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Photo memoir 

A house's story is part of Chapel Hill's history

In late December 1998, I was in the midst of changing jobs, planning a May wedding, gutting and rebuilding my kitchen and helping my fiance, Bill, strategize his first campaign for public office.

Neither he nor I had time to stand in the Christmas-season lines at the post office to pick up an unexpected package whose origin was a mystery and whose mailing label, according to the card in our mailbox, was addressed to "The Occupants of 714 Greenwood Road."

So there it sat, well into January, the claim slip tacked to our family bulletin board somewhere in the mess, mostly forgotten.

Then, a week or two into January, my new boss mentioned that I should have received a packet of personnel info. So Bill swung by the post office to claim the box. But it wasn't from my employer.

It was a Mason jar box, with a return address from a woman in Charleston, he reported over the phone, he at home in our dissembled kitchen, me at work in RTP.

Silence, and then the scrunching noise of cardboard being coaxed from its packing tape rattled over the phone line. And then: "Oh my god!," he says. "What?" I say. "Oh, wow!" he says. "What?!" I say.

It's a photo album. A photo album of old pictures of our house, and a letter.

A total stranger, acting on her own appreciation of history, had sent us a late Christmas present straight from her past--and passed it on to us for safekeeping.

"Dear Friends," Adelaide Corbin Nichols' five-page letter began. "This morning I was cleaning out old photo albums, determined to reduce the staggering number of old family photos. I found a number of photos of your house. Wonderful memories came flooding back, and I found the thought of tossing these pictures too difficult. Besides, it has always struck me that every house has an intriguing history of its own, and it should be passed on to subsequent owners on closing day."

The album contained about a dozen pages of well-preserved black and white snapshots, the kind with the thick paper and the ruffled edges, where the people always seem to look a little sheepish as they face the camera.

That night, we oohed and ahhed over images of Packards and Studebakers in our driveway, a young couple with a baby who lived in the built-in apartment during wartime, grinning girls in prim dresses playing marbles on our front stoop. One shot showed a dirt road, which is now our paved street lined with houses, snaking through dense unbroken woods. It's that scene that must have beckoned UNC's beloved playwright Paul Green to move away from the daily hubbub of campus in 1936. With the proceeds from a Hollywood script, Green bought more than 200 acres "in the country" and carved a mile-long road to his new house at the farthest end of the property. He subdivided the bulk of the land into lots, selling them to friends and UNC colleagues and giving birth to Greenwood neighborhood, named for its founder and its plentiful old trees.

"I don't know who you are," Nichols' letter continued. "But it is my hope that you are old enough to appreciate the value of history and will enjoy having these photos."

The rest of the letter contained anecdotes from Nichols' childhood in our house, where she spent many weeks each summer with her aunt and uncle, Adelaide (for whom she was named) and Hal Walters. Beginning at the age of 5, Nichols would board a plane in upstate New York, wearing a badge broadcasting her final destination at RDU. After changing planes in D.C., "Little A" as she was called around her aunt, landed in a foreign world of ladies' lunches, bird-watching outings, frolics in the creeks with the resident Greenwood children, and most of all, a constant stream of progressive Southern politics that mostly flowed over her head.

"Greenwood Road was like the Greenwich Village of Chapel Hill in the 1940s," Nichols says today. "Everyone would gather at Adelaide's house and have lively discussions that would just get louder and louder and louder."

By the late '40s, Greenwood neighborhood had become home to a close-knit collection of writers, UNC faculty and other young professionals. Hal Walters, a salesman who peddled Hush Puppies for the Wolverine shoe company, traveled most weeks on his job, leaving his wife, Adelaide, at home alone in an era when most women didn't work.

"Big A," a graduate of St. Lawrence and Radcliffe, who had taught school before moving to Chapel Hill, led an active social life, often entertaining local and out-of-town friends whose names are recorded in her guest book, which Nichols later passed along to us, as well.

Walters, who had no children of her own, held a job on campus and co-authored a book on international cartels with a colleague in 1946. She was an active gardener and an avid birder, leading a local birding club that kept track of local species.

But her real passion, according to her niece and local folks who knew her, was politics. During her days in Greenwood, Walters fought for women and minority rights and representation in government--controversial causes in her day. She helped organize North Carolina's state chapter of the League of Women Voters and served as the local branch president. In the mid-'40s, Walters recruited Eliska Chanlett, whom she knew through a colleague, for the league.

"She asked me would I like to work with the League of Women Voters and I said, 'What's that?'" Chanlett, now in her 80s, recalls today. "I became her gopher, so to speak, and I was second-in-command when she was the president."

That was the beginning of a friendship that solidified when Chanlett and her family moved to 622 Greenwood in 1950 and continued until Walters died in a car accident in 1981. After more than three decades of working side-by-side with Walters, Chanlett is still active in local politics. She is a leader of Elders for Peace and runs a weekly current-events discussion group at Carol Woods, where she now lives. She credits her old friend, Adelaide, for instilling progressive politics in her own children, who grew up in Greenwood just a block away from the Walters' house.

"She stayed the course, and every letter she got berating her just reinforced her convictions," Chanlett says.

In 1957, Adelaide Walters became the first woman elected to the Chapel Hill Town Council, which was then called the Board of Aldermen. Her eight-year tenure spanned turbulent civil rights conflicts, during which her strong support for the town's "public accommodations" law drew many angry letters to "Alderman Mrs. Hal Walters" on Greenwood Road.

"If you should help vote enactment of the ordinance prohibiting segregation in Chapel Hill's public businesses, then Chapel Hill will have the dubious distinction of being the first town in North Carolina to do away with private rights," one constituent wrote to Alderwoman Walters in the summer of 1963, in a letter among her files, which are now archived in UNC's Wilson Library. "We are further along on the road to destruction of our democracy than is suspected."

Today, similar constituent letters still arrive at my house, which in 1999 became home to a Chapel Hill Town Council member for the second time in its history (my husband, Bill Strom). The issues have changed, but the dinner conversations are still lively and often political. A remarkable number of the hundreds of daffodil bulbs Little A and Big A planted together in my front yard still bloom each spring, though I haven't held up my end of the gardening. I do envy the green thumb of my house's first mistress--though not her kitchen, which was a lot smaller and painted an unlovely shade of yellow. In addition to redoing the kitchen, we've made other changes to accommodate our family: a fence to contain our dogs, a basketball hoop for my 12-year-old stepson.

But the heart of the house remains the same, and we relish the spirit of Adelaide and her feisty friends fighting the good fights in our living room. I only hope we can live up to her exacting standards.

In the meantime, Nichols has charged me with another task--to keep photos and records of our time at 714 Greenwood Road, to someday pass on to the next owner on closing day. EndBlock

  • A house's story is part of Chapel Hill's history

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