Sam Burnham, Curator
Stumbling across an old homeplace can be an interesting experience. Whether it’s on a protected historic location, on an abandoned and overgrown plot, or still in some limited use, such a place always has a story. Sometimes that story is well documented but most of the time it isn’t.
My first thought upon finding such a place is to be careful not to step in a partially closed well. After that though, my thoughts go to the history of the place. Who lived here? How did they make their living? How did they come to this place? Why did this place lose its usefulness?
For some span of time someone made their stand on this spot. Some chose the location more than others. While coming across a slave dwelling is quite rare these days, it’s not unheard of, especially at preserved sites. Sharecropper and tenant cabins are a bit more numerous and these three locations usually chose the inhabitants rather than the other way around. In years gone by people might have migrated a little but typically never ventured as far as we do in our era and many would live their lives out and be buried within miles of their birthplace. Then consider how many of those birthplaces were these same home places. (Even among presidents, Jimmy Carter was the first born in a hospital.)
To this day we can see locations both grand and humble, where people were born, grew up, made their living, fell in love, started families, died, and were buried all within property lines, be those defined or vague.
Processing such a place is an exercise in imagination. The sights, the smells, the sounds - much has changed to be sure, but what remains? For abandoned places, imagination is often all we can go on. The style, size, and location of a home may give context clues if you know the history of the area but the rest is guesswork. In a more documented location imagination can fill in details. Example: Monticello has a three holed privy. Did Jefferson ever discuss policy or philosophy with Madison or Monroe while sitting in there? It’s kind of odd and I’d prefer to consider such conversations happening in the library but that doesn’t eliminate two of the privy holes. It also doesn’t eliminate the poor soul who was assigned to cleaning the privy and compensated with only the barest of necessities - possibly including a long since forgotten home along Mulberry Row.
These places tell us about our past. They tell us who we are. Our roots are in these places. So many are already gone, others stand in various stages of decay. And it’s a process. Homes, just as businesses, industries, hospitals, they enter these same stages of decay so long as they aren’t bulldozed and replaced. These places have a life cycle like people and like people, some life cycles are longer than others. Some are more grand than others. Some are remembered longer than others. But like people, all of these life cycles connect generations like bridges, with each giving way to the next. It is important we remember our roots, understand where we came from, and how we got here because that all helps us understand who we are.
That might sound like a lot to take away from finding a ramshackle cottage rotting in a privet thicket on an old country road. But when we consider that that cottage was once someone’s whole world, does this article even scratch the surface of what we can take from said cottage? Consider that all important sense of place and understand how important that place once was to someone.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire