Recorded on April 25, 1853, in the New Hanover County deed books, Joseph Mumford Foy applied for an insurance policy against fire from the North Carolina Mutual Insurance Company. The manor house and kitchen were insured for a sum of $4,100. The following is an excerpt: “in New Hanover County on the south side of the New Berne Road, 12 miles from Wilmington, 1/4 mile from Scott’s Hill. House of wood with brick basement, tin roof has a scuttle. Kitchen of wood. Both new. House 2 1/2 stories, 42 x 34 feet, 4 chimneys, 12 fireplaces, double piazzas on one side. Kitchen 1 1/2 story, 30 x 15 feet, 1 chimney, 3 fireplaces, cooking stove in kitchen well secured against fire. House and kitchen 15 feet apart. No other building having a chimney within 100 feet.”
Photographs from the late 19th and early 20th century indicate that the location of the original freestanding kitchen was inside the retaining wall of the manor house, and later used as the “Cook’s House.” The insurance record notes that the kitchen was of substantial size, as it contained three fireplaces for cooking. The two brick buildings currently standing in the manor house courtyard are the original smokehouse and a kitchen shed, used for storage, firewood, and its basement was used as a root and herb cellar.
The tenant farming families, all of which were African-American and many descendants of the formerly enslaved, labored all spring to break up fields and prepare the land for cultivation. Once the crop was in the ground, including but not limited to peanuts, sweet potatoes, corn, and melons, the tenant farmers hoped for a good summer without birds plucking up the seeds, insects infesting the young produce, and mild weather.
When a successful crop was harvested, everyone, black and white, shared in the celebration. But the work was not over, for food storage was also a real concern. Corn needed to be dried, peas and beans hung in their shells for later use, root crops put into the cool root cellar, and apples and pears carefully dried in the sun. If the tenant farmers were fortunate, lines of credit were paid off and the bounty of their labor would sustain their families throughout the coming year.
Mary Jane Harper (left), a descendant of Poplar Grove’s enslaved, and her daughter, Emma Harper Foy (left), served as cooks and housekeepers to the Foy family through the mid-20th century. In most cases, the Foys dined on the same foods that the tenant farmers enjoyed. Harper was renowned for her biscuits served with cane syrup, hoppin’ john, smoked hams, and seafood. Other African-American women to share their cooking talents were Cornelia Durham and Mary Liza Jackson, wife of tenant farmer, Israel Jackson.
The Foys dined on foods produced right here on the plantation: fresh produce, dairy products, pork, chicken, seafood, wild game, and even scuppernong wine. Salt, produced at the family’s saltworks on the sound, was used to preserve meats in the smokehouse in a time without the convenience of refrigeration. Leslie Foy, Francis Marion Foy’s son, grew up on the farm adjacent to Poplar Grove. He later noted that the pork produced at Scotts Hill was “delicious because it was fattened on peanuts and then ‘ticked’ off with corn” after the hogs, weighing between 150-250 pounds each, had been driven into the feeding pens.
An interview with Carrie Simmons Ballard, who was born at Poplar Grove on April 4, 1905, pointed out various sites on the plantation she remembered from her childhood. “Over there [south of the Herb Cellar] was the hog-killing area,” she said, indicating a large, now vacant lot to the left of the plantation home. “In the winter when it was very cold, they’d kill the hogs and hang them up. They’d make sausage and liver pudding. Nothing you can get today tastes like that did on the plantation in those days… and when you got some buttermilk, you saw some butter on it.”
Every Saturday, Mrs. Ballard remembered, “a little short man named Mr. Capps would come and bring beef. They’d put it in the smokehouse with all the hams and meat hanging up. The smokehouse was wonderful. If we ran out of meat, we could go into the smokehouse and get some. The Foys were very good to the people who lived here.” Mrs. Ballard’s great-grandmother (former slave) was the main house servant for the Foy family, and her grandmother and mother also worked for the family.
To flesh out the rest of their diet, the servants and tenant farmers bought groceries”by the year from a little grocer down the road. I don’t know how he managed to let everybody buy on credit for a whole year. But the crops would come in and you’d pay the grocery and then start all over” (Morgan 1C).
In 1919, a kitchen and butler’s pantry was added to the northeast corner of the Manor House. Such a modern addition lent to family celebrations: “New Year’s Day, we had a big barbecue in the side yard,” comments Jerry, daughter of Robert Lee Foy, Sr. “With this, we served slaw an corn bread. During the summer, mother canned fruit, such as peaches, pears, grapes and vegetables. She also put up a fruit drink made from strawberries and blackberries called ‘strawberry and blackberry acid.’ This was diluted with water, and sugar was added to make a fruit punch to be served at our social gatherings. Wine was made in small quantities, also root beer.”
The daughters of Robert Lee Foy, Sr., quoted in the Topsail Voice, also remembered “the World War II era, when servicemen used to come to the plantation as guests from Camp Davis and Camp Lejeune. ‘There was rationing, but we were fortunate because we lived on a farm,’ said Theresa. ‘At least we had milk, eggs, chickens, and ham.'”
Perhaps by the 2nd World War, the Foys were even enjoying new recipes based on their beloved peanut such as those composed by the renowned agricultural scientist, George Washington Carver.
Peanut Nougat with Honey
3/8 cup honey
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 pound blanched peanuts
2 egg whites
Boil the honey and sugar together until drops of the mixture hold their shapes when poured into cold water; add whites of two eggs, well beaten, and cook very slowly, stirring constantly until the mixture becomes brittle when dropped in cold water; add the peanuts and cool under a weight, break in pieces or cut and wrap in waxed paper.
Carver, George Washington. “How to Grow the Peanut and 105 Ways of Preparing it for Human Consumption.” Bulletin no. 31. Tuskegee, AL: Tuskegee Institute Experiment Station, 1916.
Morgan, Patty. “I Sure Did My Share in the Peanut Fields.” Wilmington Morning Star, July 5, 1983. 1C.
Unger, Steve. “Foy Family Members Recount Poplar Grove Plantation History.” Topsail Voice, Volume 4, No. 52, May 24, 1995. 3B.