|Zebulon Baird Vance|
When David Vance, grandfather of future governor Zebulon Vance, moved to Reems Creek in the late 1780s, he was one of several settlers with Revolutionary War pasts who were looking to be part of what he considered an ideal community. That involved a large family, a working farm, a nearby church, a water powered mill, and some kind of school and slaves.
The condition of slaves lives and of the lives of freedmen, before and after Emancipation, varied greatly. The Vances perpetrated a big family model, which involved kindness and love as well as paternalism and bondage.
When David Vance was dying in 1813 he expressed in his will the desire that his two families of slaves, headed by Richard and Aggy and Jo and Leah, be given "full liberty." "Full liberty" meant, in that time and place, freedom to choose their households, to travel, and to not worry about losing their children. The State slave code required approval by a county court for emancipating the slaves. It also required that freedmen carry and present documents when they were away from their homes. The Vance's "liberated" slaves had to have tickets from their owners as permission to travel. All slaves and freedmen had to fear white men who were given license to shoot runaways.
In 1844, when Zeb was 14, his father David Vance Jr. stipulated in his will that Zeb's mammy Venus along with her child be put up for sale on the slave block. His wife, Mira, opposed her husband and maintained the family promise. She and Venus conspired to fake Venus's mental deficiency and Mira bought her for a dollar. Venus successfully pleaded to hold on to her baby.
Zeb's brother Robert recalled how Venus had conspired with Zeb in his inveterate mischievousness even as a child. One time, travelers stopped at the Vance home and asked little Zeb for a fill-up of their liquor bottle. Zeb went to "Mammy Venus and got a bottle of potliquor (liquid left behind after boiling collard greens) and gave it to the travellers," Clement Dowd quoted Robert in his 1897 biography of Zebulon Vance. "He charged them nothing, but made them promise not to open it till they got out of sight." He then trailed behind and spied on their consternation.
Wealthy vacationers at the Vance's Lapland Hotel (later Warm Springs) took pleasure in telling how young Zeb, envying the sales success of flower girls there, put on a dress and earned big tips.
Back at the homestead in Reems Creek, Zeb engaged with the farm animals. The geese learned, when Zeb was out and about, they no longer had command of the yard. Once, he frightened an old gander to death, according to Ruth Szittya in her fictionalized biography "Man to Match the Mountains: The Childhood of Zebulon Baird Vance."
Other animals had free reign. A brick in the Vance's sitting room fireplace immortalizes an embedded turkey footprint; and one in the kitchen fireplace, two cat paws. Cats caught corn-eating mice. Better than a housecat, however, was a black snake, which reached into mouse habitats more easily than a cat and which precluded the colonization of the house by a poisonous snake.
A smooth, slanted groove in a corner brick in the Vance's kitchen fireplace indicates knife sharpening and elicits an image of a turkey's fate. As winter approached, drovers took turkeys, pigs, and cattle to southeastern markets along the Buncombe Turnpike, completed just a couple of years before Zebulon Vance's birth.
A holiday dinner in the cold months at the Vance table might have included turkey with gravy, sweet potatoes, green beans, cooked apples, cornbread and pie, as "The Foxfire Book of Appalachian Cookery" indicates.
Winters required defense against cold in the house despite the central fireplace. Mira's connection to distant markets via her brother's Bedent and Zebulon Baird, pioneer merchants, provided her with a top-of-the-line brass bed warmer.
Winters were much colder two centuries ago. Rivers froze. In 1835, a fourhorse wagon crossed the French Broad River on ice. Pioneer residents, in their homes, devised ways to turn survival into luxury.
A brass and wood bed warmer at the Zebulon Vance Birthplace in Reems Creek speaks of that era; and the Vance bed warmer is lucky to have survived time.
In the 1930s, a couple of decades before the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources acquired the Vance property, most of the Vance's early 19th century family possessions had been sold to an antiques dealer. Since then, only a few of those artifacts have found their way back.
A bed warmer had been a prized object in pioneer days. Not every family had one. Most wrapped a heated brick in cloth and laid it between bed covers; or fetched a stone, though not one from a creek, which might explode.
When five-year-old Zebulon went to his bedroom at night in the winter of 1835, he left the downstairs hearth and endured the chill as he anticipated the bed warming ritual.
The new warmer's brass pan would have been filled with coals and then sprinkled with salt to keep down sulfurous smells before being passed between bed sheets in a graceful arcing motion. Then Zeb jumped in bed.
More delicious than a room kept at 70 is a toasty, comfy cocoon in cold air.
The Vances provided their beds with goose down comforters and mattresses, a Scots-Irish preference. Kate Carter, program specialist at the Schiele Museum of Natural History in Gastonia, told me that it took 15 pounds of goose down to fill a mattress. Consequently, the owners of such mattresses would have refreshed the stuffing infrequently and would have suffered with bugs, which might account for the German preference for disposable straw tick mattresses.
Reading by candlelight and education were essential parts of Zebulon's childhood, given a boost by a tragic event. Zeb's uncle, Dr. Robert Vance, was killed in a duel, and young Zeb inherited his vast library of law, medicine, classics, and theology. Only one volume of that library remains at the site, "The History of Redemption" by the apocalyptic Puritan preacher, Jonathan Edwards.
Edwards warned against treasuring material things for "the moth shall eat them up like a garment, and the worm shall eat them like wool: but my righteousness shall be forever, and my navigation from generation to generation."