Willie Lee Thompson was swept up in a flood of memories after someone sent him a YouTube video showing a log cabin that had been hidden for more than 70 years under the siding of an old home in East Durham last month.
Thompson, an 84-year-old resident of Long Branch, New Jersey, figures he was about four years old around 1941 or 1942 when his parents, Frank and Maude Thompson, bought a three-acre parcel of land in Durham’s Merrick-Moore community that was divided into three lots.
His parents sold two of the lots.
“The log cabin sat in the middle,” says Thompson, who thinks it was built in the late 1800s. “It was a feed barn at first, and initially located about 200 yards west of its present location. It was old, but it was very well made.”
Late last month, workers with a local demolition company removed the siding of an old home in the 800 block of Center Street and discovered the log cabin underneath.
The discovery generated a lot of excitement, especially among the city’s preservation officials after a member of the demolition crew posted a video of the old structure on YouTube.
Inexplicably, the demolition crew applied for a permit to burn the log cabin away after it was uncovered.
City fire officials denied the burn permit, they confirmed to the INDY.
Undeterred, the demolition crew burned the log cabin anyway.
“This find was called in,” states the narrator of the video, which was posted on September 22. “It is not part of a historic district.”
The next day, the workers dismantled the log cabin and burned away the centuries-old round logs, dried mortar, and bits of wood used to fill in gaps in the structure. Then, they burned the rest.
Last week, city fire officials informed Cameron Huffman, the owner of Raleigh Tree and Demolition, that the company was working without a permit.
The September 23 unpermitted burning of the log cabin marked one year since officials with the NC Department of Insurance charged Huffman with a felony count of obtaining property by false pretense.
Special agents with the state department’s criminal investigations division accused Huffman of obtaining $20,000 from a customer after advertising his company, Oak City Tree Service, had full liability insurance.
State investigators said Huffman had “presented false and misleading information” to a customer in Raleigh, when he claimed that his company was fully insured. But then the customer “sustained damage when the landscaping [surrounding her home] was disturbed from the tree and brush removal, and water ran into her house.”
When the customer attempted to file an insurance claim with Huffman’s insurance company, they learned “the tree service was not insured as advertised.”
During the month that Huffman was arrested, an orange banner at his online site indicated Oak City Tree Service was “Permanently Closed.”
Huffman started Raleigh Tree and Demolition Service the same month, according to records filed with the secretary of state’s office.
Huffman was not immediately available for comment.
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More than 500 people viewed the video of the log cabin discovery titled “Old Log Cabin Was Hidden Under Siding And Additions In Durham, NC!”
The video was posted on social media by Carlos Rocha Services. Company officials could not be reached for comment.
Thompson, the log cabin’s former resident, remembers the day his parents summoned a man with a tractor to drag the then at least half-century-old barn to its present location.
“He came on the backroads, on a tractor with metal wheels that had spikes,” Thompson told the INDY.
Thompson says he was living with his parents and, at that time, five siblings on Ray Road, about three miles away from the log cabin on Center Street.
The old dwelling was so well made, Thompson says, his mother decided to convert it into their family home.
“We lived in a white house,” Thompson says. “My mother would walk down the highway everyday to work on that barn.”
Thompson says his father, who worked as a mechanic with the old Durham Dairy plant, got ahold of some cement. He remembers walking to a nearby creek to fetch buckets of water that his mother would use to mix with the cement and dirt to create a mixture that she used to daub the cracks between the logs to fortify the structure. World War II was raging, and Thompson says it took his mother several years to finish the place in 1944.
“My father worked with the city to make ends meet and put food on the table,” Thompson says. “My mom worked every day, too. She got somebody in the neighborhood to help build the chimney. There wasn’t any money exchanged then. Those were some poor times. People were dirt poor.”
Thompson’s neighbors also helped to build around the log cabin, eventually adding a kitchen and three bedrooms. Thompson’s parents had two more daughters, and by the time they reached courting age, his parents had added a front room.
It was the first house on Center Street and did not have electricity for years, or indoor plumbing. An outhouse sat about 75 yards from the drylongso home. By the 1950s, the family had dug a well on the property and later installed an electrical pump.
Thompson recalls sleeping in the first bedroom in a bed with his brother Alex. Two younger brothers shared another bed in the home.
“The place didn’t have insulation,” Thompson says. “You ever heard that old song, ‘Sleeping at the Foot of the Bed’? Our feet were in each other’s faces. Our mother bought surplus army blankets, and we would bury ourselves in them.”
Thompson says his father repaired Durham Dairy’s delivery trucks that traveled all over the state. The demolition crew last month also removed from the property a truck discarded by the company where his father had worked.
“It was on blocks,” Thompson says of the truck. “My daddy took a drop cord that ran from the house and used the truck as a freezer locker for meat.”
Thompson says his mother was a neighborhood champion who petitioned for the construction of what was then Merrick-Moore High School, served as president of its PTA, and held fundraisers for school amenities, including band uniforms and curtains for the auditorium, yet still found time to petition the city for the first phone lines in the community and help register Black voters.
Meanwhile, Thompson as a boy explored the nearby creek where the waters streamed across deposits of soapstone. He thinks the area may be evidence of Indigenous people who first lived in the area, after he collected arrowheads that he kept in his bedroom.
Thompson moved from the home to New Jersey in 1960. His parents lived in the home for decades after their children all moved away. His father, Frank, died in 1994. He was 83. His mother, Maude, died about three years later in 1997. She was 88.
Chris Laws, president of Preservation Durham, says he was among the city residents who were “surprised and excited to hear about the log cabin” discovered in the community named to honor two of the founders of the NC Mutual Insurance Company, John Merrick and A.M. Moore, in 1898. NC Mutual will cease operations at the end of this month.
“I was deeply saddened to find out that it had been burned to the ground,” Laws wrote in an email to the INDY. “As a historic preservationist, I lament any historic structure being torn down, but this feels like such a heavy loss. We would have loved to have had an opportunity to study it and learn more about its history before it was destroyed. Finding a log cabin like this is so rare, it is really a shame that it was discarded so quickly.”
In a phone call to the INDY, Laws notes that preservationists in the past have moved similar structures to different locations to save them.
Instead, he says, this log cabin’s discovery and burning “literally happened within the scope of a day.”
“It’s so sad,” he adds. “It would not have been difficult to move [the cabin] and carry it away. It’s just one of those things where the law only goes so far to protect unused buildings.”
Laws wonders if the building dated back to the 19th century, which would make its loss all the more lamentable.
“We don’t know its story,” he says. “I wish they could have brought [Preservation Durham] into the conversation. But capitalism doesn’t wait. A lot of out-of-state buyers are buying properties [in Durham], sites unseen.”
Bonita Green, a Merrick-Moore community resident and president of the nonprofit Merrick-Moore Community Development Corporation, was among the dozen or so Youtube video viewers who posted comments.
“I live down the street from this home,” wrote Green, who later told the INDY her great-grandparents briefly rented the log cabin when the Thompsons lived on a farm in Creedmoor.
When the INDY arrived at the log cabin location last week, the burned debris and other siding materials had been cleared away. The structure formerly sat in a roughly graded open space where a stand of trees ringed the property like a horseshoe.
There were several newly constructed homes across the street from the log cabin’s former site.
Green says the demolition crew dismantled the log cabin and filled up two large bins with wood and other materials used to build the structure. She says a third bin appeared the following day, but they burned the remaining materials. Green says neighbors grabbed some of the logs and are using them to help define the boundaries of a planned community garden named for her father, Samuel Green Sr.
Community members asked the demolition crew to take the two bins of logs to the planned community garden site on Cheek Road.
“We told them it was closer than the landfill and they wouldn’t have to pay after dropping them off,” Green says.
Thompson says he wishes someone had “jacked up that barn and transported it to a historical site,” as the man with the tractor did for his family decades before.
“You won’t find these places anymore,” he says. “They knock them down and burn them. This was a gift.”
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