On Tuesday, Feb. 4th 2020, I went hiking at Eno River State Park in Durham, North Carolina. The day was partly cloudy and mild, the temperature hovering right around 60° F. Leaving my house around 3:00 in the afternoon, I arrived at the Fews Ford access (6101 Cole Mill Rd., Durham, NC) around 3:30, ready for a good day of hiking.
Since it was a week day, there wasn’t much competition for parking, which allowed me to quickly find a spot, pull in, and park. Getting out of my car, I was soon on Buckquarter Creek Trail, headed north to find the ruins of Sister’s House on Ridge Trail, not far from the Anthony Cole House, which I covered back in September.
In the course of my research for this story, I was only able to find very limited and fragmentary information about Sister’s House. But from what I could find, it was apparently the residence of one of the sisters of Anthony Cole (pictured above left), most likely Mary Ann Cole, and was probably built during her lifetime to give her a place of her own in her old age. (Unfortunately I wasn’t able to find a picture of Mary Ann herself, or I would’ve included it.)
The reason for this was that she was a spinster — a single woman beyond marriageable age who, in a primarily agrarian economy, was limited to very few occupations, spinning being the primary one. Hence the term “spinster,” meaning literally “one who spins.”
As a single person who’s now thirty-seven years of age, living in an economy that’s rapidly downsizing and leaving few full-time employment options for anyone, I found myself readily able to sympathize with Mary Ann. And as I approached her house on the Ridge Trail, I wondered what kind of woman she was, what she looked like, and what brought her to the point in life where she was living alone on the edge of her brother’s property, most likely engaged in piecemeal manual labor at one of the local mills.
With this in mind, I was ready to do some exploring.
After hiking three-quarters of a mile up Buckquarter Creek Trail and then Ridge Trail, I noticed the gentle downward slope of terrain that indicates the approach to Sister’s House. Off to my right, the house itself finally appeared.
Tucked into a patch of forest at the base of a small valley, Sister’s House can be rather creepy at times. This is especially the case toward evening, when it becomes engulfed in shadow earlier than other locations because of the surrounding hills, thus making photography tricky.
Even so, I still had a couple hours of sunlight left, so there was plenty of time for me to get photos.
Walking through a carpeting of daffodils (Narcissus spp.), I saw the south side ahead of me, with its open doorway and rusty roof.
Approaching slowly, I thought about going in to get photos. After all, there might be vantage points from the interior that I wouldn’t be able to get from the exterior. But after noticing a wooden plank propped up against the door frame, apparently to keep it from collapsing, I decided it was a little too structurally unstable for my taste.
Even so, I wasn’t about to miss the opportunity to get a peak inside, which I promptly did.
Looking inside, I didn’t see much apart from floor boards, rafters, and buckling walls, which would have been in much better shape when Mary Ann Cole lived here 150 years ago. Still it was a small space and one that would have barely provided enough room for one person to live comfortably.
Getting back up on my feet, I pulled away from the south side of the house and continued around it in a counter-clockwise direction, soon reaching the east side.
From here, I could see the remains of a wood stove in the form of a tin grating (mostly obstructed by the oak tree in the above photo) hanging loosely from the exterior wall. At the very least, this meant Mary Ann Cole had heat and a stove, where she could prepare her meals and keep warm at night, especially in winter.
Walking further, I headed for the north side of the house. But before I reached it, I had to cross a small creek.
All around the creek, there were daffodils in abundance, spreading out in every direction like a flock of birds dispersing at the sound of a gunshot.
Despite the fact that it’s only early February here in North Carolina, they were in full bloom, giving further confirmation of the observations I’ve made in the past.
Reaching the north side, I immediately noticed the tin roof, which is in surprisingly good shape, despite the age of Sister’s House. Of course portions of it have fallen off in the intervening 150 years since it was constructed, but for the most part it remains intact.
And that would seem to indicate that Mary Ann did at least have enough income from her family and work to keep herself reasonably comfortable through rain, sleet, or hail.
Completing my circuit of the house, I returned to the west side.
Surveying Sister’s House and the surrounding land one last time, I found myself thinking of it not so much as creepy but charming. After all, I could easily imagine Mary Ann Cole, wearing her Sunday best after a long week in the mill, gathering daffodils with which to adorn her home or headed up the road to visit her brother Anthony.
And if that’s the life of a spinster, perhaps it’s not so bad after all.
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