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Secretary and Bookcase

Wills, John, Jr. __Attributed to
Place Made:
Lincoln or Gaston County North Carolina United States of America
Date Made:
walnut –cherry –light wood inlay –yellow pine
HOA: 105 1/4; WOA: 43 1/2; DOA: 23 1/2
Accession Number:
DESCRIPTION: Secretary with bookcase: Upper part has arched door with 20 lights; scrolled pediment and fluted pilasters; bottom part has two lipped edge drawers below drawer front that lowers as a fall board to reveal a secretary compartment; secretary interior has eight drawers, eight open compartments, two document drawers and a central prospect door; light wood and walnut inlays decorate drawer fronts (pair of opposing compass-drawn arcs with a sprig in center) and pediment.

GROUP: The piece belongs to a group of furniture associated with cabinetmakers working in eastern Gaston or Lincoln County. Typical of this school is the architectural composition of the bookcase, which is in the form of a classical Venetian window complete with fluted pilasters and inlaid arch imposts, a style very popular in southeastern Pennsylvania furniture of the period. Corner cupboards in this group have dovetailed joinery of the tops and backboards, indicating that at least one of the cabinetmakers in this school was of German descent or training. (RAES)

MAKER: A very similar secretary with bookcase apparently by the same maker was inlaid under the arch with the name “ROBT ALEXANDER” and the initials “MA” for Margaret Alexander, mother of Robert and wife of Zenas Alexander. The Alexander piece was attributed in the 1930s to the cabinetmaker John Wills, but because the piece was lost in a fire, researchers were unable to ascertain the source of the information on the maker (Paul H. Burroughs, Southern Antiques, Chapter XIV, plate VII.) Recently a previously unseen inscription reading “made bye Miles Wills grand father” was discovered on the bookcase backboards of Acc. 2845, thus adding credence to the Wills family attribution.

Jacob Miles Wills (1831-1906) was the son of John Wills, Jr. (ca.1784-1839) and the grandson of John Wills, Sr. (1748-1793). When John Wills, Sr., died in 1793, a small number of woodworking tools and materials were sold at his 1793 estate sale, but John Jr. was only 8 or 9 when his father died. Thus, someone else must have trained him. In John Sr.’s estate papers was a suggestive receipt which indicated that prior to his death, John Wills Sr. was involved in a “company” with his brother Conrad Wills, a brother-in-law Adam Cloninger, and Thomas Rhyne, and that company owned a crosscut saw. One must assume that the company, whatever it was, was involved in woodworking in some way. Probably one of the men that was part of the “company” trained John, Jr. When Adam Cloninger, one of those owners, died in 1818, numerous woodworking tools were listed in his inventory, including a crosscut saw valued at $7.85 and a jointer valued at $4.90, both rather expensive tools compared to other items in the inventory.

John Wills, Jr. left North Carolina in 1832 with his family and settled at Cape Girardeau, Missouri, along with many other Lincoln County Germans. Documents in the estate files for John Wills, Jr. were filed at the Cape Girardeau County, Missouri, Archive Center in Jackson, MO, and among them is a receipt in which John Wills, Jr., agreed that “Five months after date I promise to pay Drury Wills [his son] one corner cobbard the same kine of William Smith’s.” Further, listed on Wills’s estate inventory is one lot of carpenter’s tools, valued at $30, the 3rd most costly item in the entire inventory. Thus, there is little question that John Wills, Jr., was a cabinetmaker and the maker of MESDA’s secretary and bookcase.

WOODS: Cherry with light wood and walnut inlay, with cherry and yellow pine secondary woods.

With a history of descent from William Alexander Graham, governor of North Carolina from 1845 to 1849, it is highly likely that this secretary with bookcase originally was the property of General Joseph Graham, the governor’s father.

General Graham’s widowed Scotch-Irish mother brought her five young children, including seven-year-old Joseph, from Pennsylvania to Charleston in 1766, and then made the northwestern trek inland to Mecklenburg County where she set up housekeeping among a strong community of other Scotch-Irish Presbyterians. Joseph was educated at Liberty Hall in Charlotte and then in 1778 at age 19 enlisted in the Army of the United States. During the next two years he “commanded 15 engagements with a degree of courage, wisdom, calmness and success, surpassed, perhaps, by no officer of the same rank.” After returning to Mecklenburg in 1782, he was elected the county’s first sheriff and then was elected to represent the region in North Carolina’s General Assembly.

In 1792, he moved his small family a few miles west across the Catawba River to eastern Lincoln County where he engaged in the manufacture of iron for over forty years before his death. His iron manufactory was called Vesuvius Furnace (MESDA owns a fireback–Acc. 2564.1–made at Vesuvius Furnace) and the home he built close by, Vesuvius Plantation. He was a lifelong Presbyterian, and was a trustee of Unity Presbyterian Church in eastern Lincoln County for many years. Graham was very interested in the education of young men and was also on the original Board of Trustees at the University of North Carolina. His secretary-bookcase was most likely made for Vesuvius Plantation, which still stands today.

After General Graham died in 1836, an estate sale was conducted at Vesuvius Plantation, and his son, future North Carolina Governor William A. Graham, described the sale thus in a letter to his wife Susan: “I am again at the mansion once my Father’s, but which is now bereft of his presence, and trodden by many strangers’ steps. . . . All the members of our family are here except Sister Mary, whose health forbids her to come. On yesterday our sale commenced. Bro. James and myself purchased this place, perhaps from a childish aversion to see it go out of the family. . . . Today the sale will continue, & perhaps tomorrow. Some old relics of the family are not to be sold, but everything else will be exposed to sale. An immense crowd was here yesterday and some are now encamped in sight. We all huddled into the dwelling House at this place together with crier, & clerk of sale, etc. We shall probably finish our settlement in the course of a week. . . . I am writing in the midst of a room filled with a crowd and confusion.” One of the items “exposed to sale” was the secretary bookcase, which was purchased by Gen. Graham’s son James Graham for $25, the single most expensive piece of furniture sold, excluding the bedsteads.

Also “exposed to sale” were approximately 30 books, including John Marshall’s Life of Washington, H. S. Tanner’s A New American Atlas, John Locke’s Some Thoughts Concerning Education, Reverend John Witherspoon’s Works, Jedidiah Morse’s American Geography, and David Hume’s History of England. These were all books that had probably resided on the shelves of the secretary bookcase. It and its contents were the spiritual and intellectual heart of the Graham household. When James Graham died in 1851, he left his household furniture to his only surviving brother, William A. Graham. Interestingly, the maker of General Graham’s desk and bookcase was not a Scotch Irishman. He was the German John Wills, Jr. who lived very near Graham. Once Graham crossed the Catawba River into Lincoln County, he found himself on the edge of a largely German community, and he very practically engaged his German neighbor, to make his secretary bookcase.

Credit Line:
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Frank Borden Hanes, Sr.