Utley, Foster (1820-1894)


Wake County, North Carolina, USA


  • Chapel Hill, North Carolina


  • Carpenter/Joiner

Forest Utley (June 9, 1820-June 13, 1894) was a house carpenter active in Chapel Hill, N. C. during the mid-19th century. His known work from before the Civil War encompasses small projects documented principally by letters written by Lucy Martin Battle of Chapel Hill to her husband, Judge William Horn Battle. He is best known as the longtime “University Carpenter” who helped rehabilitate and maintain the campus buildings of the University of North Carolina after the Civil War.

Foster Utley was born in Wake County, a son of merchant Benton Utley and his wife Martha Hilliard. He married Sarah (Sallie) Collier of Chapel Hill in 1844. He appeared in the United States Census of 1850 as a 30-year-old carpenter with real estate valued at $500. His household included his wife Sarah, aged 26, and two children plus his brother, 37-year-old Gray Utley, also a carpenter. Foster and Sallie Utley had several more children over the years. Foster was evidently successful at his trade, for in 1860 the United States Census identified him as a “master carpenter” with $1,200 in real estate and $4,500 in personal property.

The first mention of “Mr. Utley” in Mrs. Battle’s correspondence appears on February 3, 1854, referring to Utley’s current work on “Miss Sally’s” house, probably that of Sally Mallet. Utley also accomplished work for the Battles. Mrs. Battle informed her husband on January 4, 1856, that Foster Utley had sent his account (bill) for patching the porch, and commented that his rates were “moderate.” The bill also included Mrs. Utley’s work as a dressmaker. During the summer of 1856 the Battles had Utley build a small frame office in their yard to be used as a bedroom, fitted out with a mantel and plastered walls. During 1858-1859, Mrs. Battle referred to Utley’s other repairs to their house and outbuildings. On January 7, 1859, a load of shingles arrived, and “Mr. Utley sent 4 hands about dinner time today & put them on the smokehouse there were not quite enough and some of the hands had to go off & bring an armful or so from somewhere else.”

Utley continued his work after the Civil War. In 1869 and later he made extensive renovations to Burnside, the Hillsborough, N. C. home of Paul Cameron, the wealthy planter and trustee of the University of North Carolina who did much to aid the university after the war. Likely through this connection as well as his connection with the Battle family, Utley was appointed university carpenter by the board of trustees on June 16, 1875. This was an important post, because the university’s buildings had suffered from neglect from its closing in 1868 until its reopening in 1875. For many years, Utley’s name appears in university records doing various tasks on campus. He also built a small frame gymnasium there in 1876. In 1880, the census listed him as a 60-year-old carpenter, heading a household with his wife and five of their children. The Durham Globe of June 16, 1894, took note of Utley’s death and stated that he had lived in Chapel Hill for fifty years and had been for forty years “superintendent of repairs of the State University.” Utley and his wife Sallie Collier Utley (1824-1902) were interred in the Old Chapel Hill Cemetery in Chapel Hill.

In 1900, when Kemp Battle, university president, composed an account of the history of the university and its revival after the Civil War, he cited individuals who had been vital in the reopening and new life of the institution. He said of the “indispensable” Foster Utley, university carpenter:

“He was born in Wake county on a farm. His mother was a Walton, said to have been of the family of the noted fisherman and author, Isaac Walton. The transparent purity of character, the boundless benevolence, the sturdy honesty, the quiet humor, the lover of nature, the delight, on a rare holiday, of sitting for hours on a mossy bank, under a beech tree roof, with his cork floating on the quiet waters, or dancing among the ripples, his devout thankfulness to God, whether the yellow perch yielded to the ‘eloquent squirm’ of the bait or passed it by in cold indifference, remind us of the sainted father of the art of angling. He married an excellent Chapel Hill lady, who survives him, and the University is fortunate in having in its employment a son, who resembles his father in his person, his skill and, I firmly believe, in his character” (Raleigh Farmer and Mechanic, June 12, 1900).

  • Lucy Martin Battle to William Horn Battle, Battle Family Papers, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
  • Cameron Family Papers, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
  • University Papers, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
  • James Vickers, Chapel Hill: An Illustrated History (1985).