[I have no urge to say much of substance about property today. So, I offer this bit of fluff about one historic property. I am privileged to own, together with my wife of 30 years, a 150-acre farm in Tennessee, near her childhood home, with a main house that was built in the time-frame of 1852-55, best I can tell. Being a feller who never lived in a community of fewer than 1 Million folks before leaving for college in Charlottesville, it feels “out there.” And objectively, it is. The house sits in a valley between two hills, and in that depression there are exactly two spots from which cellular coverage is available. One is at the edge of our screened-in, quasi-skeeter-proof, back porch. The other is in the front of the lot between the highway and the front steps, and I practically have to find it with a compass. Once found, a step in any direction is fatal to reception—you need to stay right there. The house is on the National Register of Historic Places (a grandiose term for “the buildings have a façade easement”). The entire farm is subject to a conservation easement in favor of the Land Trust for Tennessee, which prohibits our placing additional buildings on the property in order to preserve the view shed. “View shed” is a real term of art that I used a few years ago to bludgeon the proposed installation of a 250’ high cellular telephone pole down the road a piece, that would have featured highly-visible, red-glowing lights at the top, to keep aircraft from toppling it and themselves. “A piece” is not a term of art; generally, though, historic preservation is an arcane but crucial area of real property law, since our rural landscapes disappear at a truly alarming rate as fallout from leapfrog development across America. There are a number of federal statutes and regulations that treat with the preservation of real property of consequence for historical or aesthetic purposes. And that, my readers, is how I segue into the following stream of consciousness about my old Tennessee homestead last visited in the month of October, 2008.]
Today, thankfully, it rains. The ground and plant life require it. Conway has been in the grip of a severe drought, like much of the Elk River basin. Only half the annual accumulation of rainfall has fallen this year. Either I’d better start building an ark, or it’s going to be end as one of the driest years in many previous.
Conway is a hamlet; it achieved some status by virtue of having had its own post office, twice in any living person’s memory. However, it lost its second post office establishment when Teddy Roosevelt left office. (Having your own post office bestows the gravitas on a place that impels geographers to take note.) Otherwise, Conway is a geopolitical nightmare. Part of it has the postal address of Prospect, TN (which is about 10 miles in some direction over back roads near Minor Hill; I seldom go there because I’ve been told that the boys there are “rough,” although I secretly suspect that reputation is actually a few decades outdated, to a time when my wife went to the county high school with some of their boy-ruffians—and why puncture a rural legend, or, for that matter, take any unnecessary risks?). 155 Rose Road, however, has the postal address of Pulaski, TN, and I know, having clocked it on my odometer, that the southernmost genuine boundary of the county seat is 12.5 miles from here. The closest town is Elkton, which lies just 7.5 miles directly south on the Columbia Highway. (Query why the postal service didn’t just assign Elkton the rights to cancel stamps gracing Conway denizens’ envelopes.) Weatheristically speaking, Conway is aligned with the north Alabama region, so that you have to watch the forecasts for the Huntsville-Decatur area to have a perspective on the likelihood of rain or tornados or whatever you’re counting on to deal with. The Nashville forecasts are useless for this purpose.
The Columbia Highway, which is both a federal (US 31) and state road, used to be called the Elkton Columbia Turnpike, part of a greater road system that connected, segmentally, Nashville with Elkton and Ardmore, which lies on either side of the TN-AL border. It was a subscription turnpike, with each segment having its own board elections for directors. This probably guaranteed that the entire turnpike, constructed piecemeal, would take a century to finish. The father of the man who built this house, a man named Thomas Edwards Abernathy, who lived in the house after Burwell, the builder, died in 1869, was a director of the segment closest by. Thomas Edwards Abernathy was the local magistrate and the clerk of records for this part of the county. He owned 35 slaves before the War of Northern Aggression, was the local magistrate authorized to sentence for petty offenses like public drunkenness, and was a turnpike director, so he must have been a man of some influence.
Burwell built this house, however. He built it for Samuella Deweese Tannehill (which had to have been a name assigned by some cruel person who wanted a son named Samuel and decided, by jack, that some child would carry that name or its closest equivalent!) his wife, who was the daughter of an early Mayor of Nashville, which at first, by the way, was named Nashborough. I expect this marriage was arranged due to the facts that (i) Burwell had just recently lost his first wife and (ii) Thomas Edwards, his father, was a man of some substance—otherwise, why engage with some family from Conway, three or more days drive by carriage-distance to the south, in a relative cultural wasteland? (Well, there could have been a female visage issue, but I’m resolved on this sojourn to purge myself of all meanness.) This Mayor of Nashville was a book collector and a Master Mason who was a director of the Nashville Order and an acquaintance of Andrew Jackson.
Peggy has opened the front doors of the house this morning; she believes she smells a dead rat in the cellar. I can’t smell any such a thing; I do smell the delicious odor of white beans with country ham cooking slowly on the stove with a bouquet of clove, and some sterile cleaning-concoction that she is using to scrub down the house and, likely, to mask the faux rat-odor. The noise from the Columbia Highway wafts occasionally through the house, tires on wet pavement and trucks downshifting as they begin the pull up the long hill between Rose Road and Tucker Bend Road-sounds. The front porch of the house is about 75 yards from the highway right of way. The front porch is mounted via very uneven, precipitously high-tiered stone steps, but the porch itself is grey, weathered wood. The porch is only 7 feet wide, still wide enough for chairs for watching whatever might occur along the Columbia Highway. Often times, that consists of truckers and tourists and some locals dispatching their paper trash and food waste and CDs, now objects of disgust from over-play, through their vehicle windows onto the front of the lot.
From the center of the porch, you look directly out toward three magnificent oak trees that are 60-70 feet high and 100 years or more old. A fourth tree, long gone, would have made a two-by-two column of these sentinels. The four trees, I surmise, would have marked the grand entry by carriage or wagon onto the lot before the Columbia Turnpike was paved and Rose Road was built. Peggy is not fond of any mammals sporting long tails (although I never have heard her speak ill of beavers, come to think of it, perhaps because their tails are not cylindrical and slender like a rat’s tail), and she dreads encounters with any such creatures, dead or alive. Last night we saw an opossum in the back of the lot when we returned from my in-laws’ place and Peggy almost drove the Corolla into the stairs that climb up high to the back porch deck. To be sure, it was the largest opossum I’d ever seen; it rivaled our dearly-departed Greta in size, and Greta was a standard daschund. I might myself have been terrified if I hadn’t known that I still am fleeter afoot than even the meanest ‘possum.
Autumn has come to Conway, in various hues and shapes. The walnut tree in the back of the lot has lost most of its leaves and, alas, all but a few dozen of its nuts as well. There is a dogwood in the front, near the three sentinels, bearing orange-shifting-brown leaves. Off to the Rose Road side there is a black-barked Maple emblazoned in yellow-ochre; and the pear tree is in full fruit, luscious and grainy to the chewing. There is a mystery flower garden in the back behind the back porch, which is 7-8 times the size of the front porch and is screened in with a fine mesh that doesn’t distort the view of the hillsides much. (The lot’s south boundaries run up a series of hills that are heavily wooded with junipers and scrub oaks and puny pine trees.) Peggy just finished sweeping and mopping the back porch. She loves this house (some Tucker family member lived there after the War o’ N.A. although she rarely was inside the house), and expresses her love by cleaning it vigorously whenever we arrive until she’s exhausted. She sweeps the back porch repeatedly, which is a fruitless task because the living and dead plant material in the yard gets all over your feet and you track it up the steps into the house despite your greatest respect for the tidiness of the broom-wielder and your polite intentions not to make a mess and your assiduous wiping of your shoes on the three door-mats that lamely guard the back house entrance. It’s the main entrance to the house, and it gets used, severely.
The flower garden is a mystery because no one alive remembers who planted it originally or what was planted there prior to when it fell into our ownership. I suspect it was originally a herb garden because (a) it was close to the finishing kitchen, which was located in the cellar where some of the slaves slept, and (b) it was close to the smoke house where the meats would have been hung and prepared and could have used some seasoning while cooking. Peggy has planted many flowers and a few bulbs in it, but every season she is here she discovers some flower or shrub that she didn’t plant has emerged. This morning while we were eating our breakfast oatmeal with raisins and looking out into the back yard from the round, indoor outdoor black iron table, we noticed a flaming red stand of flowers that Peggy has never seen in the garden before. These grow on high stalks like a tulip, but the heads of the flowers are aster-like, with ruddy but delicate, flaming spikes radiating out from the center.
Then, too, the house is itself a mystery to me. On the one hand there are the wonderments of history and craftsmanship. An elderly lady of the Rose family came by one night and told tales of when a slave who didn’t leave after Emancipation was given her own room in the upstairs of the house the last 10 years of her life (where our daughter, Alison, slept when she spent 6 months here in 2007); and when an emergency appendectomy was performed on the floor of a particular room by a surgeon called from town during World War I. These floors are a wonder of pine and poplar and those in the front of the house are most of 150 years old. Yet the house continues to settle on its stone foundation and in some of the rooms the walls are cracking from stem to stern. (I can’t say, “top to bottom” or vice versa, because I haven’t the patience to see which direction the cracks are moving—upward or downward.) The trees flourish and die, insects rampage freely (on one of the earlier visits, there were at least 2,000 red insects flying around the rooms, and I suggested the house be christened “Ladybug”—to no accord whatsoever, as people perceived I was being sarcastic, which seems unfair from my perspective) until we spray indoors, the yard gets overgrown while the window sashes are cracking and the glass, which is irreplaceable [Home Depot doesn’t do single-paned, wavy glass], wobbles in the window casements. The whole house needs painting, and 40’ of height exterior is beyond the limits of my courage for ladder-climbing. Pieces of the roof join the detritus of motorists in the front lot. It is like coping with an elderly parent whom you must respect while you search for the convenient way around dealing aggressively with the wasting away brought on by old age.
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Today we picked pears. They are the size and vague shape of television remotes, which is a strange comparison but works at some level because they have necks, so they balloon at the bottom and slenderize at their tops. They are mottled yellow, green and brown on the outside, and they release from their homes on their branches willingly, leaving a quarter-inch stem at their tops. Some have bad spots, like someone cut a black olive in half, pitted it, and imbedded the half-olive into the skin. The pears are sweet, but very firm, and their meat is gritty on the tongue. Farther down the road is a different species; they are of a like coloration, but round and the size of baseballs–neckless. We prefer the remotes for canning. Peggy has accumulated three pear preserves recipes in the last 4 days from her mother, two aunts and one southern cookbook. The peardom laboratory opens in a few minutes.
The pear tree is alongside Rose Road, named after the Rose family, which have lived in the area for 80 years. One of the Roses lived in the house for a time in the 1930s. Rose Road separates the residential lot from Newton Branch. That’s ironic. My name is Michael Newton. My father’s first name was Newton, and his father’s name was Newton, Sr. (There are no other Newtons in the Widener line; my father was the last of 8 children [5 boys]—perhaps they ran out of names they preferred.) Newton Branch runs into Buchanan Creek [pronounced “Buck-cannon”; perhaps President James was perceived as too much a Yankee]; this in turn flows into Richland Creek, which joins the Elk River, which intersects the Tennessee, which meets the Ohio headlong, and that in turn confluences with the Mississippi, which empties, we all learned, into the Gulf of Mexico at New Orleans. Everything, it seems, has a heritage or a line, including the pears, but I don’t know enough about horticulture to contribute to that understanding. I do understand that Newton Branch had a cotton gin alongside it, probably to serve Burwell’s crop and a few of his neighbors’.
The geopolitics of streams is fairly chaotic. If you seek advice from 10 people in these parts what velocity or volume of flow is needed to distinguish a branch from a creek or a river, you get 10 different answers. It appears the perception of which is what is a function mostly of childhood memory. Which stream was widest, was the most tree-lined or yielded the most fish or crawdads or what have you, determines whether a body of water is a branch, creek or river, I suspect. Because of the draught, most of this stream-ology is moot. There are only wider or narrower dried or semi-damp beds visible hereabouts.
It is warm today, and the weather is friendly with a light breeze, and the front double doors are open. This was the historical form of ventilation. The house is called, variously, a “dog-trot” or “Williamsburg” or “raised cottage” (more commonly associated with the deep South, especially Louisiana) or “shotgun” residence, but all of them share the feature that the front entrance and the back entrance were elevated and positioned to be directly opposite the front entryway so far as the construction techniques of the time permitted. In this fashion, if the prevailing breeze was rightly positioned, you got a nice flow of fresh air through the main hallway of the house. Dog-trot and shotgun [either, a straight course] describes the phenomenon of the original construction (later, a kitchen was added at the rear—it would have been in an out-building, next to the smokehouse, in the 1850s) and two wings from a cannibalized house sometime in the first decade of the 20th century. The back porch was added sometime in the 1950s, when finer mesh screen made a bug-minimized outdoor existence attainable.
The front facade architecture features a Greek Revival treatment. There are columns on the front porch, and a triangular thing at their top connecting the roof, is that called a pediment? Abutting the double doors at the entry are leaded-glass windows, three-quarters of the height of the doors. On two of the outermost columns I have installed flagpole holders, and in honor of Cristobal Colon, an early-though-temporary American, I have hung the flags of the nation and the State of Tennessee, or as some call it hereabouts, the “three states” of Tennessee (hence three stars on the circular, blue field—one for each province dominated by [left to right, lowlands to uplands] Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville, this last city being where I bought the flags) So, there’s a sort of small-scale grandeur about the front entrance visage, coupled with a reminder of the pragmatic treatment of how to deal with humid, hot mid-south summers.
There are a lot of birds resident this week. Some are familiar, including an old blue heron feasting on minnows and tadpoles in the shallow depths of Newton’s Branch and the Canadian geese which are semi-permanent winter visitors (but maintain over-flight Vee-formation maneuvers daily), and the woodpeckers with racing stripes down their necks. Others are unfamiliar. The other day we saw a sparrow-sized bird with a white breast—bright white. We are told that eagles and ospreys have taken up residence farther downstream and we will investigate that shortly.
The washer and dryer are beeping. They are modern as they run, resident in the new laundry room. I cannot decipher the computerized operation of these monuments to cleanliness, and when I phone my daughter Emmy (who has lived here longer than anyone but her sister and who is visiting her grandfather on Tucker Bend Road), she prefers that I just wait for her return. But they continue to complain, audibly and by flashing lights, to no one. Not exactly vintage-era implements, but history yields to functionality, a painful but inevitable reality.
Another historical figure, fellow lawyer Aaron Venable Brown, lived close by. Brown emigrated from North Carolina and was a peer of Burwell, albeit more a man of the world. He practiced law in Pulaski, the county seat of Giles, served in the Tennessee senate and house, and later the US Congress. After resigning from Congress in 1845, he learned while on his way home from Washington, DC that he had been nominated for Governor by the Tennessee Democratic Party. Though a reluctant candidate, he went on to defeat narrowly his Whig opponent. During his gubernatorial administration, several railroads were chartered, improvements were made to state mental and penal institutions, and a number of male and female academies were incorporated. Brown was defeated for reelection to a second term, after which he served as a member of the Southern Convention that met in Nashville. There, he co-authored the “Tennessee Platform,” which opposed the compromise on the slavery question pending before Congress. At the Democratic National Convention in 1856, he received twenty-nine votes as a vice-presidential candidate. He was later appointed Postmaster General under President Buchanan. He died in Washington, DC and was buried in Nashville.
The federal historical marker is in the right of way at the westernmost edge of our lot—so, Gov. Brown must have had some tie to the vicinity. (The earliest Conway post office may have been sited somewhere close to the marker, along the Elkton Columbia Turnpike frontage.) And now, he and I are joined, as I keep the grassy area around his historical marker free of debris, when I get back there.