On June 23, 1795, James Foy, Jr., purchased 678 acres “Commonly known by the name Poplar Grove and bounded as follows – beginning at a white oak on the sound (New Topsail Sound), formerly John Perry and John Matt’s joint corner, and running north 55 degrees west to the eastward (sic) of the line of marked trees of the lands formerly the property of Colonel Maurice Moore Senior and terminating in a branch of Perry’s Creek or Rich’s Inlet, thence down the various windings of said creek to a grist mill sometime ago erected by Cornelius Harnett, and taking in one acre of land on the opposite side of said creek purchased by said Harnett from the estate of Benjamin Gowley for the purpose of the mill aforesaid – from thence down the various windings of said Rich Inlet creek to the sound and from thence to the (sic) station. Also all that other tract or parcel of land situated in New Hanover County aforesaid, commonly known by the name of the banks, lying to the southward of the mansion house of said Poplar Grove plantation and bounded by two new inlets some time ago broke through – which inlets are between Barren Inlet and Rich’s Inlet, this last parcel of land called the banks was sold the second day of June in the year one thousand seven hundred and sixty three by Colonel James Moore to Benjamin Stone and by the said Benjamin Stone to Cornelius Harnett” (Poplar Grove Land Deed).
Upon losing the former homestead to fire in the 1840s, Joseph Mumford Foy chose to build his new home closer to the new Wilmington and Topsail Sound Plank Road. He “personally selected the trees from which the timber and lumber were made and superintended every detail of the construction. It is a large and beautiful mansion of the old type, built in generous proportions, and its setting amidst a beautiful grove of surrounding trees is remarkably impressive. It is one of the oldest plantations of continuous residence of one family in this part of the state” (History of North Carolina, Volume V, 1919).
The manor house is listed on the National Register for Historic Places. It is built primarily in the Greek Revival style, an architectural reference to the ancient Greeks and the founding principles of democracy. The house also has echoes of the Federalist period in architecture in its rectangular structure and window arrangement.
Set upon a fully raised brick basement, the foundation of which was through the skills of on-site slaves, the house is a 4,284 square foot, two-story frame structure, sided with plain weatherboards. There is a a low, hipped roof with two pairs of corbelled interior chimneys. Each corner is supported by fluted posts with plain caps and bases.
Supported by simplified square Doric pillars, the front porch dominates the front facade, which shelters three bays on the basement level and rests on rectangular brick piers. The raised basement and design of the porches reflect a style poplar for the period, but more importantly to help cope with the humid climate of the coastal south. The central door below the porch leads to the basement hall.
In the rear is a sub-porch to the basement, located below a two-tiered porch, or double piazza, running the entire back facade. Exterior stairs from the ground to the first level are similar to those in the front of the house, and includes a steep staircase from the main back porch to the top-level porch. This staircase was most frequented by slaves and domestic servants. The porches are slanted, which enables rainwater to drain. The only building materials purchased by Joseph M. Foy were tin for the roof and glass for windows; all other materials were taken from site and constructed by the Foy’s artisan slave population.
Interior French gutters and downspouts, concealed in columns, collected rain water and drained into the cistern on the north of the house. This water was only used for bathing and laundry. “In 1919, Robert Lee Foy, Sr. erected the windmill, building a tank, and putting the tower together on the ground,” according to the memories of Abbey Anger. ” It was hoisted into position by connecting a block and tackle to a large maple tree next to the potato house. After this, we had our first indoor plumbing.”
Like the exterior, the interior of the house is uniformly and symmetrically finished. The central entrance bay includes a large four-panel door, with a six-pane transom and sidelights. The basic design is of a central passage double pile type. As such, the floor plan is two rooms wide and two rooms deep, with four symmetrically placed chimneys.
The main staircase features an octagonal paneled newel post, rails and spindles of black walnut, common to the homes in historic downtown Wilmington of the same period. The floors throughout the manor house were longleaf heart pine. Eventually three of the four rooms on the main floor were covered with oak around 1920, as was the fashion of the day. Fortunately, the dining room floor and more specifically the top floor hallway and all four upstairs bedrooms as well as basement floors are the original heart pine, revealing an incredible amber color and tone.
Large plaster cornices are found in the central hallway and parlors on the main floor. Three ornate plaster of Paris medallions adorn the ceilings of the central hallway and front and back parlors. The Bellamy Mansion in downtown Wilmington was built ten years after Poplar Grove, and features the exact same plaster of Paris medallion in one of the four principle main floor rooms.
Notably, artisan slave, William B. Gould, scripted his name in the ornate plaster work in the Bellamy Mansion. Gould was owned by Nicholas Nixon, who had a large peanut plantation neighboring Poplar Grove to the south, and likely apprenticed with one of the Nixon or Foy male slaves to hone his craft, though it is presumed he lived in downtown Wilmington, nearer Nicholas Nixon’s main home; however, the plaster of Paris medallions in the main parlors here at Poplar Grove, constructed when Gould would have been in his early teens, belies this theory. Remarkably, Gould later escaped the bonds of slavery soon after the construction of the Bellamy Mansion and joined the Union naval forces to much acclaim before settling in Nantucket, Massachusetts, after the Civil War.
The windows throughout the house are six over six, varying in sizes of panes. Ceiling heights in the house vary from 8 feet in the basement, 12 feet on the main floor, and 10 feet on the top floor.
Upon his death in 1861, Joseph M. Foy’s inventory of estate for the manor house includes: “5 bureaus, 1 side board, 2 bookcases, 7 tables, 1 lounge, 2 sofas, 1 sewing machine, 8 bed-steads, 8 beds, 12 mattresses, 48 chairs, 4 dozen sheets, 4 dozen pillowcases, 3 dozen quilts, blankets & comforts, 2 dozen spoons, 2 dozen knives and forks, 4 dozen plates, 1 1/2 dozen cups and saucers, 1/2 dozen buckets, 1 clock, 1 hat rack, 1/2 dozen wash stands, also kitchen furniture.”
Carbide acetylene gas lamps provided illumination from a carbide plant outside that piped the gas into all of the rooms as well as twelve fireplaces in each of the twelve principle rooms that provided both heat and illumination. Abbey Anger remembers the house being lighted by lamps, and every day had to be filled, the chimneys washed and wicks trimmed. “In the early 1920s, Dad (Robert Lee Foy, Sr.) installed the carbide acetylene lights. The white residue formed by the process was used to whitewash cabins, fences, and so forth for the whole community. The first electric lights were turned on Christmas Eve 1937.”
“Rooms were seldom heated,” remembers Abbey Anger, “In winter, a wrapped heated brick took the chill off the cold sheets. Feather beds were a special delight for the cold winter nights. The rooms were heated by fireplaces or stoves attached to the fireplace. It kept one person busy supplying wood for heating and cooking.” Abbey’s sister, Jerry, recalls that “wood had to be carried and stacked on the third floor porch. In the wintertime the house was damp and cold in the rooms with not heat and especially in the halls. We used warm bricks to heat a space in the bed to heat our feet. There was so much over on top of us that it was hard to turn over. Some beds had feather mattresses and others cotton-filled mattresses. It was always warmer in the feather bed.”
Robert Foy, Jr., remembers that only the living rooms and kitchen were heated, “and that was it. If you were sick, you were put in a room where there was heat. We had feather beds and quilts.”
The room in front of the dining room was a “sitting room. It was never used as much as the other rooms. Theresa and Abbey took piano, and there was a piano in there. We always had square dances on Saturday nights,” remembers Robert Foy, Jr., “We had a big double room, so most of the time the dances would be at our house. The dances were were on the main floor in the double parlors. There wasn’t much furniture in the house so it could be pushed to the side. My daddy put hardwood floors down, oak floors, and they would put corn meal on the floor to make it slick. Square dances at that time were precision dance. We had live music, a fiddle, banjo, bass fiddle, guitar, violin. There were about four or five men that played. Everyone lived within a 10 to 12 mile radius. That was one of the big entertainments on the weekends. They did not play past midnight on Saturday night. So it was told that women would set the clock back so the dance could go on.”
According to Abbey Anger, “the 1920s and 1930s were depressed years on the plantation. Therefore, there was little formal entertainment, except for weddings, visiting families and family reunions. Later, in our high school and college years, Dad was to chaperon many house parties in this house. Ice was a luxury. It arrived by train and baggage car, packed in sawdust. The 300 lb. cake was transported by horse and wagon to the house, and, by special pulleys and tongs, the ice was hoisted to the main floor back porch into position by block and tackle that went across the top of the porch to the icebox which had been made to hold this block. The milk safe was near this box at the kitchen door. It is one of the original pieces of furniture left in the house.
We always had plenty of fresh milk, cream and farmer’s cheese. Beef, dairy cattle and hogs were kept on the place for home consumption. Chicken and ducks supplied meat and eggs. There were guinea hens and sometimes turkey. Dad hunted so we had wild game, quail, ducks, dove, marsh hen, wild turkey, squirrels, venison. There was plenty of seafood such as shrimp, oysters, and all kinds of fish, blue and rock crabs.”
Most of the contents of this page are due in part to Gary Eyster, Consulting Director of Poplar Grove Plantation 1979-80, through interviews with the adult children of Robert Lee Foy, Sr.