In 1997, the late Rev Jeff Lowrance contacted me at the Lake Norman Chamber and said there was a piece of history in Huntersville that desperately needed the help of local volunteers. Set back just off Gilead Road in Huntersville is an old two story house that thousands of people drive past each week – the Hugh Torance House and Store. Located at 8231 Gilead Road, the store dates back to 1779 and is the oldest standing store and residence in North Carolina. It was owned by Hugh Torance and his wife Isabella, and their son James operated a store there from 1805 until 1825. By the early 1960’s the house had fallen on hard times. Buried under layers of Kudzu, its once sturdy sides had given way. The Mecklenburg Historical Association and local volunteers including, Dick and Belle Banks, worked to raise money to repair the old home. In the spring of 1989, the Hugh Torance House and Store was again opened to the public.
When Rev Lowrance contacted me a decade later, the energy of volunteers had faded, and the house again was in need of attention. Walking into the house for the first time, I was struck with both its simplicity and craftsmanship. Long before laser guides, power saws, and our wide assortment of power tools, carpenters created fluted paneling and carved intricate wood molding by hand. The outside of the house is fitted with basket weave plank doors with exposed rose headed nails. It’s really hard to imagine a craftsman using the chisels and gouges to create the chair molding and detail around the fireplace that I examined for the first time on that summer afternoon so long ago. Jeff’s eyes lit up with a passion as he spoke of Hugh who fought in the Battle of Ramsour’s Mill and whose captain was killed in the skirmish. It was his captain’s widow, Isabella, that Hugh would later marry, helping raise her four children and their own son James.
This past week, I served as a tour guide for the first and fourth grade classes of Ramah Christian Classical School. It was a real experience for the young people as they peered into life before computers and cell phones. Instead they marveled at the staple items of the store: the sugar cones, blocks of tea, and ungrounded coffee. They played with the simple wooden children’s toys and asked a litany of questions about the spinning wheels and tools of the time. Too soon our tour was over and the children were headed back to the school leaving me to close up the house once again. As I walked upstairs, my fingers traveling along the soft wooden rail of the staircase, I thought about the small fingers which ran along that same wood two hundred years ago.
I paused at the bottom of the steps in a chair by the window and wondered how many times James might have sat in the same spot, waiting on that customer to ride up for needed supplies. Possibly leaving a note on the message board of the store, trading goods, and then perhaps enjoying an ale in the tavern next door before their long ride back home.
Perhaps John Kennedy said it best when he reminded us, “History is a relentless master. It has no present, only the past rushing into the future. To try to hold fast is to be swept aside.”
As I turned the key in the door, securing the past, I looked back at the stately old house. Closing my eyes tightly, I imagined that Hugh, Isabella and the kids were standing as silent sentries, watching over the home until our next visit. As each of us go about our day, we are reminded of those who came before us, providing us with the blessings of liberty and opportunity, and we have the responsibility to leave our community better than we found it. It is the legacy we were left and the responsibility we owe to the future.