Twinkling lights, the cold December air, and two historic houses here in downtown Wilmington want to put guests in the Christmas spirit with their second annual Christmas Stroll Through the Past. A collaboration between the Burgin-Wright House and Gardens and the Bellamy Mansion, both houses will be decorated for Christmas and lit up with luminaries.
Using the old jail as its foundation, the Burgin-Wright House was built in 1770 by John Burgwin, planter, merchant, and treasurer of the colony of Carolina. Coined as the “most considerable house in town,” it was occupied as a residence until 1937 before the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America of North Carolina bought. Today, the house and gardens are a non-profit educational institution dedicated to interpreting Wilmington in the Colonial era in the context of North Carolina history.
The Bellamy Mansion is one of North Carolina’s most spectacular examples of antebellum architecture, built on the eve of the Civil War by free and enslaved black artisans. The home was built an the heigh of the antebellum period between 1859 and 1961 for John Dillard Bellamy, physician, planter, and business leader, and his wife, Eliza Mcllhenny Harriss, along with their nine children. After the fall of Fort Fisher in 1865, Federal troops commandeered the house as their headquarters during the occupation of Wilmington. Now a non-profit educational institution dedicated to interpreting the social and architectural history, the Bellamy promotes a greater understanding of historic preservation, architectural history and restoration methods in North Carolina.
“During 1862 the Bellamy family left Wilmington because of an epidemic of yellow fever,” volunteer Wade Toth says. “[They] relocated to Floral College near Lumberton and remained there for the rest of the Civil War, but made periodic trips back to Wilmington. They left Sarah, their enslaved cook, in charge of the property while they were gone.”
After the way, the Bellamies returned in 1865, and family member Ellen Bellamy actually in the house until she dies at the ripe age of 94 in 1946. “The home was briefly occupied by the Union military for about four months in 1865,” Toth notes. “US General Joseph Hawley and his wife [moved into the home].”
In 1972 arson overtook the mansion and practically destroyed it. It wasn’t until Preservation North Carolina restored it in the ‘80s that it resembled its grandeur once again.
“The property opened to visitors in 1994,” Toth explains.
During the Christmas Stroll Through the Past, guests will be able to walk through both houses, interact with costume interpreters, enjoy refreshments, and listen to local choirs and musicians. The Burgwin-Wright House will provide Wassail, a sweet non-alcoholic cider-like drink, and baked goods. In addition, the two blocks between the houses will sparkle because of 500 luminaries. St. James will have a series of choirs singing on the front steps, including the youth choir of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, the vocal ensemble from Cape Fear Academy, members of the Hanover Singers, and the women’s group the Seabelles from UNCW.
There will be a petting zoo at the Burgin-Wright House from 5 Star Farm and a llama from Horsetails Farm. Last year was the first joint version of the event, and accommodated just over 100 visitors. Christine Lamberton, museum manager of the Burgwin-Wright, expects this year to be bigger and better.
“The Burgwin-Wright House has been putting on a Christmas event similar to this for years, but decided to make this a joint event with the Bellamy just last year,” Lamberton says. “This year will be different in the sense that we are reaching out to families with the petting zoo, the community-at-large with various choirs from local churches and UNCW.”
The costumed interpreters are all volunteers from the local community. Many already are docents/museum guides at the houses, students from UNCW or work at area historic sites. The performers at Burgwin-Wright will be third-person interpreters. Essentially, they serve to answer visitors’ questions and share knowledge of the house and Colonial Wilmington. In fact, several of them are professional historians.
“We try our best to keep our decorations as authentic to the period as possible with information taken from Ellen Bellamy,” Toth says. “Of course we do stretch it a bit! Christmas trees were tabletop trees, not the stand-on-the-floor kind we think of today.”
The Wilmington Trolley will provide shuttle service for those who don’t wish to walk. “We will also have our volunteer harper—called a harper since the harp doesn’t have pedals—Susan Wilzer.”
Tickets are $25 for adults, $5 for children ages 5 to 12, and free for children under 5. Tickets can be purchased at both houses and at all local Wilmington Harris Teeters where guests can receive a dollar off their adult tickets if they show their VIC card. Tickets will also be available the day of the event.
Christmas Stroll through the Past
Sat., Dec. 14th, 5 p.m. – 8 p.m.
Bellamy Mansion, 503 Market St.
$25 for adults • $5 for children