For the past several months, I have revelled in telling you stories of my childhood as I grew up in the mountains of northwest North Carolina. I am so honored and thankful to share these memories with you, and I have many more to share. Life is not lived in the past, though, and mine are not the only stories that need to be told. For almost two thirds of my life now, I have lived in the beautiful rolling hills of East Tennessee, an area that boasts many old homes, barns, churches, and historical buildings, along with a considerable number of colorful characters. In the new year, I hope to share many more childhood memories, but I am also excited about also sharing some stories from this area that is so steeped in history.
A good bridge to start this transition is with our own home. I grew up in the heyday of the ranch home, and not only did we live in one but so also did both sets of my grandparents. I loved those homes, but part of me always yearned to reach into the past. For as long as I can remember, I dreamed of living in an old white farmhouse. In 2011, Tom and I realized this dream, but it wasn’t a white farmhouse at all; it was a brick colonial built in the early 1850s. We don’t know why, but this house called us home.
Cradled in a little valley at the foot of the rolling hills that lead to the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee on one side and the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina’s on the other sets a simple brown brick house. I am that brown brick house, home really, and I have a story to tell..
The year is 1850. Millard Fillmore is the 13th president of the United States, having ascended to the office after the death of Zachary Taylor. A lawyer named Abraham Lincoln is embroiled in an ongoing debate with Stephen Douglas that centers around the Compromise of 1850. At the same time, another Abraham, this one named Abraham Sevier Johnson, begins to make plans for a home for his wife, Matilda, and the six children they would eventually have.
This is where my story starts. Mr. Abraham Sevier Johnson owned the land I set on. In fact, Mr. Johnson eventually owned around 2,000 acres of land, but he chose this little valley for me. You see, he was a farmer, and I am situated right in the middle of some of the best farmland in East Tennessee. He wanted a comfortable home for his family and one that would serve him well in his business dealings, too.
That’s where I come in. Building me was a labor of love, and it didn’t happen quickly. Nothing happened too quickly back then. Trees probably older than our country had to be cut down by felling saws that took two people to use, then the felled trees had to be stripped of branches, large and small and hauled in wagons to the building site. The tree trunks then were cut to just the right length to be used as the foundation for the floors.
The branches served their purpose, too. Many of them were cut into planks and boards to be used for my floors and for door and window frames. I won’t go into the details, but suffice it to say that this task took a long, long time and involved one man in a pit below the board and one on top sawing back and forth.
And then, there were the bricks, the thousands of bricks it took for my foot thick walls that extended around those huge logs and all the way to the ground in each room. It took a full three layers of brick to make each of these walls. And each brick was formed and baked in ovens just behind where I now stand.
All the while, Mr. Johnson and his growing family lived in my predecessor, a small one room home that eventually became my summer kitchen. Imagine if you will what it was like for the family during this time. Imagine hammers and cut nails everywhere, logs and sawdust everywhere, clay and bricks everywhere. Think about how hard it was for Mr. Johnson to keep up with his business, crops, and livestock farm while supervising all the construction, too. And don’t forget Mrs. Johnson who had to feverishly work to garden and can, cook for all the farmhands and construction laborers, launder the clothes by hand, and do the countless other things that kept daily life running smoothly.
Slowly, though, through the ordered chaos, I began to take shape. My colonial four-square floor plan was really quite simple. Four rooms downstairs and four rooms upstairs divided down the middle by the front hall and staircase. The three years it took to build me slipped by, and finally, I had a full eight fireplaces (one in each room) to keep me cozy all winter long and two large 4 feet by 6 feet windows in each room that opened wide to let the cross breeze circulate the air during the hot summer days and nights.
Soon, the family had moved in, and routine followed. Mr. Johnson continued to prosper, and the rich soil on the farm yielded crops so plentiful that he could sell them near and far. In fact, he dreamed of selling some of his crops all the way in Kansas, but there was just not a way to keep them fresh during the long trip there. So, Mr. Johnson and some other businessmen hit upon the idea of convincing the railroad to come through so that they could all expand their markets. He held meetings with the railroad officials right here, so I know all about how he convinced the railroad men to bring their iron horse almost to my door!
Other times in my early history were not so happy. I wasn’t much more than 10 when the rumblings of a great war found their way to me. Before long The Civil War raged, and I often wondered if I would survive or be counted among the casualties. Indians occupied me once, I served as a hospital for a while, and both Union and Confederate soldiers took control of me at different times. Horses even ran through me one time!
I can never forget this time in my history and how it affected the Johnsons. Never knowing the intention of the soldiers who would come through, Mr. and Mrs.Johnson made it a habit to hide the children to protect them. Their favorite hiding place was right in my kitchen in the upper storage cabinet next to the chimney. And it worked. Somehow, we all survived!
As exciting as those first years were, I sure didn’t mind when things settled down. For the next century, I would rejoice in the birth of many babies inside my walls and mourn the deaths of many family members, but through it all, the Johnson family lovingly maintained me and called me home. I became known as simply “The Johnson House.” But, as is often the case, our long relationship came to a sad end in the 1960s when there just wasn’t anyone in the family who could stay with me…I had to be sold. I was sure I would never be happy again.
I was wrong. In these last 50 years, at least four different families have called me home. One of my owners even turned the summer kitchen into a pottery complete with a pottery wheel and kiln. She used my front room as a showroom and taught pottery classes. Those were good times! I’ve also been home to a musician and an artist, so I have been quite happy.
My current family isn’t quite that exciting. Tom is a social worker, and Pam is a retired teacher. They must really love me, though, because they have given me new life. You see, little by little, I fell into disrepair over the years. Now, don’t take me wrong; Mr. Johnson made sure I was built solid to last! And last I have. There’s hardly a squeak anywhere in my old floors and not a single door creaks. My windows and doors are still square, and my bricks are solid. Still, lots of little things needed attention, and Tom and Pam made sure they all got the attention they needed.
I have a new roof and new paint inside and out. My plaster got a facelift, and my floors shine. I even have a bathroom downstairs now! My yard is full of flowers, and dogs bark, cats meow, and chickens cluck all around. Vegetables grow in the garden, and my remodeled kitchen turns out some pretty good meals. All sorts of folks visit often, and I make sure they feel peace and comfort inside my walls.
I am needed, and I am loved. I couldn’t be happier. I think Tom and Pam are pretty happy, too. And best of all, I think Mr. and Mrs. Johnson would be happy to know that The Johnson House not only has a magnificent past but also a bright future!
Notes: This is a story based in fact, but probably contains a good bit of fiction. I don’t know that any of the story I have told is false, but I can’t say with certainty that it is completely accurate, either. Our home’s builder was indeed Mr. Abraham Sevier Johnson, and he probably owned at least 2,000 acres of land. By some accounts, it was as much as 8,000 acres. Most of the story is based in verbal conversations that we and prior owners have had with neighbors and descendants of the Johnson family. One thing is certain: our home has more stories to tell!
Happy New Year! I wish all of you God’s best blessings in 2017!