Stanly County Museum explores 19th-century French immigrant family

From Paris to backcounty Stanly County: the Kron family tale

The Kron family's homeplace, recreated on its original site at Morrow Mountain State Park. Photo: John D. Young

For those seeking an autumn day trip, a new exhibit at the Stanly County Museum in Albemarle, paired with a visit to an old family homestead in nearby Morrow Mountain State Park, will reward visitors with a unique blend of regional history and natural beauty. And taken together they may inspire deeper thinking about issues ranging from the importance of place and identity to the legacy of slavery as Americans today attempt to deal with issues of race and class.

Want to visit?

The Stanly County Museum is at 245 E. Main St. in downtown Albemarle, about 45 miles east of Charlotte. Hours: Wednesday through Friday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. 

The Kron House historic site in Morrow Mountain State Park is open seven days a week.

The exhibit looks at a relatively obscure French family who settled on the remote banks of the Yadkin River in Stanly County, importing their European culture and becoming pioneers in the creation of North Carolina’s wine industry.

“The Kron Family:  Life on Attaway Hill,” opened Sept. 23 and runs through March 18** at the museum in downtown Albemarle. It tells the story of Dr. Francis J. Kron and his wife, Mary Catherine Delamonthe. Born and educated in Europe, they were exotic figures in that rugged part of the Uwharrie Mountains. Their accents alone, as well as his status as the only physician within miles, would have been enough to set them apart from their neighbors, mostly uneducated, third- and fourth-generation Americans of European and African descent.  

But it was their refined tastes—in art, horticulture and science—that left a lasting impression on those who knew them. Although relatively unknown beyond Stanly County, the Kron legend has lived on locally through oral tradition (including rich stories of vineyards, rose gardens and silk-embroidered needlework) and what little scholars have been able to discern from a small collection of family papers at UNC Chapel Hill. These include his diary and horticultural notes, and an amazing collection of watercolors of garden plants and native wildflowers painted by the Krons’ daughters, Adelaide and Elizabeth.

Kron sisters’ botanical explorations left an important legacy .

The new exhibit—interpreted and informed by the research of a dedicated group of volunteer “citizen historians”—greatly expands our understanding of the Krons’ lives by publicly displaying for the first time a collection of family papers and other materials in the possession of the Stanly County Museum.

What emerges is a richer and more complex story of this family.  It’s a tale of new beginnings for a young couple in a new nation following the collapse of a European empire; of imported culture and agricultural traditions they attempted to retain as they assimilated into a new land; and of pragmatic adaptation forced upon them by the realities of a backwoods existence.

The story begins in 1814, when Kron, a 16-year-old living in Trier, Prussia, followed the French to Paris after Napoleon’s defeat in Germany.  There he met Mary Catherine Delamonthe, daughter of a prosperous family from the wine-growing regions of the Loire Valley.  A street address on their marriage certificate, on Paris’ Left Bank between the Luxembourg Gardens and the Jardins des Plantes, hints at the early influences that may have inspired a lifelong love of horticulture.

Documents weave together the details of the couple’s journey from Europe to America, a move predicated on an uncle’s promise of an inheritance, including thousands of acres in North Carolina’s gold mining region.  Newspaper clippings, sales receipts and legal papers reveal the couple’s subsequent accommodations as they adjusted to diminished and threatened economic prospects. These include stints teaching French at UNC, a medical education at the University of Pennsylvania (once it became clear a “Professor of Languages” would have difficulty earning a living in the remote hills of the Uwharries), and a protracted lawsuit to secure the promised inheritance that had brought them to America in the first place.

But it’s the family’s passion for gardening, and Francis Kron’s efforts to transplant the wine-growing culture of Europe to the banks of the Yadkin that remind us of the Piedmont’s agrarian past in the pre-industrial era before railroads, hydroelectricity and textile mills transformed the land, economy and culture.  That vision may be instructive today for those working to renew rural communities, especially through the revival of agriculture and the promise of the local foods movement.

In a state where viticulture is making a dramatic comeback (especially in the Yadkin River Valley near Winston-Salem), Francis J. Kron is probably long overdue for recognition as a founding father of North Carolina’s wine industry. Records show he grew more than 5,000 vines of grapes, including more than 100 varieties ordered from the Luxembourg Gardens, on the sides of “Attaway Hill” (now Hattaway Mountain) in a futile attempt to establish a wine-growing region in the southern Piedmont.

Scroll to end of article for a photo slideshow

Kron teamed with renowned Harvard entomologist/botanist Thaddeus Harris to study the grapevine borer, a pest that proved Kron’s biggest challenge in establishing a successful wine enterprise.  Their research was influential in the development of America’s wine industry and is still referenced in academic dissertations and at least one history of California’s Napa Valley wine region.

The exhibit also shows a recipe book belonging to the family. (Copies of a recent translation are available for purchase.)  Its contents suggest the Krons likely introduced “exotic” European foods to the traditional fare of their backcountry surroundings, much the way another, better-known horticulturalist, Thomas Jefferson did in Virginia.  For the Krons, French cuisine was not a wealthy planter’s diversion but a familiar, cultural tradition sustained by an immigrant family.

Researcher and exhibit curator Joyce Lambert points out that Francis Kron was likely the first gardener in Stanly County, perhaps in the southern Piedmont, to grow certain vegetables such as asparagus.  His handwritten notes include instructions for making cider, and a “formula” for producing wine.  Newspaper clippings show that Mary Catherine Kron won several awards at the N.C. Agricultural Fair in Raleigh for her nectarine and prune jellies. 

As a Southern planter, however, Kron’s horticultural pursuits depended on slave labor, and this reality forces us to consider how the legacy of slavery still informs race relations today.  Despite the breadth of their agricultural pursuits, it appears the family never owned a large number of slaves.  Did this reflect an ethical leaning or merely an economic reality for a family that may have been land-rich but whose annual income was modest compared to other planter families in the South?

In one letter, Dr. Kron referred to “this thing called slavery,” a statement that could be interpreted as either guilt about his complicity in the practice or merely another way of stating that euphemistic expression of antebellum Southern apologists when they referred to slavery as “our peculiar institution.” We do know that during the Civil War, Dr. Kron chaired the Stanly County Home Guard, indicating a level of support for the Southern cause in sharp contrast to the subversive efforts of his Quaker neighbors across the Uwharries, who risked their lives to assist slaves seeking freedom via the Underground Railroad.

The family’s true feelings about slavery may never be known, but during the postwar years, a close bond developed between the Kron daughters, who never married, and their former slaves. Prior to her death in 1910, the last surviving daughter, Adelaide, attempted to leave the Kron property to some of the family’s former slaves and their descendants.  Unfortunately, she died before her intent could be formalized in a will.   

Perhaps that’s a fitting metaphor for the state of race relations in our country today: a legacy of unfulfilled promises in our ongoing struggle to right old wrongs.  The Kron exhibit will leave visitors pondering this and other relevant questions related to the region’s complex and interconnected social, economic and environmental fabric today.

** Update: The exhibit has been extended from Dec. 18 to March 18. An earlier version of this article reported the December date.

More images

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One of the watercolor paintings of flowers by one of the Kron sisters. The flowers at right are nasturtiums. Image courtesy of the Stanly County Museum and UNC Chapel Hill.
One of the watercolor paintings of flowers by one of the Kron sisters. Image courtesy of the Stanly County Museum and UNC Chapel Hill.
The Kron family house at Morrow Mountain State Park, before its re-creation. Image courtesy of the Stanly County Museum.
One of the Kron sisters, with a friend. Image courtesy of the Stanly County Museum.
Dr. Francis Kron, around the time of the Civil War. Image courtesy of the Stanly County Museum.
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The Stanly County Museum is at 245 E. Main St. in downtown Albemarle, about 45 miles east of Charlotte.  The museum is open Wednesday through Friday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.  For more information:  http://stanlycountymuseum.com/.

The Kron House historic site, at the foot of Fall Mountain in Morrow Mountain State Park, is open seven days a week. Directions and information: http://www.ncparks.gov/morrow-mountain-state-park .