02/10/08 — Kenan family's ancestral home to be part of Duplin tourism push

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Kenan family's ancestral home to be part of Duplin tourism push

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on February 10, 2008 2:02 AM

KENANSVILLE -- For 40 years, Liberty Hall, the ancestral home of North Carolina's Kenan family, has been one of the focal points of Duplin County tourism.

Now, with the creation of the Duplin Tourism Development Authority and its long-range plan, Tom Kenan III is hoping that the former plantation's attraction will continue to help push Kenansville and the rest of the county forward.

"I want it to be a plus for Duplin County. I want it to help the county and the town economically," he said. "It's complete at this stage; now it just needs to be developed."

Inside Liberty Hall

The current Liberty Hall is actually the second incarnation of the Kenan homestead.

The first version of the plantation was built at Turkey Branch by Thomas Kenan in the 1730s after he immigrated to America from Ireland with his wife, Elizabeth Johnston Kenan, the niece of North Carolina Colonial Gov. Gabriel Johnston.

Originally called The Lilacs, it was renamed Liberty Hall by Thomas Kenan's son, James Kenan, a Revolutionary War general and original University of North Carolina trustee.

The current home was then built in Kenansville in the early 1800s by his son, Thomas Kenan II, after it and James' nearby homestead, Lochlin, were destroyed by fire.

Over the years, as North Carolina was buffeted by drought and other unfavorable economic conditions, much of the Kenan family moved to Selma, Ala.

Son Owen Kenan stayed, though, remodeling the residence into its current form.

For years afterward, different family members remained in the home until Annie Dillon Kenan's death in 1906. At that point, it was willed to U.S. Army Col. Owen Hill Kenan, an officer in World War I, who used it mostly for furniture and art storage.

The home then remained boarded up until 1964 when his nephew, Frank Hawkins Kenan, purchased the property from Owen's estate and deeded it to the Duplin County Board of Education and the county Board of Commissioners.

"(Former county school Superintendent) O.P. Johnson was largely responsible for convincing the family to restore it and make it into a museum," explained Tom Kenan III, Frank's son. "He thought it would generate interest in restoring Kenansville and the other historical homes in the community."

A year later, the work began, and in 1968, Liberty Hall was opened as a historical and educational museum.

Getting it to that point, he said, was not an easy task.

Kenan, 70, remembered that when he was growing up, when the family would travel from Durham to Wilmington to visit relatives, they would often take a day trip up to Liberty Hall for a picnic.

Even then, he continued, the house, which stood unused, full of dust and old furniture, was rarely entered.

"Once somebody found a dead snake in there and that stopped us (from going inside) completely," Kenan said.

So by the time the restoration efforts started years later, the home was fairly rundown.

"It hadn't been lived in for 50 years, so you can imagine... It was standing, but it was in terrible shape. It looked like a haunted house," he said. "Once we cleaned it out, though, there was a lot of curiosity."

Since then, they have been able to bring it back to life -- re-planing and re-installing almost every outside board, cleaning and restoring the inner rooms, restoring as many original pieces of furniture (including all the beds) as possible, finding similar period pieces to fill in the gaps, and rebuilding the various out-buildings, such as the cook's house and the overseer's house. They have even nurtured a grove of oak seedlings that took the place of the original trees that died over the years.

"We tried to recreate what it looked like from old photographs (taken just after the Civil War)," Kenan said.

Now, as he walks through the 100-year-old rooms, telling family stories and personal anecdotes -- such as the fact that the family's slaves were freed before the Civil War, and yet Martha, the cook, and her descendants remained with the family well into the late 1960s -- his pride in the home and his family's history is evident.

Almost always, though, most of his focus remains on how to maintain and improve what's there.

"I'm always looking to see what needs to be done. I'm sort of like the tenant who always calls the landlord -- the roof is leaking, the door doesn't shut tightly," he said.

The future of

Liberty Hall and

Duplin County

But Kenan explained that because of the decisions that were made when his father purchased the home -- the purchase of adjoining lots as buffers, the inclusion of the county's Cowan Museum, the construction of the visitor's center and the donation of the Kenansville Park -- he's confident that their home will remain safe and continue standing well into the future.

His biggest concern is that interest in it not stagnate.

Currently, it receives between 3,000 and 5,000 visitors a year, many of them school children.

He is hopeful, though, that with the county's leadership focused on tourism, they can begin to increase those numbers.

He's also hopeful that with the improvements being made to it, the Duplin Events Center will soon become a large drawing card for the county.

"I think you can build on that," he said.

The key, Kenan continued, because there isn't a true tourist destination in the county, will be to bundle all of its attractions together and to catch people as they travel to and from the beach, or when they come to town for a show or event at the center.

And perhaps the best target audience, he added, will be bus tours, especially those catering to senior citizens.

"They love historical places," he said. "And that's (the kind of attractions) we're trying to develop now. Tourism has tremendous potential and Kenansville has just touched the surface."

But in order to continue that growth, he believes that interest cannot come just from tourists.

"There's an old saying that you don't appreciate things in your own back yard," he said. "I'm not blaming anybody, but we have to develop interest with the local people.

"The (Kenan) family has restored it and endowed it, but the future of Liberty Hall depends on the local people, and I feel optimistic."

Liberty Hall Restoration, which is at 409 S. Main Street in Kenansville, is open from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday. The phone number is 910-296-2175.