In the summer and spring, bright flowers surround this white plantation house whose name comes from its location on a horseshoe bend in the The Deep River. The house (ca. 1770) was first owned by Philip Alston, whose band of Whigs was attacked in 1781 by Tories led by David Fanning. Later, four-term North Carolina governor Benjamin Williams lived in the house, which today features fine antiques of the colonial and Revolutionary War eras.
As the Deep River wanders through North Carolina's Piedmont plateau and curves in a horseshoe bend, there stands on a hilltop above it one of the first big houses of upland North Carolina frontier country, the House in the Horseshoe. Built around 1772, the house was named "Retreat" by its second owner, Gov. Benjamin Williams. Known as the Alston House, its walls still bear numerous scars and bullet holes from a Revolutionary War skirmish.
During the American Revolution, groups of citizen-soldiers called Whigs or revolutionists, and Tories, who were still loyal to the king of England, waged irregular warfare against each other in North Carolina's backcountry (western frontier).
The House in the Horseshoe was then the home of Whig colonel Philip Alston. On the morning of July 29, 1781, while Alston and his band of revolutionaries were camped at the home, they were attacked by a larger unit of Tories, whose leader was the notorious David Fanning. During the ensuing skirmish, Fanning's forces attempted to light the house on fire by rolling against it a cart filled with burning straw. After several casualties on both sides, Alston surrendered. The house was left riddled with bullet holes, many of which can still be seen today.
Though Alston was distinguished as a lieutenant colonel in the state militia, a justice of the peace, and a state senator, his later career was seen as disreputable. Twice indicted for murder, he was removed as justice of the peace, and suspended from the state legislature for various reasons. In 1790, Philip Alston sold the house and plantation and left the state.
In 1798 Gov. Benjamin Williams bought the 2,500-acre plantation. Besides serving four one-year terms as the state's governor and a colonel under George Washington, he was a member of the first board of trustees of the University of North Carolina and served in the national Congress at Philadelphia.
Williams enlarged the house by adding two wings featuring a kitchen and a master bedroom. One of Williams's ambitions was to become a planter. The growing of short staple cotton was highly profitable business because of Eli Whitney's invention of the cotton gin, and the Horseshoe land was excellent for that purpose. In 1801 Williams planted 42 acres of cotton; he grew nearly two hundred acres the following year. By 1803 about 50 slaves were working his plantation, which was valued at $30,000 dollars.
Williams died on the plantation in 1814. Though he was first buried some distance away, his grave was subsequently moved to the grounds of his former home. His family lived in the house until 1853. The dwelling changed ownership several times until 1954, when it was bought and restored by the Moore County Historical Association. In 1955 the state acquired the property.
The architectural style of the house is that of the coastal lowlands. A two-story frame dwelling, it is a typical 18th-century plantation house featuring a gable roof with large double-shouldered Flemish bond chimneys and a shed porch.
The center-hall plan reflects Gov. Williams's early 19th-century remodeling of the house. It is distinguished by the strikingly elaborate and well-executed detail of the doorways and some of the interior woodwork, including the especially fine mantel in the north parlor. The interior is furnished with fine late colonial and early Federal-period pieces.