One of our most frequent tasks in the North Carolina Room is helping patrons learn about the history of their homes. But a home is just a building until you know something about who has lived in it. A couple of days ago, one such patron came in with some questions about her home near St. Leo’s Catholic Church.

She knew who she had bought it from and had been told that it was built in 1926. She wanted to know who the original owner was and who the architect was. I explained that the original owner would probably be easy, but that who the architect was might be impossible.

A quick check of our old city directories gave us the name of the original owner, Dr. John B. Bynum and confirmed the date as 1926. The same directory told us that Dr. Bynum’s offices were at 207-208 Woolworth Building, which wrapped around the O’Hanlon Building on the corner of Fourth and Liberty Streets, and that Dr. Bynum was a member of the county Board of Health.

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I knew that the Bynum’s had been a prominent family in the Germanton area in Stokes County, and we were quickly able, through census records, to confirm that Dr. Bynum’s father had been a physician in the Germanton area in the 19th century, but had later moved to Winston. The same census records revealed that young John had worked at a local pharmacy. My immediate guess was that John’s father and his experience at the pharmacy had led him to medical school.

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This 1880 census listing is a bit confusing. The number 23 in the third column designates the household, while the numbers 34 and 35 are supposed to designate different family groups. Since I live less than half a block from this location, prior research told me that all of the people listed lived in the home of Dr. V. O. Thompson at the northeast corner of Fifth and Liberty Streets.

Dr. Thompson, his wife Lina, their children Peter, Minnie and Ella, all school children, and Dr. Thompson’s younger sister Anna were the primary residents. But the other residents were not really a family group. Betty Young and Joseph Tyson worked as servants in the Thompson family home. Mary Champion, a 36 year old widow, and her 18 year old daughter Lula are listed as boarders, but quite likely had some family connection with the Thompsons. And, of course, John Bynum was employed by Dr. Thompson at his pharmacy a block away at the northeast corner of Fourth and Liberty Streets.

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The 1885 Sanborn Insurance Map above shows us the Thompson house at the corner of Fifth and Liberty Streets. It was a large brick structure, varying between two and three stories depending on the terrain, which has changed little over the years. Later the building became a boarding house and later yet was replaced by the Charles Store, which has since been converted to condos.

On a guess, I checked the 1894-95 Winston city directory, where we found John Bynum already established with a local medical practice at 13 1/2 West Fourth Street, across from the courthouse, and living at 838 Liberty Street with his widowed mother and sister.

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The same directory showed that he had already become the official city physician.

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The next step was finding Dr. Bynum’s obituary. We have a massive collection of local newspapers on microfilm, spanning the period from 1851 to the present. But they are not indexed, so finding an obituary depends upon knowing the date of death.

We have several resources for doing that, but for those who probably died in the 20th century, the best bet is the vital data records from the county Register of Deeds. Unfortunately, we could not find Dr. Bynum in those records. I explained that the problem is that the vital data only records those who actually died in Forsyth County. If they died while on vacation or visiting friends or on a business trip outside the county, their death will not be in our records.

That happens more often than you might think. R.J. Reynolds’ widow, Katharine Smith Reynolds Johnston, died in New York during child birth. P.H. Hanes brother John Wesley Hanes died in Atlantic City, NJ because he had Bright’s Disease and his local physician had recommended a sojourn on the seashore to possibly relieve the symptoms. Local lawyer H. Montague, who conceived and funded the Montague Medal, awarded to the student who has the highest average during senior year in our public high schools, died on vacation in Florida.

When that happens, our next resort is Ancestry.com. Ancestry is a pay website, around $15/month if you want to access it from home. But the library pays an annual fee of about $3,500 which allows all library card holders in Forsyth County to access Ancestry for free from any library public access computer.

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There we found Dr. Bynum’s death certificate, which told us that he had died in Durham, at Duke Hospital on November 2, 1933. Note that the cause of death is listed as a “blow on spine” which caused a thrombosis of the the spinal cord, the initial cause of which, as listed below, was a “fall in bathtub”. Early on, Duke became known as the center of study for neurological problems. As late as the 1980s, most neurosurgeons and neurologists in North Carolina had studied there.

Using that date, we easily found Dr. Bynum’s obituary in the local newspapers, a brief front page story on November 3, followed by a more detailed story on page 2 on November 4, which, among other things, listed the pall bearers and “honorary” pall bearers, a who’s who of local folks that indicated the esteem with which Dr. Bynum was held in the community.

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I also checked out our patron’s house using Bing maps birdseye view and recommended some ways in which she might find out who the architect of her house was. Needless to say, she left happy and hopeful for more, promising to return soon.

We had discovered a lot of facts in less than an hour, but I am never satisfied with just facts. History is a story, and I am never happy without one.

Our patron was hardly out of the building before my mind was working on a vague Bynum stirring around in my brain. Where did that come from? What did I know that I could not quite recall having to do with a Dr. Bynum and some ancient story?

It took until the next day, and some tossing and turning overnight, but, as it always does, it eventually popped up.

If you remember the raunchy old song “Salty Dog”, it always ends with the words

“I think we better call this the end of this song ’cause it’s a-getting’ too d–n long. Honey, let me be your salty dog.”

Well, this song has gone on long enough. See the following post for what happens next. It won’t have much to do with our patron’s house, but it will be one of the great joys of living in a historic house, because it will be a story that the owners can tell their dinner guests for years to come.

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