The Old House Whispers

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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.

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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.

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This is Jan’s photo taken from the side porch from which we could peek into the house to determine whether we really wanted to go in.

 

And what I saw just broke my heart- a grand old dame falling to ruin right in front of our eyes.

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Rotting floorboards and peeling wallpapers don’t entirely diminish the old girl’s beauty.

 

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.

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Remnants of a kitchen addition. Apologies for terrible photo quality!

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.”

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Fireplace surely destined for some salvage yard someday.

 

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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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Remember that staircase? How wonderful is this?

 

 

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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,

Barbara

 

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About Silver in the Barn

Life in a 1915 farmhouse in Central Virginia. Blogging about whatever happens to catch my fancy - sometimes nonsense, occasionally not.
This entry was posted in History, Random Ruminations and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

179 Responses to The Old House Whispers

  1. Parnassus says:

    Hello Barbara, The first step would be to get a condition assessment of this house, as one does (or at least ought to!) when buying a house. It should be from an engineer who has worked successfully with old houses before, as unfortunately there are those who play into the hands of the “let’s tear it down” people.

    It is difficult to tell by simple looking–some wrecks are eminently salvageable, while some seemingly perfect buildings are on the point of collapse. Since it is on state land, there could be all kinds of money available, and also tax breaks, etc. if it were to be developed privately (as for example a privately managed restaurant on the preserve grounds).

    In the meantime, there is no reason why the house should not be documented–the people who have lived there might have many photos, as perhaps their friends who visited for events there. These photos and documents would be invaluable if a restoration were to take place, and in fact might fuel interest in the project to make it happen.

    For those who wish the house could whisper and talk, that reminds me of Saki’s story Tobermory, which you probably have read, about a cat who is taught to speak, then goes on to reveal everyone’s secrets!
    –Jim

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    • Hello Jim, I am smiling because my friend Kayti just posted the other day about Tobermory which I had not thought of – or read – in years. A delight!

      I am going to contact the Virginia Historical Society to see if somebody there could guide me towards a possible next step. The level of indifference is staggering. Within the local Historical Society history I own – which was published in 1982 – are these words in the “Preserving Our Heritage” chapter: “….Kennons, one of Amelia’s few brick ante-bellum plantation homes, stands abandoned and deteriorating on the Amelia Wildlife tract. It has been declared superfluous to the State…. The present situation, deplorable as it is, is not undeserved. County leaders have probably represented the majority of their constituents in this appalling neglect. Although there have been individual efforts to gather historic materials and to preserve our physical heritage, leadership from the county in this regard has been lacking and the efforts of local citizens groups have been ineffectual.”

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  2. Grace says:

    Barbara, what a lovely post. I am so glad you summoned the courage to visit the house and was tenacious enough to learn some of its history. The pictures are wonderful, I kept looking at them and imagining how she would look restored to her former glory. Thank you for sharing.

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  3. You are a great researcher, Barbara. Great job, bringing this house alive and placing it in its historical context.

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  4. Janis Grizzard says:

    Wonderful commentary! Thanks and loved the wedding photos.

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  5. Eliza Waters says:

    Oh, I just loved this post, Barbara! What a tale well told. You and your friend are very brave to have gone in there, but I’m glad you did so we could see what it looks like. 🙂 Excellent sleuthing for info on its history and inhabitants, including those last photos. I always feel sad when I see an abandoned house because it once held so much life. It reminds me that “all we are is dust in the wind.” You have done justice to the memory of this old manse. ❤

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  6. dorannrule says:

    What a fantastic and wonderful story Barbara! There the old house stands crumbling and inspiring the imagination. What life could have been inside? And then here you come with proof of life! And I love your last line! “We come and we go, and all that’s left of us is whispers.” That is simply poetic. You are an amazing writer. I love this story. Thank you. 🙂

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    • Thank you so much, Dor! As I was telling Eliza, I did struggle a bit with this one and I’m awfully pleased to read your comment. It’s such a tricky balance when trying to get across emotion, isn’t it?

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  7. This is a wonderful story. I came over here looking for info on the house (1915) you’re fixing/have fixed up and found this instead. It’s awesome. I’m so glad you got to see those pix and share them on here. And btw…your writing is wonderful..I love the way you made a breadcrumb trail to the end with the little nuggets of information throughout the piece.

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    • Hi Torrie and thank you so much. I find I don’t write nearly as much about my old house as I thought I would when I first started my blog. Isn’t it funny how our blogs evolve in different directions from the original intention. And I so appreciate your kind words.

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      • Hah! Exactly what happened on my own blog. But I’m still signed on for a follow….I had a look around your blog this morning and found it quite an array of interesting writings and pictures!

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      • You are too kind. It’s a hodgepodge of randomness – much like the workings of my own mind! But that’s okay, I have to have somewhere to deposit this stuff, right? I look forward to getting to know you better too. We have so many mutual friends in the b-sphere, I think, it’s high time we meet!

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Jennifer says:

    What a wonderful story. You told it so well, I was glued to the screen. Such a shame it has fallen to ruin. I’d love to restore an old beauty like that.

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  9. Behind the Story says:

    What a wonderful story! You gave it the suspense of a ghost story. And we all know of old, deserted houses in our town or neighbourhood. When I was a kid, we always labeled them ghost houses and were afraid to go inside. My daughter, who lives in a not-so-old neighborhood in Rockville, MD, has pointed out to me a couple of long-empty houses that have fallen into disrepair. She calls them “ghost houses.” She’s very curious about their history.

    I love your title. A house is so much more than a house. It whispers stories of everything that ever happened inside its walls and it bears witness to the people who built it. I added that last part because my dad built many houses during his career, all of them still standing.

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    • I used to kind of object when I was selling real estate to the concept of building “homes.” Really no. There is a distinction between house and home. I guess finding those photographs made the transformation from one to the other for me. And how wonderful for you, Nicki, to see your father’s labors standing the test of time. You must be so proud.

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  10. ritaroberts says:

    I keep coming back to this post Barbara just to look at the old house because I would love to be able to stand inside to feel the atmosphere. I can usually tell if it has a sad or happy feeling(those are the wispers you mentioned

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  11. Dixie Minor says:

    I love “The old house whispers”. . . sooo evocative! This was a haunting and lovely post. Loved the history bits. Isn’t the serendipity thing amazing sometimes? Sometimes when I am inside and old house, I get a little dizzy, literally. . . kind of imaging in the life that was there. It really does seem to cling there. Am I being fanciful? 🙂

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    • Well, if you are being fanciful, you are speaking to another guilty party, so I couldn’t say. Why do things have to be so cut and dried, anyway? Surely there are whispers if we pay attention. I’m so happy, Dixie, that you enjoyed this post. Thanks very much for your comment.

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  12. dorothy says:

    Awesome post. Love all the fabulous woodwork in this house..too bad it’s not being salvaged before it ‘s too late. Just imagine being the bride making your grand entrance down that staircase. Keep researching these wonderful properties Ms. Barbara but be careful…we love your adventures.

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  13. I always find abandoned houses so sad and my imagination runs away and imagines it beautifully restored, courtesy of decorating Partner 😀

    That’s exactly the sort of house that would appeal to me, although these days, he’d moan at the amount of work and I’d moan at the cleaning once fixed. Sad though nevertheless.

    Loved your research, nice piece of work there ma’am.

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    • Thanks much, Kate. Interesting that Partner is the enthusiastic decorator. Mine is happy to leave that all up to me which is just fine. Yes, sad, but like our rescue dogs, we can only do so much. My partner is flying another from A to B this weekend, by the way. I wonder when I’m going to get the call that he thinks he wants to bring one home.

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  14. Thom Hickey says:

    Thanks. Well done for attending to the whispers and bringing them to our attention in such a fascinating and well illustrated way. Regards Thom.

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  15. Beautiful story and photos, Barbara. The photos from your friend’s wedding do breathe new life into that old place. How sad to see such a lovely structure deteriorate.

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  16. elmediat says:

    Excellent photo essay, full of heartbreak and sweet memories.

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  17. reocochran says:

    Such a wonderful visit and treat for me today. I am playing catch up on Saturday, and Voila! The history, the romance, the haunting thoughts and the true story of the house really came to life through your caring descriptions. You were able to build to the end, letting us not know we would get to sneak a peek into the real wedding of someone you knew who got married at the Kennons. Wow, life is so full of mystery and intrigue. This could be extended into a short story or book, Barb.
    My favorite photos are of the over the door window panes and the way you were able to capture the light from your perspective inside the house. I enjoyed studying the photos of the wedding, such a surprise and you were so clever in saving this golden nugget till the end. Loved this post, Barb!

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    • Hello Robin and thank you, as usual, for your comments on my posts which always reveal such insight. My favorite part of the house was exactly yours – those beautiful transom lights are just so elegant. YOu know, the surprise ending to the post is just a reflection of how it happened to me. I had no idea I would find something like that and all of a sudden, as you say, a golden nugget. So happy you enjoyed the post and hope you are having a nice weekend.

      Liked by 1 person

      • reocochran says:

        Thank you for giving me the words for those windows, Barb. Of course, transom lights are so elegant and beautiful in this photograph and glad we share this as a favorite view amongst many special views.

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  18. WOW! If those walls could only talk… Your photography and your thirst for knowledge are fantastic! I wish I lived close so I could go investigating with you. What a fun project to take on!

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  19. shoreacres says:

    People always are saying, “If I won the lottery, I would do this or that.” If I won the lottery, I would buy this property and bring it back to life. It would have to be a fairly good payout, of course, but when we’re imagining, we can imagine big jackpots if we like.

    The house is glorious. There are no empty houses, of course. They all do speak. Sometimes they reveal a good bit, and sometimes they only whisper a bit, leaving us to guess the rest. You were one of the lucky ones — the house had a friend, who revealed more than its walls ever could of a wonderful past.

    I so enjoyed this, both the photos and your words.

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    • Yes, i believe in one of my comments I said this house falls into the category ” if I had a million dollars!”…..and some pull with the state of VA! I can tell from your lovely comment that you completely understand my feelings walking through Kennons. I very much appreciate you reading and commenting so thoughtfully.

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  20. Angie Mc says:

    Absolutely gorgeous, dare I say perfect, post. Wow, am I glad to meet you 😀

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    • Hello Angie! You know how some days you are just running from one thing to the next with no time to even think about your blog? Well, that was today for me. So it was awfully nice to get home tonight and read this lovely comment. Wow! You made my day. Thank you.

      Liked by 1 person

  21. Angie Mc says:

    Reblogged this on Angie Mc's Reblog Love and commented:
    A photo dense, word rich post. Barbara writes, “And what I saw just broke my heart- a grand old dame falling to ruin right in front of our eyes.”

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  22. Leya says:

    A wonderful post of days gone by – and great shots of the house as well. You couldn’t tell of the beauty seeing it from the outside only. And that you finally got some old photos of the house in its glory days! This must have been so fantastic. Thank you for sharing the story and the photos. I think “she” is grateful as well…

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  23. Lola says:

    Reblogged this on Lola With Wings and commented:
    Okay, shoutout to Silver in The Barn (silverinthebarn.wordpress.com), she is an AMAZING writer! You should totally follow her. Anywho, read this post ofhers It is AMAZING!

    Like

  24. chissra says:

    What a beautiful post. I truly love your way of writing and the pictures of the old house are breath taking. I love old houses. I love that old houses holds so many hopes and secrets from people who have lived there. It is like stepping into history. It is like you can hear the whispers of the passed.

    Wish you a lovely day.

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    • Dear Chissra, thank you so much for this very kind comment. Those of us who hear the whispers, like you, can appreciate these old houses and the stories they hold. I wish you a lovely day too and so appreciate reading this message from you.

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  25. Cece Heins says:

    Hello Barbara, I spent my summers as a small child in that wonderful old house as my great-grandmother liver there and she and her three sons ran the dairy farm. I’m actually in one of the wedding pictures (one of the young girls in the reception line). I cried when I first saw the pics of the grand old home. I recognized to much of the different parts you captured in photos. I am saddened it has fallen into such a state…I’d almost rather they tore it down than to watch it die this slow, agonizing death. I haven’t been there in many, many years but your article has sparked a desire to visit it once again soon. If I had a million bucks, I’d restore it to it’s former glory. Maybe if I win the lottery (lol). Thank you for the time you invested and your lovely story about the place. Would love to chat with you about my memories if you’re interested and when you have the time. I love your blog and enjoy the many interests you write about.

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    • Hello Cece. What a lovely message. I would love to meet you someday, Cece, really. Couldn’t agree more that I’d rather it see torn down than die this agonizing death. It makes me crazy that we are allowing this to happen, it really does. Thank you so much for your very kind comment; it’s so gratifying to receive a comment like this especially from you, somebody who knows and loves this old house.

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