The property that became Julian Carr's Occoneechee Farm had been farming and hunting grounds for the Occaneechi of the Saponi Nation for generations before an English land grant was given to Francis Corbin. Several subsequent families farmed the land. Prior to Carr's purchase, the farm had been called "Banks of the Eno" by farmer James Hogg, who had established a farm on the property in 1794. The 663-acre property was purchased by Julian S. Carr on April 25, 1891 from James Hogg Norwood and his sister, Margaret, for $10,000. Carr and his wife Nannie Carr named the main house on their property "Poplar Hill".
Carr's 'city house' at the time was the immense Somerset Villa, located at the southeast corner of South Dillard St. and East Main St. - a structure that he had completed 3 years prior, in 1888. The success of Carr's Blackwell's Durham Tobacco Company and Durham Cotton Manufacturing Co had created a great deal of wealth for Carr; as with other wealthy industrialists of the late 19th century, he sought to reclaim the bucolic dream in the gentleman's farm. Farming was, of course, quite a bit easier if you had a great deal of wealth to fall back on.
Poplar Hill, 1890s (Courtesy Durham County Library)
Entrance to Occoneechee Farm from the Hillsborough to Durham Road (later US 70) (Courtesy Steve Rankin / Orange County Library)
Postcard of the farm (Courtesy Steve Rankin / Orange County Library)
Perhaps consistent with Carr's outscale ambition and personality, however, the farm developed into a full-scale operation, consisting of, at a minimum, a large sheep barn, a large piggery with several breeding pens, a concrete-floored dairy barn with 56 stanchions, five poultry houses (capable of housing 1,500 chickens), and a three-story barn with a slate roof, oak floors, stalls for 36 horses, and a basement for mules, in addition to Poplar Hall itself. Carr also built a half mile horse track on the (southern) bank of the Eno River, northeast of the farm operation.
(Courtesy Durham County Library)
(Courtesy Durham County Library)
(Courtesy Durham County Library)
"Alfalfa and farm buildings -Gen. J. S. Carr's Occoneechee Farm 17 April 1903" (via the Albert Barden Collection)
"Man holds alfalfa on the farm of General J. S. Carr 17 April 1903" (via the Albert Barden Collection)
The farm suffered significant damage due to a tornado in 1919, although Poplar Hill itself was relatively unscathed. The farm business never recovered, however, and Carr decided to sell the farm as his health declined in the early 1920s.
The farm was advertised for sale in the Durham Morning Herald on October 26, 1923 by Carver Real Estate. It was again advertised for sale by the Atlantic Coast Realty Company (of Winston-Salem) November 22, 1923. It was divided into several smaller farms, and was soon sold, shortly before Carr's death on April 29, 1924.
Below, an aerial view of the then-subdivided farm in 1938. US70 is the alternating black-and-white line at the bottom of the picture; the horse track is located at the upper right.
While piloting his airplane over the area, NASCAR founder William France noticed the former horse racing track and expanse of open land to the southwest. On the site of the earlier horse track, he built a 0.9 dirt mile track in September, 1947, two months before NASCAR was organized. France launched NASCAR in December of 1947, and in January of 1948 he purchased the track and some surrounding acreage with help from Enoch Stanley and three other investors. By June of 1948, the track was in full use. In its earliest days, drivers Fonty Flock and his brothers Bob and Tim dominated the track. Louise Smith became NASCAR's first female driver at the track in the fall of 1949.
The Occoneechee Speedway also hosted stock car racing legends such as Fireball Roberts, Richard Petty, Ned Jarrett and Junior Johnson, who competed in the Strictly Stock (which began in 1949 and later became the Winston Cup) and Grand National series. The ~1 mile distance allowed drivers to go faster on the Occoneechee track than they could on earlier, shorter tracks; however, they often careened out of control, landing their cars on the riverbank. Non-paying spectators often climbed trees along the riverbank to watch the races.
The track was renamed Orange Speedway in 1954.
Orange Speedway, undated (Eno River Association)
Sometime during the 1950s, the smaller farms resulting from the subdivision of Occoneechee Farm in 1923 were again subdivided, and suburban housing was built on the sites; the entry road to the former farm was named Tuscarora Drive.
In part due the resistance of the local religious authorities to Sunday racing, France finally shut down the Occoneechee Speedway. On September 15, 1968 the track closed after a win by Richard Petty. France moved the track to Alabama, where he had bought an 1,800-acre site forty miles east of Birmingham on which he built the Talladega Superspeedway.
Poplar Hill was moved to the other side of the Eno River (to the southern end of Cameron Street) by James Freeland in 1980. Freeland intended to turn it into a steak house/restaurant, but a group of Hillsborough residents were opposed to it (he ended up opening the "Occoneechee Steak House" on South Churton Street, across from Daniel Boone).
News of Orange article excerpt from April 24, 1980, showing Poplar Hill being moved south to its current location (courtesy of Rich Shaw)
The former Poplar Hill on Burnside Drive, just north of the Eno from its former site, 05.25.14 (G. Kueber)
The only original remnant of Occoneechee Farm is the rubble-esque stone gate on 70, seemingly out of place with the 1940s-era houses on either side.
Gate to the former Oconeechee Farm, 03.07.09.
In 1997, Preservation North Carolina bought the NASCAR site from the estates of William France and Enoch Stanley with funding from the James M. Johnston Trust and Jenrette’s Classical Preservation Trust. The latter organization took title to the land and placed it under conservation easements that will protect it from future development.
The Occoneechee Speedway site is now heavily forested with pines and sycamores. The grandstands are still visible, as is much of the mile–long oval track. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2002 (one of three racecar tracks on the NR) and now comprises 44 acres (180,000 m2) with over 3 miles (4.8 km) of trails. The Historic Orange Speedway Trail (HOST), which crisscrosses the track, was built in 2003. This trail is part of the planned/under construction Mountains to the Sea Trail (MST), which crosses the state from... well, it's self-explanatory.
For an interesting (albeit somewhat embellished) story about Poplar Hill, see bittersoutherner.com/we-salted-nannie-southern-ghost-story