Monday, January 21, 2013

A Tour of Tryon Palace

To call this stately brick house a "palace" is a bit of a stretch, but as our loquacious tour guide told us, "When the houses across the street are one-room dwellings with dirt floors, you can see why it got its name."

Tryon Palace is located in New Bern, North Carolina.  It was built in 1770 by Royal Governor William Tryon to serve as both a place of business for the governing Council and a residence for his family.  The tour gives you a fascinating glimpse into that period just prior to the American Revolutionary War.  History is filled with stories about George Washington, Paul Revere and Thomas Jefferson, but what about the Royalists?  I've often wondered what happened to them.  Did they join the British Army, disappear into the wilderness, flee to England?

The Tryons lived here for only thirteen months, but they filled their new home with beautiful furnishings and a library envied by well-educated men throughout the colonies.  North Carolina has done an amazing job restoring this home including an exact replica of the governor's 400-book library.  There were titles like History of Greenland, Memoirs of Great Britain and Hooke's Roman History, all published nearly 300 years ago and locked behind glass cabinets.  The library was definitely my favorite room.

The tour takes you through the Council Chambers, which also served as a ballroom.  "We can't boast that George Washington slept here," our guide said, "But he danced here!"  The upstairs included the drawing rooms, dining rooms and bedrooms, all beautifully appointed in 18th century antiques, which leads me to the question:  What happened to the Royalists?
It is the family who succeeded the Tryons who found themselves faced with a very explosive situation.   Josiah Martin, a lieutenant colonel in the British Army, was ordered by Lord Dartmouth to take over control of the North Carolina Province.  He was to be the last of the royal governors.  He was not well-liked and only added fuel to the fire when he requested a supply of arms and ammunition from General Thomas Gage. He intended to arm his slaves and fight against the colonists who were uprising all around him, but never got the chance.  Wisely, he slipped away in the middle of the night, leaving everything behind.  He found his way back to England.  Many of his compatriots died at the end of a rope.

The Martins, not only left us a collection of antiques, but extensive garden designs that were so important to the running of large households in colonial America.  Josiah Martin lived in Antigua prior to moving to North Carolina.  He brought a native Caribbean plant with him--the tomato--and planted it in his kitchen garden along with corn, parsnips, carrots, radishes, lettuce and melons.  Most gardens back then were practical ones.  Plants were selected, not for beauty, but for food, medicine and insect control.
William Tryon, however, also built this beautiful formal garden.  It is lined with sculptures and geometric, severely clipped edgings.  There were many gardeners working the day I was there.   I commented to one of the working women how beautiful this particular garden was.  With a tired smile, she told me,  "The work is all volunteer."

Tryon Palace burned to the ground in 1798, so this stately old home was not lived in for very long.  Reconstruction began in the 1950's and because of the hard, dedicated work of many, many volunteers, we tourists can now take a journey through this fascinating, but turbulent time in American history.

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