Come with me this week, if you will, just one-half mile south of the Warrenton city limits on U.S. Hwy. 401 as we strip back the years and the veneers on Warren County’s oldest standing building, The Marmaduke Johnson House.
Now, if you spend much time around me, you’ll learn that I LOVE old movies. And as I think back on movies from years ago, I realized recently that it always helps when watching if you know “how things work” in the movies. For instance, the soldier in the foxhole showing the picture of his girlfriend to his buddies is always going to get killed in the next attack…or if everyone is running away from the bad guys or the monsters or whatever, someone is going to trip…or that just wearing a red shirt in “Star Trek” shortens your lifespan to that of an average housefly…or, if you run across an old brick wall in a house or building, loosen a certain brick and behind it you’ll find a lever that opens a hidden door, or hides a key or covers some treasure.
Little did I know that in real life, sometimes these “movie-isms” are true – there really are treasures hidden just behind an old brick wall. The “old” brick we’re going to peel back this week covers a Warren County home that has stood for 260 years, with the brick arriving to cover hand-hewn weatherboard in just the last 70 or so years. My thanks to Susan and Bobby Blaylock for showing me behind the bricks!
To set our story in time before Warren County, even before Bute County, the land we now call home was the eastern part of Granville County, so named for John Carteret, 2nd Earl Granville, who, as heir to one of the eight original Lords Proprietors of the Province of Carolina, claimed one-eighth of the land granted in the charter of 1665. Into this wilderness in the middle of the 18th century, came Marmaduke Johnson, born in Northampton County, Virginia. He established a plantation some miles south of the Roanoke River long Fishing Creed and built a house there about 1757.
At first, as with so many other settlers to Warren County, Johnson’s home was modest, just two rooms downstairs and two upstairs. A covered porch ran across the entire front of the house. Cooking was handled in a small building behind the house, and he also built a smokehouse and small barn constructed of logs. At some point in the late 1700s an addition was attached to the front left side of the house giving it its distinctive “L” shape we see today. This added one room downstairs and one upstairs and turned part of the former porch into a hallway. Johnson unknowingly (or perhaps on purpose) saved a piece of history for us all today when he chose to leave the exterior weatherboards in this newly enclosed hall. Finds like this are rare.
Before we continue with this incredible house, what do we know about Marmaduke Johnson? Well, as I’ve pored over lots of sources, actually very little. In addition to being an early landowner of substantial acreage, Johnson is probably best known for serving as clerk of court for Warren County from 1792-1811. His son, William Ransom Johnson, is better known than his father as the owner of Sir Archie. In fact, William and his trainer are responsible for recognizing the greatness in Sir Archie and developing the first great thoroughbred stallion bred in America. But that’s a story for another day.
Back to our house…”You’re getting ready to step into 1757,” said Bobby, when he took us through the front door (just behind the brick), and he couldn’t have been more right. As he closed the front door I noticed immediately the “H” hinges—original—as well as mid-18th century doorknobs. The walls! The woodwork! The mantels! The flooring! Almost all of it original, and those parts that aren’t “original” were added in the late 1800s—still amazing. Up and down the stairs, from room to room, we wandered, and in each room as I admired the craftsmanship from three centuries ago, something else struck me. It didn’t feel like a “museum.” It didn’t feel like a padlocked relic from a bygone era; it felt like a home. And the reason for that became clear as Susan explained pictures on the walls and scores of pieces of furniture and items in cabinets from the past 150 years. You see, everything in the house belonged to her family and was part of a living, functioning home throughout the years.
And when I learned the history of the house, it became clear why we have this window into 1757 preserved beautifully today—the continuity of a family ownership. The second owner of the house, after Marmaduke Johnson’s death, was his friend Kemp Plummer. From there, it seems the next owner of the house, Patrick Hudgins, bought the home in 1868, and it has remained in the family since then. It is amazing what gets saved when one family passes down a home from generation to generation.
Now, before we close the door on this nugget of our history, two “aha’s” I learned on my recent tour of the Marmaduke Johnson House. First, Warrenton’s former Cannon House, the oldest standing dwelling for decades, was built in 1792 and is almost an exact double (with the exception of different stairs) of the Johnson House. And second, if you’ve ever wanted to walk, or rather drive in the footsteps of history, know that Warren County’s original race track ran from in front of the house one-half mile toward town, took a hard left to the southwest for one-half mile and then east for one-half mile to form a triangular track. So next time you’re leaving Warrenton on 401 South, it might be worth rolling down the window to see if you can hear the thundering hoof beats echoing from Sir Archie’s runs along that same stretch of Warren County over 200 years ago.
Another lesson learned for me this week, as we speed by and think we know the full story about one of our historic buildings in Warren County, maybe – just maybe – if we slow down a little and get invited to peek behind the old brick, we’ll find a hidden treasure, just like in the movies!
Wherever you turn in Warren County, we have a jewel.
Historical Tidbits is a project of The Chamber of Commerce of Warren County and written by Chamber Director Craig Hahn. To suggest a topic on Warren County history, email firstname.lastname@example.org.