Saturday, December 05, 2009

Kerr House (Yanceyville, North Carolina)

The following article on the history of the Kerr House in Yanceyville, North Carolina appeared in The Caswell Messenger 22 March 1973.

House Enjoys Long History as Home and Hotel

The brick house was built on the Rice Tavern lot, suggesting that Mr. Izban Rice might have once operated a tavern at that location after he purchased the property. The small white building which stands to the right as one faces the Kerr House once stood behind the main house, was connected to it by a porch, and served as the dining room. There is some speculation that the small building also served as the dining room for the Rice Tavern. Behind the dining room was a brick, rock-floored kitchen where servants prepared the food for the boarders in the hotel. The old kitchen was torn down in 1927 when Mrs. Yancey Kerr took over the operation of the home and hotel and added a more conveniently located dining room and kitchen to the west side of the house.

As one enters the foyer of the home, he finds the living room to the left where both members of the Kerr family and lodgers enjoyed companionship. The room was heated by twin fireplaces on the west wall of the house. Between the fireplaces is an arched doorway through which one enters the dining room. To the right of the foyer is the parlor which, though not used often, was sometimes occupied by single ladies who visited the hotel. Upstairs there are four bedrooms, one occupying each corner of the house. Both interior and exterior walls in the house are 14 inches thick and go all the way to the ground, causing much difficulty when one has to do plumbing or maintenance work under the house.

Pictured above are the fire places in the living room of the Kerr House where family members and guests spent many genial hours of companionship. Through the arched opening one may see the dining room where Judge Yancey Kerr presided over a bountiful table.

The first record of occupancy was by Dr. Bedford Brown, a surgeon in the confederacy. It is not known from whom Dr. Brown bought the main house, but records show that he had already bought the Rucks House. After Dr. Brown moved to Alexandria, Virginia, the house was rented for some years to James Norfleet, who later moved to Winston-Salem to engage in the tobacco business. It was then rented to Judge John Kerr who was a prominent lawyer, congressman, Superior Court judge, and a Whig candidate for governor. In 1874, the dwelling was purchased by a cousin of Judge John Kerr, Captain John H. Kerr, who was already living there. He was Clerk of Court at the time. A Confederate veteran who lost a leg at Bull Run, he was also later employed by the Treasury Department in Washington, D.C.

One of Captain Kerr's sons was Albert Yancey Kerr who later married the current mistress of the Kerr House. Mr. A. Y. Kerr attended Wake Forest University, served as Clerk in the N.C. Senate and published the Caswell County Democrat for about 40 years. He also represented Caswell County in the state legislature from 1925-1927 and served as judge of the County Court. Captain John H. Kerr's wife was born in 1844 and was the first Kerr to open the home to roomers. Mrs. Kerr later told her family that as a young girl she was one of the few who attended the funeral of Chicken Stephens. She began operating the hotel around 1887 and did so until her death in 1927. Biannual court sessions which sometimes lasted as long as two weeks were an important time in the life of Yanceyville and the Kerr Hotel. The hotel was a gathering place for judges and lawyers and solicitors who came to town for court sessions. Many politicians and businessmen also came to the hotel to partake of the meals in the old dining room which stood behind the main house and which connected it to the rock-floored kitchen where servants prepared food in a tremendous fireplace and a large wood stove. When the drummers would come to town to sell their dry goods to local merchants and take their orders, their drivers would sleep in an apple bed in a room above the old kitchen. That bed now occupies the upstairs bedroom in the southeast corner of the house.

Once when Governor Vance was in the Senate, he attended a barbecue in Ruffin, visited in Milton, and after speaking under the trees at the Yanceyville Presbyterian Church, he spent the night at the hotel. A small boy was sent to his room on an errand and returned, amazed that Mr. Vance had taken out an artificial eye and placed it on the mantle.

In his later years before his death in 1924, Captain Kerr would sit on the long front porch of the hotel most of the day and chat with the passers by. One day his cousin, Mrs. Nannie Neal,a Presbyterian, came by and, as usual, Captain Kerr began to talk on religion, especially immersion. Mrs. Neal is said to have responded to the Captain by saying, "Now, Cousin John, you might as well stop talking immersion, because that big stomach of yours never did go under the water when you were baptized."

The Blue and the Grey. Captain John H. Kerr, father of Judge Yancey Kerr, is pictured here talking with a Northern soldier at the Gettysburg Reunion about 1915. Captain Kerr lost his leg at the Battle of Bull Run.

When Mrs. John H. Kerr died in 1927, it was at this time that Mr. and Mrs. Yancey Kerr moved the old dining room to the lot on the northeast side of the house where it stands today, tore down the old kitchen, and built a more modern dining room and kitchen on the west side of the house. Mrs. Yancey Kerr recalls the time when her husband spent much time on the large front porch of the hotel, talking to hotel patrons and to those who merely stopped by for a chat. She also remembers many afternoons when the ladies of Yanceyville would dress up and stroll the narrow, unpaved Main Street which fronted the hotel and which was once lined with maple trees. The porch had to be removed in 1939 when Main Street was widened and paved and when water works were installed.

Two current N.C. Supreme Court judges, the Honorable Carlyle Higgins and the Honorable Susie Sharp, resided at the Kerr Hotel during court sessions, with Miss Sharp and her father driving over from Reidsville and taking meals there. Mr. C. L. Pemberton lived in the Rucks house as a young man and boarded at the hotel. Others who boarded there were Mr. T. J. Ham, Mr. W. B. Horton, Mr. J. B. Blaylock, and Mr. R. E. Murray. Mr. Blaylock recalls that he ate Sunday night suppers there for a cost of 35 cents. Mr. R. E. Murray lived or boarded at the hotel from October 1934 until 1942. He remembers paying five dollars per week for room and board. He remembers spending evenings in the living room of the hotel, conversing with Mr. Yancey Kerr, whom he describes as a very aristocratic gentleman who published the Caswell Democrat. On Sunday night, December 7, 1941, Mr. Murray, upon returning from a weekend away from Yanceyville, brought to the residents of the Kerr Hotel the news that Pearl Harbor had been bombed.

In 1934, Mr. Guy Hickok, a staff correspondent of the Brooklyn Eagle newspaper in New York, spent a weekend at the hotel with his son who was a student at the University in Chapel Hill, in an article which he wrote for the "Eagle," he explained that a friend in Chapel Hill had suggested that he visit Yanceyville, saying "up at Yanceyville you will step right back into 1840." In telling of his visit, Mr. Hickok wrote:

"The road was marked 'winding' all the way; almost at dark we arrived on the Square and saw an impressive looking Courthouse and stores across. Around the corner stood a brick, white-columned house with the sign 'Kerr Hotel.' It did not look like a hotel and the tall man in the soft light hat, well fitting suit, and high pale kid shoes did not look like a hotel keeper. 'Do you run this house as a hotel?' I asked. 'We take people,' he replied courteously. 'Come on in.' He led us up wide stairs to a wide hall from which opened two rooms overlooking the road. It was 1840 O.K. In the middle of each room stood a wide four-post bed made of waxed maple wood, beautiful beds, but not made to be moved every year. In the fireplace of each room was an iron stove and an ancient mail order commode with pitcher and bowl competing the modern conveniences. A pile of firewood, a copy of the Congressional Record and a can half-filled with kerosene oil lay beside the stove. 'How much?' I asked, 'Seventy five cents,' he replied. A brass bell jingled. He led the way across the hall through a big living room with two fireplaces, some priceless and some worthless furniture, through an arch, down two steps to a long table in a handsome dining room . . . . We enjoyed a delicious meal. After an entertaining after-dinner time before a blistering fire, we tried the big apple-wood bed. It was simply sumptuous. The window was 1840 too. It had no weights; one shoved it up by main strength and attached it up in a wooden notch in the frame. The morning, Sunday, was cold. It was then that the stove proved its worth. it was simple as turning on the stove. A few pages of the Congressional Record, some bark-covered pine, a match dropped in and the fire was roaring. In five minutes the room was not warm, but hot. The Kerr family went to church so apparently did the Judge. During lunch he said he had to try a case at 11 a.m.; a man had a gun and was trying to scare some people as he began shooting . . . . Judge Yancey Kerr talked so well about his state that we, the photographer and I, were reluctant to leave it and it seemed to deserve all the praise he gave it."

In 1937, another traveler to Yanceyville, August Heckscher II, instructor of Government at Yale University, wrote an article in a Connecticut newspaper. Entitled "A Yankee Discovers Yanceyville," the article contained the following comments about the town, the people, and the hotel:

"The wayfarer who comes to Yanceyville on Sunday noon finds a village silent and asleep. The fine courthouse looks out on the deserted square. At the Kerr Hotel one finds a table heaped with ham, chicken and vegetable enough to stagger the heartiest appetite. Here the Judge will be presiding over a genial gathering. The wayfarer may have a pleasant sense of being at home. On Monday all is changed. People are coming into town from neighboring townships and I understand why Caswell County is spoken of in places far beyond the borders of the state as a county seat that is pointing the way to a more secure and prosperous life. My main interest in coming had been to observe at first hand the progress of land use planning, this being one of the first counties selected. Again the town is silent and asleep. I sit at the roll top desk in Judge Kerr's office and almost no one passes through the street outside. Tomorrow I must be on my way but I shall carry with me the pleasantest memories of the hospitality I received here. I shall go believing that Caswell County is by its efforts finding its way back to the prosperity and good living which marked the greatest days of its history."

When Judge Kerr died in 1942, Mrs. Kerr ceased to operate the home as a hotel. Today the home is occupied by Mrs. Kerr and her son, Mr. George Kerr, and stands as a monument to a time when court sessions were a "big time" for the town, when ladies strolled in long dresses, and when people took time to sit on porches and talk with their neighbors.

The Kerr House today. Though missing its great front porch, the Kerr house stands today as a reminder of times gone by. The one-story addition on the left is the dining room behind which is the kitchen.

The brick Kerr Hotel is thought by Katherine Kerr Kendall (who grew up in the building) to have been built under the supervision of Josiah Rucks. Ibzan Rice is known to have obtained a tavern license in 1838 for operation from the building. Upon Rice's death in 1848, Rucks apparently took over the tavern and added to it. However, he was never able to pay for it, and in 1858 joined with the Rice heirs to convey the title to Dr. Bedford Brown, Jr. This son of the U.S. Senator Bedford Brown of Rose Hill (an historic home west of Yanceyville) practiced medicine in this building until he became a surgeon of the Confederacy, and later a prominent physician in Alexandria, Virginia. Apparently, the Rucks continued to operate the tavern until the family left Yanceyville during Reconstruction. A Confederate veteran, John Kerr, operated the hotel from around 1890 well into the 20th century. The house is on the National Register as the birthplace of Congressman John Kerr, and has entertained many distinguished guests.

For a photograph of the house with the front porch intact go to Caswell County Photograph Collection.