The Ruins of Umstead: Searching For the Lost Homes of Raleigh Families
The tulips that grow in Umstead have special meaning. I hadn’t noticed them before. The flowers and trees have always been part of the background, something nice to see on a sunny day if I was lucky enough to catch them while they were blooming.
They only appear in small clumps and are spread unevenly throughout the park. They can be hard to spot from the trails, but can be found with a quick step off the beaten path.
“Anywhere you see tulips in Umstead, that’s where someone’s front yard used to be,” explains Reggie King, whose family once lived on the land.
It’s true. Prior to the establishment of the park, the greater Umstead area was home to entire communities. Remnants of community activity can be found throughout the park. Reggie King is a descendant of those homesteads, which once sprawled 6,000 acres across what we now know as Umstead State Park. And today, my friends and I were going to search for the leftover foundations and crumbling ruins of those old buildings.
If you follow our pictures and GPS coordinates, you can go on an expedition to Umstead, too.
In the early 1800’s the Page family constructed a Mill, which became the economic and social center of the township. The Page Mill, later dubbed the Company Mill, ground wheat and corn for about 120 years. Perhaps the best-known site in Umstead, the remains of the Company Mill can be found near the southern end along the trail of the same name. A flood washed away the the main structure, but most of the dam still stands.
One of the original millstones rests on the northeast side of Crabtree Creek, a reminder of what stood only a century ago.
The millstone and the dam aren’t the only reminders, though. Up a rocky hill just north of the millstone lies the foundation of a small building, likely having once belonged to the Page family.
Near the foundation are two piles of rocks, neatly arranged but fallen by years of neglect and weathering. A deep hole with large logs lain across it, perhaps a former quarry or storage space, is closest to the trail. All of these ruins overlook Crabtreek Creek, still rushing down below on cool spring afternoons.
Many of the major trails began as roads for use during the 19th century. Further north along the Graylyn trail lie broken foundations and chimneys of homes past. There are lots of tulip patches to be found here.
These ruins likely belonged to the King family, one of the wealthiest families in the area. Their property extended from the Graylyn trail to Ebenezer Church Road, and included stables, a cider press, and a blacksmith forge.
A cotton gin building once stood near the twin oaks on the Graylyn trail. This is where church services were held before the King family donated one acre to church trustees in 1883. That one acre is where Ebenezer Church was founded.
Cemeteries are among the most prominent reminders of the families who once worked, laughed, and slept here. The King cemetery is most easily spotted to the north of the twin oaks. The Young cemetery lies to the south, right off the entrance to the Loblolly trail.
The Youngs were farmers, like many of the pre-Umstead residents. They harvested cotton and corn, but poor soil and single-crop farming ruined the yield. Erosion took the rest of the topsoil, and sustainability ground to a halt.
*Young Cemetery: 35°50’09N 78°45’28W *King Cemetery: 35°52’03N 78°44’49W
Those unfortunate failures for many families in the community led to the federal government intervening in 1934. They determined that the land was no longer suitable for farming, and offered landowners $11.56 per acre, or about $200 adjusted for inflation.
Property owners had varying attitudes about moving. Some families were happy to take the offer and relocate. Others negotiated and retained ownership for the rest of their lives. There are even reports of one landowner who remained until 1982.
Much of the ruins, roads, and notable sites found throughout the park today are discussed at length in Stories in Stone: Memories From a Bygone Farming Community in North Carolina. It’s available on the park’s web site or in the Visitor’s Center.
Even without the book, however, it’s easy enough to find the lost homesteads. Just follow Reggie’s advice and look for the tulips.