In 1947 my great-aunt Evelyn Key left her home on the mountain to live with her new husband, Hollis Henry, on his family’s farm in The Sequatchie Valley. The Henry’s had already lived on their one hundred acre farm for nearly half a century. Now, the house is over a hundred years old and is still welcoming friends and family.
I really sat down to write about a treasure that I’ve received from this house, but no sooner started until I realized that in our series on historic houses this would be a great one to visit. It is so typical of homes I’ve seen from the early twentieth century - and really for about fifty years on either side of this one. The original part of the house consisted of two first floor rooms with a central fireplace and a kitchen in the rear. At some point, a small bathroom was added and there was even a smoke house that was eventually attached to the kitchen – presumably it was no longer used for smoking meat after it was attached.
As a little girl, I thought they lived in a big, fine home. Surrounded by the mountains, I remember sitting on their shady front porch in awe of the rock walls and rolling green fields. But looking at it now, I realize that the original house was really pretty small, especially by today’s standards. The front room would quickly fill with a sizable family and with the only fireplace it would surely have been the gathering spot. There was one bedroom on the first floor and a narrow staircase leading to the second story. The two upstairs bedrooms would have had to accommodate all children and any guests that happened along. However, there is a wide, screened upper porch that certainly made the upstairs feel a little more spacious.
Aunt Evelyn passed away a couple of years ago and her family has graciously handed-down to me a china cabinet that belonged to my great-grandmother (and Evelyn’s mother). Now, I tend to be the keeper of the family-junk. I’d love to say I collect heirlooms, but the reality of a family of subsistent, Appalachian farmers is not million-dollar Chippendale furniture and priceless works of art. The things we’ve passed along were handmade furniture, chipped family portraits and single pieces of glassware. And every one of those things is a priceless treasure to me because each is a part of my family. A piece like this cabinet inspires me as I imagine my great-grandmother going to it for dishes to serve her family a home-cooked meal. They were not a family that would have ever owned fine china so the cabinet undoubtedly held dishes the family used regularly. One of the great-aunts remembered her mother having a pretty lamp, one of the only really pretty things she owned and when a distant relative admired it she sent it home with him. I know that any pretty dishes were really rare in those impoverished homes and would have been treasures even then so they hold a great deal of value to me. I don’t suppose you’ll ever see me on The Antiques Roadshow exclaiming, “Great day in the morning, did you say it’s worth a million dollars?” Still, you can rest assured, this piece of furniture certainly is worth its weight in gold.
The cabinet is such a treasure that I just had to share it with all of you, but there were a couple of things that really moved me in this gift. Obviously, it is wonderful to have a piece of furniture that at least four generations of family have enjoyed. I was also inspired that even though none of my Henry-cousins were interested or able to use this cabinet in their home, they realized the value it might hold to other members of the family and instead of putting it in a yard sale or simply dumping it they made the effort to pass it along. I can’t help but add a social commentary here because it seems like so much of our world is really self-absorbed and doesn’t think beyond what value an item might have to them personally. Surely the character of this family reflects the values and teaching of Hollis and Evelyn.
And that brings me right back to the house. For the last century, it has been the social center of a family. Hollis’ sister lives just down the road and his nephews remember regularly walking a well-worn path to the old family home. One of Hollis’ own children raised his family next door and now one of the grandsons hopes to renovate the house and enjoy it for at least another generation. It’s exciting to hope that these walls that already hold so many memories will continue to absorb many more.