The Dearing Home Place

The Dearing Homeplace, approximately 1886.
The Dearing Homeplace, approximately 1886.

There has been no stirring in her henhouse. No rooster has sounded. Neither have her children. Polly Dearing is up before all of them. She stands outside the kitchen door in the dark, enjoying the last overnight breeze. It ruffles the hem of her gown, pushing it against her ankles, her shins, and her thighs, which are as muscular as any man’s. It carries the scent of sage and tomatoes that she planted in the spring. She cannot see her garden yet–it was a moonless night and the eastern hills have not yet turned pink–but it smells distinct at this hour and complex. Morning dew has settled on the soil and released the nutty undercurrent of fresh laid manure.

This is the only still moment before Silas and the boys—Ed, Bob, Dick, and George—come downstairs, their hair twisted as rats’ nests, their suspenders hanging low, the little ones moaning about chores as they stumble to the john. They will water and feed the closest animals while they’re outside, and then they will come back hungry.

Polly will be in the kitchen daylong. Porridge and ham for breakfast, brook trout for dinner, and throughout, she will be sousing Silas’ hog. The feet will boil in one pot, the ears and snout in another. She will submerge the head in a third, her largest kettle, which will steam like a train engine. Her dress will be soaked through by mid-day.

Knowing this, she lingers in the morning air. Her hands press flat against the cool doorframe. Her bare toes spread in the soil. A gust rolls up the hillside, lifting Polly’s hair, which falls over her eyes just as the first sunbeams race across the fields. They filter through her graying strands like they’re shining through corn silk.

She pushes her hair back, squints and turns. It is time to light the kitchen fire. She steps inside, silent on the floorboards, leaving footprints behind in the red Virginia clay.

***

This is how I imagine Mary “Polly” Dearing. She was my great, great, great grandmother. The house she built with Silas sits atop a foothill in the Blue Ridge. A hundred and twenty five years after her death, it is boarded. Her kitchen garden is gone. Her henhouse stands in a grove of trees and brush. The whole farm is decaying, but it is the most beautiful place I know.

The Dearing home place, 2008

The couple is buried by the house with a collapsed wrought iron fence around their graves. Their shared stone is on its back and defaced with a pentagram. Trailer park kids must have crossed the fields and thought they’d summons the dead.

Maybe I’m doing the same thing. I kneel there and imagine when they built the place.

It was 1850. They purchased two hundred acres and made a one-room cabin in a rush. Winter was setting in. I’ve heard that neighbors kept them alive that first year, feeding the family until they were stable with crops and livestock.

I know this much because great aunts and cousins spent years piecing together records about my father’s side–births, deaths, marriages, literacy, property, anything that could be found in a census or county courthouse. That knowledge is quite an inheritance. I am lucky to have it, but I am greedy too. I want know more.  I want to know them.

Who had a temper? A stutter? An affair? Who sang? Who whittled? Who cracked jokes? Who would have gotten along with me?

I am certain that these things are knowable when I am kneeling there and looking past the buildings. I see what they saw. The fields are still fields. The path is still dirt. The mountains are still blanketed with trees. Not a single house has been built within sight to the east or the west. I expect ancient sounds to echo from the hollow, the rhythmic whoosh of scythes or children squawking because the creek water is too cold.

All I hear is wind and cattle. I eventually turn and face the years. The house has been vacant longer than I have been alive. The first room that Silas and Polly built still stands, along with a kitchen that was added around 1900. Everything else is gone or going.

Once, there was a two-story extension; it was taken down a quarter century ago. The barn roof and floor are half missing. A full size tree grows in the center of the silo. The privy is about to topple, and an outbuilding already has; it was the slave quarters.

Dearing Gravestone, Defaced

Silas owned at least three people. After emancipation, one of them–Adaline–stayed as a domestic. She raised her five children in this single-room cabin. Now it is a pile of rotting logs.

Walking towards the rubble, I recognize that time is a hungry beast. It has consumed most of my ancestor’s stories, and it is munching on the boards they laid. I may be naïve to intervene, but I pick up a brick. It is rough and pale, uneven, clearly hand hewn. I think that it was part of the two-story extension. I carry it away, back to my Jeep, and sit it on the floorboard.

It is there today, protected from the slow decay. I also have an old door lock tucked away in a drawer. I keep audio recordings of people who remember the place as a functioning farm, and I have a hard drive filled with photos of the home place. Scrap by scrap, I am slowing time’s feast and getting to know my ancestors.

What I cannot learn through ruins and records, I craft in my mind. I’ve created a semi-fiction—likes and dislikes, personalities, bad habits—that would give any real genealogist heartburn. For me, though, it makes these people more than the sum of census data. It makes them flesh-and-blood, people who can be known. In my mind, they are now lovable and quirky. Sometime they are infuriating, but they are more than names on a tree chart. They have become real. They have become my family.

Have you imagined the lives of your ancestors? Do you have a home place that you like to visit, or are you lucky enough to live there? If so, tell us about it by leaving a comment below.

23 Comments

  • Brenda Jones-Heslep (Ferguson)

    Awesome story….I too remember this old homeplace fondly….When the house was still fairly solid…we’d stay there and spend the night…popcorn popped in an old timey cornpopper over the fire, sneaking the flash light up a narrow staircase to the sleeping quarters upstairs….terrified of the darkness, no city lights there! I’d keep the flashlight and transister radio on to ward away the spirits until the batteries died….I could go on and on, the author and I will have to chat more.

  • Jean O. Ferguson

    This is a wonderful document and you have brought some
    great thoughts to mind. You know how I feel about the place and
    still enjoy going every chance I get. I have so many memories of
    years past before Tolley and Henny, my in-laws moved from there,
    and of times we’ve been back. Hillary and I have camped down on the
    creek level, as well as in the house. It is a very peaceful place
    even in the condition that it’s in. I hope it will be placed on
    some type of conservation resource so that it can’t be subdivided,
    with lots sold and housing put there. I’ll be looking forward to
    hearing more from the author.

  • Granny Sue

    You echo what I feel whenever I see an abandoned farm. Who lived there? Whose hand planted the iris still blooming along the foundation? You can almost feel those long-gone people moving around you, tending to their everyday work. for you, it must be even more poignant since this was a family homeplace. The grave–how difficult to see it so defaced.

    I came over here from a link posted to Facebook by Lisa Minney. As she said, a wonderful piece of writing. Thank you.

  • Fred Anderson

    From the moment I started to read this I could believe this was really my great-great grandmother & her world. Have been to the cabin & seen the many woods from different trees that made that cabin. We tried to bring that cabin to Explore Park to save it, but alas we could only attempt to use protective covering until another day. I have seen the defaced headstones & wonder what type of person would deface the resting place of the dead.
    I have been told the cabin dates to the 1820’s & shows evidence German influence in its construction. Almost 200 years separate Silas & Polly Dearing from us. However they lived closer to Tudor England than modern America their descendents built.

  • John W. Cox

    Mark,

    My mother was a Dearing and Silas was my 4th generation grandfather. I too have visited the old home place. As I stand there at the gravesite I look around and time stands still. There are no roads, telephone poles, power lines, other houses, or any other sign of human life. The place is like a time machine that takes you back to the 1800’s. I also wonder about Silas and his family. What part did they farm?? Where were the tobacco fields?? How did this family not only survive, but prosper in such isolation?? Their world was so different then ours. We may never fully understand their life style.
    My own side, the Cox family, also has it’s old home place. But this is certainly different!! My 6th generation grandfather William Cox built a small two story farm house in what was Orange County, Virginia, but now is in the present Greene County section. He built the house around 1770 and raised ten children in it. My wife and I visited the place this past year – but it is not like Silas’ place!! It was bought by a couple from Virginia Beach about 4 years ago, completely refurbished, and added on to thus making a fantastic Bed and Breakfast establishment. Carole and I spent two nights in the one upstairs bedroom that is in the original house. It is almost unbelievebale that someone could raise that many children in what we would call a very small house.

  • Vivian Spradlin Gobble

    My father, Charles William (Willie)Spradlin purchased this farm in the late 1950’s from Tolley Ferguson. It has been a beef cattle farm since that day. During the early 1970’s my husband Lowell and I fixed up the orginial cabin and lived there on the week-ends with our two children, Mark Gobble and Marie Gobble Levine. We had many wonderful times there riding horses, building dams in the Beaver Dam Creek, fitching water from the spring, and fishing in the farm pond that had been built by my Dad. This farm now belongs to my sister, Peggy Spradlin Moles, but we have grazed cattle on the farm since my mother and father’s death. We too love this place and enjoy the quite serene setting especially when the hyacinths and daffodils bloom each spring. I assume that Miss Henny planted them because they line the concrete walk leading to the front and back door of the home. The concrete was poured in 1909 and remains in perfect condition after all these years. Memories are priceless.

  • tipper

    Wonderfully written! Yes I have more than one old homeplace from my family that I think of often. Like you-when I visit the old places-even though all of mine have disappeared-I feel like if I sit quietly I’ll see and hear those days that are gone and the people that populated them. It’s almost like the lives that were lived there were so strong you can still feel them-even though time has erased most of the outward signs.

  • Diana Schwab-Dearing

    Mark — This is an amazing preservatikon of your ancestors’ history and culture. Although I am not a direct descendant of Silas and Polly, I am trying to identify Silas’ parents and siblings and believe there is a possible connection to my Dearing branch . . . Still researching. Thank you so much for this beautifully written story about your ancestors. Your thoughts and reflections bring them to life … wonderful. Gone–but not forgotten. –Diana Schwab-Dearing

  • Trish Breeds

    Lovely story. Thanks for sharing it and the photos. Silas and Polly are my great-great-great grandparents as well. Wish I lived close enough to see their home for myself. I have found the most interesting stories from family histories which were written down. My mother’s aunties on her father’s line wrote a story of her family in the late 50’s. It is always wonderful to ask the “old folks” about their memories.

  • mike ferguson

    wow this is so well written that at first i thought it was some thing that had been written down bye polly herself.What a exsalint read

  • Brent Dearing

    I stumbled upon this and its a great story of family history,

  • Sandra ferguson

    Mark, I can only echo everyone else’s opinion, that you have done an excellent job writing about the ancestors of the Ferguson family. It’ done so vividly and with such closeness to them that one could believe you had lived there with Polly and Silas. I know how much their home place means to you, mike, your precious grandma Jean, did to your grandpa Hillary and so many others. It’s my hope for you, Mike, etc… That somehow it can be preserved in honor of ancestors of your dads, yours, Mikes family.

  • Helen B. Rutledge

    Loved the story, the storyteller is my kind of spinner, I am decended from Richard Dearing, Jr. and Jemima Estes. They are the parents of Gracie Dearing who married Amos Jenkins and migrated to Muhlenberg County, Kentucky. I profited greatly by John Cox’s information on the Amelia County, Virginia Tithables. (CD Binnsgenealogy). Thanks to everyone responsible for putting it on line for my discovery. I am almost 92 years old and don’t have a lot of research time left, so this jewel of info made an old lady very happy. Its documented too with sworn testimony. Nothing makes me happier than documentation.

  • James Leonard Dearing

    Mark, My name is James Dearing and I am very curious after reading your story. I live in Talbott Tennessee on what remains of the Dearing dairy farm on Dearing Road. L.B. Dearing was my grand father. I live in the old farm house he bought in 1934. He was born in 1899 and passed away in 1984 when i was 24 years old.I loved him dearly and miss him everyday. I was told my great grand fathers name was Silas, but everyone called him ” Sod”. I didn’t see in your story L.B Dearing as one of Silas’s sons. L.B. Dearing married Josie Robinette some time in the early 1920’s. They had 4 children, Clifford, Kathleen, J.C….and E.C. Clifford died at 2 years old. Josie committed suicide ( so they say) in 1932. I found the old newspaper article archived at the local library. My aunt Kathleen “Kat” who is 93 years old now…has a picture in a very old photo album of Silas ( Sod) and his wife. He is in a rocking chair with her standing beside him. I’ve been told they lived in Virginia. Can there be more than one Silas? Did he have more children other than ED, Bob, Dick, and George? As you see..I have a lot of questions. I would also love to visit the homeplace you wrote the story on. I would really like to talk with you and compare notes…………I sent my email address. Hope to hear from you. James L. Dearing

  • MC

    Sorry that I am just now reading this.

    My impression is that you do not own the homeplace. Do you know who does? It seems like someone would want to reset the gravestone and clean off the graffiti.

    Did you have permission to take a brick and a door?

  • Mark Lynn Ferguson

    Hi, MC. Cousins own the homeplace, and they know I have the brick and lock. They’ve been great about allowing me to visit.

  • C. Rodney Bowers

    Your column in Roanoke Times regarding Appalachian accents was so true. The picture you use was of a family reunion in Rural Retreat. Since I grew up there I thought I knew some of the ladies. I have passed this around to older people around here and they seemed the remember them too. I left here in the early 50’s retired back here on my farm and Florida in winter. I tried very hard to lose the accent but never did. Enjoy your columns.

  • Cynthia Schletzbaum Gee

    It’s a shame someone doesn’t fix it up…

  • Otto Keesling

    These are very interesting people. I have a friend Ken Goins who lives in Leesburg, Va I thought he was partially black but we never talked of it. He is a good man. Goins name is a very big part of the Melungeons ancestry.

  • Otto Keesling

    I am going to do more research once I move to Roanoke, VA

  • April Hickman

    Your story was very intriguing.
    I have a picture of Amanda Dearing Holland, daughter of Adeline who was a slave of Silas and Polly, but stayed on after emancipation. I would like any information you may have of Adeline and her children
    Thank you so much.

  • Mark Lynn Ferguson

    Adeline! I do know some about her and would love to learn more. Her great, great grandson corresponded with my aunt for many years and me for a few. If you send a message using the contact link at the top of the page, I’m happy to discuss.

  • Linda Gibson Thomas

    Our home place still stands.. Small four room house with front porch.. A branch of water still running of water still.
    It is in a hollow of six families all related ,children that played in the water all summer until too cold to play any longer…
    A dirt running out of the hollow to the main road which was also dirt..
    a miles up the dirt road was the school to high school a post office,church , and a grocery and thrift store.. Used clothing were donated from various Methodist Churches.. We all lived there isolated from the rear of the world.. Called South America Ky.. We thought everyone lived as this..I am the oldest living in our hollow..

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