|Brown's Seafood Restaurant|
By Bonnie Lawrence, Staff Writer Mar 12, 1991
The Writing's on the Wall at Brown's of Caswell.
Actually, the writing's on several walls. But the faded scribblings don't bother Brenda Brown, owner of the combination specialty shop and restaurant in Yanceyville. In fact, she cherishes the antique scratchings because they speak of the history of the 200-year old building which houses her shop.
According to Brown, storekeepers of yesteryear would keep track of customers' bills and other records by writing them on the wall. An inscription proclaiming "H. H. Hammer, 25 cents is visible on a side wall. By the front door is scrawled "N. P. Oliver, Yanceyville" in an old-fashioned hand.
"He owned two saloons once," said Brown of Oliver. "That makes us think this building might have been a saloon."
Brown's interest in things historical blossomed after she and her family - husband, Bill, and sons, Seth and Rob - moved to Yanceyville from Virginia Beach, Va., in the fall of 1988. The seed of Brown's interest was planted when she began thinking about carrying out a long-time dream - opening her own restaurant. A historic building seemed to her the perfect site for such an enterprise.
"I let my imagination go wild with the idea of doing something like this," said Brown, indicating her gourmet food shop and restaurant. "I thought in a county with more historical sites than any other I could find a building to renovate. I found this available and I knew this was it."
It was in the two-story, 1800-vintage building that Brown discovered the cryptic handwriting while scraping paint from the old walls.
"It got so intriguing we ended up scraping the walls in the entire building," said Brown, who is in her 30s. "We left information we thought was important - signatures, dates, inventories. Every time we discovered a name or date we were so excited. All the neighbors and the community would come in and ask what we'd found."
Other historical artifacts turned up while the Browns were cleaning out the building's basement - printing plates from a 1900-era newspaper, parts of a tiny china doll, old bottles, coins. The items are now on display in a glass case in the restaurant's entry area.
Brown says she received a lot of support from the community while restoring the two buildings.
"The historical society was pleased to see us take a risk," she said. "They loved that we were restoring a building, and they loved that we were bringing business to the community. They got caught up in our enthusiasm."
Brown's culinary and business ambitions were fulfilled when she opened the gourmet shop in September 1989 and the restaurant three months later. The shop features fresh Brazilian and Colombian coffee as well as wines, jams and chocolates. The restaurant, with its dozen or so tables, features freshly prepared foods in styles ranging from Italian to Mexican to all-American.
It didn't take long for Brown's of Caswell to become a gathering place for the community, particularly on Friday nights.
"This community had no meeting place," said Brown, a Trinity native. "I read an article about how it's important to have a third home, where you can go and people are friendly to you and where you can catch up on the news."
Years ago, she said, communities had such meeting places in small country stores, where people would sit around and pass along the latest news.
"That's basically what this is," Brown said of her establishment. "If something happens in Caswell County, you can come in on Friday night and find out about it."
Those who attend the Friday night gatherings are such regulars that they've almost become a large family. If someone can't make it, they call Brown's and explain why.
Although Brown is now an avid student of local history and historic structures, she did not become one until meeting her husband, whose family has lived in Caswell County since the 1700s. When Bill Brown brought Brenda Brown to meet his grandmother, Mary Brown, at her home, Rose Hill, Brenda Brown was in awe.
"It was like going to a museum, like going back in time," she said of the home built in 1802 for U.S. Senator Bedford Brown.
Today Brenda Brown's feelings about Rose Hill, where she and her family now live with 86-year-old Mary Brown, have changed from awe to respect and affection. She's proud of the fact that the home has been well taken care of over the years and that it still retains some of its original features such as the wallpaper in the parlor.
Brown feels lucky to live in Caswell County, a relatively undeveloped area where progress has not destroyed the large number of historic structures.
"These two buildings would not have been here if Yanceyville had been hit by progress like other cities," she said of her shop and restaurant.
Brown urges people considering establishing a business to do what she did - look at older buildings in need of restoration.
"Sometimes you can purchase and restore for the price of a new building," she said. "But the feeling you get from the architecture and moldings - the whole effect - you can't get in a new structure."
Brown thinks that that old-time atmosphere is what makes people feel comfortable at Brown's of Caswell.
"People say they feel at home when they come here," she said. "I feel at home, too. Had we built a new, shiny building, it would not feel the way it does."
News and Record (Greensboro, North Carolina)
The interviewee is Brenda Ann Reynolds Brown, wife of James Williamson Brown III (son of James Williamson Brown, Jr., and Joan Wiley Brown).