Sanford’s oldest building is now a museum, home to much of the city’s fascinating history
By Gordon Anderson
Seated in the heart of downtown Sanford, at the edge of Depot Park facing the intersection of Hawkins Avenue and Charlotte Avenue, is a house that not only predates the formation of Sanford, but today holds much of the city’s history.
Now known as the Railroad House, it was originally built across the street from its current location near the current Lee County Library as the home of the then-fledgling community’s first railroad depot agent, William Thomas Tucker and his wife Inder. Erected in 1872 — two years before Sanford would incorporate as a city around the intersection of the Augusta and Raleigh railroad lines — it’s literally the oldest structure in Sanford, if not much of the surrounding area.
When Sanford was incorporated in 1874, Tucker was appointed its first mayor, making the house not just a piece of community history, but essentially a center of Sanford’s municipal history.
This month, it turns 150 years old.
Today, it’s a museum to all things local history, but the story of the building itself — and the fact that it’s still standing today — is as interesting as any of the long forgotten secrets it contains.
“In 1962, it was slated to be torn down,” said Marty Stevens, a member of the all volunteer Railroad House Historical Association’s board of directors, which formed in order to save the house and move it to its current location in the 1960s. “It was still being used as a private residence, but there were plans to get rid of it.”
That moment displays an element of Sanford familiar to many residents, new and longtime alike — the community banding together for a common purpose.
“The association formed that day,” explained Joe Lawrence, another board member, and one old enough to remember many of the details firsthand. “They were standing there and saw what was going to happen. They said ‘we can’t let that happen,’ and started getting the money together to save it.”
For a time, the house served as a combined office for the state license plate agency and the Sanford Chamber of Commerce, then led by Hal Siler, one of the local leaders so interested in saving the structure. But in time, when the chamber moved out in 1995, it became a museum open to the public on most weekends that celebrates not just the big milestones in Sanford’s history, but also some of its most fascinating and nostalgic minutia.
There’s an authentic Sanford Spinners uniform from the World War II era, complete with a signed ball and baseball glove. There are priceless paintings of train cars manufactured by the Edwards Railway Motor Car Company in Sanford in the 1940s and earlier traveling through far flung places like Mexico. There’s a still-working clock that was originally owned by the Tuckers, the first inhabitants of the home. There’s a full display of the community’s rich pottery heritage. There’s a display of those responsible for creating and running the city and county’s earliest public schools for Black Americans.
There’s a box full of phone books from 1967, with the Railroad House prominently featured on the cover, giving a look to people of a certain age into the lives of their parents or grandparents (in fact, the house has an extensive collections of Sanford phone directories dating back to the device’s invention). Outside sits a steam train engine known as “Old Locomotive Number 12” that dates to 1911 and ran on the lines which intersect at the home’s current location until the late 1940s.
There’s the original desk of Dr. Mary Margaret McLeod, Sanford and Lee County’s first gynecologist and obstetrician whose image now adorns in mural form the wall of the county’s Department of Social Services on Carthage Street. Upstairs, there are even detailed records of business transactions in the city’s early and middle periods, offering a glimpse into the day to day life over the years of a community that still exists — and thrives — to this day.
October is the month for the Railroad House Historical Association to celebrate all of that — even a May 2011 incident in which a motorist heading into Sanford on Hawkins Avenue slammed his vehicle head-on into the house’s front, causing major damage from which the association has miraculously been able to recover. That damage, however, has been less of a threat to the organization than the persistent march of time.
“We’ve lost a lot of historical brains here in the last few years,” explained another board member, Wilson “Woody” Seymour, who named recently-deceased members like Siler, Bill Freeman, Richard Hayes, and other who have offered important contributions to the association over the years. “We don’t have really great records of the first people who lived here, so losing those members who have those memories of Sanford has been big.”
In any case, Oct. 16 will be the Railroad House Association’s day in the sun. From 2 to 4 p.m. that Sunday, the house will be open for tours, with live music outside and a tent to welcome visitors.
“We just want to thank the community,” said Martha Oldham, another Railroad House Historical Association board member. “People are constantly impressed with what we have here. Especially with Sanford becoming more of a destination all the time. This has been our front door for a long time, and we’ve been able to steer visitors, especially recently, toward all of the events and attractions this community has.”
While one wouldn’t describe the museum as cluttered by any means, “homey” is an apt descriptor. It’s one that board members welcome, as both a reminder that it served for years as a private residence and also that it’s an example of Sanford’s humble origins as a town of about 200 residents.
“A lot of museums are kind of sterile,” Seymour explained. “But you can spend a lot of time in here, and we try really hard to make every item interesting.”
Today, and since its inception, the Railroad House Historical Association gets little to no public money, aside from the occasional grant. All funds raised come from private individuals who make donations or become members of the association for a $25 annual fee. It’s an expense the board members see as an important step in preserving the history of a community that’s growing at a record pace.
“Our support comes from our membership and donations,” explained Joan Womble, the association’s treasurer. “We’ve had some funding over the years from the city and the county, but it takes a lot to take care of the utilities, the insurance and the upkeep.”
The association has collaborated with individuals over the years on a number of projects — including books like “The History and Architecture of Lee County” and “Images of America: Sanford and Lee County” — which serve not only as documents of local history, but also as important fundraising projects. In particular, the “Images of America” project is available at the Railroad House.
And while the Railroad House itself sits at the nexus of the city’s formation, it works to preserve and illuminate local history in other ways, including tours of area historical sites well beyond the boundaries of downtown or even Sanford proper.
“I’ve been to so many places around here with fascinating history that I probably never would have gone to otherwise,” said Seymour.
But for members like Lawrence, the Railroad House’s location is an important reminder of the community’s past. While it sat across the block at its inception, the current location has always been a hub of activity for him, dating back to nearly a century ago.
“This plot of land had the big water tower (visible in many historic local photos) until 1954,” Lawrence explained. “My first memory of it had to be in 1933. Where the fountain is, there was an arbor and a big wisteria bush. On occasions, the community would have parties out there. I don’t remember the occasions; I just remember the good ice cream and lemonade. More toward the 1940s, when the war years started, this was like Central Park, with the trains coming through all the time. And then my dad worked nearby, and I remember coming here to pick up the newspapers I would deliver.
“And now I’m on this board. I’ve always known this house, and I’m 93 years old.”
For more information about the Railroad House Historical Association, visit www.railroadhouse.org, or call (919) 776-7479. To become a member, mail a check for $25 to the Railroad House Historical Association, P.O. Box 1023, Sanford, NC 27331.
Correction to your article concerning Sanford’s Railroad house. Dr. Mary Margaret McLeod was not an OB/GYN. She was Sanford’s first pediatrician. My husband who is now 72 years old was treated by her as a child, as were our children.