Coolmore Plantation survived time, weather, and war to stand today as one of the most significant antebellum complexes in North Carolina. I wrote about it and Joe Spiers, the man who lives there now, for the March issue of Our State magazine.
It started out as a simple photo essay for the magazine. Then, back in November or so, Our State editor Elizabeth Hudson asked if I’d be interested in fleshing it out into a full feature story. I went for it, and the end result was awesome. I’m such a lucky guy, getting to tell stories like this so early in my career.
Below is an excerpt and a link to the full piece and, if you want to see all the amazing pictures and how it came together in print, a viewable PDF.
Coolmore Plantation is both a mansion and a museum. But to Joe Spiers, who lives here with his wife, Janet, it is both a connection to his family’s history and a structure that symbolizes his own endurance and strength.
Joe Spiers emerged from his mansion and stepped down on the damp ground. It was this past August, and a storm had dropped a huge branch from a tree, crushing part of the fence around the sheep pasture. Joe grabbed his chainsaw.
He’s well into his 70s, but his hands, those of a retired military pilot, are still strong. He cut through the heart of the branch cleanly. The branch dropped and settled back against the tree, just as Joe expected, and he set the chainsaw down. But then he saw movement, and turned, and the branch suddenly pitched out toward him. He tried to run but stumbled over the pile of limbs, and the branch crashed across his legs. He called to a friend who sometimes helps around the farm, and the friend cut the branch off of Joe. He stood, seemingly unharmed, and they both had a good laugh. Then it was back to work. Joe’s legs felt a little sore, but fences don’t repair themselves, and no good caretaker lets sheep roam free.
An hour and a half later, the fence was fixed, and Joe was beat. He returned to his mansion, dusted the filth off his jacket and his jeans, and walked through the back door, stepping into the kitchen.
This is Coolmore Plantation, Joe’s home and one of the most significant pieces of property in North Carolina, an Italian Villa built in 1860 for physician and cotton planter J.J.W. Powell and his wife, Martha. Weather and time and even war have passed through, and while other plantations have fallen, Coolmore has withstood it all.
It is a home and a museum, and Joe and his wife of 52 years, Janet, watch over it accordingly. Preservation North Carolina owns Coolmore, but because there’s no endowment for it, the organization has a unique arrangement with the Powell family — it leases the mansion and property back to direct-line descendants who want to live there and tend to it.
Joe Spiers is Powell’s great-great-grandson.
The work to maintain the house is demanding, but things are calm and quiet out here in the countryside between Tarboro and Rocky Mount, just the way Joe likes it.
After a career in the United States Air Force, Joe and Janet could have retired to any quiet space in the country. But they came here, to continue the family tradition of caring for Coolmore.
“I grew up all around this place,” he says. “It’s home. … It’s just a part of me.”
That day last August, as Joe walked back in the mansion, something felt different in his legs. He kissed Janet, then calmly said, “I think I need to go to the hospital.” She drove. Doctors diagnosed him with two broken ankles and a broken fibula — which meant that, at 73, he had worked an hour and a half, walking back and forth from fence to truck to storage building to fence, with three broken bones in his legs. He was given a wheelchair and a walker, and he wasn’t excited about either of them, or about being so helpless. But Janet was there to care for him, as always.
About two months later, Tarboro held its 250th anniversary celebration. Joe and Janet were in the choral group, and when he walked on stage, he did so without a walker or even so much as a limp. “Sort of like Superman,” lifelong Tarboro resident Ed Roberson recalled later.
Download the PDF here.