In December of 2015, I had an adventure about as close to the movie, "National Treasure" as I'll probably get. In an earlier post, I described how I found a home called "Rome" where Hattie Powell lived as a teacher and war refugee, titled "Searching for Rome." In December of 2015, I made a plan to return to the site to confirm the identity of the home based on its peculiar outward facing fireplaces noted in a history book at the Virginia Historical Society. I also thought hard about how I would reach out to the property owners. There was no address or mailbox for the home, so I couldn’t simply write to them as I did at Blenheim (see "Finding Blenheim"). As the holidays approached, it occurred to me that I could hang a wreath on the gate with a letter attached. An average passerby may ignore a wreath, but the owner would investigate.
When I arrived back at Rome, I hiked up to the house with 2 friends who joined the adventure. As we approached, we stared hard at the chimney to look for Rome's distinguishing characteristic. When we were close enough, we could see the two exterior facing fireplaces, and I knew I’d found Rome. The house was beautiful and looked like it hadn’t been altered much since Hattie saw it. I needed to stop a moment to take that in. Hattie would have arrived at this house as much of a stranger and as apprehensive as I was. We studied the landscape around us and suspected that the immediate acreage looked much like it did in 1862. It was easy to imagine her riding up in a carriage wondering what in the world this place would hold for her so far from home. Brunswick County is a long journey from Winchester, VA today and would have been quite a haul in the 19th century (and during a war). As we walked back to the car, one of my friends spotted the name “Tucker” on the yellow “no trespassing” signs. We stood in disbelief! Was it possible that the same family still owned the property 150 years later? My letter to the owners assumed that the property had changed hands – it never occurred to me that I would encounter a direct descendant of anyone in this tale.
Hanging the wreath on the gate had became a heavier moment. I put the letter in plastic in case it rained, tied it to the wreath with ribbon, and hoped for the best. We traveled back to Richmond, and I later traveled to Arkansas to see family for Christmas.
I heard from the owners within a few weeks and soon found myself on the phone with a direct descendant from the family who knew Hattie during the war. The letters she left behind took on a whole new meaning at that point. They weren’t simply an account of life at the house – they were also an account of the family who lived there – with details almost no family can know about their ancestors that far back. It’s one thing to know our ancestors’ names, birth years, and death years, but it’s another to really know them – their phrases, idiosyncrasies, daily schedules, friends, struggles, habits, and personalities.
Thankfully the Tuckers were fascinated at the prospect of the letters and invited me to lunch and to tour the house. It was a delight to share Hattie’s letters with them, which I organized in a binder like to the one I did for Blenheim (with the permission of the Special Collections Research Center of Swem Library at the College of William and Mary). I told them stories of the children Hattie taught – one of whom was a precocious 6-year-old little boy (and the great-grandfather of the current property owner). I could tell them of the group of Confederate soldiers who appeared one night needing food and shelter who were strangers to the family. These men had been hunting deserters and had two tied up with them. That is a nightmare scenario for anyone, especially a young mother with two small children and a young teacher in a rural area. In all, there were 15 letters totaling about 60 pages that cover June of 1862 through June of 1863.
After lunch we toured the house. It was astonishing to walk through the rooms – to peer out the same window panes, to walk up the same stairs, and to see the visual space to go with the conversations and events that happened there. I found myself referring to Mrs. Eliza Tucker (1820 – 1880) as if she were about to walk through the door! We marveled at the woodwork, the mantels, the floors, and all the other details that Hattie would recognize. What a miracle that the home would still stand and be in such great shape. It was a gift to see it and a blessing to share Hattie's letters with the descendants of those who had cared for her during the war.
The images were taken at Rome by Alison Herring.