Blenheim Reunited with History

June 20, 2017

 

After locating the elusive "Blenheim," several mentors encouraged me to reach out to the owners, which I decided to do in April of 2015. I wrote a letter and explained who I was, described the volunteer project at William & Mary, asked if I could take a photograph of the house, and asked if the owners would be interested in the letters.

 

Within about 2 weeks, I had a missed call while in a client meeting from an unknown area code. I was thrilled to hear that it was the owner of Blenheim. He was intrigued by my letter and was interested in what Hattie’s letters could tell him about his home. He said that the home was in great shape, it looked like it did in the 19th century, and he invited me for a tour of the house. I had not expected to see the interior of the home, so this was a huge thrill. 

 

As I thought about the upcoming visit, I wondered how I would best share the contents of the letters. I contacted the Special Collections Research Center of Swem Library at the College of William and Mary and asked if I could have permission to share the transcribed letters and copies of the originals. The library agreed, and I set to work. I had not yet finished transcribing all the letters from Blenheim, so I took a week off work to finish and to think about what might be of most interest to the current owners. This was an entirely new lens through which to view the content. I began to notice things Hattie says that had escaped me before - including the location of her room within the house, comments about the layout, different staircases, out-buildings, etc. 

 

I printed the transcribed letters and copies of the originals and organized them in a leather-like binder. It was astonishing to see how much content there was, and I felt that a reader might be overwhelmed by it. So I re-read the letters to pull out the best tales, the more poignant quotes, and any details that would be of interest to someone who lives at Blenheim today. I organized the best pieces in a summary.

 

Images of the book I created are below:

 

In addition to the letters and the summary, I included information on the project at Swem Library, Hattie, her family, the Hobsons, and other families living in the area. I wanted to be as thorough as possible because I felt this binder may be passed down through future generations. I had no plans to publish at that time. I arrived at Blenheim in the late afternoon and met the owner and his family. After we introduced one another, I introduced them to Hattie, explained how she had come to be there, and told a few of the tales she recorded.

 

I was then taken on a tour of the entire house while the owner told me of its history. The home was almost entirely in its original condition – the floors, moldings, doors, stairs, handrails, windows, etc. were just as Hattie had seen them – down to the small round holes cut in the doors for cats to pass from room to room. Records indicate the house was built in about 1732 by William Mayo (the same William Mayo that designed the layout of Richmond, VA). Additions were made to the house in the early 19th century and again in the 20th century.  The 20th century additions were made in such an artful way as to not impact the original structure. Therefore, if Hattie or the Hobsons walked in today, they’d feel at home. 

 

The second story is divided with each wing having its own staircase to reach it. Based on that layout and some of the stories Hattie tells, we were able to determine which room was hers. I could stand in her room and stare out the same windows she did and imagine the noisy school girls packed in that space. Back downstairs, I could imagine the family dinner discussions she recorded, stories told by the fire, and arguments over how long a candle could be burned at night. My tour was capped by dinner in what was likely the original dining room. I’d gone from having no idea where Blenheim was to having dinner in its 280 year old dining room in a matter of months. I suspect many have enjoyed meals in that dining room over the years who wondered what they’d hear if those walls could talk. And now with great thanks to Hattie, we are able to know.

 

Images were taken at Blenheim in May of 2015 by Alison Herring.

 

 

 

 

 

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©2019 by Alison Herring