By Jane-Ann Heitmueller
Perhaps it has been my life long fascination with Frances Hodgson’s book The Secret Garden that makes the remnants of the little house so intriguing. One driving past on the now busy highway, a mere fifty feet from the disheveled hull of the dwelling, would never imagine what the tangled kudzu vines, massive privet hedges and snarled web of blackberry bushes camouflage from their view.
Just after World War II my Dad, a lifelong farmer, was in need of two things…additional income and more manpower to assist in running our farm. A small rent house seemed to solve both needs, since many men returning from overseas were in need of work and a place to call home, while attempting to reclaim their lives and re-enter society.
Always a “Jack of all trades”, Dad did not hesitate to design and then construct the rent house on our property. The floor plan was quite simple, containing only three rooms…living room, bedroom and kitchen. Although electricity was installed, the home lacked running water, but a near-by well fed by a prolific spring provided an abundance of good water. Just a few feet from the back door the occupant had access to a brand new sturdy, wooden outhouse . Dad soon completed his diligent work on the cement block house. It was a well constructed structure with tin roof, tight windows, tall chimney and potbellied wood stove, all ready for the first resident.
Jacob Kelley, just back from the war, was thrilled to have a place of his own and within the week he and his wife, Bluebell, had happily set up housekeeping in the little cottage. They would pay a small fee as renters and Jacob agreed to help Dad clear a pine thicket on the farm. However, Mr. Kelley’s enthusiasm for labor did not match that of having his own place. He soon fell behind on his rent and never completed his task in the pine thicket, so Dad had to ask him to move.
The Wiggly family became the second inhabitants…all ten of them! I never understood where they all slept in that one bedroom home, but they seemed to adjust quite easily. The parents and eight children were of great help to Dad planting and harvesting the crops and as an only child I was thrilled to have the company of so many new friends who added much laughter and fun to my days. After a couple of years Mr. Wiggly, along with many during this time, decided to move his family up north to find work and soon the little house was quiet and empty once again.
Following the Wiggly’s move my maternal grandfather died of a sudden heart attack and Grandma Pearl needed a place to live. The now empty rent house, only about 100 yards from our home, seemed to be the perfect answer. Grandma could have her privacy, yet would be near-by if she needed our assistance. Having married very young and never having lived by herself, Grandma was a bit apprehensive about spending those dark nights alone; so I agreed to walk down and sleep on her couch each night, which I did for the next two years. Eventually, she moved to town to live with a daughter who needed her help in caring for a new baby.
Dad had always taken pride in his rent house and kept it in good condition for those who lived there, but what transpired in the last years helps explain the sad shape one finds it in today. His kindness and good heartedness often overcame Dad’s common sense. He, a man of his word, was often too trusting of those whose word meant nothing and over time he let two homeless derelicts move into the house in hopes that once given a chance, they would become better people. Billy was a thief and habitual liar and Tommy, a roaring drunk. One frigid winter, in their attempt to stay warm, they pulled up the wooden floor and burned it in the stove, along with a bedroom suit a caring neighbor had given them. During his frequent drunken rampages Tommy knocked out windows and tore the front door off the hinges. Scattered garbage and beer cans littered the house and yard. Weeks after the pair moved out the roof collapsed, leaving the entire structure in shambles. The once sturdy, neat house had become a mere skeleton of the cozy dwelling Dad had envisioned and created. Today, few people realize the crumbling remains of that little house are securely hidden behind the wall of dense undergrowth alongside the highway they travel so frequently and even fewer know the stories of the families that once lived there and called it home.