Four century-old Holden Farm outbuildings revealed by a recent timber cutting have sparked curiosity along Highway 17.
A glimpse of Brunswick County’s farm history is visible along Highway 17 near Four-Mile Road. When the land was timbered this past spring, four century-old outbuildings were revealed, including a log cabin–style corn crib. The painted white house nearby was part of the original farm as well. It was home to Merimon Holden and his wife, Sallie Jane Mintz, grandparents of adjoining property owner Kelly Holden, who operated Holden Brothers Produce along with his late brother for many years.
The farmland was inherited by Mintz, whose mother was Mary Anna Brooks, a descendent of the Brooks family. The Brooks family held the original land grant that stretched several hundred acres, maybe thousands, from the ocean to the west side of Highway 17. Their daughter inherited 67 acres of the farm, which her descendants sold last year. When the new owner cleared the area, the outbuildings that Kelly Holden clearly remembers from his youth were revealed.
A car shed, a four-room barn with a shed overhang and a small shack often used as a tenant dwelling are all constructed of roughhewn lumber cut from the farm, according to Holden. “The house is circa 1917,” Holden says. “I found it written in a wall when we were doing some remodeling.”
Merimon Holden (1888–1964) built the original house as well as the outbuildings, most likely with the help of some neighbors, Kelly says. “I don’t know who helped him, but most of the time it was a community effort to build a house. The lumber was cut off the farm. He had two or three sawmills on the farm at that time.” Logs for the corn crib were also from the farm.
The house had 10-foot ceilings and was always cold, Holden says. “It wasn’t insulated,” he remembers. “We put some insulation in it [a few years ago]. There are three bedrooms, a dining room and a living area. There used to be four chimneys, but they’re sealed off.”
Until electricity came to the area, his grandparents employed a Delco system for electricity in the house and outbuildings. The house also sheltered the area’s only radio for many years. “On Saturday nights the neighbors would gather to hear the Grand Ole Opry,” he recalls.
The land was cleared primarily by Holden’s grandfather with the help of one other man, mules, shovels and axes, Holden says, adding that his grandfather had several teams of mules. “Mr. Harvey Robinson from Supply helped my grandfather clear the land. He used to stop by and talk with me. The two of them cleared most of these fields, from here north, the hard way. He’d tell me stories about them working together. That was before they had access to dynamite. Mr. Robinson lived to be about 100.”
The house originally sat close to Highway 17 surrounded by large trees. When the road was widened in 1957, most of the purchased right of way was on the ocean side of the road. The house was moved to its present location. There must have been a bit of a hill at the time; Holden remembers a steep bank with steps from the house going all the way to the shoulder of the road.
“The power lines used to run where the north bound lane is now,” he says. “The work was done by Toll & Cline contractors. They moved a bunch of tobacco barns and a lot of other things. People used to build right beside the road so they would have easy access and not have to maintain so much land.”
Holden recalls that a house mover was employed to move his grandparents’ home but doesn’t recall who it was. After all, he was only 7 years old.
Holden describes the buildings. The tobacco barn, the closest structure to Highway 17, required regular maintenance. “It had to be dobbed every spring to replace all the mud that had come out from between the boards. We’d dig clay out of the ditches. It was originally a four-room barn and later when gas was used it went to five.” Tobacco was cured in the early days using wood-fired furnaces; later kerosene was used, then in the late 1960s or early 1970s many local farmers switched to gas, he explains.
While there’s very little tobacco farming in Brunswick County today, it was big business until about 1980. Holden last used this barn about 1978, he says. The process has stayed almost the same since colonial days. Tobacco leaves were picked by field hands, almost always men, who drug a wooden sled behind a mule or tractor and loaded tobacco onto the sled by hand. When it was fully loaded, it was taken to the barn where handlers, usually young children, would hand it off to stringers, usually women, who would tie the tobacco stems with twine and wrap a bundle across a wooden stick about one-inch square and several feet long. Those sticks were loaded into the barn, laid across tier poles that stretched from one side of the barn to the other and air dried with the assistance of the furnace. “Each tier pole was referred to as a room,” Holden explains. The drying process took about six days.
“It would take about a day to put up a barn full when it was hand strung,” Holden says. “Normally it cured for about six days, and you tried to get it out within a week. A lot of times you’d get up before day and take out a barn and put one in the same day. We used about seven to eight barn hands, then around five field hands. In this area they were stringers then the handers. The first job was handing, and it was done by young kids. I started in the third grade. A lot of times you had to stand on a milk crate, you’d be so short. We had women from Dog Head Bay [community] who helped us most of the time. The field hands were all men. The barn help was women and children.” He recommends anyone interested in learning more about early farming check out a Facebook group called Raised on a Tobacco Farm.
Because fire was used in the curing process, the danger of losing a barn was always there. “A lot of farmers were notorious for burning barns,” Holden says. “I never lost one. My dad lost one back in the 1930s.” He recalls several local farmers who lost several barns, but there were always neighbors to help them rebuild.
Next to the barn is the car shed where Holden’s grandfather stored his car and some small tools. “I remember an old ’49 Studebaker when I was a kid. He had a Dodge truck he bought from Odell Williamson’s dealership in Shallotte. My first memory of him is riding around with him in that old Dodge pick-up.” When the Studebaker broke down, his grandfather replaced it with a Chevrolet from the Mintz dealership in Bolivia,” Holden says.
He also recalls his grandfather’s first tractor, a Farmall Super 8, purchased in the early 1950s. Prior to that tractor, all the farm work was done with mules and hand labor.
The next structure was used for various purposes, but often a bed was set up for a farm worker to live in it. Holden recalls that his grandmother was a kind soul who took in anyone in need. “She never saw a stranger that she didn’t trust. If people were walking along [the highway] she’d bring them in and feed them and send them on their way,” Holden says. “A lot of the time, they’d want to stay and work, and she’d give them the opportunity if the work was there.”
One such person was a man named Dave Gause, who Kelly believes was from Pender County. “He’d gotten out of the pen and couldn’t get work. My grandparents hired him. He lived in the old house there for years and helped them around the farm. He was good with mules. I remember Dave. He was kind of a short fellow. Everywhere he went he was looking down,” Holden recalls. There were others, but Gause made an impression on the young boy.
The log building was the corn crib where corn was stored to feed to the farm animals. Dried corn on the cob was fed to hogs, mules and cattle. “Just throw the whole cob, and they devour it,” he says. For chickens, it had to be removed from the cob. “My grandfather always called them fowl; called their house the fowl house. Every spring we had to take the manure out of the fowl house and put it on his watermelon patch.”
This was subsistence farming, Holden says. They raised cattle for meat and milk. As a young boy, he learned from his mother how to milk the cows.
In addition to tobacco, they grew cotton. “I’ve still got the old scales,” Holden says. They grew hay and peanuts which Holden’s grandfather called ground peas. “They harvested a lot for consumption then would build a stack to feed the cattle and hogs through the winter. A cow could eat it green but a horse or mule or a hog had to eat it dried or it would kill them. A cow has four stomachs; they can eat anything. A goat or a horse is super sensitive. You can mess up their system.”
Holden kept goats in this formerly wooded area of the farm for several years. They took over a fifth building, which also housed several teams of mules in stalls but was destroyed by Hurricane Matthew. The debris still litters the field.
The sudden appearance of these buildings has stirred a lot of interest from passers-by, Holden says. “I see people in here taking pictures a lot,” he says. The best pictures, however, may be the ones in his mind from a lifetime of caring for the land that has nurtured his family for almost three centuries.