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Loving hands preserve the Duncan House

The Duncan House in Jonesborough, which is now the headquarters for the Heritage Alliance, began as a simple home that once rested on the outskirts of town, and functioned as the main residence on a working farm.
And according to Deborah Montanti and Justin Sanders of the Heritage Alliance, the loving hands that restored and added to the structure over the years, might have made its history slightly murky. But those same hands are responsible for keeping the home in tact, and allowing it to serve as a cherished space for the town.
Its architecture and its former inhabitants and owners indicate important eras in history and important phases in the increasing prosperity of Jonesborough and its residents.
Ostensibly built around 1840, the original house was a basic two-room structure that served the needs of a family whose members worked as farmers and craftsmen.
“The original structure would have been very, very simple,” Sanders said. “I’ve always referred to this as a stylized farmhouse.”
According to archival research conducted by Dr. William Kennedy and Emma Treadway for the Jonesborough Civic Trust, the earliest known owner of the Duncan house was John Naff, who was listed in the 1850 census as a 34-year-old tailor with a net worth of $1,100.
It is presumed Naff married his wife, Mary, just after 1840, purchased the property, and started a family. The outbuilding seems to have been built around the same time and was possibly used as a tailor shop.
Deed research further indicates that Zachariah Burson bought the property from Naff on Nov. 2, 1848.
Jonesborough historian Paul Fink identified Burson as a farmer, merchant and preacher, who probably purchased the property as an investment.
Census and deed records suggest Naff lived there until at least 1850, presumably as a renter.
Burson’s increasing net worth and large household, which included one domestic servant and four slaves, leads one to believe he would have lived in a considerably larger home than the Duncan house.
During the 1870s an “L” shaped addition was completed on the back of the Duncan house, supposedly to add more sleeping space and an attached kitchen, since most kitchens were separate structures from houses then.
“(There was) more than likely a kitchen at that point because there was a larger cooking fireplace on the backside (of the building),” Sanders explained.
The addition of more sleeping and living space allowed the front rooms to function as communal gathering spaces.
“It’s really kind of a picture of what was going on during Reconstruction,” Sanders said. “They were rebuilding with what they had, they were meeting the needs of the time.”
Sanders also explained that the height of the more ornate and stylized architecture that represented the peak of the Victorian era culminated in the 1880s, when the Duncan house probably received a facelift that added a dash of grandeur.
“That whole movement of the Victorian era coming out of Reconstruction, we were celebrating that was over, and we wanted to be vibrant, to be colorful,” Sanders said.
The color scheme on the exterior of the home was derived and reproduced from paint analyses. Both the paint and the detailing on the porch reflect Victorian ornamentation that was likely added during that era.
“The ornamentation on the back of the house was not very elaborate, (but) the stipples on the porch are intricate, and we do have some gingerbread on the porch,” Sanders said. “But they are not as elaborate as some of the houses you would see on Main Street.
“These were not your Main Street affluent people who were going to be hosting lots of parties and events. This was a working farm, and was very simple for the time.”
The house and its land were next sold to Eugenia Blair sometime after 1880, according to deed research.
Blair reportedly was the wife of deceased attorney Robert Blair. At that time, the property once again appeared to function as a rental investment, and was probably inhabited by the Bayless family.
In 1886 the property changed hands again when Joel B. Thomas purchased it for $800. The small purchase price and the deed description lead history buffs to believe the home was still a one-story structure at that time.
Charles B. Thomas purchased the home from Joel B. Thomas sometime between 1886 and 1901. He in turn sold it to Robert C. Thomas in 1901, but the lack of census records for 1890 make it difficult to identify exactly who Charles and Joel Thomas were.
A history given to the Civic Trust by a descendant of the Thomas family explained that Robert was a salesman who owned the home free of debt. It is the first time the structure is referred to as home rather than as a farm.
The 1890s mark yet another architectural and historical epoch for the town, and for the Duncan house. The upstairs bedrooms were likely built then, further increasing the formality of the home.
“As Jonesborough continued to grow, they were hosting folks here in that parlor,” Sanders said. “Victorians were all about their parlors.”
On March 22, 1904, the property was purchased by its namesake Robert Mitchell Duncan, who, according to census records, was a saddle and harness maker with his own shop.
Researchers do not believe Duncan lived in the house after buying it.
Duncan died in 1917, willing the home to his wife, Mary Louise, who next willed it to her only living child, Blanche, upon her death in 1946.
At some point during the 20th century a modern bathroom and kitchen were added to the Duncan house.
“But when and where we do not know,” Sanders said. “There’s the assumption that they potentially closed in a porch to do that.”
The house changed hands once again when Blanche Duncan died on Sept. 15, 1964, and willed it to her cousin, John France.
France and his wife Ruby sold it to the town of Jonesborough on Feb. 28, 1980. The Town deeded the house and outbuilding to the Civic Trust on Jan. 17, 1990 “to preserve and restore for use as its office,” according to a report compiled by the Civic Trust.
On July 22, 1992, the Herald & Tribune reported on a ceremony marking the advent of
some restoration on the exterior of the Duncan house, marked by Civic Trust Founder Dr. Bernard Kaiman’s first stroke of paint on the outside of the building.
The article continued its report on the restoration by citing the chairman of the restoration committee as Mr. Lee Halberg, who did recently confirm that the restorations were “major,” but was unavailable for further comment on those past efforts.
The same article explained that two rooms had already been fully restored at the time, and the Town of Jonesborough donated $730 worth of paint to the exterior renovation project.
Halberg said the outside renovation would cost the Trust $ 8,000, with more funding coming from donations.
According to Sanders, the Duncan house was also operated as a “house museum” by the Trust, though the exact dates of that operation were not known to him. Sanders explained how important and rewarding the Trust’s restoration and management of the Duncan house was, inadvertently readying the structure to become the offices of the Heritage Alliance, when several historic organizations merged to form the alliance in 2001.
“A lot of hands have been on this house, and there’s a lot of Civic Trust history with this house, (and) their stewardship kept the house from falling into ruins.”