On the Backroads to Ruins

Mayo House, Martin County: This turn-of-the-century mansion has fallen further since this photo. “If I had to re-create that now, I wouldn’t know where to start,” Brown said. “There are so many steps in what I do sometimes, every piece is like a unique painting or work of art.”

Watson Brown ’74 (MA) settles his Yeti tumbler of tea into the cup holder of his Toyota Tacoma and flips open a book of county maps showing hills and valleys and the narrowest of dirt roads.

Watson Brown '74 (MA)

Watson Brown ’74 (MA)

He might use a GPS if he wanted to go somewhere in particular, but his plan on this day is to get lost and, in the process, photograph what’s left of a land once rich with tobacco money, to capture the plantations and barns, the abandoned pickups and falling-down tenant shacks of eastern North Carolina before they disappear.

In his bag are his Nikon Coolpix 900 plus a couple of long lenses for taking shots across snake-filled fields. His knee-high boots and a set of dry clothes for sweaty days are stashed behind the seat. There’s no need to pack a sandwich. Brown, who retired in 2004 from 30 years as a city planner, the last 19 of them in Raleigh, will stop along the way at a roadside store or diner, sit for a spell with the locals. “Something tells me to turn right here, so I turn right, and there’s nothing. Then later on, I’ll turn left, and there’s something great.”

Brown lives in Adelphia, an Italianate home built in 1854 in Edgecombe County that’s been in the family since his great-grandparents’ generation. It was in its own process of decay when he inherited it — two windows promptly blew out in a storm, flooding the place — but now its fancy woodwork, reminiscent of Gothic architecture, is restored, and the home is chockablock with art and with antiques his great-grandmother bought on her honeymoon. The tall walls are covered in portraits of his ancestors; five generations have lived in this county.

The renovation took years of preretirement weekends and hundreds of trips from Raleigh to Edgecombe County. “A lot of places were as nice as this,” Brown said, “but their families have left them.”

Bowers Barn, Martin County: A few months after this photo was taken, this barn was deemed unsafe and torn down. “I’ve got probably 100 or so overlay textures, and I’ll start looking through them. … I picked up an oil brush stroke for that one. Another time I might go in there and change it totally.”

His work has attracted the attention of preservationists and spurred efforts to find buyers to restore some of the buildings. Other projects have been launched just by somebody seeing his photos — @planterboy has more than 16,000 followers on Instagram and Watson Brown’s Backroad Photography more than 5,500 on Facebook — and pursuing a property.

His work has been shown at North Carolina’s State Capitol and galleries as well as featured on TV and in magazines. He enhances the images, adding textures and colors, reimagining a summer-bleached sky with Oz-like colors or adding computerized brush strokes. “You can tell I’m a frustrated painter,” he said. “I wanted to go into art, but my daddy wouldn’t let me. Now that there’s no one to tell me what to do, I’m creating.”

He still marvels that he gets to spend his days creating beauty. “I love finding the places, but as I’m driving back home I’m thinking about the ones that excite me the most, and I can’t wait to start playing with them to see what happens,” he said. “Even if I am tired as the dickens from driving, I can’t wait to do at least one or two.”

— Janine Latus


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