Online Originals: ‘Life on the Lesser Stairs’; new tour gives look into the untold stories of Tryon Palace

New Bern

NEW BERN, N.C. (WNCT) – It’s called, “Life on the Lesser Stairs.” As Tryon Palace’s newest tour, it offers visitors a firsthand look into the lives of those whose stories history often leaves behind.

Living History Program Coordinator Matt Arthur created the tour. He said these are the types of stories he wants to tell.

When I was little, coming ot a museum like The Palace, when you go through, you hear all about the dead, rich white guys, but I was always one of those people who wanted to know the behind-the-scenes story. And knowing the names actually turns individuals into people, we put flesh on bones.

Matt Arthur, Living History program coordinator

So the tour focuses on just that, the untold stories of those who worked and served in The Palace.

The Palace has two sets of stairs, one grand and opulent that was used by the governor, his family and guests. The only other set of stairs in the whole house are steep, narrow and hidden behind a wall. This second set of stairs was used only by the servants of the house. It’s their stories that have been recovered for the public to hear for the first time.

Before, when you’re talking about, you know, a chamber maid, that’s one thing, you can know what they do. But when we start saying that Governor (Josiah) Martin had a house servant named Prima, then you start having a name in your mind, and you start building a personality. It makes it so much more real, and it comes to life as opposed to being a living textbook.

Matt Arthur, Living History program coordinator

The stark difference between the upper and lower classes is evident. People grew up hearing about the lives led by historical leaders, royals, governors, colonels and more. But you so rarely hear about the lives of those who made their life of luxury possible, the enslaved and free servants of these wealthy leaders: the chambermaids, scullery maids, cooks, butlers, ladies maids and so many others.

Director of Public Affairs for Tryon Palace Nancy Figiel said the tour really puts that difference into better perspective.

“It strikes you, the stairs themselves, of just how hard their job was every day. I mean they worked from the time they got up to the time they went to bed, carrying things up and down those stairs,” Figiel said.

Staff at Tryon Palace continue to do research into uncovering more “lost” stories of those who worked and served at the location. Many findings have come from family letters located in the United Kingdom, as well as payroll papers that list the names and positions. But Arthur said a lot of times they’ve had to get creative in looking elsewhere for where these stories and information could have been mentioned.

Governor (William) Tryon had an enslaved servant named Surry, who he sold when he was leaving North Carolina to his former secretary. And we know about Surry’s name because later, after the secretary died, Surry ran away, he frees himself. So we know about Surry’s existance and that he was a part of Governor Tryon’s property and household because there’s a runaway ad.”

Matt Arthur, Living History program coordinator

“Life on the Lesser Stairs” is just the beginning, according to staff. It’s the start of an expanded series focusing on all the untold stories of Tryon Palace that they haven’t yet got to share.

Tryon Palace was also recently awarded a grant that will go towards additional tours based on diversity and inclusion.

Life on The Lesser Stairs: https://www.tryonpalace.org/events/discover-tryon-palace-life-on-the-lesser-stairs-7

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