History of a Day
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Saturday, February 25, 2017
By Austin Rese
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Sporting a spruce colored hat and coordinating scarf, Twinkle proudly shared the history of Thomas Day, a cabinet maker in the antebellum south. Her eyes danced with enthusiasm that only true passion ignites.--There we stood, in what was once his workshop, located in the tiny town of Milton, North Carolina. This is the same building which suffered a major fire in 1989.


Twinkle is the ambassador for the Thomas Day House/Union Tavern Restoration committee. Simply put, a more zealous aficionado could not exist. I soon learned that Mr. Day was born a free black man in 1801 Virginia. As the son of a cabinetmaker, he took on his father’s profession and moved to Milton where he opened his own cabinetry shop in 1824.  Success ensued. In 1848, he purchased the former Union Tavern (where we were standing) to house his shop and residence.


“This building was once the biggest in all of Milton. This being the largest stagecoach stop between Baltimore and Atlanta, it was used as a hotel,” beamed Twinkle. My mind seemed to stutter as I compared the current state of this little village with its former self. “This was a major shopping destination for folks within a several hundred mile radius,” she continued. Perhaps, this is why Thomas Day had his business here. Perhaps, this is why he became so successful and, at one time, was the largest furniture manufacturer in North Carolina.


The shop employed over 12 individuals, ranging from white apprentices-to-slave labor. Each piece of furniture was handcrafted to suit the needs of the customer. Truly bespoke. Yet, each piece was fashioned in the style of the era: American Empire. This style had become vogue for furnishing one’s Georgian home.


Sadly, Mr. Day did not sign a single creation. The furniture items on display were assumed to be his work, as they had been passed from generation-to-generation with a verbal trail of pedigree. A trademark of his craftsmanship was the shape of a scroll or curve. Since a distinctive element of this neoclassic period includes the ionic capital, perhaps it was from such this scroll shape was derived. In any case, it is prevalent in not only his furniture, but his architectural work as well. This included: newel posts, door frames, window pediments, and fireplace mantels. He was quite the purveyor of style. His later work whispering of the forthcoming architectural period, Art Nouveau.


“Mr. Day was very well thought of by the community,” chimed Twinkle. She went on to elaborate that Mr. Day was a member of the town board and bank. He had acquired quite a notoriety for his beautiful work, being commissioned to make furniture for North Carolina Governor David Reid and the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.


With Twinkle's permission, I was allowed to touch the furniture. Soon, I was opening drawers, studying the dovetail joinery, and marveling at the spectacular veneer work. This, indeed, was quality craftsmanship. Styles may come and go, but quality remains. I knew I was in the presence of some very important furniture pieces. 



Continuing to share her knowledge, Twinkle and I walked to the neighboring Milton Presbyterian Church. It is there, that one can view a magnificent collection of handmade church pews by Thomas Day. The church has virtually stayed unchanged since 1837.


What an experience! The chapel is quite small but very significant. The room is still divided to accommodate men on one side and women on the other. Twinkle pointed out that the balcony, located at the rear of the sanctuary, was for slaves. Mr. Day made these fine pews with the stipulation that he and his family would not be expected to sit in the balcony, but instead, towards the front of the church. It was agreed. He became a member of the church.  As we stood there, I could sense the spirit of pride within the room.


As we left the building, Twinkle indicated that there was even more to see.  While walking down the narrow sidewalk, she pointed out the significance of each of the homes. Some were restored, some in process of being restored, and some in desperate need of restoration. They were quite a cache of style: Each evoking the trend of their time. We strolled past the General Store, the bank, the plantation owners’ homes, and finally came to stop at the side of the remaining Victorian-era storefronts of Commercial Row on Broad Street.


In front of me was a large painting by muralist George Buchanan. It depicted 19th century Milton in its heyday.  The bustling scene was quite a contrast to the town’s current existence. Twinkle narrated the imagery, pointing out the figures of Thomas Day and his wife, Acquilla. “…..and there were the first quadruplets born in Milton, “she continued.  Sure enough, there they were on the left side of the painting-- 4 girls all dressed alike, signaling they were quadruplets. “My family adopted them,” she went on to share. And with that, the mural became more than just a painting on the wall for me. I realized this little town was more than just a historical bump in the road. I began to understand the real significance of everything before me and the source of Twinkle’s enthusiasm. You see, I too, grew up in a very small town.


Finally, I asked her why she was involved with the restoration project, she did not hesitate a second to answer, “You can take the girl out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the girl! I am proud to be from Milton. It is my home.”


We bid farewell.


Watching her make her way back up the street to Thomas Day’s home, I realized the memories of this day will not only hold the learned history of Mr. Day and the town of Milton, but of the pride one takes in the place they call “home”.


Thank you, Twinkle.



This was A Moment in America.




The Thomas Day House/Union Tavern is located at 148 Broad Street, Milton, North Carolina. This is an extremely worthy cause which needs to be experienced and supported. Please do so---and tell Twinkle that Austin sent you.

Leave a comment:
Austin Rese - Thank you! Your kind words and support are immensely appreciated.
PJS - Look forward to "Moments in America" and you do not disappoint! Thank you for yet another insightful experience through your words and photos.