on the table today and what new struggles tomorrow might bring.”
R&R Contributing Author, Mr. Robin Spencer Lattimore, of Rutherfordton, NC, is an award-winning historian and author of more than 30 books and scholarly monographs that celebrate the history, traditions, and people of the American South. He was named the North Carolina Historian of the Year in 2009 by the NC Society of Historians and was bestowed with the Order of the Long Leaf Pine – North Carolina’s highest civilian honor – in 2013. In addition to his printed works, Lattimore served as the principal commentator and historian for the Emmy-nominated PBS documentary film “Gold Fever and the Bechtler Mint” produced by UNC-TV and released nationally in 2013. Lattimore serves as the Official Historian of Rutherford County, NC, Official Historian of Rutherfordton, NC, and president of the Rutherford County Historical Society. He teaches writing and research at Thomas Jefferson Classical Academy.
Interested in becoming a contributing author, contact R&R at firstname.lastname@example.org, and look for the new article in June featuring an historic Lancaster, S.C. farmstead.
Feature Article May, 2018