Vacant Plantation house in Alabama

Date added: July 12, 2023 Categories: Alabama House Plantations & Farms
Front elevation facing north northwest (1998)

The house at Dry Forks (built 1834-35) is an outstanding example of a late Federal style double pile house form. It contains outstanding examples of folk versions of Federal style woodwork. It is the work of owner James A. Tait acting as his own general contractor and slave carpenters/joiners Hezekiah and Elijiah.

Dry Forks is one of few firmly documented and attributed houses built largely by slave labor. The craftsmanship of the enslaved African American artisans Hezekiah and Elijiah is well-illustrated in the house, with its paneled doors, decorated cornices, and elaborate mantles. James Asbury Tait was one of the largest slave holders in Wilcox County. Great numbers of slave sites potentially exist on the property (at least two quarters lasted into the 20th century in the vicinity of the house).

Dry Forks is actually the oldest documented house in Wilcox County. It was probably the first plantation "great house" in the county and was definitively the residence of one of the first settlers of the county. The house's two-story double pile house would set the pace for the domestic aspirations of the wealthy planters of Wilcox County, establishing a model of conspicuous consumption that would be followed by the wealthier planters of the Alabama River region of the county until the eve of the Civil War.

James Asbury Tait was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on September 8, 1791. He was the son of Judge Charles Tait and Anne Simpson. His father (a citizen of Virginia, Georgia, and Alabama sequentially) was a politically and socially well-connected U.S. Senator from Georgia and later the first Federal district judge in Alabama. James Tait, himself, rose to the rank of captain during the War of 1812. During that war, he served at Fort Claiborne, in what is now Monroe County, Alabama, under General Ferdinand L. Claiborne. During his service there, he resolved to purchase land in that vicinity of Alabama, which he did in 1817. Tait would christen the plantation, in what is now Wilcox County, "Dry Forks." James started out a wealthy planter, and was the largest slaveholder in Wilcox County in 1820, with 69 slaves and two freed blacks in his household. By 1850, Tait had real estate valued at $40,000 and 316 slaves. Though hardly an abolitionist in any sense, James Asbury Tait was an interested contributor to the Colonization Society of Liberia. This organization promoted freeing slaves and sending them to Liberia as a sort of "semi-repatriation." James A. Tait and his progeny were Democratic in politics and Methodist in religion. He was involved in founding the "Black's Bend" Methodist Church at Black's Bluff-the church in time became known as "Tait's Chapel."

James A. Tait had married Elizabeth C. Goode around 1815. With her he had four sons: Felix, Robert, James Goode, and Charles. The family also had several daughters, though less is known of them. The first three sons became large planters in their own right while Charles was forced to flee to Texas after having been accused of the murder of W. W. Rives at Dry Forks. After their father's death on February 10, 1855, Felix, Robert, and James all inherited plantations in Wilcox County. Felix, who was a major in the Confederate Army and later a state senator, built White Columns Plantations. Robert became a second lieutenant in the Confederate Army and built Countryside Plantation. James Goode Tait, a Harvard graduate, inherited Dry Forks and lived there with his mother, and later his own family. He managed the Dry Forks Plantation through the Civil War. Records of James G. Tait's attempts to come to economic terms with reconstruction exist in the form of contracts that he wrote with freed slaves in order that they may stay on as tenants. James G. Tait gradually grew so far in debt that he had to file for bankruptcy in 1871, but managed to maintain ownership of his property, unlike his two brothers who lost their Wilcox County plantations. James Tait died in 1911 at Dry Forks (then called Nellie). The Tait family is still in possession of the house and plans are underway by yet another James Tait to restore and reinhabit the building. It is perhaps because only one family ever owned the house that the house has maintained such a high integrity. The only major change to the house since its original construction is the addition of a small enclosed room on the back porch to serve as a bathroom.

Dry Forks was constructed in the years 1834-35, with the owner, James Asbury Tait, acting himself as contractor and in a broad sense the designer. "Hired" slave artisans Hezekiah and Elijah did all the framing and joinery. The bricks were kilned by a man named Hillman and the chimneys actually constructed, two by a Mr. Hightower and two by a Mr. Oliver. Tait recorded all of the work on the house with its prices in his memorandum book, now residing in the Alabama Department of Archives and History. The memorandum book also contains a sketch plan of the house, notes on the kilning of brick, a recipe for paint, and notes on the construction of cross-brace framing, among other writings on the building project.

Tait undoubtedly directed his enslaved artisans to follow a hierarchy in the interior decoration of the house, although he probably allowed them freedom as to the particular motifs they incorporated in their work. In most ways, the front room of the double parlor can safely be considered the most important room of the house. The visual signals of this are the formal mantle, with its fan-shaped motif, and the picture rails, which were once clearly in use and allowed the display of high status items like portraits and other paintings. Next in the hierarchy is what traditionally was the master bedroom, the northwest chamber. This room has a mantle with more elaborate reeding than most of the others, as well as a particularly vigorously molded mantle sill. The northwest chamber also originally had sole access to the upstairs northwest room, traditionally held to be the daughters' room. Interestingly, in the plan, it seems that James A. Tait was ensuring close control over access to his daughters in order to protect their morals and worth as a sort of social capital which he might use to forge important alliances through marriage. The upstairs southeast room also seems to have a more elaborate mantle, but why this may be is not currently known.

Dry Forks is the earliest documented house remaining in the county. The second oldest is the A.C. Ramsey I-house in the eastern section of the county. While Tait's planter contemporaries in Wilcox County would mainly construct their large plantation houses in the 1840s and 1850s, many of them chose a smaller or less showy house form, particularly the I-house, coastal cottage, or Greek Revival central passage cottage. For those who wanted to display that they had arrived in the true plantation elite of the county, however, the two- or two-and-a-half-story central passage double-pile form of Dry Forks provided the model for conspicuous consumption. Among the fine Wilcox County examples of the house form that would follow in the 1840s and 1850s are Youpon, the Hawthorne House, Liberty Hall, Cathcart House (destroyed), and the Purifoy House.

The significance of Dry Forks plantation is not limited to the planter and his family. It extends to issues of plantation life in general and African American history in particular. James A. Tait maintained several overseers over the years and seems to have had trouble of one sort or another with a great many of them. By 1855, Tait had learned from experience to specify what he expected of an overseer in a precisely worded contract. Tait, of course, always owned a great number of slaves, and what living and laboring conditions he specified for them takes much of the space of his own writings. Tait appointed set numbers of rows of crops for slaves to tend according to their age. He also specified when there were to be breaks in the workday in the "sickly seasons." Tait in fact clearly intended to build a brick slave quarter at one point:

"A brick house for my negroes at the old place, estimated as follows. The house to be 30 feet long, the two walls to be 18 ft. apart in the clear. To be 8 ft. high. 1 chimney but a double one, to each apartment. Apartment of 30 feet in lengthwise of the [unreadable], making each room 15 by 18 ft...."

Though there is no evidence that this was ever built, the frame quarters photographed in the 1930s at Dry Forks follow an identical plan to the one outlined in the memorandum book. Quarters at Dry Forks were, according to the memorandum book, supposed to be moved every two years or so with the intent to keep slaves' surroundings clean and healthy:

"Negroes houses ought to be moved regularly once in 2 or 3 years. This is essential to health. The filth accumulates under their floors so much in 2 years as to cause disease. This is cheaper and easier than to pay doctors and nurse sick negroes. The putrid sore throat which prevailed in the winter of 1837-38 was caused by filth under their houses, I have no doubt."

There is in this statement an economic concern, if not a personal one, for the health of slaves, but there is also implicit racism, in the inference that slaves did not know what was best for their own health.

Building Description

Dry Forks (the James Asbury Tait House) is located on open tablelands north of Wilcox County route 12, approximately a third of a mile east of the intersection of Wilcox County route 12 and Alabama route 41. The main house at Dry Forks faces south and is surrounded by a yard enclosed in a wire fence on wood posts and a row of historic cedar trees which frame the house yard in a square fashion. An enormous historic crepe myrtle occupies the yard immediately east of the house.

Dry Forks Plantation, constructed 1834-35, is a two-and-a-half-story, five-bay, double-pile, side-gabled frame house with some Federal and Neoclassical details. Plain weatherboards clad the five-bay-wide building. A two-tiered pedimented porch frames the central bay of the front facade of the structure. The porch possesses four rectangular piers and two pilasters corresponding to the outer piers on each level. The pediment of the porch is decorated with a dentilled raking cornice. Located under the eaves of the pediment are square plaques with four drilled holes, which presumably are architectural cousins to guttae. The central bay is also articulated by a double door on the first story and a single-leaf door on the second. A seven-pane transom and two four-pane sidelights surround the front double door. The lights are framed with rectangularly patterned beaded molding. A square ornamental panel articulates the meeting of the sidelights and the transom. Eight panels stacked in pairs adorn the front doors themselves. The front door that leads onto the second-story porch consists of a single leaf and has no sidelights or transom. The railings on the first story of the porch have simple rectangular ballusters, while the railings on the second tier of the porch are constructed with "wheatsheaf" pattern supports. The plantation house originally had four exterior brick-end chimneys on the side elevations, of which only two remain. A one-story shed-roofed porch stretches across the rear facade. The shed roof is supported by six rectangular piers. The rear door is also a double door, but it is surrounded by ornamental panels rather than sidelights and a transom. The easternmost bay of the rear porch was enclosed in a single room at some point in the early 20th century to accommodate a bathroom. The house rests atop a brick pier foundation with later brick infill on the front facade but absent elsewhere. The roof is clad in seam metal. Nine over-nine-pane sash windows light the first story, while six over-nine-pane sash windows light the second story.

The interior is arranged on a central hall plan, with two rooms to each side of the passage. A straight staircase with delicate rectangular balusters, rounded handrail, and a simple chamfered newel post occupies the passage. The stairs run from the rear of the house towards the front. There is a heavily reeded summer beam that bisects the ceiling of the first-floor passage. At the rear (north) end of the upstairs passage, a window is flanked by two heavily paneled closets which are original to the house. Flush board is the interior wall cladding for the central passage both upstairs and down, while the rooms are plastered. A secondary staircase communicates between the northwestern downstairs and upstairs rooms. This staircase was originally not enclosed but is currently. It also has simple rectangular ballusters and a rounded handrail. This staircase was originally the only way to access the upstairs northwest room, but at some point in the 19th century, a door was put in between that room and the upstairs passage. The attic is unfinished but easily inhabitable, with a six-over-six pane sash window at each gable end. The rafters are joined by a simple lap joint and are further joined by a cross brace. The presence of lathwork in the attic hints at an abandoned attempt to finish the space.

In some rooms, both chair rail and baseboard remain, while only baseboards are present in others. A double parlor occupies the eastern side of the first floor. Separating the front and rear rooms of the double parlor is a five-leaf folding door. The front half of the double parlor contains picture rails in addition to handrails. Elaborately reeded and carved mantles are present in seven of the eight original rooms, while one of the upstairs mantles, having been damaged by fire, has been removed to the attic. The mantles are basically vigorously reeded variations on the three-part Federal style mantle typical of settlement period Alabama architecture. The mantle in the front parlor is in some ways the most restrained but is also the most formal in its composition. Its central panel is the only one in the house which displays a "fan" or "sunrise" motif. The mantles in the western first-floor chambers have rather heavy cornices and the mantle in the northwest chamber (traditionally held to be the master bedroom) is perhaps the most vigorously reeded in the house. The most notable mantle of the upstairs is in the southeast chamber, where the sunken panels flanking the central raised panel contain small reeded boxes surrounded by repeating chevron patterns, giving the composition an almost textile-like appearance. The remaining mantles, although all slightly different from each other in detail, are less elaborated variations on the theme.

Four remaining outbuildings are situated to the rear of the house. Inside the yard fence, a few feet from the back porch is an approximately three-and-a-half-foot tall shed-roofed frame early 20th-century well house with a seam metal roof, single leaf door, and brick pier foundation. Outside but aligned with the western fence sits a side-gabled one-story garage or storage shed from the early to mid-20th century, with weatherboarded walls, a seam metal roof, and a brick pier foundation. The south two bays of this building are dedicated to the garage, the northern bay is enclosed with a single leaf door. A few feet directly north of the garage/storage shed is a small frame early twentieth-century weatherboarded building with a corrugated metal shed roof and a stone pier foundation. Outside of the yard fence several yards to the northeast is an early 19th-century front gabled single pen log structure with half dovetail corner notches, a front gabled corrugated metal roof, and a stone pier foundation.

Dry Forks Plantation - James Asbury Tait House, Coy Alabama Front elevation and yard landscape facing north (1998)
Front elevation and yard landscape facing north (1998)

Dry Forks Plantation - James Asbury Tait House, Coy Alabama Front elevation facing north northwest (1998)
Front elevation facing north northwest (1998)

Dry Forks Plantation - James Asbury Tait House, Coy Alabama Front elevation facing northeast (1998)
Front elevation facing northeast (1998)

Dry Forks Plantation - James Asbury Tait House, Coy Alabama Rear elevation facing south-southwest (1998)
Rear elevation facing south-southwest (1998)

Dry Forks Plantation - James Asbury Tait House, Coy Alabama First story front door facing north (1998)
First story front door facing north (1998)

Dry Forks Plantation - James Asbury Tait House, Coy Alabama First story front door reedwork detail facing north (1998)
First story front door reedwork detail facing north (1998)

Dry Forks Plantation - James Asbury Tait House, Coy Alabama Second story front porch railings facing south (1998)
Second story front porch railings facing south (1998)

Dry Forks Plantation - James Asbury Tait House, Coy Alabama Cornice details on front elevation facing northeast (1998)
Cornice details on front elevation facing northeast (1998)

Dry Forks Plantation - James Asbury Tait House, Coy Alabama Rear door from interior facing north (1998)
Rear door from interior facing north (1998)

Dry Forks Plantation - James Asbury Tait House, Coy Alabama Newel post and stairs on first floor facing west (1998)
Newel post and stairs on first floor facing west (1998)