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The social life in Warrenton for the first fifty years was of course primitive, but amusing and interesting. Notwithstanding that many of the inhabitants were of good English stock, possessed of respectable property in lands and negroes, and bringing with them the traditions and habits of their race, yet Warrenton was so remote from the social and fashionable centers that their life was quite simple. Some descriptions of the times and habits of the people, as portrayed by one of them, Ellen Mordecai, may be taken as fairly illustrative of the fashions and customs, too, of the period up to the year 1840.

Ellen Mordecai was the oldest daughter of Jacob Mordecai, who made his residence in Warrenton as early as 1792. He engaged in business for some years. Later, in 1809, he opened the well-known school for young ladies in Warrenton. Miss Ellen was one of his able assistants. A young woman of fine mind, well trained and cultivated by reading the best literature of the period, as well as by association with persons of literary tastes, she also possessed a fine sense of humor and a keen wit. While a young woman she began to write the history of Warrenton, its people and their customs, calling it The History of Hastings, in the main giving fictitious names to many of the citizens. She continued to write it for some years after she ceased to reside in Warrenton. It has never been published, but was bound in a substantial manner, and, after nearly a hundred years, is in excellent preservation. It is written in a good bold hand, and, although the ink has paled, it is easily read.

Miss Mordecai died in 1884, at the advanced age of ninety-four years. The History of Hastings was found among her papers, at the home of her nephew, Henry Mordecai, on the northern boundary of Raleigh. It is now the valued possession of her great niece, Pattie Mordecai, through whose kindly interest I have been permitted to make free extracts.


Miss Mordecai gives an account of a dinner of 1815, by one of the most prominent lawyers of the town, whom she calls Mr. Penrose, but whose real name is easily recognized as Kemp Plummer, head and ancestor of a large and distinguished family.

Many weeks after the ball described Mr. Penrose gave a dinner party. He had a social disposition, a large family, and a very sweet wife, who fulfilled all her various domestic duties as if she had been educated by the mother of King Lemuel.

Their house was pleasantly situated near a pretty skirt of woods, and, although not otherwise improved, the yard was green, and the natural foliage that shaded it gave the place an inviting appearance, Lawyer Penrose by his practice supported his family comfortably, his manners were cheerful and pleasing, and he was consequently popular in the village.'. It was in compliance with his wishes that Mrs. Penrose had invited her neighbours to "a dinner," as it was called, the dinner hour being about two. o'clock. The guests assembled between eleven and twelve in "the chamber," as the bedroom of the mistress of the house was styled; this was the usual sitting room. It was customary for the ladies to bring their knitting and sewing and sit in one room, while the gentlemen assembled in the porch or out under the trees in warm weather, or in a separate room in cold weather; so they did not meet the ladies except at dinner, and then the table was generally between them. Before dinner a large bowl of toddy was made and, handed first to the ladies, and then to the gentlemen, each and all drinking from the same vessel. There were two or three carriages in the village, several kept by the neighboring families and, of course, by all of those who lived a great distance from the town. Two were old fashioned chariots; one was painted green with casement windows of four panes; of course, very small. After all were assembled they discussed their domestic affairs rather than the gossip of the village. One told of her poultry, another of her spinning and weaving and dyeing she had been engaged in, while getting ready the spring clothes for her darkies. Another complained that she could not get her cotton ginned, and the little niggers were so slow and sleepy-headed over their tasks of picking cotton, that she was not at all forward with her work. While these house-wives discussed their interests two very mischievous girls were getting all the fun they could out of their surroundings. One had chosen a good seat near the door, not that she had to seek admiration, for that always sought her; but she said she liked to sit where she could see people as they entered before they had been looked over at a party, like old finery in a show case. She was first to see Patrick O'Connor as he entered, as he was to see her so he looked perfectly charmed and entered the room in a broad grin, showing every one of his full set of strong yellow teeth, and he had a mouth large enough to hold them all comfortably. "Well," said the young lady with emphasis, "look at Pat in a light green coat and pale drab pantaloons here in March; he is first, if not the last in pea time. When old Mrs. G. observes him she will feel she must be hastening home to hurry her gardener." "Why should she?" asks her companion. "Oh, because you know she always has a strawberry party on the first of May, and green peas at dinner, or she will think her garden is backward." So after bowing, shaking hands, and the usual greetings had been interchanged, he took his seat. The privileged young lady said to him, "Mr. O'Connor, don't you know that it is not the fashion for the gentlemen to be with the ladies before dinner?" "Oh he came to get a relish for it," replied her companion. "However, we will let you remain with us until you have gotten off six puns; not one more, understand" — for he was an indefatigable punster.

In the adjoining room the gentlemen discussing various topics of interest while sprinkling Mrs. Penrose's home-made carpet with tobacco juice; are now forced to circumscribe their circle as Straw has come in to spread the cloth. Mrs. Penrose came in just then and told Straw to put some lightwood in the fire while she replenished the toddy bowl. All necessary preparations being made, Mrs. Pen-rose led the way into the dining room, and as the company arose their chairs were hurried in to be placed at the table, those of the gentlemen having already been previously placed for the ladies. A well-filled table presented itself. The provisions were as ample and various as the m111-pond, the smoke-house, the poultry yard and the pig-pen allowed; nor were partridges or venison wanting. The vegetables were not less various than the meats, while the whole was made savory by home-made mustard, which is not bright of tint but pungent of taste, and for those who dreaded its power, there were plates tastefully filled with delicious pickles — yellow, black, green, and red. All things followed each other in quick succession down the throats of some of the guests like the animals entering the ark. All did ample justice to the dinner.

After again quaffing from the toddy bowl, and its prim bottom becoming visible once more, the laughing guests adjourned to the chamber. There some of the men smoked long-stem pipes until sunset, when the ladies arose to go to their several homes. Mr. Penrose would not hear of it: He insisted upon their staying to tea, and singing some good old songs; .his persuasions were strengthened by his sweet-tempered wife, so that most of the guests yielded. After the dinner table was removed they returned to the dining room, Soon after the guests were all seated comfortably, forming a large sociable circle, Mrs. Penrose asked first one lady and then the other for a song. All of course pleaded colds and nobody could sing this evening; but as that was the way the concert commenced in the village, the prelude was hopefully regarded, every one knowing who would sing and what songs they should hear. So they all had their say, and then awaited patiently the coming music. "Well." said Mr. Penrose to his wife, as usual on such occasions, "Susan, we must set the example I see, by singing Ould Robin Grey." She objected in vain; everyone insisted so earnestly upon it, that she yielded; and not only were all the verses of that beautiful old song sung, but a sequel to it, with quite as many, with a merry description of Jeanie's happy life. After Ould Robin's death she was united to her faithful lover, Jemmie. Many were the comments on this song, and the merited happiness of the faithful pair. Of course after this, many songs were sung, among them "Rise, Cynthia;" then "The Soldier's Return," the singer demurring at the many verses; but In vain — she had to sing them all. Every one heard this singer with much pleasure, her fond mother among the rest. There sat the old lady, her hands crossed in her lap, her spectacles in one of them, her own countenance with its benign and intelligent expression, showing that she could appreciate more intellectual feasts than her present position furnished.

The usual number of songs had nearly been sung when Straw the respectable house-servant, entered with tea. I must describe this old man's appearance for it was unique, dressed as he was in an old coat of his master's, fitting him pretty well, as the master and man were about the same size Straw appeared in shorts, nankeen shorts with no stockings, displaying 'without reserve the large calf of his leg. He wore shoes of course, and he now came stepping in, coat, shorts, legs and all, holding with his sturdy grasp the large square waiter with its perforated edges. It was filled with cups of tea and coffee, all sweetened and creamed ready to be drunk, while on a second waiter an abundance of good eatables were handed by Winny and by some of the guests. These seemed to be as much relished as if they had not dined heartily at two o'clock.

After the mistress of the house had, as was the custom, inquired of each guest in turn, "if their tea or coffee was agreeable," there was a general pause in the conversation, which was not resumed until after tea was over. In the course of the evening all kinds of preserved fruits handed as a refreshment on Straw's large tray or waiter. It was the fashion of the day and consequently all house-keepers, who could afford it, laid in large stores of beautiful preserves, not to be veiled by pastry, but to be seen in all their transparency or their want of it. This want was seldom their destiny, for the dames of the village were very skillful in the art in question.

The evening was now advancing, for the old clock in the corner of the room had struck ten, and that hour for the good people of the town was a late one. There was now no opposition made to their departure; so while the hopes of meeting again soon was being expressed on all sides, the guests in a body took leave of their hospitable entertainers. It was a dark night and the ladies with their escorts sought their homes. Doctor G's most direct way was distinct from the rest, being on one of the streets in the length of the village, and of the three the least frequented. The house of Mr. Penrose stood at one extremity and Doctor U's at the other end. The street was dark as Erebus, nor was it level for, being little used. It had never been, as the people expressed it, "worked upon." Consequently the natural slopes and gullies remained much as they were when the village was settled. A descent, each way from Mr. Penrose's to that of Doctor U's met, nearly opposite an old blacksmith shop, and this being the worst of the way, the doctor hoped there to get a lightwood torch to help him on the way. But the "last spark had flown upward" for that night from the old vulcan'e forge, and he, most probably with his feet to the fire at his wife's house, was nodding, a mile or two from his shop. This midway ground was shaded by several line trees in summer, and as the cows of the village were in the habit of reposing there at that season, they frequented the spot at all others, so that in summer and winter, night and day, it was their lounging spot. Here came Doctor G. among them an unexpected visitor. He was striding along cautiously, so as to at least place each foot firmly on sides of equal height among the gullies. This, for a space, he succeeded in effecting, never for a moment apprehending a previous rise, when a few momenta after, to his great surprise, he was lifted bodily from the ground and moved backward with all the speed possible to be exercised by the affrighted cow—over whose back he had decidedly stridden. One audible breath from the cow's distended nostrils, and off she set at full speed. He was bobbing and bumping about in this way when he found himself suddenly dropped off in the grass at Mr. Penrose's gate. Old Cherry deserved this fright for she might have come home in good time and on better terms.

Doctor G's shouting for help as he passed the house brought Mr. Penrose and the servants at the same time to the gate. Just as they reached it the cow threw him off. Being a quick tempered man, "he was in a fine frenzy of rolling" when Mr. Penrose first espied him. Fortunately  he was only a little bruised. After many inquiries and much brushing off, he was conducted to the house where, after he had taken a little more toddy, and become a little more composed, while describing his accident to Mr. and Mrs. Penrose (who by the way could not remain perfectly serious at the recital) the unlucky doctor was now ready to take his leave. Old Straw turned up a lantern and escorted him. The story was never forgotten in the village, but after the first day or two it was not repeated in the doctor's presence; he being for some reason or other the first person to tire of it.

Thus ended the day of the great dinner at Lawyer Penrose's.


When we read of the quiet, sane way in which the early Warrentonians kept Christmas we can but compare it with the present manner of keeping the Blessed Season. Now, Christ as, intended to be one especially of pleasure for children, carrying out the myths, legends and traditions that have come to us from the old countries in connection with its celebration from earliest time, has become one mad rush, hurry and scramble in the stores, beginning a full month ahead, for all the newspapers and show windows beg that the shoppers begin early; many buying extravagantly, recklessly, utterly unmindful of the appropriateness of the gift bought—anything, only to be able to "square" off the obligation they feel they are under to a friend or neighbor for a gift to them, even estimating the value us compared with the one received by them. Also in the gifts to the children in the family, the parents have lost sight of the aimple fact of the passing pleasure to the child, or a gift ' for future usefulness, and instead buy most extravagant toys, often crippling their resources for several months.
The young people have become as necessary as the older folks, and simple gifts, just the thought, the remembrance, has passed, and they demand the best there is, unmindful of the expense.

The hanging up of the stocking, the waking early and happy over the contents, the happy greetings around the breakfast table, the church service, then the family dinner and reunion, have to an alarming extent passed. Some few are left who spend hours in a book store, selecting with the greatest care a gift for a friend, or mother who has noticed the need of something to be replaced in the room or wardrobe of her child, or in consideration of some especial desire an article is selected.
Miss Mordecai gives us some delightful particulars of the Christmas season as it was passed by the people of the village. Their simple life and customs made a lasting impression on her.

There were dancing and dinner parties in many homes on Christmas day, and egg-nogg in all The respectable blacksmith's good and neighborly wife has just returned from the next door, having carried a frosted cake to the children of the household. Her husband, whose athletic form was always clad in indigo blue home-spun, of the same deep tint from head. to foot, with the exception of his shoes and hat, sat quietly at home before his snug fire. His blacksmith's shop was shut today and his busy forge suffered to cool. His cotton gin was put aside and, with an old friend to sit and chat with him, his little dining room presented one of the many varied scenes of domestic enjoyment. There stood his wife's low listed-bottom chair beside the fireplace, near which was a slightly sloping table where lay the large folio Bible, as usual. A neat teakettle holder made of patchwork, and a small hearth broom hung beside the mantelpiece, while before the fire was lying a cat asleep.

In another home there sat the sturdy Scotchman, his calm, dignified, strongly marked features reminding one of a lion in tranquility. The eyes of the old man kindled with animation as he recalled the highland scenes of his loved Scottish home. And then he listened with interest to the descriptions which his companion gave of those western territories, which are now Union linked in States, where lands worn and wearied out by injudicious cultivation were then covered by huge forest trees.

This present Christmas day's companion was a Mr. Per-son, a man of strong sound sense whom "nature cast in a gentleman's mould." His characteristics were discernment, shrewdness, enterprise and perseverance. He had the education that good sense derives from general inter-course with men, add to this the essentials for business, and beyond, Mr. Person with the rest of his contemporaries had had few scholastic advantages. But like a ship-wrecked man on a desert island with only a single instrument, which necessarily obliged him to apply to all purposes, he discovered its various powers so it was with him judicious in appliances, analogical in comparison. He was seldom at a loss, and what might have been wanting in learning, was supplied by observation and practical sense. Few men were more interesting in conversation and none evinced more innate chivalry than he, in his invariably courteous manners to the female sex, though his offered hand was rough, and its possessor not infrequently clad in a blanket great-coat. Mr. Person inherited a large landed estate from his father, Colonel Person, an officer in the

American Revolution. His son. though he resided with his family in the vicinity of Warrenton, was one among the first emigrants to the West; Mere on the banks of the Mississippi he took up large tracts' of 'land which he frequently visited, at a time when there were no facilities for traveling, nor any accommodations on the road, save such as were afforded by the Indians in their rude villages. Mr. Person therefore traveled on horseback and on foot, sleeping often on the ground, covered with blankets, and not unfrequently warmed by the addition of a snow wreath, which we have heard him say caused him to wake in the morning glowing with heat. Indeed when he first moved his slaves to his Mississippi plantation he had to make the road as he went — "felling trees for the passage of his wagons through the wilderness, as the eastern part of Tennessee was then called; making rafts to cross the intervening rivers; and after transporting his goods by these means, he disembarked on the other side, and, having no further use for them, left the rafts to float down the rivers. In the course of his conversation with his old Scottish friend this gentleman related some of the customs of the Choctaw tribe of Indians, who owned at that time the lands in what was known as the Mississippi Territory, but now divided into States.


Mrs. Galespie, who was the oracle of the village, wore a man's straw hat with a broad green ribbon around the crown, while a narrower piece going over the hat was tied under the old lady's chin. These hats were not imported by Kitchen Crump from Leghorn, but he probably grew the wheat, plaited the straw and, manufactured the hat, and good strong ones they were. Nor 'were Crump's wool hats for the winter made more perishable. So he crowned all heads in the village, man and boy, from Mr. Falkener; one of the most conspicuous characters in the town, down to old Daddy Breechy, the African, who used to bring walnuts in his wallet and sell them at the door.

At that time the meaning of the word fashion was not understood in the village, but a letter or by some means a report, reached the village that a great change was to be wrought in the mode of arranging the hair. The tresses of the dames and of the damsels had been collected in one smooth fold at the back of the neck, and depending from a comb behind the head or hanging in a single braid,, a tortoise shell or horn comb extending from ear to ear fitted over the head and stuck in the hair to confine it to the skull. The hair was now, so report said, to be combed up and even tied on the top of the head, and the long comb called off by this new mode. But the ladies of the village were shocked at this idea; some apprehended rheumatism in the back of the neck, some thought it would be indecent to thus expose the back of the neck, some became partially bald by adhering to this style. As for the gentlemen, the tailors had no difficulty with them. They gave each one a cut that fitted him for life. The skirt of the coat was long and very full and almost touched the ground; the large square collar fell fiat over the back; pockets and deep flaps were so low that Mr. Plummer said when Mr. Falkener wished to use his pocket he had to stand on, a stump to reach, it. "For my part," said Mr, Davidson, the little Englishman, "Tho' I have heard this a hundred times, and repeated it half as often, I have never been able. to discover the luster of this wit which is considered very bright in the village, but I don't know that. it would have shone through a November fog on the water."

End of Chapter III


Montgomery, Lizzie Wilson; Sketches of old Warrenton, North Carolina; traditions and reminiscences of the town and people who made it, Raleigh, Edwards & Broughton printing company, 1924.

©2004 by Nola Duffy & Ginger L. Christmas-Beattie

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