Monday, March 03, 2008

Moving Midway

Miss Mary was not happy.

It was Dena Williams’ first Christmas at Midway Plantation and she decided to set up the Christmas tree in the parlor (“what we would call the living room,” she explained).

Williams’ husband, Charlie Silver tried to warn her that it was Miss Mary’s special room and that she wouldn’t want the tree there, but Williams was adamant that it was the best place to put it. “We put the tree in the parlor and had it all decorated and then, in the middle of the night we heard a crash and found tree down, but only one ornament broken. Miss Mary had been gentle but made her point,” she laughed.

“Miss Mary” was Silver’s great-great aunt, Mary Hilliard Hinton, the tiny matriarch, who dressed as her heroine, Queen Victoria, who was the teller of all the family stories, and who died in 1961. Miss Mary’s ghost (along with several others, including a cat) inhabits Midway Plantation.

(“How do you know the ghosts are there?” I asked Williams. “We see them,” she replied, with her husband adding that since these were relatives he knew in life, their ghosts don’t appear scary. Williams had some discussions with the spirits when she and Silver first married and moved to Midway Plantation. “I walked around from room to room and asked them to be nice to me and wait until I felt comfortable before showing themselves. They waited and they’ve always been very nice.”)

The spiritual side of Midway Plantation is only one aspect of a fascinating documentary which will kick off the Fifth Annual Davis Film Festival, This year's festival features films on topics ranging from movement and music to community and the consequences of war, and includes innovative short works by new filmmakers as well as feature-length films from around the world.

"Moving Midway" is an acclaimed documentary and multiple film festival award winner and an excellent choice to start the 2008 festival. In its simplest form, “Moving Midway” is the story of moving a family home from one location near Raleigh, North Carolina to another, but in the process of documenting the move, film critic turned filmmaker Godfrey Cheshire not only shows the mechanics of relocating an historical building, but also traces the importance of the Southern plantation in American history, gives us a glimpse into his own ancestry, and discovers a whole new side of the family, and more than 100 cousins he never knew he had.

The land on which Midway Plantation and two others (The Oaks and Beaver Dam) was built (420,700 acres) was given by the British crown to Miss Mary's family in 1739, before the American Revolution. Midway was built in 1848 as a wedding gift to Miss Mary's father, David Hinton. Over the years, the house became the gathering place for all the family and Godfrey Cheshire remembers happy times playing with his cousins, Charlie (Nicknamed "Pooh"), Winston ("Winkie") and John (Possum").

Things had changed in 2004, when Cheshire went to visit Silver, who now owned Midway Plantation. Where once lay a dirt wagon track, now was a major highway with more than 55,000 cars a day passing the home. Instead of looking out at rolling hills and trees, the former plantation faced a McDonald's, a bank, and several other shops in a strip mall. Silver's 80-something mother was looking to the house's upkeep and had rented it out, but she was getting calls from developers every day offering to buy the property and it had become a burden on her.

Silver and Williams decided to move into the house to make things easier on his mother. They lived there only two years before the couple made the fateful decision to buy another plot of land and move the house to a new location. What was most important to Silver was preserving the house for future generations, and he realized that in its present urban setting, his children didn't experience the house he remembered from his childhood. "I realized that none of my children would what to live in it, and that spelled doom for the house," he said. "Our big concern was to make sure the house was attractive enough to have someone else in the family live there.” They had offers from developers to make it the center point of the new mall development, or to tear it apart and reuse timbers. But Silver was adamant that the best thing for the house was to pick it up and move it. It would allow them to rebuild the aging foundation and the chimneys and to make improvements that would make it last another 150 years."

They even hired Rick Lambeth, a consultant who does historic architectural finishes who examined the house and told the couple what all of the original colors were in the whole house—trim, walls, outside, shutters, etc., so that they could restore it to the original appearance.

Godfrey Cheshire immediately felt there was a story to be recorded, but even he didn't realize where that story would lead.

The extended family had mixed emotions about the move, expressed at the last Christmas party held at Midway before the scheduled moving of the house. Midway was always a party home and always looked its best when filled with people. Brother Winston (Winkie) said that growing up in Midway was like nothing any child ever experienced and didn't believe that Charlie was actually going to move the house. "I'll believe it when I see it," he laughed. Brother John ("Possum") made his views on the moving of the house known in no uncertain terms. "I thought he was full of sh*t!" he said emphatically.

Silver and Williams were also concerned about how the ancestors would feel about the move. "We literally sat on the steps and talked to them. 'We hope you guys are all right with this,'" he said.

A part of the history of the house concerned the slaves who once worked on the plantation. There were records showing that the original slave was a man named Mingo, who had been a gift when the house was first built. (Previous work had been done by indentured white laborers.) The family Bible also held a photo of an African American man, Ruffin Hinton, who looked very much like Charles Lewis Hinton, the plantation owner (who also served two terms as State Treasurer of North Carolina). It was generally acknowledged that Ruffin was the result of a relationship with the house cook.

As Godfrey Cheshire was preparing for his film about Midway, a letter on some unrelated topic from Robert Hinton, a professor of African American Studies at NYU, appeared in the "New York Times." In the letter he mentioned that his grandfather, Dempsey Hinton, had been born on Midway Plantation in 1860. Cheshire made arrangements to meet with Hinton and through comparing their various family stories, they realized that Hinton's grandfather had been a slave at Midway Plantation. Hinton was invited to Midway Plantation to meet his cousins and travel around the grounds where the slave quarters had once been, and to explore the slave cemetery.

“I always thought I would meet another Hinton, but I hoped it would be someone I wouldn't like," Robert Hinton smiled.

Charlie Silver found a 47 acre plot of land three miles from Midway Plantation and purchased it. Mike Black, a professional house mover, was hired to handle the actual move of the main building and several of the out-buildings. When the day came to move the house, Robert Hinton was invited to join the rest of the family in breaking a bottle of champagne over the metal bars which held the house on dollies before the truck started to slowly pull the house over back roads to its new location.

"I felt it was important to help launch the move and represent my family,” said Hinton.

It took four days to move the house the three miles and set it down on its new foundation.

One of the most hair-raising segments of the journey involved crossing a narrow bridge. "We didn’t know for sure if the bridge would hold the weight," Charlie said. It had been designed by twins brothers and it had been their first job out of college 8-10 yrs before. They did lots of calculations to see if it would hold the weight of the house. The bridge was also so narrow that the house cleared the guard rails by less than an inch. The supports actually scraped the rails as it crossed over the bridge.

It was two years before the house was ready for parties again. When it held its first social gathering, several of the descendants of Ruffin Hinton were invited to attend, including Abraham Lincoln Hinton, Ruffin's grandson, born in 1909.

“I think in order to be a healthy individual, you have to know where you come from and how you got to be who you are. I cannot make sense of myself without understanding this house and being involved with the house,” said Robert Hinton.

And the ghosts? Did they move with the house? “We know that my dad has moved,” said Charlie Silver. “My great great aunt also moved and the ghost cats have moved. The 'nice lady' has moved. (We think it’s my grandmother. We haven’t seen her really clearly, but my granddaughter does.) Miss Mary came with us and has been very pleased. We usually see her as a wren. She came and flew thru the house.”

But employees at PetSmart and Target, which were built on the land once occupied by Midway Plantation, have reported strange things happening at night, with items being moved and found in odd places, so apparently some of the Hinton clan stayed behind to watch over the land as well.

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