Life on the Plantation

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The McAulay plantation was not actually a plantation in the grandiose sense of the word, but that was what the McAulays called it. Robert Grier McAulay, the eldest son of the family, would mention “writing to the plantation” in his letters home from the Confederate War. And Melvina Grier McAulay in her will mentioned “leaving the plantation whereon I now reside.” It was a plantation only in the piedmont sense of the term, a large farm of around five hundred acres in the Coddle Creek Community outside Statesville, North Carolina.
The plantation --as the family called it-- was only one of the irons that Neill McAulay held in the fire. He was an early believer in diversification and was a general frontier type entrepreneur. As he wrote his daughter, Maggie, “anything honorable to make money in these hard times”. Thus we know him to have been at the same time a surveyor, land speculator, railroad investor and small planter. He had a farm near Columbus, Georgia as well as one at Coddle Creek, North Carolina. Although better off than his father, Roderick McAulay, he had less slaves than his father, the number was ten, mostly house slaves. Neill had not found slavery to be economically profitable and, as much as he could, he hired white help for his farms. It was this factor, a refusal to put money in Negroes, that was to help him weather the loss of capital in black emancipation, so that he would have enough money to send his children to college during reconstruction.
The McAulay plantation house at Coddle Creek was situated near a spring of water. The house was built by slaves in a crude Federal plainness dignified by rolling hills and green pastures. The house had no columns and particularly resembled very large and plain farmhouses built by well-to-do Dutch farmers in New York and Pennsylvania in the latter half of the eighteenth century. The emphasis was on space and the accent was that of Calvinistic cleanliness. The furniture was straightlined and usually the products of provincial craftsmen in native woods of cherry, apple, and walnut. The library, containing Neil McAulay’s collection of leather books, was more than adequate, even intellectual, for the area; and the living room was dominated by the eight feet tall walnut desk and bookcase that Neil McAulay had purchased in 1828. Nearby was the Coddle Creek Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church in which Neil was an elder.
In the back of the big house were the slave cabins and stalls in which slaves worked. Everything possible was made on the plantation. Still existing is a small trunk made on the plantation for Robert Alexander Grier, younger brother of Melvina, that he took to medical school in Philadelphia. It is made of wood, bound with cowhide, and the handles are home made blacksmith work.
The food was plain and of the better country sort. Some of the McAulay recipes dated 1838 survive. They include recipes for pound cakes, ginger bread, ginger snaps, stewed tomatoes, biscuits, onion sauce, muffins, tomato sauce and rusk, a coarse bread. One of the pound cake recipes calls for a “glass of wine and a glass of rosewater”. The concluding direction for dough is: “roll it out thin and make it in cakes the size of a dollar.” The tomato sauce recipe notes it is “excellent with beef steak.”
The outdoor kitchen contained such items as long handled wafer irons to be held over the fire, big black pots and heavy iron kettles to be hung in the fireplace, and hand-beaten kitchen utensils supplied by the plantation blacksmith. The food was brought to the family table from the outdoor kitchen on a large black tray called the “slave tray,” so large and laden with food did it arrive for meals, that only a man could carry it. The houseboy, Mose, usually brought it in.
Since Neil McAulay was often away from home on business, he depended on Melvina to manage at home, She managed quite well. Perhaps Neill discovered the secret of adding rationality to romance, for in Melvina he received not only the satisfaction of his romantic impulses, then increasingly in vogue, but a thrifty wife and a good manager, who, in the tradition of Southern ladies, overseered the homeplace. Perhaps she did it too well, for a slave tried to poison her.
“This is the way he tried to poison grandmother. Melvina’s housemaid was named Caroline. A postscript on a letter to Coddle Creek when Neill and Melvina were away reads, “Ma says for Caroline to have everything shining there, clean as can be, or she will paddle her well when she comes.” There is no doubt Melvina was a strict mistress. An orphan, she had always worked hard, and expected others to work as hard as she did, which is always fatal. The difference was she owned the place.
At any rate she was everywhere on the plantation, nosing and bossing, and the blacks got to believing it would be heaven if she were only out of the way. It was a naive belief but Bob, the mulatto brother of Caroline, decided to make a move. Through Caroline he had access to the kitchen. And he was an intelligent fellow and knew poisonous herbs in the fields. He ground a deadly green powder. Then, one morning, he went to visit Caroline.
Bob visited Caroline in the kitchen when she was making Melvina’s morning coffee. Behind her back he dropped the deadly green powder into the coffee pot. Then he left, having passed the time of day. Caroline put the coffee pot and some biscuits on the slave tray and took it to the master’s bedroom.
Grandmother was sitting in a sleigh bed with a shawl around her shoulders. She had rheumatic afflictions. Grandfather Neill was sitting in a rocker. They were discussing the price of cotton.
Caroline offered the tray. Melvina took a biscuit and poured some coffee. She bit into the biscuit and wrinkled her nose at the coffee. Ugh. It smelled queer.
Now grandmother had a strong sense of smell that grandfather said was the death of him. She wouldn’t eat birds or fish because of the odor, couldn’t even stand to smell them cooking, and Grandpa Neill said she was the finickiest woman ever to walk the earth.
When she said, “This coffee’s queer,” he groaned. Not that again. He urged her to drink it, said shucks and pshaw, but she had her way. Something was wrong with the coffee.
Caroline had left the room, so Grandpa Neill took the coffee and placed the cup on the mantlepiece. He was not upset. He had lived with this for twenty years. The two of them went back to the price of cotton.
When Grandpa Neill got up to warm his hands in front of the fire, he looked down and saw the coffee. A green scum had formed in the cup.
“Mellie,” he said, “Mellie, come look at this,” and he stirred the scum with a spoon. Doing this, he observed dryly, “This much ain’t no accident.” And grandmother came and stood on tiptoe to see the green in the coffee cup. “Somebody’s out to get us,” he said. And grandmother rang for Caroline.
When the poisoning attempt failed, Bob ran away, so they knew he was guilty. Neighbors in the next county brought him back and he confessed. Neill wanted him taken to the Sheriff and have him hanged or something, but Melvina said that was no way to treat property. They compromised, gave him a whipping and sold him down the river. He was the only slave ever sold, and the McAulays attributed their bad luck with him to the fact they didn’t raise him. His father had married off the place, and Bob came to them grown, his character having been formed by a vicious master.”
The first child of Neill and Melvina was born in 1832. The last child was born in 1858. In order of birth, the children were: Mary Heard, Judith Elizabeth, Margaret, Robert Grier, William, Adeline, Isabelle, Hugh, Neill Webster, Estelle and Roberta. The spring near the family house took its toll. Neill wrote in the family bible: “Our daughter, Judith Elizabeth, de- parted this life May 3, 1838, aged three years and five hours. She unfortunately drowned in our own spring.” It was her birthday.
Neil Webster Macaulay was born July 4, 1854. His christening gown was of batiste, five feet in length, and he wore a blue silk baby cap for the occasion. He was christened during the morning service in the white frame Presbyterian Church at Coddle Creek where Neill was an elder. A party was held afterwards at home.
Growing up on the plantation was school, work and parties. The McAulay children attended the classical academy at Coddle Creek, in which Neill Webster was a star, and went to work. The father made all his children work hard at something every day, even if it were only a child with his first small garden.
Neill did not hesitate to teach his sons to work in the fields beside black people. His daughters worked in the kitchens along side the maids. He abhorred the tidewater aristocracy. He believed they lacked a sense of moral reality. He disliked the idea of a leisure class living off a working class. He saw life as a whole in which there was time for everything: work, leisure, reading and prayer.
A time in each day at Coddle Creek was set aside for reading and music. Dignified prayers were held in the morning and the evening for everyone, black and white, in the parlor of the homeplace. Neill read from the Bible. On Saturday morning he taught the catechism to all the children on the place. Neill kept candy in the desk drawer as reinforcement. Peppermint sticks for the longer recitations and lemon drops or molasses candy for the shorter questions. Little boys dashed out waving sugar sticks for conquering the Ten Commandments, and fat little girls marched smugly out, clutching candy drops, for having told their father exactly what was the chief end of man.
Neill McAulay treated his slaves exactly as he did his children. He rewarded them, disciplined them, expected them to meet high standards, and frankly paddled them when they did not. He had the same reputation among his slaves and children as he did in business. He was a fair man. And when he was not prepared to be a fair man, he gave fair warning.
The social life of the young people on the plantation was a series of parties, concerts, plays held in Statesville and visits to relatives. The prominent county families came for miles around, and when the house was packed, pallets were put on the floor for the young people, and they talked all night.
The widespread misconceptions of a dour puritan social life are entirely inaccurate. Records show they, Presbyterians among Presbyterians, went to plays, concerts, fairs, danced all night and flirted a little longer, and the women’s wine recipes abounded. As for the men, had not Uncle Daniel written home from the Revolution for money to buy a Bible and some whiskey? Their social life was cheerful and hearty.
As for the girls who attended Concord Female College in Statesville, trying to be proper Victorian maidens, the following comes down to us:
“CONCERT AND FAIR The ladies of the town will hold a concert and fair at Stockton’s Hall on Tuesday evening of this week, proceeds to be applied for the further completion of the Presbyterian Church in this place...”
As for his opinions of these proper gatherings for young ladies, Neill McAulay, Senior expressed it in views similar to those of many businessmen of today, writing his daughters, “I cannot attend as an escort for any of the ladies. My company is too precious to be lavished out foolishly on such occasions... I remain your affectionate father, Neil McAulay.” In a postscript he adds a recurring note, “anything to make money honestly and honorably in these hard times.”
The correspondence of Robert McAulay, the eldest son of the family, then a boy in his teens gives some insight into the social life of the young people on the plantation. Robert was gathering a group to come up to Statesville for the next band concert. He wrote his sisters, “Tell us when to come and give us the news... Aunt Judy says she will go and take her carriage if I can get Bill and Dean. Frank will be there. Tell Mary to cast her strings but not to kiss him in the crowd..."
Sunday Schools and church meetings were important social events. Robert wrote, “Mrs. More has resigned her office as teacher and Andy Bett’s wife has taken her place.”...He also wrote “Martha Neel took on so at Sunday School I thought there was a Jerusalem cricket down her back.”
Young Robert, like most of the piedmont, had an eye for realism. “Johnston’s school is small; he has about 18 brats.” And drawing a picture of himself and a friend at a dance, he wrote, “he will hit his corked heel boots out on the floor and I sit up in one corner and look like a muskrat.”
Ordinary plantation speech was in a rich frontier vernacular similar to Mark Twain, not in the pretentious Victorian rhetoric that so often mars the McAulay letters. The letters of the family, like many of’ the time, are filled with a stylized artificiality and so much pretentious Victorian phrasing, so that it seems the characters only come out when their grammar is down.
But meanwhile life on the plantation continued as usual. “Be careful of your firewood,” Neill wrote the family when he and Melvina were on a trip, “and mind don’t let the house get burned up while I am away... We will not go to Charlotte ...Plant all your potatoes and onions that you have and buy all the seed you can... Lorry has some good bean seed there. It is too soon to plant yet but have them all gathered up.”
In the early 1850’s Neill and Melvina felt the need of a town house in Statesville. They would keep Coddle Creek, of course, but they would spend the school year in Statesville so the girls could attend Concord Female College, and Robert could be enrolled in Captain John Andrew’s military academy there. Robert was enrolled in the academy of his cousin, James McAulay, in Morganton, North Carolina, and they missed him. If they bought a house in Statesville, then Robert could come home, the girls could go to the college, and the family would be united.
The new house in Statesville was on property Neill owned between Front and Walnut Streets. The house stood opposite what is now Mitchell College. This house was more in line with the traditional Greek Revival stereotype: built by slaves, it was a spacious white house with a front veranda supported by fashionable columns. A white picket fence surrounded the property. The sections of the Union Army to raid Statesville under General Stoneman were to use it as their headquarters.
The elaboration of the Victorian era was in full swing in the house furnishings. However, Neill had the plain, tall 18th century walnut desk sent up from Coddle Creek, along with many of his leather books.
If the house was less appealing than the dignified simplicity of Coddle Creek, there must have been a sense of stability and an air of colorful sufficiencey. City life was a new experience for the family. Statesville had an early form of street car. Neill wrote that all the little children ran to the window to look for the omnibus to come up to the house every time it started, but the trolley sadly never reached the house.
It was in Statesville, and not at Coddle Creek, that the McAulays were to spend the years of the Confederacy.
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Dr. James MacLeod may be contacted through the Neill Macaulay Foundation.