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WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 13, 2006
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Calvin Smith stands in front of his Civil War era house on a buggy block, a pile of stones ladies stepped on to have easier access into a buggy. The stones have started to sink.
Daily photo by John Godbey
Calvin Smith stands in front of his Civil War era house on a buggy block, a pile of stones ladies stepped on to have easier access into a buggy. The stones have started to sink.

HISTORIC LIVING
A reward
set in brick


Couple restores 1840s
house filled with lore, snakes

By Holly Hollman
hhollman@decaturdaily.com 340-2445

DELLROSE, Tenn. - Calvin and Sandra Smith would welcome ghosts haunting their 166-year-old house instead of what sometimes causes the banging and creaking they hear.

But neither the spirit of the slave who handmade the home's bricks, nor the spirits of Civil War soldiers who died there when it served as a Confederate hospital, disturb the couple's sleep.

The Smiths have left this upstairs room untouched. The handwriting of a young girl, whose mother took care of an elderly woman who owned the home in the 1930s and 1940s, still is visible on the tattered wallpaper and wooden doors.
Daily photo by John Godbey
The Smiths have left this upstairs room untouched. The handwriting of a young girl, whose mother took care of an elderly woman who owned the home in the 1930s and 1940s, still is visible on the tattered wallpaper and wooden doors.
Slithering creatures are what sneak into the home. One snake entered through a propped window, knocking out the board with a "blam!" The second snake fell out of the chimney.

Most would hardly call a house prone to snake encounters as charming, but the Smiths see this as just another bewitching aspect of their 1840s cotton plantation home.

It stands majestic behind a patch of cedars atop a Tennessee hill at the state line, just north of Ardmore.

Family lore and historical records indicate that the Wilson family bought a slave for $1,500, and that this slave baked the home's brick in the nearby creek bottom, Calvin Smith said. Smith estimates that the home has 1.8 million bricks made from ingredients like clay, bacon grease and glass.

Civil War era

During the Civil War, the home served as a hospital for the Confederacy. The federal style design with enormous windows and doors on both floors would have offered continuous airflow for the suffering soldiers during the summer.

A patched hole on top of the roof but left uncovered in the attic is reportedly evidence that a cannon ball plummeted into the home during that war.

"It's amazing the stories we hear about our home, and that's one reason I love it," said Sandra Smith. "People will stop by and want to look around. They'll tell us things like, 'So-and-so was born in this very room,' or, 'So-and-so's body was laid out right here when he died.' "

Calvin Smith said his favorite is an elderly woman who looked in their living room and exclaimed, "We used to have some ska-waaaaare dances in this place. That's how she pronounced square dances. And I laugh too about the person who told me they set the house on fire at a New Year's Eve party here."

Second-time owners

He has twice owned the home that's on the National Register of Historic Places. The first time was in 1983, when he bought it and tried to salvage the ceilings, windows and floors of the Wilson-Young House, as historical authorities call it.

Smith sold the home, but not the adjoining farm, in 1996 with plans to retire on that money.

But when the chance to buy it a second time came in 2003, he had to call the place home again. He now had time to devote to restoring it since he retired from his job with BellSouth in Huntsville.

Originally, the farm had at least 600 acres. All that remain today are 103 acres. Smith said he doesn't know whether the family lost much of their holdings during Reconstruction or the Depression. He said he knows the family sold 100 acres to a freed slave who remained with the family to work. Until recently, a descendant of that slave still lived on the 100 acres, Smith said.

Living in such a historic filled place isn't an easy life. To keep electric bills lower, the Smiths don't heat the main hallway. The original buggy house is weathered with missing boards and a curling tin roof that rattles in the wind.

"Our main focus right now is fixing the house; then we'll worry about the rest," he said.

Buggy block

The buggy block, a pile of stones ladies stepped on to have easier access into a buggy, has started to sink. The structure covering the cistern leans.

One upstairs room the Smiths have left untouched, and it's here that ghosts or snakes would love to call home.

The chimney floor is crumbled brick. Layers of wallpaper hang in patches on the plaster made from horsehair, except where the soot-covered brick are visible. The handwriting of a young girl, whose mother took care of an elderly woman who owned the home in the 1930s and 1940s, still is visible on the tattered wallpaper and wooden doors.

"That's how the girl learned to write, I suppose," Smith said.

One entry says something about going to Elkton, Tenn., on a Sunday.

These structural challenges don't deter the Smiths. At what other home could they uncover hand-carved crutches from behind a chimney? Or six Civil War era bullets in a fruit jar? Or shoe buckles and buttons with Confederate insignia?

Widow's walk

And where else could they find such a view from a widow's walk?

Through a narrow attic entrance and up wobbly wooden ladders, the couple can get to the top of their two-story home to its widow's walk and view the Tennessee and Limestone County countryside. Interstate 65 is barely visible through the tree-lined landscape and rolling farmland.

Below, they can watch their peacocks totter around the buggy house and their dogs roll in the grass.

"I just enjoy saving the old place," Smith said while gazing from that widow's walk. "This is something I can do so that down the line, someone else can enjoy it."

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