Charlie’s hope for electricity, indoor plumbing

Published 10:06 am Wednesday, March 7, 2012

by Archie Howell

My uncle and aunt work a farm on the other side of Sebrell named Charlie’s Hope Plantation.

Nobody knows how it got its name.

Maybe it indicated plans for grandeur or wealth. Maybe it was wishful thinking, or maybe it was just whimsically chosen by the owner, the Urquhart family.

My family knows “Miss Lucy,” as they call the last member of Clan Urquhart to live at Charlie’s Hope.

We get there in our truck by turning right out our path, down the hill and on to Courtland. From Courtland we take the Jerusalem Plank Road (Highway 35) north toward Richmond. This is new territory for me, and I try to remember as much as I can.

At the edge of town is Mr. Rose’s stockyard, on the left. We’ve been there before with some hogs for sale. Mr. Rose has some large trucks parked beside the pens. He uses those to transport livestock to distant packing-houses or other markets.

At the edge of the livestock market are buildings belonging to Southampton County. My mother tells me that one of those is the poorhouse or orphanage. I stare at them with much apprehension and just a little sadness.

We continue to the open countryside and woodlands toward Richmond. This is farmland, with some low marshy areas between cultivated fields.

At Sebrell, there’s a dangerous overpass over the railroad. It has a curve leading into and out of a steep uphill and downhill grade.

A church is on the left side at the bottom of the overpass, and a joke is made about the close availability of church services for those who don’t make the curve.

Sebrell has a few stores, but most are abandoned as farmers become more mobile and markets are moved to larger towns. Small village decline is very noticeable in our county.

About 1½ miles beyond Sebrell is an unmarked, unannounced path into the woods on the left. We turn onto the path, and after a short distance, the woods opens up into a wide front yard entry to the farm.

Cedar trees border the grassy entrance, like evenly spaced sentries. It’s still 300 yards to the house.

Just in front of the house, the path splits. The left side goes to the backyard of the main house; the right branch goes to the work area extension of the backyard, and on to backfields.

Electricity has not made it to Charlie’s Hope. Neither has indoor plumbing. Most of my relatives’ homes, like the home of my birth, have neither electricity nor indoor plumbing,

The main home is built plantation style, with the first floor built well above ground, permitting work and storage areas under the house, somewhat protected from the elements.

The house has a wide veranda on three sides and a second floor. I’m going to stay with my uncle and aunt for a few days. That’ll give me time to explore.

We park the truck in the backyard, and I can see their water well on our left, about 50 feet from the backdoor. I will learn that the toilet is behind a garden gate straight ahead. It’s important to know that.

We are greeted by my aunt and ushered into the house. It’s the kitchen entrance, the most used.

We pass by a set of stairs on the left; I ask about them and am told they were for servants (slaves) to go between the kitchen and the upstairs rooms when the place had servants.

In the main kitchen on the left is a strange looking large box-like appliance with a round thing on the top. I am told it is a refrigerator. It uses kerosene to keep things inside cold. I don’t understand how a fire can keep things cold. Obviously it can. It will be a lifelong mystery for me.

My parents leave, and I am left with my aunt. Days are spent exploring and nights are spent seeing things by the light of kerosene lamps.

The right fork of the front path leads to work areas of the farm as does the backyard, extended. Along the path are slave houses (quarters), barns, sheds and other outbuildings. I don’t understand slave quarters; I do understand barns, sheds, blacksmith shops and other buildings.

None of the buildings on the farm, including the main home, have known a single coat of paint — not unusual in rural areas of Southampton County.

The wonderful warm light from kerosene lamps is a part of my heritage, as are outhouses and water wells.

Maybe Charlie was hoping for electricity and indoor plumbing.

James D. “Archie” Howell is a Southampton County native and 1955 graduate of Franklin High School. He can be reached at