409 acres of Wake farmland preserved for ages

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By Martha Quillin — mquillin@newsobserver.com

SHOTWELL — Since the late 1700s, owners and tenant farmers have raised cotton, timber, tobacco and cattle in the fields and forests of Walnut Hill Farm.

In the future, this land will be used to cultivate its visitors’ love for nature.

The Triangle Land Conservancy announced the purchase this week of 409 acres of Walnut Hill in eastern Wake County from the Williamson family. A public-private partnership ensures that the land will never be developed. The property will connect a patchwork of other conservation lands that together will create a 1,600-acre destination for hikers, bikers and little kids with fishing poles.

“This is the crown jewel,” former Raleigh Mayor Tom Bradshaw, a land conservancy board member, told Wake Commissioners Monday when they voted to contribute $1.6 million to the purchase of Walnut Hill. The land is southeast of Raleigh and north of Clayton off Mial Plantation Road.

The Williamson family sold the land to the conservancy for less than 40 percent of its appraised value because the late Bailey Peyton Williamson, who raised black Angus cows on it, felt closer to God on this piece of dirt than he did in any church, and he wanted others to experience that.

“Our parents loved the land, and they passed that sentiment down to the next generation,” said Betty Brandt Williamson, Bailey Williamson’s daughter. “This is about protecting the land forever, and providing open space for public use, as well as protection for our farms, rivers and streams.

“Working with the Triangle Land Conservancy has helped us achieve that goal. I wish Mom and Dad were still here so they could see their vision become reality.”

Since Bailey Williamson died a decade ago, the family has been in talks with Wake County and others about how the land could be kept mostly in its current state. Most of the 409-acre farm lies in Eastern Wake County, and about 70 acres are across the line in Johnston County.

Many reasons for preservation

The land Williamson worked was once part of a plantation of more than 4,500 acres. Author Kelly Lally writes in “The Historic Architecture of Wake County” that Walnut Hill plantation was owned and operated by members of the interrelated Mial and Williamson families since 1775 and was one of the county’s largest and most prominent cotton plantations through the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The Walnut Hill Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2000.

Although the original main house was destroyed by fire in 1973, the book notes, many of the plantation’s core buildings survive, and the farm remains an important example of an antebellum and post-Civil War plantation complex.

The farm is part of the Oaky Grove National Historic District, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2000, and is in the N.C. Natural Heritage Program.

Conservationists wanted to protect the land because it has been largely unchanged since it was first given in a land grant from the king of England in 1761, because it’s one of the larger undeveloped tracts remaining in the county, because it connects a patchwork of more than 1,200 other acres the TLC and Wake County have worked to acquire in the area over the past decade, and because in its undeveloped state it helps protect the watershed of the nearby Neuse River.

Less than a fourth of the land in Wake County still is used for farming or forestry, according to the N.C. Department of Agriculture.

“A 400-acre property – it’s a big deal for a property of that size to be set aside in Wake County in 2013,” said Chad Jemison, executive director of the Triangle Land Conservancy. “It’s truly a testament to the vision of the Williamson family to protect it for this and future generations.”

As part of the deal, the Williamson family will keep about four acres of the farm, including a 20th-century brick house where Bailey and Sara Williamson lived, as well as the Oaky Grove Methodist Church, a circa-1876 Gothic Revival clapboard building that hasn’t had an active congregation in a half-century.

The Land Conservancy also will ask the Johnston County commissioners to contribute to the deal. The Johnston County portion is adjacent to 330 acres of preserved green space that surround the Neuse River Trail, a popular greenway that connects Clayton to Raleigh and serves as a section of the larger Mountains-to-Sea Trail.

Public use remains ahead

The next step is for the conservancy to begin the construction of trails the public can use to explore the rolling pastureland, the damp deciduous forest, the rocky streams and quiet ponds. The group also will consider demonstration farms or community gardens that provide food and give people a way to learn about farming by putting their hands in the soil.

Until the public begins to use the land, family friend Steve Temple will still be allowed to hunt deer on it as he has done for more than 20 years. Stopping on Tuesday on a farm path at one of three ponds on the property, he said he hopes the public gets some of the same benefits from Walnut Hill that he has enjoyed.

“It’s kind of like what an antidepressant does for some people,” said Temple, who lives nearby and has helped take care of the property since Bailey Williamson died. “You can come out here on a tractor and cut these fields, and let your thoughts go away for awhile.

“Good therapy.”

Staff writer Amanda James contributed to this article.