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Shady Oaks Plantation

Life as it was almost 200 years ago

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Some Interesting Facts about The Oaks Plantation

The Oaks Plantation was built by a Mr. Dunlap, not by “General” Smith, although through the years, the plantation was known as the ‘Smith Mansion.” The slave houses, however, predate the house by as many as 10 years.

Mr. Dunlap apparently lived in one of the cabins while building the original house, which was simply a four-over-four structure. Later sometime in the late 1800's the house was expanded with the addition of the two wings, a full front porch and a massive Doric-columned portico, the sunroom, and the relocation of the kitchen, originally housed in one of the slave houses. (The trek between the distant kitchen and the main house dining room was called “whistler’s walk.” Slaves carrying food to the main house dining room from the kitchen were required to whistle to prove that they were not nibbling at the food along the way.)

The second owners, the Smiths, apparently lived at the plantation for at least three generations. The last Smith resident was Mrs. Nelms, the widow of the adopted son that the General took into his family after the death of his own three children – on the condition that the adoptee take the maiden name Nelms, the unheired maiden name of the General's mother.

"General" Smith was an enlisted man in the Civil War. He apparently served in southern Virginia, where his older brother was an officer in the Confederate Army. Early on, he was wounded there and was returned home to Ansonville, where his mother took care of him. It took over a year for him to return to health, but he was permanently crippled and got around on a half crutch and was often attended by his own personal servant. "General" was not his real rank. Some believe that this honorific was bestowed on him, by General Robert E. Lee himself.

Reports during the residency of "General" Smith’s father mention that there were probably 25 slave cabins housing 125 slaves. They probably slept in the lofts of the cabins and the main floors were for plantation work like curing of meat, cooking, and preserving food.

The mistress of the plantation, Mary Jane Bennett Smith, was a remarkable woman--a terrific gardener, a homemaker, mother and wife who bore three children. She, despite laws against doing so, also taught her slaves to read and write.

The children of this union tragically died young. The first-born unnamed son lived only two days; the second daughter, Etta, died at seven years, and the third child, Oona, died at seventeen. Death was probably due to a fever, the flu, or tuberculosis. Diagnosis in those times lacked the medical accuracy of today.

The body of the last child, Oona, was kept in her room quite some time before burial, preserved in her coffin by the grieving father who finally entombed her body in the family plot in the Episcopal Cemetery in Wadesboro. The house is thus acquainted with grief: The entire family, except for the general, died here. He passed away at a neighbor’s house while visiting.

Clearly the spirits of the departed remain on the plantation. Various reports of extra-phenomenal happenings abound: doors that open unexpectedly, bells that sometimes ring spontaneously, picture frames that cant arbitrarily, and the usual creaks and footfalls one would expect in an old house. Various audio and video groups have found some evidence for these metaphysical happenings.

Toward the end of the Civil War, remnants of Sherman’s army made their way as far north as Wadesboro, sacking that town. They were headed toward the prosperous farming town of Ansonville, but they were prevented from invading the town by the spring rain that had flooded the Pee Dee River, which rendered the river unnavigable and stopped the invading forces.

The Smith family, having received word of the approaching Union forces, made efforts to hide their valuables by dispatching a young slave child to bury these valuables somewhere along Brown Creek. The child was not able to remember where he buried these treasures, and they have never been retrieved.

Many other interesting facts exist about The Oaks like the story about a freed Black preacher Rauf Freeman, who drew large crowds of both Black and white folks who attended his services. His tomb and a historical marker are located in the nearby Bethlehem Cemetery, across the road from The Oaks plantation. The North Carolina legislature, apparently fearing that the crowds he preached to could lead to riots, passed a law preventing Blacks from gathering, effectively ending Freeman's career.

The Oaks was unoccupied for about eleven years, but it now has come alive through the efforts of many men and women who worked here and remain dedicated to preserving this historical monument, which is an asset to the town, county, and state.

It is noteworthy indeed that the main house with its heart-of-pine floors, brick fireplaces, stonework, moldings, and other raw materials all were produced on the plantation mainly by the men and women who dwelt here.

The present owner, an emeritus professor from the City University of New York but autochthonous of this area of North Carolina is the fifth inhabitant of the plantation. Having previously restored four historic houses, he is in the process of reclaiming the former glory of the entire estate, including the slave quarters and other outlying buildings.