Exhibits highlight downtown Courtland

Published 9:03 am Wednesday, September 17, 2008

COURTLAND— As the traditional Heritage Day transforms this year into an event with multiple sites throughout the town, organizers have put together a couple of special exhibits designed to attract more people to the downtown Courtland area.

In addition to the regular daylong activities at the Southampton Agriculture and Forestry Museum, there will be events at both the Rochelle-Prince House and at Mahone’s Tavern, both located on Main Street across from the Southampton County Courthouse.

The Rochelle-Prince House is “too much a part of this town” not to be involved in the annual celebration of its history, Kitty Futrell said Monday. Futrell volunteers at the historic home for the Southampton County Historical Society and has put together a special exhibit that she hopes will draw visitors to the early-1800s-era home.

“We wanted something that had never been shown before,” she said, taking a visitor into a front room of the house, in which are displayed two groups of photos and sketches of buildings from Courtland’s past and a set of sketches of Southampton County churches.

The photographic exhibit focuses primarily on the portion of town north of the railroad tracks and includes photos of a number of churches, businesses and homes that have been missing from Courtland’s landscape for decades.

“At one time, it was a bustling town,” Futrell said of the town, which was called “Jerusalem” until 1888. “It took care of its inhabitants.”

She said she had concentrated on the northern side of town, because the other half normally gets all the attention.

Another part of the new exhibit is a series of sketches of nine of Southampton County’s oldest churches, completed by Chester artist Vivian Perdue as part of a project she was working on for the Library of Virginia.

Among the copies of the pen-and-ink sketches that are on display are drawings of Old St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Clarksbury Baptist Church, Mt. Horeb Methodist Church, Sebrell Methodist Church, Barnes Methodist Church, First Baptist Church in Courtland, Black Creek Baptist Church, Corinth Friends Church and Courtland Baptist Church.

One of those churches, Old St. Luke’s Episcopal, is located nearly across the street from the historic home.

The first part of the Rochelle-Prince House was built by Dr. Henry Gray, who probably built it sometime between 1811 and 1814, according to Historical Society records.

James Rochelle, who served as clerk of courts in Southampton County for 20 years, was a close friend of Dr. Gray and ended up marrying doctor’s widow in 1817, becoming the first Rochelle to be associated with the house.

Rochelle’s nephew, George Thomas, who would later become known as “The Rock of Chickamauga” while fighting for the Union during the Civil War, studied law in his uncle’s office.

Rochelle served as court clerk during the trial of Nat Turner and his followers, and his signature appears on a number of court orders from that trial.

His daughter, Mattie Rochelle, married John Tyler Jr., son of President John Tyler. They lived in the home for a number of years with their three children. Rochelle’s son, James Henry Rochelle, served as a lieutenant and, eventually, a commander in the Confederate Navy and later surveyed the upper reaches of the Amazon River for the Peruvian Navy.

The Rochelle family continued to play a prominent role in Southampton County, as Mattie Rochelle’s daughter, Mattie Tyler, served for many years as postmistress and is said to have been instrumental in changing the name of the town to Courtland.

Tours of the Rochelle-Prince House will be offered for free. A Chowan University artist will be on hand to draw portraits and caricatures for a fee.

Another historic home, Mahone’s Tavern, will be open to the public for the first time during the Heritage Day festivities. The boyhood home of Confederate Gen. William Mahone — known as the “Hero of the Crater” for rallying troops to push back a Union offensive during the Siege of Petersburg — the tavern was recently purchased from a private owner by the Urquhart-Gillette Camp 1471, Sons of Confederate Veterans.

Tours of the home will be offered, and visitors will get a chance to see a mock Civil War encampment in the backyard. Women in period dress also will be on hand to greet the guests.

The tour of the home will cost $2, which includes a ride from the grounds of the agriculture museum in a mule-driven wagon and a chance in a raffle for a portrait of a Southern war scene.