“He felt closer to God down there on the farm than sitting on a pew in church,” said Sally Williamson Greaser, recalling the love her father, Bailey Williamson, had for the land at Walnut Hill Farm.
Walnut Hill is a 405‐acre property in the Shotwell community of southeast Wake County, about twenty miles southeast of Raleigh, North Carolina. Once part of one of the county’s largest and most prosperous cotton plantations, the land today is a rich mosaic of old fields, woodland, pastureland, ponds, streams and historic buildings.
The farm and neighboring properties are part of the Walnut Hill Historic District and were owned by the Mial and Williamson families for over two centuries. Sisters Sally Williamson Greaser and Betty Brandt Williamson approached the Triangle Land Conservancy (TLC) in the early 2000s about conserving the property.
In 2013, with the help of the State’s Clean Water Management Trust Fund and Ecosystem Enhancement Grant program, private donors, and Wake and Johnston Counties, TLC was able to purchase the farm from the sisters.
As part of a plan to make Walnut Hill an educational and recreational destination, TLC has partnered with UNC’s Community Histories Workshop to explore the history of the land, and the larger Shotwell community. “There are so many layers of history at Walnut Hill,” said Rob Shapard, CHW project coordinator. “From Native American lives in this region, to cotton production, which was based before the Civil War on the labor of enslaved people, and then tobacco farming on this land in the twentieth century. Talking with people with ties to Walnut Hill and Shotwell, you can hear a very deep sense of pride and connection that they feel about this community.”
For example, the Good Hope Baptist Church, established in the community by African Americans in 1866, has been a thriving and critical institution there throughout its history, Shapard said. There is an important history of African American landownership in the community as well.
Sally Greaser recorded one of the first oral histories this spring for the Walnut Hill history project. She described how much her father loved caring for the Walnut Hill farm.
“He loved the open space,” she recalled. “I also think, as time went on, he was a little put off by the widespread development throughout Wake County, and just kind of felt like this little section of the eastern part of the county just needed to stay forever as open space.”
The sisters found common ground with TLC in this awareness of the county’s ongoing suburban growth, along with a vision for preserving the farm. The land conservancy also is exploring ways to connect the preserve to other open space in the region, such as the nearby Neuse River Greenway Trail.
Experiences like roaming the farm, riding in the pickup truck with their dad and participating in farm work were important moments in the sisters’ childhoods.
“I remember all of us working, barning tobacco together,” Betty Brandt Williamson said in an oral history interview. “We didn’t get a pass by being the farmer’s family.” The sisters and their mother worked with the community residents on tasks like harvesting the Williamson’s tobacco and hanging the leaves in heated tobacco barns for drying.
“You worked so hard,” Williamson recalled. “I remember the gum from the tobacco would be on your hands. It was dirty and sweaty work, but it was honorable work… I just remember that everyone [in the community] worked together and helped each other out. If someone was sick, you would do what you could to help.”
Shapard will spend the summer of 2019 recording more oral histories and seeking out historical documents from libraries and personal collections to help piece together the story of this diverse community of Shotwell for potential interpretive materials for TLC’s Walnut Hill Preserve.
The Community Histories Workshop is a program of the UNC Center for Urban and Regional Studies. Rob Shapard is a lecturer in U.S. history at UNC-Chapel Hill and project coordinator for the Walnut Hill Preserve project.