Sale Of Old House Brings Back Memories


July 06, 1991|By Karol V. Menzie and Randy Johnson

Shenandoah Valley, Va. -- The road from Staunton to Newport hasn't changed much in 30 years. It's been repaved, but the fences and telephone poles still march alongside, day lilies and cornflowers still cover the banks, and every bend still shows a panorama of fields with hazy blue mountains in the distance.

Most of the houses along the road have wood fences and manicured lawns, but these are working farms and horses, cows and sheep graze right up to the yard. Occasionally a car or pickup will pass by, and the driver almost always waves.

The house sits back off the road, partway up the hill. It's a little imposing, a little down in the tooth. The brick part, now the front, where supports are crumbling under the wide front porch, was built just after the Civil War, about 1865. For a while shoemakers toiled in the front corner of the ground floor, and the shelves they used are still there. In an extension, later detached and used as a garage, children in the 1920s still found old button shoes.

Behind the three-story brick part of the house is the original two-story house, built of logs but now covered with cedar shingles. No one in the village remembers when the older part was built, but most people guess it was before the Revolutionary War.

It's early yet and hot for a day in late June, but already several vehicles are pulled up along the drive in front of the house. Further up the hill, toward the barn, is the small white trailer that belongs to the auctioneer.

"Attention, folks," the voice booms over the portable loudspeaker, "this sale is by number only. If you haven't registered yet, please come up to the white trailer and get your number."

Scattered around the lawn, in the shade, people sit on folding chairs or stand in small groups. Other people are milling in and out of the house, carrying the cream-colored brochures that describe the house and the terms of its sale.

There used to be five porches, and more vegetation around the house -- a big old pear tree and huge boxwoods in the front -- and a lot less lawn. Higher up on the hill, in what used to be a field, someone has installed an ugly swimming pool surrounded by a stark chain-link fence. Standing beside the pool, you can see over the house to the three tree-covered hills that Beulah Beard, who lived here from just after World War I until 1968, named Faith, Hope and Charity. She always claimed that somewhere over there, maybe on Faith, three shallow depressions in the soil marked the graves of Yankee soldiers.

More vehicles, mostly pickups, but a few cars, are arriving, directed to parking by a polite teen-ager. "Have you got a brochure?" asks a member of the auction team. The auctioneer, in cowboy boots and a wireless remote microphone, patrols the drive, guiding newcomers and answering questions. How big is the property? It's 12-plus acres. (It used to be more than 100.) Is that house up there on the hill part of it? No, that's another parcel; it's for sale, too, 65 acres. (No well, though, and no right-of-way.)

Inside the house, in what used to be the potato cellar, a couple of men are poking the joists with keys, looking for termites, and studying the jumbled wiring. The shelves behind the stairs are still lined with canning jars, some full of produce "put up" last season.

Upstairs, the front of the house, with its old, scarred pine floors, is largely untouched. Someone has stripped the old trim and replaced the old wallpaper with garish vinyl "Victorian." Many of the old window panes remain, with their flawed, wavery panes. The stairway -- where the painting of the horse in full stride used to terrify small children sent to bed unescorted -- has also been stripped. The old wood looks wonderful, rich and cocoa-colored.

The biggest changes to the house are in the layout. Behind the parlor, where there used to be a hallway to the old kitchen, there's now a bathroom. Thirty years ago the only running water was cold, in the kitchen, brought from the spring by a balky old pump that occasionally needed a good swift kick to keep it going. Also off the parlor was a bedroom you had to walk through to get to the dining room; behind that, in the very oldest part of the house, was the kitchen, which someone has replaced with a bland "in-law" apartment. Once it held an elaborate wood cook stove that baked the best bread in the valley -- despite the oven door that had to be jammed shut with an old piece of wood (slightly charred on one end from decades of service).

It's almost 10:30 a.m. and groups of people are gathering on the side lawn, where there are a few trees and some welcome relief from the sun.

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