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She's North Carolina's Own 'Lady Mary'

She was a young woman who took charge of a large estate. She was determined, smart, willing to break some of the social bounds of the time. She didn't much care what people thought of her.

She is not Lady Mary, daughter of the Earl of Grantham in the PBS blockbuster, Downton Abbey. She is Katharine Smith Reynolds, wife of R. J. Reynolds.

Katharine Smith Reynolds and R.J. Reynolds married when Katharine was 24 and R.J. was 54. Despite the thirty year age different, by all accounts they had a marriage based on mutual respect.

A year after their marriage, when the couple was living in downtown Winston-Salem, Katharine began to purchase land for an estate, what would come to be known as "Reynolda." She purchased the land in her own name beginning in 1906 and was the major decision maker behind the creation and running of the estate.

Inside, she gave a lot of thought to "women's work." She designed the house with an internal vacuum system --  the user could attach a host to the wall to get suction in order to clean. She also had an "air washer" put in the home, a system designed to filter dust and dirt. Every bedroom had a sleeping porch, to encourage fresh air for those staying at the estate.

But her ideas didn't stop there inside the home. Like Lady Mary of Downton Abbey, Katharine had specific ideas for the farm itself, and what was traditionally considered "men's work." She encouraged the tobacco farmers to diversify. She hired young men from what would become NC State to modernize their dairying practices.  She managed to help create one of the first paved roads in North Carolina; it was a paved surface to the home. 

Reynolda was completed in 1917. The couple and their four children moved into Reynolda before Christmas of that year. Unfortunately, R.J. Reynolds died the next year, in 1918, leaving Katharine to care for the children and the estate.

After R.J. Reynolds died, Katharine Smith Reynolds married a much younger man, the superintendent of the village school, a man whose wealth and social status did not approach her own. (It's not quite Lady Sybil marrying the chauffeur on Downton Abbey, but...)

Thanks to Elizabeth Chew, the director of the curatorial and education division at Reynolda House for her help with this article.

Carol Jackson has been with WUNC since 2006. As Digital News Editor, she writes stories for, and helps reporters and hosts make digital versions of their radio stories. She is also responsible for sharing stories on social media. Previously, Carol spent eight years with WUNC's nationally syndicated show The Story with Dick Gordon, serving as Managing Editor and Interim Senior Producer.
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