Improving Our Lives Through Conservation: Horton Grove Nature Preserve
To appreciate the restoration task at Horton Grove, you need to go back aways: about 12,000 years, to the end of the last Ice Age. To a time when the 708 acres that now make up the nature preserve was cooler and wetter, when the local woods more resembled the boreal forests of Canada and the high Appalachians, when the wildlife loping about, from bison to mastodons, would have given pause for one’s safety. While even the most assertive restoration won’t be able to completely take Horton Grove back that far, it’s a worthy starting point. But first, some more modern history.
In 2004, the Triangle Land Conservancy began working with a local developer to purchase the Horton Grove tract. From the TLC’s standpoint, the tract was an ideal match to its mission, meeting three of its four key criteria for conservation:
1) Safeguarding Clean Water. More than 25,000 linear feet of tributaries flow through the preserve, most feeding into the Flat River, the remainder into the Little River. Both flow into Falls Lake, which supplies drinking water to more than a half million people.
2) Protecting wildlife habitat. The property’s human past, as we’ll see in a moment, has taken a toll on the land through agricultural practices, timbering and industrial uses. Already, though, Horton Grove’s forest communities — including bottomland hardwood, beech slopes, dry mesic hardwood and pine — are returning. Efforts begun in 2011 are helping to reestablish a rare Piedmont Prairie, which will return flora and fauna absent for more than 200 years and existing well before that. Horton Grove’s conservation value is further enhanced by serving as a connector of two rivers — the Flat and Little — as well as two large bodies of water: Lake Michie to the north and Little River Reservoir to the west.
3) Connecting people with nature. With little public land in northern Durham County, Horton Grove’s trail network — currently a little more than three miles with expansion to 10 planned, including a connection to the adjoining Stagville Plantation State Historic Site — will be especially attractive to Triangle residents.
To appreciate how far back the conservation effort at Horton Grove reaches, you need to start with one of the Triangle Land Conservancy’s most recent efforts.
Piedmont Prairie: Back to the future
Standing in the gravel parking area looking out over a 25-acre clearing where a variety of thigh-high grasses, sedges and wildflowers are competing for space, it’s easy to miss the significance of this spot. Beginning with a controlled burn in March of 2012, the TLC began efforts to restore one of the largest Piedmont Prairies in the region.
“Piedmont” and “prairie” are not words customarily seen together. Think Piedmont and you think heavily forested rolling hills divided by small streams, prairie conjures images of grasslands extending to the horizon. But more than 300 years ago, before the original European invasion, such prairies were common throughout the Southeast. They were home to such megafauna as bison, caribou, elk — even the now-extinct mastodon — as well as the smooth coneflower and Scweinitz's sunflower, wildflowers unique to these open spaces. The prairies would have been common sights to the first Americans to visit here roughly 10,000 years ago. The prairies, like the vast forests that once dominated the eastern seaboard, were sacrificed for commercial purposes by European settlers beginning in the 17th century.
Just as the forests common to Horton Grove are slowly recovering, so is the prairie.
The Great Trading Path
The same tributaries that today benefit from protection at Horton Grove likely helped in attracting the region’s first humans. These Paleo-Indians were nomadic hunters constantly on the move; such water sources were vital both for them and for the animals they sought. Later, as the Woodland culture emerged around 2000 B.C., hunting was mixed with farming, making the rich soils of the area attractive. (As European settlers would later discover, the bottomlands were especially good for corn and pasture, the uplands for grain, tobacco and cotton.) One of the nearest known semi-permanent communities was 18 miles down the road in Hillsborough.
Literally down the road because the Southeast’s earliest known transportation corridor, the Great Trading Path, crossed through the Horton Grove property (depressions of the roadway are still visible). The path was first documented by Europeans in 1670, but it likely was a busy thoroughfare — running 500 miles from present-day Petersburg, Va., to a sizable Catawba Indian settlement in South Carolina and Cherokee lands into Georgia — well before that. The path’s presence suggests the early presence of humans in the Horton Grove area, even if they were simply passing through. It wouldn’t take long, though, for a passing European settler to to recognize the area’s potential value.
In 1768, 25-year-old Richard Bennehan left Petersburg, Va., in search of his fortune. He followed the Great Trading Path south, passing through the property on his way to the Snow Hill Plantation near Hillsborough, where he’d purchased a third interest in the Little River store, a backcountry supplier owned by William Johnston. Eight years later Bennehan purchased 1,213 acres near the Flat and Little rivers. He, his wife Mary Amis, and their handful of slaves moved to the property, had quarters built and began working the spread. In 1803 his daughter Rebecca married Duncan Cameron, a union that aided in the growth of Stagville Plantation. At its peak, the plantation would cover 30,000 acres over four counties worked by 900 slaves.
Horton Grove: Home to the slaves
The massive Stagville Plantation was like other southern plantations in some ways, unlike it in others. There was a classic three-tier class system in place, with the wealthy Bennehan-Cameron planters, the white overseers who supervised operations and the slaves. Among the slaves, there was further subdivision: servants who waited on the planters were the most well off, often living in the planters’ homes and establishing bonds with the family. Craftsmen were not far behind. They were valued, not surprisingly, because their skills meant the planters didn’t have to pay white craftsmen for blacksmithing, for carpentry, for a myriad of other skills vital to such a mammoth operation. The talents of those enslaved craftsmen are enduring at Horton Grove: the Great Barn off Jock Road near the entrance, thought to be the largest agriculture building in North Carolina at the time it was built, was constructed by former shipbuilders, a fact tipped by the structure’s interior framework, resembling that of a ship.
The field workers occupied the bottom rung of the slave labor system and endured the worst. A mosquito bite that might be simply pesky today could set off a bout of malaria. Squalid living conditions contributed to frequent typhoid epidemics. The water that is today protected at Horton Grove was the source of much of this misery, through ineffectively damed ponds and stagnant wetlands formed by timbering of the bottomland forests.
The tight-knit sense of family among the slaves exacerbated perhaps the worst indignity suffered by slaves, when simple economics dictated they be sold or reallocated, frequently breaking up families. Especially heartbreaking was the purchase of a plantation in Alabama in 1844, which caused Duncan and Paul Cameron to ship 110 Stagville slaves to the new operation. The resulting reallocations were made based on labor needs and regardless of family ties.
Stagville was different in that smart business practices could also mean better conditions for the slaves. Vexed by perpetual illness and the medical costs of keeping his slave workforce healthy, Paul Cameron abandoned the traditional poorly built one- and two-room cabins commonly used to house slaves in favor of better-built two-story structures that included fireplaces. Although 5 to 7 slaves still shared a room, the conditions were considered vastly improved. You can still see four of the slave houses along the west side of Jock Road as you enter Horton Grove.
Today, dense, maturing forest separates Horton Grove from the main Stagville complex. Plans call for additional trail to help visitors navigate between the preserve and the state historic site. During Stagville’s agricultural heyday, however, the trip would have been considerably easier: simply look across the vast, open fields of tobacco and cotton, of corn, wheat and rye, take a beed on the plantation house and start walking.
The present and future
After emancipation in 1865, many of the freed slaves stayed on as sharecroppers and continued to work the land, living much as they did under slavery.
Farming continued at Stagville into the mid-20th Century, with the agricultural practices of the day taking its toll on the once-fertile soils. In 1950, the last Cameron heir sold out to a timbering concern. Four years later, the land was purchased by Liggett and Myers Tobacco, which, at the behest of the Historic Preservation Society of Durham, conveyed a 71-acre portion of the once vast plantation to the state of North Carolina in 1976. A year later, Historic Stagville opened.
Today, a recovering hardwood forest blankets much of the land once worked by Stagville’s slaves. Protected tributaries flowing through the preserve feed clean water into the Little and Flat rivers, and subsequently into the Triangle’s main water supply. Hikers, birders and other naturalists have a rare public place to explore in northern Durham County. And already, the reviving Piedmont Prairie is seeing results. The Microstegium, a pervasive invasive elsewhere, has been greatly reduced and wild turkey numbers have greatly increased at the site, as have the presence of native grasses and forbs. Additional flora and fauna not seen here in centuries will hopefully return as well.
Though probably not the bison, certainly not the mastodon.
"All I want is to sit on my porch and see tomorrow what I see today...and I want my grandchildren to see it too."