150 Years: Legends of the Nancy Jones House

Cary, NC — As Cary continues to be celebrated for turning 150 this year, one tangible way to see its history is in the structures that not only survived the years but still keep the secrets and stories of times past alive today.

The Nancy Jones House, for example, has a rich history to share as Cary’s oldest known residential structure. The home was estimated to be built in 1803, well before the official incorporation of Cary in 1871 by Mr. Allison Francis (Frank) Page.

The house now rests along Chapel Hill Road and recently underwent a move, just 500 feet up the road, to a new site where it can be preserved and rehabilitated.

Who is Nancy Jones?

Portraits of Nancy Jones at unknown ages. The left portrait accompanies a newspaper article about Nancy and her iconic home. In the first paragraph, the article cites the Town of Cary as “Carey,” which is a nod to a brief time in history when Cary was misspelled around its incorporation date. See more on that here.

So, what’s the significance of the house? And who is this Nancy character?

Well, way back in 1803, the house was built on a 2,000-acre estate and was owned by Henry Jones (1766-1841) and his wife Nancy Ann Jones (1783-1876). This would put Henry at age 37 and Nancy at age 20 when the house was built.

Whether odd or interesting, the two had fathers with the same name. Henry’s father was known as Nathaniel Jones of Crabtree and Nancy’s father was Nathaniel Jones of White Plains. Both were large landowners and prominent leaders in local and state government in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

The home of Nancy and Henry, now known simply as the Nancy Jones House, was originally operated as a stagecoach stop and tavern. It was placed along the main stage road bridging Chapel Hill and Raleigh. Because of its size and architectural beauty, it became a landmark along the main route. Also being the only large, white house in the area, it became a landmark on the route and received many important visitors in its day.

When Henry died in 1841, at age 75, Nancy continued to live in the house and kept up the tavern/stagecoach stop for just over 30 years before she passed at age 93 in 1876.

In the Company of Presidents & Governors

The above postcard was titled “The Governors Meeting Place,” in a series of postcards published by the NC Division of State Advertising in 1939.

When people with knowledge of the people that came through the Nancy Jones House in the 1800s, it’s always entertaining for me to hear which story they find the best or most noteworthy because it’s almost always a different one.

Perhaps the most famous visitor was the 11th U.S. President, James K. Polk, who was a North Carolina native. He was on his way to UNC-Chapel Hill in May of 1847 when he stepped into the tavern before going on to deliver the commencement address for the graduates.

Joining president Polk during his visit in what would later be called Cary was N.C. Governor William Graham and former governor, John Morehead.

Nearly 20 years later in April 1865, right at the end of the American Civil War, Union General William T. Sherman and his troops set up temporary camp in the vicinity but did not bring any damage to the house. Following the Civil War, records indicate that Nancy’s son, Adolphus, operated a school out of the house, too.

The Birthplace of a Legendary Phrase

If you’ve ever heard in a story the phrase, “It’s a Damn Long Time between Drinks,” that too was born at the Nancy Jones house. Though, there is still debate over who may have said it first.

One occasion was from Governor Morehead as he sat across from South Carolina Governor James H. Hammond in the 1840s during a particularly tense visit. As the story goes, the men were in the throes of a long, heated argument when Morehead said, “It’s a damn long time between drinks,” as a way to cut the tension and restore some goodwill.

The second possible origin of the quote comes from an 1838 meeting at the Nancy Jones House when the N.C. and S.C. Governors of the time, Edward Dudley and Pierce Butler, were enjoying some apple and peach brandy. Between rounds, it was Dudley that reportedly said it before they finished their meeting and headed for Chapel Hill.

The phrase continued to live on outside of the house, appearing in books and later used popularly and humorously because, for a time, despite the repeal of national Prohibition, selling liquor by the drink remained illegal in the Carolinas. Railway passengers of the time, traveling from Washington, D.C. to Atlanta found themselves faced with “a long time between drinks” because of the train’s closed bar while passing through.

Preserving History & Restoring Roots

The historic Nancy Jones House has been listed in the National Register of Historic Places since 1984.

A few months ago, on March 20, 2021, the house was successfully transported, inches at a time, to its new and permanent resting place along the same road, just 500 feet away from its original spot. The 1.17-acre piece of land it now sits on was conveyed to the Town of Cary in December 2020.

According to the Town, meaningful work will now be able to continue on the house to ensure it can best serve the Cary community in the future. Now that the Nancy Jones House is establishing its new site, the next steps will include completing the new foundation and starting the process for rehabilitation. Rehabilitation needs include asbestos removal, siding repair, and replacement of damaged structural elements.

Cary’s Historic Preservationist, Gillian White, and TOC staff have put in a lot of work to keep the house listed in the National Register of Historic Places. On this list, the structure is recognized alongside 90,000 other properties across the country as one that is significant to American history, architecture and a symbol of the shared heritage of Cary, both past and present.

Story by Ashley Kairis. See more 150 Years articles and other sesquicentennial coverage on CaryCitizen.

Data and historical information sourced through NCPedia. Photos courtesy of NCPedia and the Town of Cary.

All the Cary news for the informed Cary citizen. Subscribe by email.