There is a place in Wayne County where you can step back in time and see what life was like in the late 18th century — spinning wool to make your own clothes, several grades of children all going to school in the same classroom, living in a simple house with no modern conveniences, cooking over an open hearth.
Visitors to the Gov. Charles B. Aycock Birthplace state historic site in Fremont can experience all this and more.
Site manager Leigh Strickland, who has been there for 23 years, said the state historic site began out of an undertaking by a group of local people who wanted to remember what Gov. Aycock did to improve the state’s education system.
“This group got together and began raising money in the 1930s to start the site,” Strickland said. “World War II came along and efforts kind of slowed down because of the war. After the war, they picked back up.
“The governor appointed a commission to assist with the efforts. And the site officially opened Nov. 1, 1959, on the 100th anniversary of Gov. Aycock’s birthday.”
When it opened, Strickland said, there was the house where the Aycock family had lived and a kitchen that had been rebuilt due to the original one possibly burning down.
In 1961, a one-room schoolhouse, which was built in 1893, was added.
“It was Oak Plain School, which was moved here from the Nahunta area,” Strickland said. “It housed first- through seventh-graders, and was used as a school until around 1915 at its original location. Then an African American congregation bought it and used it as a church. When they stopped using it, it was sold to a farmer, who used it as a packhouse. The state got it from the farmer.”
A visitor center was erected around 1964. An addition was added to the visitor center in 1994, to allow room for a gift shop, indoor bathrooms and an auditorium where visitors can watch a video about Gov. Aycock.
“The most recent thing we’ve done within the past year is added a small exhibit on the segregation and integration of schools.
Other buildings at Aycock Birthplace include a pantry where crocks and cast iron items are kept, a smokehouse, an outhouse and a corn crib with some farm implements in it.
Strickland said the pantry is where the Aycocks would have stored the food they preserved to get them through the winter.
Stables house seven sheep and the site’s newest animal, a 4-month-old red angus/black angus mix by the name of Scooter, who can be quite mischievous.
“I came in one morning recently and went out there and saw a whole bunch of water,” Strickland said. “Our calf had figured how to turn on the water faucet. We have a wooden box to hide our modern outside water spigot since it’s near an historic building. Somehow, Scooter has figured how to use his nose to unhook the latch and flip the lid open, then turn on the faucet. And he has plenty of water in three different containers. Cows are not as dumb as people think.”
In addition to the sheep and Scooter, several chickens live in a chicken coop at Aycock Birthplace. And Cleo, a calico cat lives in the visitor center.
“We have animals because when the Aycocks lived here, they had animals, chickens for the eggs and then they could have chicken for Sunday dinner,” Strickland said. “Eating chicken would have been a very special occasion back then.
“They also had sheep and used the wool to spin into thread to make clothes. We have the calf because the Aycocks had beef cattle and milk cows. We have the animals because it was a big part of the farm back then.”
But there are not nearly as many animals at Aycock Birthplace that the Aycocks owned because the birthplace sits on just 18 acres of the original 1,000 acres of land.
There is much to take in at Aycock Birthplace.
“For everyday tours, we’re trying to get more hands on,” Strickland said. “In our one-room school, we have slateboards on the desks, and we encourage people to sit down and write their name using the cursive style they would have used when the school was in use in the late 1800s. It’s a little bit of a challenge because we don’t write that way anymore, but it’s fun.
“In the house are what’s called cotton cards, like pet brushes, and they are used to straighten cotton or wool fibers to make it easier for spinning. We have cotton and wool that people can use the cards on.
“In the kitchen, we put old-timey glass spice jars in there with spices in them. We let people pick them up and take the corks off to smell to see if they can figure out what the spice is.”
Aycock Birthplace has several special programs throughout the year, including a Daffodil open house with various activities, a Farm to Flavor event where a costumed interpreter will be cooking, another person talking about herbs and their uses and someone showing how to render lard. Visitors will also be able to make their own butter to take home. Visitors are also encouraged to take their favorite recipe to be included in a special cookbook.
There will be living history programs in April with volunteers in costume giving various demonstrations. Also in April is a Farm Heritage Day and a plowing demonstration.
Saturday on the Farm is held in June. A fall festival is scheduled for October, complete with inflatable slides, craft and food vendors, bluegrass groups, Native Americans and more.
Each December, Aycock Birthplace is decked out in its finest holiday decorations for the Christmas Candlelight Tours.
Aycock Birthplace does all this with a staff of just three people. Strickland said she depends on volunteers to help out a lot and can always use more volunteers.
An average of between 12,000 and 15,000 people visit the state historic site each year.
Besides visiting the old buildings and animals there, people can also take a picnic lunch with them and sit at one of several picnic tables or under the picnic shelter, which is wheelchair accessible with handicapped parking.
“People can have birthday parties, family reunions and even weddings out here,” Strickland said. “And it’s a great place to just come and take photos.”
Something unusual at Aycock Birthplace is the old Aycock family cemetery that’s still in use. Gov. Aycock’s parents and some of his brothers and sisters are buried there, while Aycock himself rests at Historic Oakwood Cemetery in Raleigh.
One thing that happened in the cemetery that Strickland will never forget took place during an actual burial.
“We had a lamb born here whose mother wouldn’t nurse, so we took it and nursed it from a bottle,” she said. “She was small enough that she could get through the slats of the fence. One day there was a funeral going on in the cemetery and the little lamb got out. She was so used to us that she went to the cemetery during the funeral and started going ‘bah, bah, bah.’
“I was in the office and when I realized the lamb was at the funeral, I went out there and apologized. But the people found her very comforting. And the little lamb made everybody laugh and brought happiness to a sad occasion.”
Gov. Charles B. Aycock Birthplace state historic site is open Tuesday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. There is no admission fee. For more information, call the site at 919-242-5581.