Lassiter-Riddick Farm House ~ Staff photos by Sher Stoneman
Historic Homes of Northeastern North Carolina!
News & Observer, The (Raleigh, NC)
September 19, 2004
Author: Martha Quillin; Staff Writer
Section: Sunday Journal
Article Text: GATESVILLE -- It took at least a quarter century to build what's
now known as the Lassiter Riddick farm house on the sweet, flat expanse of northern
Gates County where it stands. It started sometime between 1800 and 1825 with the
two-story, two-room structure that now forms the back of the house. The four-room,
two-story addition -- the new part -- was built in 1851.
Wayne Noble figures he could take it all down in two weeks. With his two sons, Noble
runs a business that dismantles old buildings, tearing apart their mortise-and-tenon
joinery, using a sledgehammer against their plaster walls to get at the wood from which
they are built and a pry-bar on the decorative trimmings that adorn them. If the owners
would let him, Noble would come to Gates County, on the Virginia border northeast of
Raleigh, with a crew of five or six men and reduce the Lassiter Riddick house and its
outbuildings to several truckloads of reusable lumber. Most of it he would sell to
people rehabilitating old buildings in other states.
"That is a really neat old house," says Noble, who loves history. "It has some absolutely
beautiful old doors, and the flooring and everything, it really is pretty. "The wood is
real desirable. "We would love to have that house."
That the home is one of few examples of its type, that it is tied to one of Gates County's
most successful early settlers, that it is prominently featured in the county's architectural
survey book, have no bearing on his bottom line.
But it is of great concern to some preservationists and historians, who say the success of
the preservation movement has had an unintended, cannibalizing effect: As more people buy
and refurbish old buildings in urban areas, demand for period materials has soared,creating
a thriving industry of salvagers who cruise the countryside looking for structures to demolish
and sell for parts. Occasionally, whole houses are taken apart and put back together in other
In Eastern North Carolina, as many as half the tobacco barns that dotted the landscape 10 years
ago are gone, and salvagers are fast securing rights to unoccupied homes. As the buildings are
torn apart, their mantels shipped to Savannah, their crown moldings to Richmond, their beams to
New York, part of the state's history disappears forever. "It's not that these aren't legitimate
businesses," says Scott Power, supervisor of the northeastern regional office of historic
preservation for the state, located in Greenville. "It's just that we're concerned about who is
making the determination about whether something has the potential for preservation or is
too far gone." Dozens of salvagers are at work across the state, many of whom, historians say,
don't know Italianate from Victorian architecture, and aren't acquainted enough with North
Carolina lore to know what buildings or family names are important.
Noble, 56, who lives in Snow Hill, in Greene County, and says his family has roots here almost
200 years back, got into the reclamation business about three years ago, after he and his wife
tried to buy an old house to fix up for themselves. The owner said he didn't want to sell.
A few months later, the whole farm went on the market, and the new buyer had the house torn
down. The demolition team sold some of the lumber, put the rest in a pile and burned it.
"That just kind of set us on fire to do something," Noble says. His sons were about to finish
college, and the market for salvaged materials was growing. The three men started Our Heritage
Preserved, working mostly in an area within 75 miles of home. So far, Noble says, they haven't
turned a large profit. "But we think we will in the near future."
How houses are found:
This is how it works, Noble says:
He and the boys spend a lot of time on the two-lane highways of Greene County and its neighbors,
looking for dilapidated or unoccupied structures. When they find one, they check with neighbors
or go to the county courthouse to search property tax records for the owner's name.
When he finds the owner, sometimes a generation and several states removed from the building he's
calling about, Noble asks if they have plans for the structure. If they don't, he offers to take
it down and remove the debris. If the house is particularly rich in materials -- heart pine and
old brick are the hottest commodities right now -- he may offer $500 or $1,000 for the right to
remove it. Most of the time, he gets the building in exchange for the demolition work.
Sometimes, Noble says, property owners hear about the work he does and ask him to come remove
buildings they want out of the way. They may offer to pay him.
By comparison, a Charlotte-based demolition company that removes 80 to 100 condemned houses a
year said it charges $4.50 per square foot for the work, which includes debris removal, grading
and seeding the cleared lot. A 2,000-square-foot house would cost $9,000 to demolish and remove,
Noble says he can recycle almost every part of an old house except for the tin roof, an efficiency
rivaling that of the farm families who once lived in these homes. He warehouses the materials in an
old high school gym until he finds a buyer, sometimes in North Carolina, but usually out of state.
Noble says he doesn't do it, but preservationists say some of the more aggressive salvagers
locate historic properties through the very organizations that are trying to save them where they
stand. Preservation North Carolina, for instance, which has used a revolving fund and purchase
options to save historic properties across the state, markets the buildings with photographs and
extensive descriptions on its Web site and in its magazine. And the N.C. Office of Archives and
History has given thousands of dollars in grants to help with the publication of local architectural
survey books, including many in northeastern North Carolina.
Together, says Power, of the preservation office, these serve as "road maps to your greatest
collection of historic buildings." Noble believes that the buildings he removes would come down
sooner or later anyway, as a result of neglect or when their owners finally decide to be rid of
them. By coming in ahead of the bulldozers or the firefighter training crew, Noble says, he's
actually preserving historic resources, not destroying them.
"Many of these houses and barns ... are sitting in the landscape deteriorating. That's the ones
we're trying to salvage. "When you see us taking something down, you know it'll be in an old house
somewhere else, or it'll be part of a new house, for a new generation. But when a fire takes it
down, or the bulldozer does it, it's not there anymore. "If we don't take them down, they're going
to be destroyed."
What makes it special:
Some preservationists argue those aren't the only options.
Claudia Deviney (pronounced da-VIN-ee), wants to save the Lassiter Riddick house, too. But to
Deviney, who runs Preservation North Carolina's northeast regional office in Edenton, the house
is worth far more than the sum of its parts.
To a salvager, the farm house, its smokehouse, and combination dairy house and brandy house, look
like about 2,000 to 3,000 board-feet of nice pine lumber, the kind that doesn't get a chance to
grow that big anymore, a half-dozen mantels and some attractive trim. The whole mess might sell
for $12,000 to $25,000. But left standing, the house is a rare find. According to "Forgotten Gates,"
the bible of Gates County architecture, the original structure, dating to the first quarter of
the 19th century and having a second floor when it was built, was one of only four like that in
the county. The 1851 addition, plain on the outside, has a surprisingly handsome Greek Revival
interior, with soaring ceilings, molded window surrounds and original marbleized baseboards and
The addition was built for Lassiter Riddick and his wife, Jane. According to the book, Riddick was
a successful planter whose property was worth $31,000 in 1860. That included 34 slaves and 510 acres
of land. In 1940, Lance Smith and his wife, Lucile, bought the house and 66 acres. They raised four
children here, along with peanuts, corn, some cotton, soybeans and cattle. But Lance Smith couldn't
make enough money farming, his children recall, so he went to work as a night watchman in the
One by one, the children married and moved out. The oldest, also named Lance, went the farthest away,
to Georgia. The two girls, Emeline Umphlett and Mary Lou Bracy, live within a few miles. John Smith,
who liked to run away when he was a little boy, lives in a double-wide trailer right next to his
parents' old house. He keeps the grass mowed, and for years, his son decorated the outside of the
old home for Christmas.
Lance Smith died in 1988 and Lucile 10 years later. Except for some extra furniture and canning jars,
and store-mannequin versions of Mary, Joseph and the Three Wise Men from a church nativity scene,
all of which are stored here, the house has sat empty since Lucile died. On a warm, rainy, late
summer afternoon, it is sweltering in the shut-up house. It smells like the inside of a cigar box.
Problems with selling:
In many ways, the house typifies the challenges faced by Deviney and other preservationists working
in rural Eastern North Carolina. Much of the region is economically depressed, and people who have
lived here all their lives have a hard time finding jobs. In Gates County, the largest employer is
the school system and the median household income is about $35,700. Much of the population drives
outside the county or into tidewater Virginia to work.
"There is a lot of poverty in this part of the world," Deviney says. "I mean it. There are beautiful
buildings in town after town after town, that if they were in Raleigh, they'd be gobbled up. They'd
be trendy restaurants, loft apartments, who knows what?"
But the Lassiter Riddick house isn't in Oakwood in downtown Raleigh. It sits on U.S. 158 several
miles outside the county seat of Gatesville, five miles from Merchants Millpond State Park and 70
miles from the Outer Banks.
Deviney couldn't sell the property as a working farm, because the four siblings, who own it equally,
are using the farm land and don't want to sell more than two acres on which the house sits. The
offer would be complicated by the proximity of John Smith's mobile home, which sits practically in
the front yard of the old homestead.
Interestingly, Deviney and others say, the region's economics are both a reason why so many of the
old homes lasted into the 21st century historically intact, and why so many of them are now threatened.
The families who owned them couldn't afford to alter the houses significantly. And now that they
have sat empty for years, owners can't afford to bring them up to date with modern wiring, plumbing
and heating systems.
Lucile Smith scrubbed her floors to a fare-thee-well at Christmas every year, for example, but she
and her husband would not spend precious money on paint, meaning the 150-year-old plaster in an
upstairs bedroom and the original marbleizing have never been covered up.
If a house is damaged, as many were by Hurricane Isabel a year ago, rain gets in and quickly does
its rotten work, making demolition a more likely outcome than rehabilitation for any property. The
Smith children say they plan to repair the corner of the roof of their parents' home that Isabel
peeled back before leaking water does any serious harm.
Out of time and place:
Theoretically, the house could be moved to a new location, but that can be costly, and is not the
choice of historians, who like to see things preserved in their original context. For the same reason
an archaeologist digs with a spoon instead of a backhoe -- to preserve the setting in which artifacts
are found -- preservationists say that a building loses significance as it is moved farther and
farther from the place where it was built.
Deviney gets calls all the time from people in other states who want to buy properties they've
seen in North Carolina. "I'll have people call me who will say, 'I saw this and it's exactly what
I've been looking for and I can't get it here, and I saw it in North Carolina, and I just want to
get it and take it to my place,'" Deviney says.
Last weekend, at a family reunion, the Smith progeny decided to let Deviney offer the Lassiter
Riddick house for $75,000 through Preservation North Carolina's Endangered Properties program.
Deviney thinks she can find a buyer for the home right where it sits, with the soybeans growing
behind it and the scuppernong vines in the side yard. But it might take several years. In the
meantime, she doesn't know how many salvagers might track down Lance and Lucile's children, all
in their 60s, and offer them cash for whatever can be rended through demolition. The family was
disinclined to let Noble, the salvager, take it, because he violated a basic rule of country
decorum when he went to see it. He and Emeline Umphlett were supposed to meet at the house one
day several weeks ago so she could show it to him. They never confirmed a time, so Emeline didn't
go. Noble showed up and went inside without her. Later, Umphlett was looking in the phone book
under "P" for paint supplies, and came across the listing for Preservation North Carolina. She
called out of curiosity. That's how Deviney came to fall in love with the Lassiter Riddick house.
John Smith, who once was sure he didn't want strangers living in his mother and father's home,
can now envision children running around the front yard, leaping off the porch, playing in the
shade as he and his siblings did. "Hopefully, somebody would want it," he says, running a hand
down a strong but peeling porch pillar. Noble knows there won't be enough of these buildings
in Eastern North Carolina to sustain his sons in business for the rest of their working lives.
They are already planning to branch into real estate development when the time comes.
Scott Power fears it won't be long.
"If you look at census maps, farming is on its way out," he says, "and rural North Carolina is
less populated than it was when it was first settled. "It doesn't change much from month to
month, but it does from year to year. The average person probably won't notice until it's
dramatically different. "But one day, in these rural counties, all that will be left is just nice,
big fields and forest. 'The landscape won't have the buildings that once tied the people to it."
For more information about Preservation North Carolina, visit the Web site at:
Perservation North Carolina
For more information about Our Heritage Preserved, the company owned by Wayne Noble, go to:
Our Heritage Preserved
The Lassiter Riddick farm house stands on the flat land of Gates County. The original part of
the house was built in 1800 to 1825, the addition in 1851.