Baynes Store | Person County, NC | c. 1920s
At a quiet rural crossroads in North Carolina stands a vestige to another era. A building that represents a time and place that will be marked forever in the iconic photographs that were created here by a traveling photographer in the 1930s. Her name was Dorothea Lange and when she arrived at this crossroads, it was called Gordonton, but its story started long before it was known by that name.
Originally inhabited by Ocaneechi Indians, white settlers arrived in this section of North Carolina in the mid-to-late 1700s. One of the earliest of them was Simeon (Simon) Cochran, a plantation owner and enslaver who owned land along the wagon road. In the early 1800s, he established a mill, store, post office, and boarding house for travelers and according to early maps, the crossroads was called Cochran’s Store after his name.
While researching this period of time, I came across many stories in local newspapers and genealogical accounts that described Simeon as an awful man who treated the people he enslaved persons with particular cruelty. Adding to the legend of his reputation, many guests at his boarding house had gone missing over the years and it was rumored that Simeon had murdered them, stolen their things, and then buried them on his property. In 1821, after another guest turned up missing, a man who was enslaved by Simeon saw him disposing of a body in a well and risked his life to turn in his murderous master. One September night, the man rode 20 miles on horseback to Hillsborough where he notified the sheriff of what he had seen. By the time the authorities made it to Cochran’s Store, Simeon had fled, allegedly leaving for Tennessee with members of his family. I was unable to find any records of him after 1822.
Gordonton: A Community By A Different Name
Over the following years, the post office at Cochran’s Store was discontinued until 1830, when another prominent local plantation owner and minister, Reverend Alex Gordon, was assigned the job of postmaster. The crossroads was renamed Gordonton after him.
In 1849, the reverend and his eldest son, Richard Elam Gordon, both died, and the operation of the post office was left to Richard’s widow, Elizabeth Graves Gordon.
The Baynes Family
One year after her husband Richard’s death, Elizabeth remarried Rainey Curry (R.C.) Baynes. With her second husband, postmistress Elizabeth Graves Gordon Baynes would have 9 more children. Her second husband, Rainey, was from prominent family lines (Yancey and Baynes) who were some of the first settlers in this part of North Carolina. In 1846, he left home to attend medical school at the University of Pennsylvania and upon graduation, returned to his home in Person County, NC. He spent the rest of his life at Gordonton, where he offered medical services to the people of the local area. He was also a farmer and according to the 1860 census, enslaved 17 people at Gordonton. After the Civil War, he expanded an earlier home to create this massive one at the crossroads where he and Elizabeth raised their children.
The Baynes Store At Gordonton Crossroads
When the Baynes Home was built, the original Cochran’s Store still stood here and is said to have operated by the Baynes Family until the late 1890s or early 1900s. It was in the early 1900s when Rainey Curry Baynes II, Rainey’s grandson, built this store to fit more modern needs. The place became a central part of life for the area’s farmers- many of whom were poor sharecroppers.
They would come to the store on the weekends to get supplies for their farms and kitchens, and maybe a small treat for the kids if they could afford it. Here, you could buy shoes, tools, candy, and much more. But the most important part of your visit to Baynes’ store was to visit with your neighbors. To catch up on what was happening around the area and to connect about life here at this bucolic crossroads. Where a sense of community was fostered by generations of farmers who passed an afternoon on its porch.
A Quiet Crossroads Becomes A National Icon
It was this feeling of community in rural America that iconic photographer, Dorothea Lange, captured so poignantly in her images of this place. Her journals have been kept by the Library of Congress and give us some insight into her travels through this area. According to her notes, Dorothea arrived at this quiet crossroads in July of 1939 on a Saturday. She was so taken with the scene that she asked the shop owner if she could return the following day to take more photographs. He agreed, and so she spent the following days photographing the people of this quiet crossroads. She returned on Sunday to Baynes’ Store where she created one of the most iconic images of her career.
If you take the time to look at the details of the image, many interesting details emerge. Like the kerosene pump on the right and the gas pump on the left. And the fascinating collection of signs and advertisements that adorn the walls and the chicken striking a pose. If you look further, you’ll also notice the natural cypress posts supporting the porch roof that are still there today.
From her field notes, Dorothea mentioned that the men sitting on the porch were dressed in their good clothes instead of farm clothes- likely because she created this image on a Sunday and the men had come to the store after church. Another very interesting part of the story is that the store had electricity. In 1939, only 11% of rural North Carolina had electricity so this would’ve been a big deal for locals back then to be able to get a cold soda.
Over the years, her iconic photograph of the Baynes Store at Gordonton has been honored, reshared, recreated, and discussed by many who are fascinated by the image and the era it represents. The image contains so many intriguing pieces that it feels like a perfect slice of Americana, frozen in time. The first time I saw it, I honestly thought it was a scene from a movie because it seemed too ‘perfect’ or staged to be real. In fact, the scene has been used at Disney in a vignette at a theme park ride.
What Happened To Gordonton?
In 1942, just a few years after Dorothea created this image, the man standing in the doorway, Rainey Curry Baynes II, passed away and the store closed for good shortly after. The community of Gordonton never grew to be much more than a quiet rural crossroads. In the years that followed, more and more people moved out of the area, looking for more opportunities in bigger cities. Today, the building stands here at this corner just as it has for more than 100 years, although it’s only used for storage now. The friendly neighbors on the porch are long gone as well as many of the signs that you can see in Dorothea’s original photograph from 1939.
But the distinctive original cypress posts that held up the porch roof are still there- a testament to the durability of the wood and quality of construction. Today, the owners of the store property tell me that it’s probably the most popular photography spot in all of the county as they see visitors almost daily stopping to take photos. And how special it is that someone like me who has been fascinated with Lange’s work for so long can stand in the same place that she did almost 100 years ago, recreating an image that has touched so many.
A Close Look Into The Sharecropping Era
While she became most known for the image at Baynes Store that she created on this trip, her main focus was on documenting sharecropping families and their everyday lives. According to her field notes, Dorothea spent at least 2 days at this community in Person Couty, photographing the people of the place, their homes, and churches. During her time in this part of North Carolina, she was able to visit with a handful of families who were willing to pose for her camera and answer questions about their lives.
The Whitfield Family of Gordonton
One family, in particular, allowed Dorothea inside their home where they shared an intimate glimpse into their world. The Whitfields lived in Gordonton, less than a half mile down the road from the Baynes Store. On the day that she stopped at the store, she encountered a young girl, Dorothy Whitfield, who introduced Dorothea to her parents. They agreed to have the photographer visit their home and told her about their family.
The Whitfields were a sharecropping family who leased this home and the surrounding land where they farmed tobacco. The sharecropping (or tenant) farming model of that era created a system whereby large landowners would lease small parcels to families who had lesser means and couldn’t buy their own homes and land. In exchange for a portion of the farmers’ crops, the landowner would lease the tenant family to live in as long as they were farming the parcel. This system was nearly impossible to escape from and kept the poorer farmers stuck in a cycle of rural poverty.
During their visit with Dorothea, who was accompanied by a sociologist from UNC, the Whitfields shared an honest look into their personal struggles. Irene Isabelle Tatum married Charles “Dewey” Whitfield in 1927 and soon after, they began a family. Mrs. Whitfield explained that their 2 oldest children had been born at home, but due to complications, their 2 youngest children had to be born via c-section in a hospital.
The family, who were otherwise debt-free, had become overwhelmed with the money they owed to the doctor and hospital for the 2 births that they were struggling to repay. She said that her husband Dewey had been “falling off” ever since due to his stress over their debt and that after their youngest was born, Irene had to step up to work in the fields to help the farm keep afloat.
Mrs. Whitfield agreed to allow Dorothea inside her home and kitchen, although she insisted on wearing her good shoes and dress which she didn’t normally wear inside, according to Dorothea’s field notes. The images she captured provide a unique glimpse into what life was like for one North Carolina sharecropping family during this era.
Who Was Dorothea Lange?
Dorothea Lange was born in 1895 in Hoboken, New Jersey. She began learning photography while she was a student at Columbia University and in 1918, moved to San Francisco where she established a portrait photography studio. In her early years, Lange made portraits mostly of San Francisco’s elite, but when the Great Depression took hold of the nation in the early 1930s, thousands began pouring into the streets of San Francisco with no money, no place to live, and looking for work.
It was during this era that she turned her camera to the streets and the thousands of displaced families who were pouring into California, hoping to find a future. Her images highlighted the blight of the homeless in California and the difficulties of the times. In 1936, she created the image for which she would become most famous, Migrant Mother. In early March 1936, Dorothea Lange drove past a sign reading, “PEA-PICKERS CAMP,” in Nipomo, California. At the time, she was working as a photographer for the Resettlement Administration to raise public awareness of and provide aid to struggling farmers. Twenty miles down the road, Lange reconsidered and turned back to the camp, where she encountered a mother and her children.
“I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother as if drawn by a magnet. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding field and birds that the children killed.”
Lange took seven exposures of the woman, 32-year-old Florence Owens Thompson, with various combinations of her seven children. One of these exposures, with its tight focus on Thompson’s face, transformed her into a Madonna-like figure and became an icon of the Great Depression and one of the most famous photographs in history.
As she left her studio to create photographs on the roads and byways, Lange made the shift from portraitist to photojournalist. Her photographs of the homeless and unemployed in California caught the attention of the media and eventually got her a job with the Farm Services Administration. In 1939, she divorced her first husband and married her second husband, Paul Schuster Taylor, an economist, and professor at the University of Berkeley. For the next 5 years, they traveled California, the midwest, and parts of the South documenting rural poverty and exploitation of sharecroppers. Over the years, her poignant images were distributed to newspapers across the country, making them icons of the era.
Lange developed personal techniques of talking with her subjects while composing her photographs, putting them at ease and enabling her to document pertinent information that they shared to accompany the images. While she created images and took down oral histories, her husband interviewed subjects and gathered economic data.
Working for the Farm Services Administration, Lange’s images brought to public attention the plight of the poor and forgotten- particularly sharecroppers, displaced farm families, and migrant workers. The iconic images that she created of regular people as they navigated their way through the Great Depression are moving and special in that they truly capture an era, frozen in time.
In the Summer of 1939, she was assigned to travel to North Carolina and Virginia to document sharecropping families. She traveled through Chatham, Orange, Wake, Person, and Caswell counties, capturing snapshots of the tenant farming families who lived in the area. You can read more about her here and see more of her work here.