The old house had long been a mystery to me. I discovered it while walking in a state-owned wildlife refuge just around the corner from my own old house. I turned a corner and there it sat, overgrown with vines and saplings and peering out at me accusingly from those broken windows.
It has been in my imagination ever since. One cold winter day, I approached the house to take a few pictures. The sudden – and terrifying – appearance of a vulture which flew out of a second-story window with a tremendous flapping of wings only added to the sense of foreboding the house evoked in me….and to my heart rate.
Funny how the change in seasons and a bright blue sky can do so much to change one’s perception of a thing. The house didn’t seem nearly so sinister in the warm sunshine of my next visit last spring.
I had trekked out to the old house with my friend, Jan, an avid photographer. She happens to be much less of a coward than I am and talked me into going inside. What about snakes? And skunks? And rotting floorboards? The fear of these things, evidently, does not deter the truly intrepid photographer and so we tiptoed inside….she leading the way, of course.
And what I saw just broke my heart- a grand old dame falling to ruin right in front of our eyes.
It turns out that Jan, long a resident of my small Southern county, knew somebody who knew somebody who had grown up in this house during the forties and fifties. From that person, I learned the house was called “Kennons.” And with that little morsel of information and my county history book, I was able to unearth a few more secrets.
We don’t know exactly when Kennons was built, but it is antebellum. The earliest reference is the year 1832, so we are sure slavery was an integral part of the daily scene on this Virginia plantation. My history book gives an excerpt from the instructions a plantation owner gave to his overseer:
Mothers to be allowed sufficient time and worked as near the house as practicable – pregnant women to be put to no work that might endanger their situation such as ploughing or fencing, etc…..no striking a negro with the fist or stick or butt end of the whip or kicking him unless in self defence. The sick to be attended with tenderness and visited everyday…..the negro houses to be kept clean and any and all filth removed – every negro to be cleanly dressed every Sabbath day…which is to be a day of rest…..
There are but two entries in the “Historical Notes” volume I own which specifically relate to Kennons and both refer to women. One is Sally Dandridge Cooke who kept a diary containing descriptions of plantation society circa 1847. The ritual of the visit was highly developed and often, it seems, quite tedious. The necessity to entertain frequently, and to return the favor by paying calls, was so demanding that Miss Cooke tells of her relief here, “a rainy day- much to our joy – as it precluded the possibility of visitors.”
We are told that when word that “somebody is coming” was whispered by “innumerable little voices,” the young ladies were sent scurrying to dress quickly and be presentable for their callers. Sally tells us of an invitation to attend a children’s party at a house right around the corner from where this blog is written. “Invited to dine at the Hermitage next day. To our infinite disappointment there were not horses – so posted a little servant over at daylight with our regrets and received theirs in return.”
The house is not particularly attractive from the outside – nothing like the grand antebellum mansions that Frances Benjamin Johnston photographed during the 1930s. But inside is quite another matter entirely. Standing in the lovely foyer admiring the double front door flanked by glass transoms and sidelights, I was struck by the gracious design of the old manse. Ten foot ceilings, wonderful square rooms with ample lighting, generous proportions, elegant woodwork, and a fine staircase. Remember this staircase, more to come on that.
The other lady mentioned in the book is a Sally Gaines Stegar, born at “Kennons” in 1832.
“She died at the age of forty, having borne fourteen children, been the mistress of an ante-bellum plantation, and last but not least, having lived through the War Between the States and witnessed the ending of the kind of life to which she had been born.”
By this time, I was getting brave and wanted to go upstairs. Looking up, I thought better of it.
When you live in a small country town and start asking around about something, sooner or later little tidbits of information come your way. And one of those led me to another long-time resident of the county who is related to the last family to have lived at Kennons. In those days, the property was a large dairy farm, she told me, and the house? Not quite as grand as my vivid imagination would take me. So much for my visions of crystal chandeliers and Oriental carpets.
When the owners of the property grew too old to continue the dairy farming operation and subsequently received an offer from the state of Virginia to buy their land as a Wildlife Management Area, of course they took it. The house was closed up in the late 1960s and has stood there ever since, slowly sliding into ruin. And that, I thought, was the end of the story.
Until my friend dropped this little bombshell:
“By the way, my wedding reception was held at Kennons.”
What?!? After I picked myself up from the floor, I asked – with heart in throat – about the possibility of photos. Oh yes!
And here they are taken just a few years before the house was sold:
You must know how thrilled I was to see these photos after wondering about this house for so many years. Of course I knew on one level that real life had happened within these walls, but to see black and white confirmation of such a joyful occasion right there before my eyes was truly more than I could have hoped for.
And it is bittersweet, is it not? This house full of whispers. We come and we go and all that’s left of us is whispers.
Thanks for reading,