History of the Beaufort Plaque

Miss Merwin's Original Drawing 
Courtesy John and Ginny Costlow
Not long after the founding of the Beaufort Historical Association in 1960, then president Dr. John Costlow went to Miss Elizabeth Merwin about designing and creating a plaque to mark houses over 100 years old. Their goal was to encourage interest in the townsfolk promoting the significance and value of their old homes. Miss Merwin, classically trained in heraldry, created a watercolor design—the same one that is in use today.*

Many had been skeptical of the project as Dr. Costlow placed the first plaque on the Duncan House on the west end of Front Street, then dated 1790*. But, once it was in place, others began calling Dr. Costlow with comments such as, "My house is older than Sara's - why can't I have a plaque?" Soon, they began sprouting up all over town!
Thomas Duncan House

Producing the plaques eventually involved many people. Ben Jones was engaged to cut a tin template to facilitate drawing the pattern on wood. Dr. Costlow traced and cut them out at the Duke Marine Lab on Pivers Island. Participating in the community effort, Bert Brooks assisted by applying seven base coats of white acrylic paint to the wooden shields. Dr. Costlow did the color work and lettering in his Ann Street kitchen.

In March 1963, the association announced that plaques were in place on 20 buildings, including the Duncan House, the 1796 Courthouse, the Old Jail, Carteret Academy and Purvis Chapel. Others included the Nelson, Easton, Caleb Bell, Hatsell, J. Davis, Beveridge, Morse, Piver, Gibbs and Langdon Houses. *See full list at the end of this post.

As more and more plaques were added, a few were done with a mellow gold and brown border to distinguish those houses from the 100-year-old ones. These few, having now ‘come of age’, may eventually be repainted with the traditional blue and silver border or owners may choose to leave them ‘as is’ due to their uniqueness. The one to your right is one of those with different coloration - displayed on the John Wolfe House on Orange Street.

Mamré Marsh Wilson painted about 50 plaques over a period of 20 years, along with refurbishing older ones. She also did extensive research on each house to verify dates and original owners. After so many years of beautiful and dedicated work, Mamré is turning the job over to the new plaque person - Wendy Davidson.

A record of the significance of the plaque is documented in Ruth Barbour’s History of the Beaufort Historical Association. A research-only copy is available at the Beaufort Public Library. The below information is paraphrased with more details and images added:
  • The border of the shield-shaped plaque is made up of a blue and silver checked border signifying fair play. This compony (Heraldry adjective) border was taken from the Duke of Beaufort’s coat of arms which displays a single row of squares with alternating color.
  • The Red Rose of Lancaster at the bottom of the plaque represents the Lancaster lineage of the Duke of Beaufort’s family.
  • The gold menhaden at the top signifies “Fish Town," a name often used to describe this fishing village on the sea.
NOTES:
1) Sophia Merwin and her daughter, Elizabeth Merwin, lived in the “Jennie Bell” house for many years. Elizabeth was born in Beaufort in 1918. She graduated from the Corcoran School of the Arts and returned to Beaufort in 1938. She worked on Pivers Island at the US Marine Fisheries with Dr. Herbert F. Prytherch but still found time to make several significant and lasting contributions to her home town. She also designed the windows of St. Andrews Episcopal Church in Morehead City. Oddly enough Elizabeth’s house was not plaqued during her lifetime. It was plaqued when renovated and officially researched a few years ago—now The Buckman House circa 1848. Elizabeth also created beautiful coat of arms for several local families.
 
2) The Red Rose of Lancaster is the county flower of Lancashire. Rosa gallica officinalis is a small shrub producing richly fragrant, semi-double, rosy crimson flowers with prominent yellow anthers. The "officinalis" denotes that the plant is used as an herbal remedy. The rose was first adopted as a heraldic device by the first Earl of Lancaster and became the emblem of Lancashire following the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. This ancient rose is recorded as being in cultivation in the 800's. It was used as a medicine and perfume in the court of Charlemagne in the ninth century A.D. Its petals were noted to retain their fragrance even when dried.
 
3) Beaufort has only one double-plaqued house. One plaque denotes The Allen Davis House circa 1774, home to the Davis family for over 100 years. The other is for Major General Ambrose Burnsides - Union commander of North Carolina troops during the Civil War. He had several headquarters in North Carolina and, though undocumented, many say that he used this home during the Federal occupation of the area from 1861 to 1873.

March 1963 - First 20 buildings Beaufort, NC to have historic plaques

DUNCAN 1790 -105 Front St.; DAVIS 1821 - 127 Front St.
NELSON 1790 - 201 Front St.; MORSE 1771 - 215 Front St.
EASTON 1771 - 229 Front St.; SABISTON 1857 - 307 Front St.
CARTERET ACADEMY or Beaufort Female Institute 1854 - 505 Front St.
CALEB BELL 1770 - 817 Front St.; GIBBS 1851 - 901 Front St.
BUCKMAN 1845 - 114 Ann St.; BEVERIDGE 1841 - 123 Ann St.
PETER PIVER 1750 - 131 Ann St.; James DAVIS 1817 - 201 Ann St.;
MACE 1832 - 691 Ann St.; WILLIS 1820 - 700 Ann St.
HATSELL 1827 - 121 Orange St.; LANGDON 1764 - 135 Craven St.
CRAMER 1796 (Courthouse on Historic Site)
PURVIS CHAPEL 1820 - Broad/Craven Sts.
COUNTY JAIL 1829 (now on Historic Site)


*Author's Note: Please check these links to read more about the legislative act to establish Beaufort and a more accurate date for the Duncan House.