A History of Milton, North Carolina

General Stephen Dodson Ramseur's Woodside House - Milton, North Carolina

Known as a "museum without walls," Milton was incorporated on December 23, 1796 and was at one time a bustling center of commerce, cultural, and social life. This National Register Historic District has been called one of the most perfectly preserved examples of nineteenth century commercial districts. Many original buildings in downtown Milton are currently being renovated.

The "Crafting Freedom" workshops focus on four landmarks in the Piedmont area of North Carolina and Southside Virginia. They are: the Union Tavern, the Burwell School, the Historic Stagville Plantation, and Prestwould Plantation. The Union Tavern, in the town of Milton, NC, was the home and shop of the free black cabinetmaker, Thomas Day (1801-ca.1860) from 1848 until his death. It is currently undergoing restoration.
Thomas Day (1801-1861), a free African-American cabinetmaker (fine furniture maker) and businessman, lived and worked in Caswell County, North Carolina from the early 1820s to the early 1860s. By 1850, he operated the largest furniture business in the state. A great deal of his furniture survived and is cherished today in private homes and museums primarily in North Carolina and Virginia. Day's life opens a window into a world most Americans know little about: nineteenth-century African-American history, focusing on the experience of free people of color and their contributions to American history and culture.

Day was born in 1801 in Dinwiddie County in southern Virginia to free African-American parents whose respective families had been free since the early eighteenth century. Day and his brother, John, were educated privately by tutors. Both followed in their father's cabinetry craft until John Day began to study theology. John Day eventually emigrated to Liberia in 1830 where he served first as a Baptist missionary and later as a prominent statesman and signer of the Liberian Declaration of Independence. He is remembered in Liberian history as a founding father of that nation. Thomas Day moved to Milton, North Carolina in the early 1820s and became one of the South's most famous and celebrated furniture makers. His skills were sought by a great many plantation owners whose homes he embellished with stylish mantle pieces, stair railings, and newell posts, in addition to providing them with furniture.

Thomas Day maneuvered through the complex legal sanctions that confronted free blacks at the time, often with the assistance of wealthy and influential white patrons. For example, in 1830, Day obtained special permission from the NC legislature for his new wife to move to North Carolina to live with him. A law had been passed a few years earlier prohibiting free black migration into the state. Day sent his three children to an abolitionist-sympathizing school, Wesleyan Academy in Wilbriham, Massachusetts. He became a prominent member of his Milton, North Carolina community where his furniture shop employed free black, white, and enslaved laborers. By 1850, it was the largest furniture company in the state. Because Day was one of the earliest furniture makers to use steam-powered tools and mass production techniques in North Carolina, he is increasingly considered an early founder of the modern Southern furniture industry.

By the end of his life, Thomas Day began to fall victim to a major economic recession and the ever-tightening racial order. His business was in receivership by the time of his death on the eve of the American Civil War.

Thomas Day is at once anomalous and representative of the antebellum free black experience. The fact that such an extraordinary figure in the American decorative arts could have lain in obscurity for so long makes him a symbol of the many African Americans who anonymously contributed to American history and culture.

James Baldwin described them like this in The Fire Next Time:

"I have great respect for that unsung army of black men and women...I am proud of these people...The country should be proud of them too, but alas, not many people even know of their existence. And the reason for this ignorance is that a knowledge of the role these people played - and play - in American life would reveal more about America to Americans than Americans wish to know."

During the Civil War, Caswell County provided many soldiers to the Confederate cause. One came from Milton and their unit was called the Milton Blues. Click Here for the complete roster and a bit of history on this town's contribution to history. Link is current as of August 2005 and November 2015.
Milton was granted a US Post Office on April 25, 1818, and its first Postmaster was Mr. Henry Hooper. It has been in continuous operation ever since.

© 2007 - J.D. Lewis - PO Box 1188 - Little River, SC 29566 - All Rights Reserved