CHURCH HILL — After two years of restoration work, the owners of Church Hill’s oldest house are ready to rekindle a Christmas tradition that started shortly after Canton Hall was constructed in 1840.
Two years after purchasing the historic home, located at 826 W. Main Boulevard, Hunter and Amanda Jackson will host Christmas at the Mansion on Dec. 7 from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m.
The free outdoor community event will coincide with the Church Hill Christmas parade earlier in the day.
Christmas at the Mansion will feature a live Nativity scene presented by LampLight Theatre; local church choirs will sing Christmas carols from the newly restored front porch; and there will be a lighting of the Christmas tree at the conclusion of the event, during which Volunteer High School’s a cappella group, VOLcapella, will perform.
The backyard will feature a gingerbread house decorating contest as well as the KidZone, where children can make Christmas ornaments and color Christmas pages designed by Alan Davis, a former Disney illustrator from the area.
Coffee, hot chocolate, and other refreshments, including treats from the new Cornucopia Gourmet Popcorn in Kingsport, will be available.
Santa and Mrs. Claus will also be on the back patio to meet children.
Buying their dream home
Hunter and Amanda were both born and raised in Church Hill, and Canton Hall has always been their dream home.
Two years ago, they were looking for a new home. He wanted land, and she wanted a nice house, and they ended up with an antebellum mansion that they had both admired their entire lives.
“I always loved it,” Hunter said. “It seemed mysterious. I would always drive out of the way to look at it. Just wonder what it was back years ago.”
“When this place popped up (for sale), we called a friend who was a realtor, and we looked at it and made a bid on it,” Amanda said. “Then we laid in the bed one night, and we’re like, ‘What if we really get that house? What are we gonna do?’ We giggled about it, and I guess a few days later we got a phone call saying we got it.”
The couple worked on the house for a year before moving in, and they’re not finished yet.
The history of the plantation
Canton Hall was built in 1840 in the Jeffersonian style with 18-inch-thick walls, using more than 1 million handmade bricks.
It was originally the home of Eldridge Hord, who operated the 3,000 acre New Canton Plantation on the western outskirts of present day Church Hill.
At one time the plantation property was home to a post office, general store and a mill. It produced corn, wheat and barley for 110 years, and it stayed in the same family until Carl Netherland-Brown, who also owned Rogersville’s Hale Springs Inn, purchased it in 1997.
The couple who owned it prior to the Jacksons rented it as a wedding venue, although it hadn’t been used for several years.
“A lot of blood, sweat and tears”
“We’ve been restoring for two years. We’re still restoring,” Amanda said.
The couple restored all of the original windows, which took more than a year and is almost finished. They had to take them out, have the wood frames repaired and the glazing redone, and then reinstall them.
“All the original windows are still the original windows because we felt that was the eyelashes to the house, and makes it who it is,” Amanda said.
They also had to restore the front porches, which Amanda described as being rotten and dangerous when they bought the house.
The roof and guttering have been replaced, the original hardwood floors have been restored, and the Jacksons converted two smaller upstairs bathrooms, which really didn’t meet their needs, into one big bathroom.
“It takes a lot of blood, sweat and tears,” Amanda said. “We love it, but it hasn’t been easy. We just worked hard for it and busted our rears.”
“It's been a challenge,” Hunter added. “I’d do it again probably. We’ve tried to put everything back close to original and spent extra money to keep the original windows.”
Unfortunately, the couple had to take down the old mill because they couldn’t afford to restore it, and they couldn’t afford insurance to keep it as it was. However, they salvaged the millstones, which were imported French quartz, and now decorate the grounds of the mansion.
A secret hidden since 1854
According to legend, Canton Hall hosted a well-known architect who had fallen ill, and when the man recovered he showed his appreciation by designing and building two-story front porches.
When the Jacksons took the porches down for the restoration, Hunter found three indecipherable signatures and the date 1854 on the back of the trim on the front door, which they assume is the year the porches were first constructed.
That piece of wood was salvaged and put back in place, so maybe in another 165 years someone will take the porch apart and find those signatures again.
Unusual features of the mansion
The mortar between the bricks was painted white, which apparently was a signal to visitors that the owners of the house had great wealth. Above the second-story front porch there are some signatures in those little white lines, and the Jacksons can only speculate who made that.
There are also some mysterious signatures engraved in some of the exterior house brick including the word “Toma” next to a second-story window in the southwest corner at the front of the house, and a word that appears to be “Rolianro” at the rear of the east wall.
Those two engravings are a mystery, but there is a legend about a third brick engraving of the name “Abraham D,” also located on the east side of the house near what is believed to be the old slave quarters entrance.
“From the information that we have, and going back into the archives, Abraham was one of the main slaves here who supervised the building of the house,” Amanda said. “Because they had the house completed before the deadline, he was offered a gold coin and the first dance at the Christmas party. It became an annual Christmas party, so that’s one of the things that made me think, ‘Is this (Dec. 7 Christmas party) what we’re supposed to do and kind of carry on that Christmas thing?’ ”
Raising funds for Of One Accord
Although Christmas at the Mansion is free to the public, there is a $25 fee to participate in the gingerbread house decorating contest, as well as a $25 fee to participate in the Tour of Homes house decorating contest for residences in the Mount Carmel, Church Hill and Surgoinsville areas.
All proceeds from those two events will be donated to the Of One Accord ministry’s Church Hill operations, including the food pantry, medical mission, and summer Lunch Box child feeding programs.
The gingerbread house competition will take place on the back patio under a big tent where the pre-constructed gingerbread houses will be on display and judged.
As for the Tour of Homes, participants are asked to decorate the exterior of their homes with Christmas decor to compete for bragging rights. Each home entered in the competition will have its address posted on New Canton Plantation’s Facebook page so the public can take the tour and view decorated homes.
The tour begins Friday, Nov. 29, and judging takes place Friday Dec. 6, with the winner being announced at Christmas at the Mansion.
For more information about registering for the gingerbread house competition or the Christmas Tour of Homes, email Amanda at [email protected] or visit https://www.newcantonplantation.com/.