Oakland Plantation has a long history, spanning many generations. It was the seat of the Holeman family for seven consecutive generations. As much as this is the story of a house, it is also the story of the people who lived in it and the lives they lived within and beyond its walls. Oakland is located in quiet Timberlake but easily accessible to the nearby towns of Roxboro (9 miles north), Hillsborough (13 miles southwest), and Durham (13 miles south). Roxboro even has its own airport, Person County Airport, less than five miles from Oakland. Durham is the home of Duke University, one of the top schools in the nation, also noted for its medical center and its renowned Blue Devils basketball team. Raleigh, the state capital located 35 miles from Oakland, is the home of the NC State University Wolfpack. RDU International Airport and the Research Triangle Park are located between Raleigh and Durham. Chapel Hill, located 30 miles from Oakland, is home to the University of North Carolina and the famed Tar Heels. Being 3.5 miles from U.S. Highway 501 and 17 miles north of I-85, you can enjoy the tranquility of the country with all the perks of these local areas.
Many Incarnations of Oakland
The Holeman family began building the current home on the property in 1784. It was completed in 1790, remodeled in 1856 and 1916. At that time, electricity and gas were run from Durham, making Oakland the first house in Person County to include the latest modern amenities. In 1995/1996, the house was meticulously restored to its original 1790 form.
Architectural Details and Historical Significance
Oakland is a “Federal” house: two story, timber frame, three bay, end gable, “T” with stuccoed stone chimneys on the exterior ends. The house was the third to be built on the property. The first was believed to be a log cabin structure. The second, built in 1730, was a miniature of the house that now stands. The second house was torn down in 1969. Some of the salvaged artifacts from the second house were incorporated into the restoration of the current home. The land on which Oakland sits was obtained by the Holeman family from a 1669 land grant from King Charles. The family reportedly received 10,000 acres of land from that grant. Over the years, portions of that acreage were sold by various generations of the Holeman family. The remaining land, along with the house, was reported to have been one of the longest owned pieces of property by one family in the state of North Carolina before being sold in 2009.
The plantation, from its inception, was a “working” plantation. In modern terminology, it would be called self-sustaining. It featured normal dependancies including barns, stables, wheat bins, corn cribs, tobacco barns, holding barns, tool barns, ice houses and ice pits, slave cabins (later tenant houses), well houses, and weaving rooms. Also remarkable is the fact that the plantation featured a grist mill, timber mill, and rock quarry. The plantation was blessed in its abundance of water supplies, making it the perfect place to raise horses and cows as well as pigs, sheep, goats, and numerous types of fowl. The planters raised generous crops of corn, wheat and tobacco, experimented in cotton and provided large vegetable and herb gardens for those who lived on the plantation. In essence, Oakland was a community unto itself, providing all of the basic needs for its people. Some of the original dependancies are intact and still standing.
Oakland sat vacant for about 20 years before Leigh Holeman and her husband, Tommy Gunn, undertook a total restoration of the home with the help of Todd Dickinson Restorations, whose other noted project included Ayr Mount in Hillsborough, NC. In the section on Room by Room Details, you can learn more about each of the rooms in the home, including many of the details that were lovingly maintained or brought back to life during the restoration. The home had fallen into complete disrepair during the years it was vacant. Holes in the walls and floors made it unsafe but Leigh, Tommy, and Todd brought the home back to its original glory. Plumbing and wiring were replaced. Insulation and vapor barriers were added to walls and cellar. They took off additions and a front porch that were not true to the original Federal style. When the porch was removed, a ghost outline above the front door for an original portico matched the exact dimensions of the portico at Historic Stagville, the Georgian style home of the Bennehan family of Durham, NC which was believed to have been built in 1787. The upper and lower porches, along with kitchen and library, were discretely added during the restoration while keeping the front view of the home in its original Federal style.
Room by Room Details
Below you can learn more about each of the rooms in the home, including many of the details of the restoration.
Fireplaces: The home boasts 6 of these, all original to the home. The Living Room, Dining Room, and Master Bedroom fireplaces have been parged (plastered) which denoted the wealth of the family. The fireplace in the upstairs sitting room has a stone hearth, with several stones brought from the second house on the property. The fireplace in the downstairs bedroom was left with its original stone front. The fireplace in the cellar was left in its original condition. This fireplace was used for cooking in the winter so warmth would go upstairs. The kitchen out back was used in warm weather.
Chimneys: The original chimney on the back of the house is now a focal point inside the kitchen, which was added during the restoration. The exterior of both of the side-flanking chimneys were reparged (replastered). It took four weeks per chimney!
Floors: The floors in the house are heart pine. They are all at least 100 years old (original under these) except the kitchen and library. All baseboards are black, as was the custom of the time. This showed less dirt when floors were mopped.
Ceilings: 10 foot ceilings downstairs. 9 foot ceilings upstairs.
Windows: The house boasts original handmade windows. After the restoration, custom storm windows were added. Windows feature custom window treatments, with all rods made from black walnut wood from the property.
Paint Colors: Paint testing was done to determine original colors of each room. Layers of paint and wallpaper were meticulously removed. Squares remain in many rooms so that testing can be done again.
Dining Room: This room has a masonry fireplace which was reparged, or stuccoed, during restoration. On each side of the fireplace are beautiful glass doors. This room also has a large, brass chandelier. The plank walls, 16-18 inches wide throughout the room, are original to the house.
Living Room: This room was used to entertain many of the guests who visited the Holeman family. Large parties were the norm of the day, with the dance floor being constructed on the front lawn. This room has one of the 6 masonry fireplaces in the home, all with custom mantles.
Downstairs Bedroom: This room could be used as a downstairs master because it has a full adjoining bathroom. It also has a closet tucked under the front stairs, which was a luxury for the day. The closet contains a hidden compartment. The interior of the closet shows the original construction details of the house, making it, as restoration expert Todd Dickinson called it, a “mini museum.” According to a member of the Holeman family, Teddy Roosevelt spent the night in this room while passing through town. Other noted visitors were said to have included George Vanderbilt, Andrew Jackson, and James Monroe.
Kitchen: During the 1995/1996 restoration, a new kitchen was added. Original flooring from the attic was used to make the custom cabinets. A built-in island provides an eating area, as well as additional storage. The bay window around the sink allows a breathtaking view of the property. Heart pine floors for this addition were salvaged from a home being torn down in Durham, in order to match the other floors already in place throughout the house. The room also has a ceiling fan and recessed lighting, with shelving for display items above the windows. The kitchen features a stone chimney that once served the fireplaces in the cellar, dining room, and upstairs bedroom. This is no longer a working chimney, but provides a focal point for the kitchen.
Front Staircase: This leads up to the sitting room, master bedroom suite, and library. The newel post is thought to be original to the house. At one point, a doorway was located at the bottom of the stairs to keep heat from rising. During the restoration, the door and half wall were removed to add to the grandeur of the living room.
Back Staircase: This leads from the back door up to the sitting room. It also has a hidden compartment under the stairs. The interior wall is made of steel to accommodate a chair lift if ever needed.
Upstairs Bedroom: This enormous bedroom suite comes complete with fireplace and large bathroom and custom closet! Once again, notice the heart pine floors and beautiful attention to painting and woodwork, as seen throughout the house. The bathroom has a double vanity, with extensive counter space. Two windows add light and charm to the space. Custom cabinets, again made from original wood floors from the attic, provide ample storage. The room also has a tub/shower combination and a separate water closet. The master closet is a dream! Custom shelves and rods provide enough space for even a pack rat. The closet contains a safe and a locking gun cabinet, both built into the wall.
Upstairs Sitting Room and Cedar Closet: This room has a large cedar-lined closet, with cedar from the property custom made into plywood in Beaufort, NC. Stairs leading to the attic are also located in this room. An exposed beam in the corner of these stairs actually runs from the cellar all the way up to the attic.
Library: This area features custom bookcases, computer stations, television cabinet and recessed lights. A door allows access to the upper level porch with beautiful view of property, including large trees and pond. The perfect place to relax and read a good book!
Upstairs Porch: The large porch off the library is the ideal spot to unwind at the end of a long day. Look out over the large lawn, which boasts massive oak, black walnut, pecan, cedar, and magnolia trees.
Attic: This is a walk-up attic with fold-open doors that operate with counterweights. Expansive floored area. It features mortise and tenon joints, wooden pegs, and wooden nails (trenails) which show the age of the house.
Driveway: The winding gravel drive takes you right past the beautiful magnolia. Large parking pad easily accommodates guests. There is a driveway sensor that plays the Westminster chimes. When this sensor was installed, others were also placed on the front and back porch steps to let you know when company has arrived!
Trees: Black walnut, Oak, Cedar, Magnolia, Pecan. The area behind the pond is more fully wooded, with at least 10-15 acres of marketable timber. Additionally, this property receives a forestry tax credit because of the number of acres of woods it maintains.
Dog Lot: The large, fenced dog lot has running water and even electricity!
Pond: This is a stocked pond, with a small creek and a natural spring feeding into it. Behind the pond, the acreage continues to horse/walking trails. These trails lead down to another creek, which provides the back boundary for the property. Trails also lead to an adjoining property, where stables provide the perfect spot to board your horse.
Outbuildings: The larger building behind the house is the original outdoor kitchen, which was used by the Holeman family during the summer to keep the main house cooler. In the winter, they used the fireplace in the cellar (which still remains). The smaller building houses the original well. The property also includes a building which was used as a wheat bin, along with several barns which were used for tobacco.
Garage: This oversized, two car garage, has plenty of additional space for mowers, golf cart, four wheelers, etc. It also has electricity and running water. It was built after the restoration and is painted to match the original outbuildings. The lumber for the garage came from the property, where a portable sawmill was brought on site.
If These Walls Could Talk: The Holeman Family of Oakland Plantation
The seven generations of the Holeman family who lived in the Oakland homeplace were of colorful character and found themselves associated with equally colorful and interesting people. Oakland was, from its beginning, renowned for its social and political activity. People were drawn to its beauty, hospitality, and multitude of engaging hosts and hostesses.
Richard and Jean Carlisle Holeman were the first of the Holemans to live in the house. They were the couple who undertook the building of the structure. Richard died in 1789, leaving Jean to complete the task. Jean Carlisle was a full blooded Scotch woman totally devoted to the Revolutionary cause. She acted as a spy for General Thomas Person and was said to “peddle her wares in Hillsborough” picking up information from the unsuspecting Red Coats. She would ride to Goshen, under the moonlight, some thirty miles from her home, to relay any information she had gathered to General Person’s camp. Richard and Jean’s home was the place of meeting for the Regulators, hence the initiation of social and political life at Oakland.
Oakland passed to the second generation, Richard and Jean’s son, Richard. In 1795, Richard married Rebecca Margaret Daniel, a granddaughter of James Daniel—one of the original settlers of Jamestown on the James River. Richard, who appears to have been an attorney, spent most of his time settling estates and improving Oakland’s racehorse stock. Horse racing was probably the favorite form of entertainment for the era and appears to have been one of the favorite pastimes for this generation of Holemans.
The third generation to inherit Oakland was James Holeman, son of Richard and Rebecca. James married Mary Dobbin VanHook in 1839, thereby incorporating the Dobbin and VanHook families into the Holeman family tree. James, an attorney, served in the North Carolina State Legislature as well as the Senate. He was well known for his candor with regard to his colleagues in the House and the Senate as he commonly referred to them as “The Lazy Boy’s Club.” James’ brother-in-law and frequent visitor to Oakland was J.C. Dobbin, who, while serving in the House, introduced and carried legislation to build and fund Dorthea Dix Hospital—the first hospital in North Carolina for the mentally challenged. J.C. Dobbin went on to serve as Secretary of Navy under President Buchanan’s time in office prior to the Civil War.
James Dobbin Holeman, son of James and Mary Dobbin Van Hook, was the fourth generation to live at Oakland. He married Emma Blow Blacknall in 1863 and, again, another interesting and prominent family joined the Holeman family tree. At the time of his marriage, James Dobbin was Captain of the North Carolina Troops, 24th Division, Company “A,” CSA. After the Civil War, he returned home to serve—like his father before him—in the North Carolina State Legislature and the North Carolina Senate. He and his wife, Emma, enjoyed the company of her family members at Oakland. Emma’s father, Richard Blacknall, was the first physician to practice in Durham County. Her brother, Richard, was the first pharmacist in Durham County. Another brother, James Russell, was the first sheriff of Durham County. Her sister, Carrie, and her sister-in-law, Josephine, built Blacknall Memorial Presbyterian Church.
Richard Blacknall Holeman, son of James Dobbin and Emma Blacknall Holeman, was the fifth generation to fall heir to Oakland. “R.B.” married Novie Leigh Horner in 1924 at the tender age of fifty. R.B. spent his youth under the watchful eyes of his many esteemed relatives learning to negotiate his way through the changing times both socially and industrially in the early twentieth century. He enjoyed the associations of his family and regularly returned the favor by entertaining them in “the country.” Many of the country’s industrialist families frequented Oakland to enjoy the famed weekend parties hosted by R.B. He was instrumental in luring Norfolk and Western Railroad to Helena (Timberlake) to help boost the economy of the community. He formed a successful corporation with George Hauser whose principle interests were in the sale of timber and land.
The sixth generation to inhabit Oakland was Richard “Dick” Blacknall Holeman, Jr. (1926) and James “Jimmie” Horner Holeman (1928), the sons of Richard and Novie Holeman. The boys grew up with a great love of the land and the plantation. Because they were reared on a self-sustaining farm, they did not suffer the losses that so many of the populace suffered during the Depression era. Thanks to R.B. Holeman, Sr. they had running water and electricity at a time when no one else in their area did. During World War II, Dick joined the Coast Guard and then went on to college. Jimmie served in the U.S. Navy. Upon returning to Oakland, Jimmie married Dorothy Rose Woody of Roxboro in 1954. They had two children, Jimmie and Barbara Leigh. Both Jimmie and Dorothy devoted their lives to farming and caring for Oakland. Jimmie was often quoted as saying, “If you take care of the land, it will take care of you.” He spent the rest of his time trying to pass on his devotion to the plantation to his children and instill in them their fortune for being so richly blessed in a wonderful heritage and a home that had witnessed the birth of a nation and sheltered the family in both war and peace. Richard, Jr. married Julia Marie Rice from Landisburg, Pennsylvania and had two children, Harriett Carlisle and Richard B. Holeman, III (“Dickie”). Richard, Jr. then moved to the city and worked in the pharmaceutical industry until he retired in 1992. Both families enjoyed their years at Oakland, preferring to spend most of their time on the screened front porch (no longer there) with their loving grandmother, Novie Leigh Horner Holeman.
The last and seventh generation to live at Oakland was Barbara Leigh Holeman, daughter of James and Dorothy Holeman. Leigh married her second husband, Thomas “Tommy” Henry Gunn, in 1992. In an effort to preserve the family’s heritage and legacy, Leigh spent most of her life reading, researching and writing about her ancestors. With the help of Tommy, Leigh restored Oakland to its original eighteenth century splendor in 1995/1996. Leigh’s brother, Jimmie, died in 2005. Leigh nor Jimmie had children, therefore Leigh was the final generation of the Holeman family to live at Oakland.
Fulfillment of a Dream: The Burton Years at Oakland Plantation
Having been such a huge part of the Holeman family heritage, the decision to sell Oakland Plantation was not an easy one for Leigh Holeman Gunn. An absolute auction open to the public was held on July 25, 2009. The auction was advertised in the paper. One of the people who saw that ad was Merle Watts Burton, a Durham native.
Merle was born to Floyd Oscar Burton and Nancy Jane Morris Burton on October 17, 1926 at Watts Hospital. He was the youngest of their eight children. Merle’s father provided the sole source of income for the family through his night watchman job at Golden Belt Cotton Mill and various side jobs. His father’s pay did not cover all the needs of his family. As a result, Merle’s childhood was very different than that of the generations of Holeman children who called Oakland Plantation their home. The children, including Merle, helped with various side jobs as well. Merle helped string tobacco bags for the mill. Merle grew up in a mill home typical of the time—small and cheaply built.
In an interview with his granddaughter, Kelli Landing Crawford, Merle said, “We were poor [but] we had plenty to eat—potatoes, beans, and chicken because we raised our own chickens. We had a big garden.” His experience working in those gardens as a child instilled a lifelong passion for gardening and for land. His love of tomatoes was well known among his family and friends.
Merle’s father passed away on April 13, 1940. Floyd’s death affected the family financially due to the loss of his income from the mill. Since Merle was the youngest child, many of his siblings had already left the home and started families of their own. This left his mother without a steady income and made Merle the head of the household. That situation within the family came with a responsibility to support his mother. Merle enlisted in the Navy prior to the United States’ official entry World War II as a way to see the world and help support his mother. He sent the majority of his paychecks home to her.
Following the war, Merle met Billie Burk Munford in 1946 as she stood at the bus stop in front of the store where he worked. They married in 1947. That chance meeting formed the foundation of the relationship that was the cornerstone of the Burton family. They were married for fifty-nine years before her death on July 21, 2006. They raised three children—Linda Burton Thompson, Wayne Burton, and Tina Burton Landing.
At the time of the auction on July 25, 2009, Merle was 83 and a widower. He had spent his life up until that point working at GTE for 40 years before retiring, first as a lineman and then as a line supervisor. He also spent his time caring for his family, including his siblings, his wife’s siblings, and many of their spouses and his nieces and nephews. He also cared for his wife, Billie, who had been in poor health for many years. His upbringing contributed to his desire to live simply and buy only what he could purchase with the money he had in the bank. He never had a credit card. Merle’s dream was to one day own a farm. His sister, Lillian, and her husband, Zeb, had owned a farm. That farm was one he spoke fondly of years after their deaths and the sale of that property.
July 25 started out as a normal day for Merle. His daughter, Linda, called him as usual to check on him in the morning. He told her that he planned to drive to Roxboro to buy some corn. He didn’t take much care dressing that day, choosing instead to wear some of his normal house clothes. Merle drove towards Roxboro, perhaps with the intention of actually buying corn. A few hours later, he called Linda and let her know that he was bidding on a house at auction. What a surprise! Linda, who handled her father’s accounts, drove out to Oakland to see what her father was up to. A short time later, Merle became the owner of Oakland Plantation when his winning bid was accepted. He had not even stepped foot inside the house!
One of the joys of Merle’s life was getting to share Oakland with his family. The home was the site of Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations, family reunions, baby showers, a fishing tournament, and a wedding. Other days were spent simply enjoying one another’s company. Merle received a golf cart from his family for his 84th birthday that he later used to explore the property. No longer did he have to drive his Cadillac to get down to the pond to fish, although that sure was a sight! He was determined to do as much as he could for as long as he could on the property that was the fulfillment of a dream he had thought unattainable. In conversations with others, he expressed pride, that from such a meager background, with hard work and frugal spending over the years, he was the proud owner of Oakland Plantation. Even though he never actually moved into the house, choosing to remain in the Durham home he had shared with his wife for over fifty year, Merle loved riding out to the house and just sitting outside in his rocker. He spent nights there with his children from time to time. As his health deteriorated, he had his children and/or caretakers drive him out to the property. Merle passed away on January 12, 2011. His family takes great comfort that “Papa Burton” spent his last years living his dream.
Houses such as Oakland are rare, especially ones that have been lovingly restored and maintained to the degree that Oakland has. The tranquil setting with the trees, pond, and trails, adds to its unique charm. It is the type of property where you can close your eyes and visualize the generations of family and the many visitors who have graced these grounds, first on horseback and then, most recently, in a golf cart! Oh my, how times have changed. You can feel the history within these walls, almost hearing the music of those long ago Holeman parties. Oakland is a property to be cherished and preserved, because very few like it exist today.