LUMBERTON — At the end of Caldwell Street sits a yellow and white Victorian home, painted over from the pale ochre and brown that first colored its exterior 108 years ago. Until recently, its walls have known the name of only one family — the same that gives the street its name.
Caldwell Street is just a short stretch of pavement covering only a couple of blocks, but at its end, sits the beginning of a story.
Neill A. Thompson III calls it history.
“His story,” he said, insinuating that the tale is subject to the interpretation of the teller.
Some might deem it a mystery. Indeed, it has inspired artists to sketch its exterior and a local mystery-suspense author to base an entire series on its setting – the Black Swamp Mysteries Series by p.m. terrell. But the history that leaves the Queen-Anne style home on Caldwell Street — reminiscent of a magnificent doll house — still standing after all these years is a mix of chance and fortune, and many near-misses.
The home at 209 W. Eighth St. was originally known as the Luther H. Caldwell house, named after its owner and Neill’s grandfather, Luther Henry Caldwell, a merchant and businessman.
According to an article in Volume 1 of “Robeson Remembers,” the house was built in a neighborhood “occupied by various members of the patriarch John Henry Caldwell.”
John Henry, also a merchant, was Luther’s father. Following in his father’s footsteps, Luther was known as Lumberton’s “merchant prince,” the owner of L.H. Caldwell Co., a general store on the corner of Third and Elm streets where people bought groceries, hardware, dry goods and clothing. Luther also owned the building at 111 Third St., where Candy Sue’s is now located.
In 1893, Luther purchased the parcel of land where the Caldwell house now sits for $450, which would be $13,846 today. It would be the future home for him and his wife, Nora Dean Godwin, whom he met while Nora was visiting Lumberton after her father died.
Nora was 18, and Luther, 30.
“When she was down here, she was not yet 20 and she said that he kept aggravating her to the point that she said she would just go ahead and marry him,” Neill said. “He would send her oranges and ask her to go with him to church.”
While their future home was being built, Luther and Nora, who were married in 1897, lived in the house diagonal to it, still standing at 204 W. Eighth St. It’s where their first children — Mary Lee and Rosa Caldwell — were born. In 2008, the home was a stage for former president Bill Clinton, who spoke on the porch in support of his wife Hillary, then seeking the Democratic nomination for president.
Luther and Nora’s youngest daughters, Christine and Lois, were born in the completed Caldwell home.
The asymmetrical house sits tall at the end of Caldwell street. A porch wraps around the front of the house, and another extends off the front of the second floor.
According to the National Register of Historic Places, “Much of the interior woodwork is attributed to an anonymous Italian ship carpenter from Wilmington with whose merchants Mr. Caldwell had business connections.”
It goes on to read: “As early as 1905, Luther Henry Caldwell had gained such a position of importance in the affairs of Lumberton that his residence was an illustration in a special edition of the Lumberton Argus ‘containing much matter of interest to the Capitalist, the Home Seeker, and the natives of the Biggest and Best County in North Carolina.’”
But no matter Luther’s reputation, according to Neill, it was Nora who was the head of the house.
“When she locked on something, she was worse than radar,” he said.
Neill recounted stories, like the time Nora moved the family graveyard that bordered the Lumber River in a lot on the corner of Caldwell and Eighth streets to Meadowbrook Cemetery because it gave someone the spooks.
The Caldwell house itself possessed a sense of mystery. High school boys would bring their dates to the corner of Caldwell and Eighth streets and tell them to watch for the attic light to flicker — evidence of a ghost inside.
“I’ve heard a lot of funny stories about that house,” Neill said. “A lot of people said it was haunted, but I spent a lot of nights in there and I didn’t hear anything go boo!”
Instead, the house, richly finished with decorative woodwork, was simply the home to Luther and Nora and their four girls: Mary Lee, who married Lawrence Parker, a Lumberton businessman; Rosa, who married Sen. William C. Woodall from Alabama; Lois, who married Frank Ertel Carlyle, a congressman from Robeson County; and Christine, who married Neill A. Thompson, a surgeon.
According to “Robeson Remembers,” when Christine was just a child, she met her future husband while visiting her father at the Thompson Memorial Hospital, where he had undergone surgery.
“To pass the time, the daughter stayed in the yard of the hospital to play,” the article reads. “Neill A. Thompson Jr. was also playing there and gave her a push in the swing. His father had founded the hospital, the first one in the county, in 1906.”
Thirty years later, Christine married Thompson. It was the year after her father died.
“They were married there in the house,” Neill said, “because grandfather died and she didn’t think a big hullaballoo in the church was appropriate.”
The setting of that wedding ceremony served simultaneously as foreshadow for the future — Christine would play a vital role in the legacy of the home.
Christine and Thompson had three boys, all born in their grandfather’s hospital in Lumberton — Neill A. Thompson III, Luther Caldwell Thompson Sr., and Alexander Benjamin “Sandy” Thompson. Their sister, Catherine Christine, was born in Illinois, where the family moved after Thompson went there to practice as a surgeon.
Neill remembers moving back to Lumberton after his father was called away to serve as a doctor in the Army during World War II. The three years Thompson spent away from his family, “he was in the first medical detachment to liberate the Nazi concentration camp of Dachau where 30 boxcars of bodies were found,” according to “Robeson Remembers.”
When Thompson returned, Christine and the family moved back to Illinois. Then, in 1966, a year after Christine’s oldest sister and her mother died, so did her husband. Christine purchased the house from her mother’s estate in 1970 because, according to Neill, “my mother couldn’t stand the thing sitting there going downhill.” For 10 years, she divided her time between Illinois and Lumberton until she finally moved into the Caldwell house permenantly.
In that time, the home was already entering into the tumultuous years that would make up its present landscape. Christine fought tirelessly — and unsuccesefully — against the city of Lumberton. A parcel of land behind the house had been condemned to supply acreage for the expansion of the city’s water facilitles.
Today, a dull, blue water tower looks clumsily onto the house, and Neill, who moved in with his mother after she suffered a stroke, resented the city’s decision, citing the fact that there are only 6 feet between the city’s property line and the back porch.
“That thing would overflow, and it always overflowed around 2 a.m.,” Neill said. “One of the caregivers would call me upstairs and say she’s scared and I’d go … and sit with her… . When she heard it, she couldn’t swim very well and thought she would drown.”
It was in that time that Christine, who lived a quiet life in the home and was know to never be seen outside without a hat, would have an encounter with another person who would prove to be vital to the home’s legacy.
It was Brad Thompson, and he was 11 years old.
Brad persuaded his mother to take him to the Caldwell house for a look inside. He had a curiosity about the house, which grew after reading a 1978 article in The Robesonian that it had been placed on the National Registry of Historic Places — an article he still has.
Neill and Christine pushed to get the home included on the registry as protection against the ever-intruding city.
“We were not able to come in, which is understandable,” Brad said of his visit to the home, “but she was very nice.”
The Caldwell house was approved for inclusion on the National Registry of Historic Places because of its distinctive architectural features, its association with Lumberton’s expansion as the commercial center of the county, and its historical significance as the residence of Luther Henry Caldwell, Lumberton’s “merchant prince.”
But after Christine died in 2003, the house, which was divided among her family — none of whom wanted to live in it — began showing its age. Paint began to peel and shutters became unhinged. A crumbling sidewalk welcomed vagrants.
The Caldwell house was owned for a short time by a couple from California who had hopes of restoring it back to its original glory, but the cost, $220,000, was too steep. The house was placed into foreclosure and onto the Preservation North Carolina website, which advertises historic homes for sale.
Keeping track of its progress was the same Brad Thompson who had asked for a peek inside so many years earlier.
Brad, a Lumberton native who spent the last 10 years working at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh, had worked as an antiques dealer, attending liquidations. He finally got that look inside the Caldwell home in 2004, when he attended the estate sale.
Like Luther, Brad owned stores in downtown Lumberton — an antique shop and an ice cream parlor, as well as a refinishing shop. His refinishing experience would come in handy in 2012, when — after five years watching the price on the house fall on the Preservation N.C. website — the house became such a steal that he bought it with Andrew Fox.
“It really seemed like everything fell into place, almost like it was meant to be,” Brad said. “… Because I really did give this so much thought through the years.”
The floors at the Caldwell home now shine, richly finished as a result of Brad’s experience restoring antiques. He’s painted the front exterior of the home, updated the plumbing, repaired wiring and decorated the rooms. Fifteen pages of protective covenants limit some of his renovations.
“They just don’t want you to do any major changes like tearing out something,” Brad said. “If something is built on the property they want the architecture to go along with the house. I don’t have a problem with that, this is what is best for the house.”
Today, the home, which will serve as Brad’s private residence, still stands as a precious symbol of the past. A collection of old photographs from families and homes around Lumberton, which Brad has collected in estate sales, are displayed on the walls as a reminder of the space the home occupies in history.
Of the many antiques adorning the walls and furniture, Brad pulls out one to show — a large, wooden rectangle that opens up to reveal a music box. He secures a metal disk into place, and then cranks the lever. The music box begins to spin, emanating the sound of a bell choir.
The chiming din floats down the stairs, into the rooms, outside to the greenhouse and across the overgrown pond, breathing new life into an old home.