Tour Yanceyville’s historic courthouse, jail, schoolhouse and arboretum

This location is also the venue for the annual classic Brightleaf Hoedown on Sept. 19, 2015, which draws about 5,000 visitors. Free admission. Festival offers more than 80 booths display local artwork and crafts. The Brightleaf Hoedown features dance, food, music and competitions during the weekend.

This Saturday morning, I attended a History United tour at the Caswell County Courthouse in Yanceyville, North Carolina.  History United hosts a number of intergenerational events that will introduce — or remind — you of the cultural richness and historical memory of our region.  (Learn more about their other event offerings or the Danville Parks and Recreation programs.) The morning tour at the courthouse also included viewing the historic jail, historic school house and the arboretum. You can see more on those below.

At the courthouse, Paula Seamster, our tour guide and Clerk to the Board, took us on a journey through the history of the building as well as folk legend of Yanceyville’s lurid past.

I won’t disclose the whole story because hearing it on site is half the fun, but I will say there were murders, riots, revenge, and potties involved. Yes, potties — or chamber pots, more specifically. That’s one way to get kids to pay attention! (Spoiler alert: If you’d like to know in advance, you can find some information online)

There’s something transcendent about sitting in a room and learning what has transpired in that very space through the centuries. Also, Paula dresses in 19th-century costume for most tours.

But on a more serious note, be warned the tour surfaces emotionally-charged issues and controversial topics because of the horrific things that happened to minorities in our country’s history. (Such as this.)

The Courtroom

The courthouse building, designed by William Percival, was finished in 1861 and most recently restored in 2000.  It is still in use today.  As Paula explained, the beautiful embellishments of the building reflect the immense wealth of Caswell County at the time of construction.

Caswell County was once one of the wealthiest areas of North Carolina. The region gained affluence in part because of the dominance of tobacco and later the textile industry, but today, Paula explained, Caswell County is one of the poorest counties in the state as the very same industries that had once brought its economic might are now less profitable in today’s economy.

 

Though they require a bit more hardware now to remain together, the benches are original and functionally stable.

The judge’s desk is original. Notice how the detailing of the panels mirrors the architecture of the interior and courthouse’s facade as well.

 

At the courthouse, you can step onto the veranda and orate commanding speeches to your public.

The tower clock still runs, although it doesn’t keep exact time despite careful maintenance and repairs. It’s off by about 5 minutes, which isn’t too shabby considering its age.

Under the offices in the musty basement, you can walk through rooms once used as jail cells, now re-purposed for storage. But kids can let their imaginations run free exploring inside a local dank, dark dungeon!

The illusion is somewhat shattered when you see an artificial wedding/patriotic cake in storage

…unless you’re an interior decorator. Oh, the horror!
(Update: I’m just being goofy, and based on some criticism of this essay, I want to note that it was apparent throughout the tour that the community invests in the facilities and there can be a lot of quirks and headaches with older public structures.)

Jailhouse

By today’s standards, the conditions of the historic jailhouse seem inhumane. Even the jailer had to live in the building full-time, though his amenities were markedly better.

16 people share a single bathroom. A tiny cell imprisoned up to four people and there was no courtyard for daylight hours or an exercise schedule.

Prisoners could also enjoy tasty snacks of lead-based paint chips. (Update: This is an anachronistic joke. Parents: Don’t let your little kids eat the loose paint during your visit.)

Given that these grounds once included a lynching tree and you can still see the gallows inside the jail, I somehow doubt the warden’s collection of law books were read to improve rehabilitation efforts or provide supportive systems that reduce recidivism.

School

The old Poteat school was built circa 1900 (at the intersection of Slade Rd and County Home Rd) and used until 1922.

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You can visit by scheduling an appointment through the Richmond-Miles History Museum.

There’s nothing quite like an antique globe to remind you how our world is constantly undergoing political and cultural change.  Countries and borders are more temporary than we sometimes realize — some of these nations depicted here no longer exist or have very different identities and boundaries today!

Arboretum

This community park, located just behind the museums, features native plant species. There’s a paved sidewalk that winds through the arboretum and a covered area.

 

Location

144 Court Square
Yanceyville, NC 27379

The Bottom Line

We recommend visiting this historical site, especially if you live near or travel on NC 86. This is also a popular spot for professional portraits — what with the ornate spiral staircases and natural beauty of the arboretum.

Many historical sites have to navigate our country’s criminal and racial history on a daily basis, and it can be difficult and unsettling. However, when we confront historical narratives and the societal conditions of the past, that gives us an opportunity to teach our children why we continue only some institutional traditions and why we strive to do other things differently today. Visiting this location could be a chance to ignite meaningful conversations and educate your children if you are ready to engage questions about historical crimes, slavery, race, social justice, education and how our detention processes have evolved over time.

What we liked

The courthouse building is absolutely beautiful and there were a surprising number of interesting artifacts in the school house. Paula, who does most of the tours, said that third-graders seem to be the most engaged age group and they asked the most questions. Elementary age seems to be the sweet spot for conceptual understanding matched with enthusiasm. But children and adults who have an interest in ornate architecture and local history should go.

Things to know

You’ll have a more fulfilling educational experience if you schedule a tour, but that will require advanced planning and may not coordinate with your schedule. Without an appointment, the courthouse is not open in the evening or on weekends, for instance.

The buildings did not appear to accommodate strollers, but infants and toddlers would not have the patience for this kind of field trip. There is, however, the arboretum if you want to stroll outside with younger children while older siblings explore inside. You can ring the wind chime in the gardens constructed from a re-purposed metal historical artifact.

Written by Jessamyn Rubio.

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2 thoughts on “Tour Yanceyville’s historic courthouse, jail, schoolhouse and arboretum

  • September 16, 2015 at 7:09 pm
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    Great post! I grew up in Danville and have always lived an easy driving distance from Yanceyville, and I never knew this place existed. I’ll make sure to stop by sometime. Thanks for the information!

    Reply
  • September 17, 2015 at 12:19 pm
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    I found this post to be very interesting and insightful. I have lived in Danville all my life and even worked in Yanceyville at one point, and was unaware that this tour was even available. The area is quite beautiful and knowing that this piece of history is available for locals, as well as tourists is encouraging. I look forward to having the opportunity to experience this part of local history from our region. Nice post!

    Reply

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