Building on a link that goes all the way to Scotland
Posted: Friday, November 16, 2012 8:00 pm
By: By Glenda Caudle
We found it in Scotland — the Tennessee connection.
In case you missed my previous rhapsodizing over several weeks spent in the British Isles, let me just note that Girl Child No. 3 and I spent the month of June exploring the delights of London while I tried to complete a novel I just couldn’t seem to pull together here at home. Then we moved on to a college campus in Edinburgh, Scotland, where I was enrolled in a summer distance graduate level writing course I hoped would make me a really good writer. (Nothing like putting the cart before the horse, she said in retrospect.)
Hardly had we been deposited at our Scottish campus apartment than Girl Child was meeting our suite mates while I did something mundane like dealing with luggage and tips for cab drivers and the like.
She informed me right away that one of our new roomies had once lived in Tennessee — although she had made her home in the mountainous end rather than on the swampy edge, as we do. Nevertheless, there was a West Tennessee connection, as well, since our new friend’s husband had grown up in Huntingdon.
By the time I was officially introduced to Jeannette Hill, it had been established that while her hubby — JT — and I were in the same age range, we probably had never actually crossed paths. And now this couple with Tennessee roots was living in Texas and it was the craziest happenstance that Jeannette should have been working toward a master’s degree in creative writing and I should have been trying to polish my on-the-job writing skills and we had both selected an American university that offered summer classes in Scotland to meet our goals. And then ended up living in the same campus apartment for a month. Small world, huh?
It gets smaller.
As we got to know each other better, Jeannette mentioned the possibility of a good feature story to me. JT, a retired mechanical engineer who had worked for Alcoa, and his uncle and cousin had spent the last six years restoring a family dwelling that still occupied its original site in Huntingdon, and they planned an open house to celebrate the completion of the work sometime around late October or early November. She asked me if I might be interested in attending the event and, possibly, writing something about the family renovation project.
I assured her I would be interested and my mind immediately focused on the many older homes lining the impressive thoroughfare travelers, headed for the connection to I-40, once automatically took through the downtown area, prior to the building of a bypass. My sources tell me this is Alternate State Route 70, in case you need to know.
At some point in conversation with Jeannette, I asked if one of those large dwellings might be the restored home place in question. She laughed and assured me that was not the case. In fact, she said, the house that had been the focus of her husband’s attention was actually a modest log cabin originally, and rather than occupying the grand sweep through town, it was situated on a country road with an unusual name.
Oh, well, then, I told her, it was bound to be in foreign territory for me. I could think of only one road in that area I had ever even heard of: Purdy Road, it was.
And, of course, as fate would have it, Purdy Road, it was.
The exact place where the renovated cabin was, I mean.
Now, I had never actually been on Purdy Road, but the name was familiar because the granddaughter of Union Citians Keith and Anita Fisher, who are not only our neighbors now but were also my next door neighbors when I was a teenager and lived across town, has a home on that road. Lindsey (Fisher) Johnson grew up in Huntingdon and married a hometown boy — Justin Johnson. And he just happens to be the cousin of Jeannette’s husband and the son of one of the others in the trio of restorers.
And that’s how a unique bond and shared point of reference was formed in Scotland around a little country road in West Tennessee.
Three weeks ago, Girl Child No. 3 and Girl Child No. 2 — who is a dear childhood friend of the Lindsey Johnson mentioned above — and Granddaughter No. 3 — who belongs to Girl Child No. 2 — and I all went down Purdy Road and spent a glorious, beautiful, perfect Saturday afternoon celebrating the completion of the Bennett-Vickers Homestead cabin and meeting the men responsible for making it ring with laughter, music and family conversation once again.
We ate barbecue and sipped cool drinks in the shade on the porch while we looked at family picture albums featuring people who had lived and loved in the house through the years. Meantime, children celebrated with rides in horse-drawn wagons and buggies and even got to sit high up on the backs of some long-suffering horses while they were walked sedately around the meadow in front of the cabin by descendants of the original builders.
From time to time, gorgeous leaves, rinsed and dried to crackling autumn colors, swirled across a grassy lawn that was still green as refreshing breezes reminded us summer weather would not last forever. From inside the cabin, we could hear the strains of old-timey stringed instruments from a group of musicians who had set up shop in one of the main rooms and were plucking and strumming songs at least as old as the original inhabitants of the home, and maybe even older.
We listened to people we had never laid eyes on before trace their blood lines back to a common denominator and smiled as new babies were showcased and the whereabouts of cousins who couldn’t make it in for the day were discussed.
They weren’t “our people” we were celebrating with, but they might have been. Because their story is the same as our story in so many ways. Our forefathers all came from distant places in search of a better life. They believed they had found it and they put down roots — from which immense family trees have grown. Storms have lashed those trees through the years and sometimes limbs have been sacrificed, but the roots hold and the trunks are sturdy and, as seasons meld, one into another, lives move through cycles of birth and growth and — yes, death, too, and we hold on. We tell our family stories and wish we had asked more questions when the ones with the answers were still around. And sometimes we’re able to do some of that in the very place it all began — because someone cared enough to preserve it.
That’s what JT (known as James to his West Tennessee family) of Fort Worth, formerly of Huntingdon; his uncle, Bob Vickers Sr., who is a retired FCC electronics expert; and his cousin, Robert Joe Johnson, who is a retired colonel in the National Guard, did for their family.
And this is how it happened.
James, Bob and Robert Joe are all descendants of the late Etheldred and Elisha Bennett, who built the log house sometime between 1840 and 1850. James and Bob hit on the idea of restoring the home, which had been “modernized” through the years, and then brought Robert Joe in on the project.
“My favorite memory (of the house) from my childhood in the 1950s and 1960s was visiting my Uncle Luther and Aunt Florence Forbess, who lived in the house. I attended many old-fashioned hog killings there. I can still smell the cracklings. My Aunt Florence was born in the house and lived there until the 1970s. The house had been vacant since then until the restoration began in 2006,” James says.
Extended family were pulled into the project as it progressed over a six-year period. Research into the home and family history was undertaken at several levels and provided much valuable information, the restorers say.
“The time spent working together and enjoying family and friends has been rewarding and the biggest unexpected benefit,” says James. He and Jeannette have been returning to the place where he grew up three or four times a year for intensive work sessions that included, first of all, removing the chimneys from each end of the house, cleaning each brick and then restoring the chimneys to the original configurations.
Since Bob and Robert Joe each live next door to the home, their involvement included very little travel, but a lot of hands-on effort. Bob has a sawmill of his own and he cut the majority of the trees and sawed up most of the timbers used in the restoration. Robert Joe also benefited from friendships that resulted in the donation of logs from another cabin for use in the project.
“Many log houses have been restored in West Tennessee and throughout the South, but we believe this is one of a very few that is still in its original location,” James says. “This house is still sitting on the original foundation rocks that were placed there nearly 175 years ago.”
The original owner of the tract of land where the house stands dates back to the settling of Carroll County in the early 1800s. The acreage was, at one time, part of a homestead owned by the late John Milton Hawkins, the father of the late Gov. Alvin Hawkins.
In 1836, Hawkins sold some of his property, probably including a dwelling just west of Purdy Road, to Etheldred Bennett. The new owner and his family, including his parents — Solomon and Obedience Bennett — likely lived in the Hawkins home until the log cabin that was recently restored was built.
In 1848, Bennett deeded 70 acres of his 160-acre purchase to his son and daughter-in-law, Elisha and Margaret, who, most likely, actually built the home, using materials from the Hawkins dwelling. That couple’s daughter, Sarah “Sallie” Bennett, married William Washington “Tobe” Vickers in 1880 and this couple raised their family in the house — including their daughter, who would later become Aunt Florence to James.
According to information provided for guests at the recent celebration, the house is 50 feet wide by 20 feet deep and features a center dog-trot to take advantage of natural breezes. Hand-hewn oak and chestnut timbers were crafted and set during construction. Bricks used in the original framing up were manufactured from local clay by the original owners. The foundation is sand rock carved and hauled from a rock outcropping on the property. Through the years, family members raised the roof to provide a larger upstairs area and replaced the original roof with a tin one. They also added running water and electricity.
But if they saw the dwelling today, Elisha and Margaret Bennett would have no trouble recognizing the four-room home as their own. And they would, no doubt, be honored by the time, talent and dedication devoted to making their house a place where memories cannot only be replayed but made for future generations.
“The original objective was to preserve the past and leave something for future generations and the community,” James says. “Hopefully, it will be used in homecoming celebrations in the future.”
And who knows what stories will be told when the family gathers there again. Someone just might remember a strange quartet of visitors who came to the initial restoration celebration all the way from Union City, via Edinburgh, Scotland. If James and Bob and Robert Joe and their kin are interested in first and favorable impressions, I’ll be happy to drop by and share my own.
And maybe, if we talk long enough and search hard enough, we’ll scratch up an Edinburgh connection for our families that goes back generations instead of merely months. It really is a pretty small world, you see.
Special Features Editor Glenda Caudle may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Published in The Messenger 11.16.12