Vintage Crimson

Adventures in Restoring Antebellum Houses in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

Category: Civil War

“Glory Days”

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Monroe Place, the Drish plantation that included the Drish House, was sold at public auction in 1869, as Dr. Drish had died an impoverished man.  The plantation and house were purchased by a Northport, Alabama merchant and lawyer named E. A. Powell.  Mr. Powell graciously allowed Sarah Drish to continue living in the house until her death fifteen years later.   Sarah’s stepdaughter, Catherine, moved out of the house after her father’s death and went to live with one of her sons. Once one of the wealthiest women in Tuscaloosa, it is easy to imagine that Sarah Drish lived out her life in lonely genteel poverty, as her once grand house fell into disrepair.  Although it is hard to guess her emotions about the house, as she grieved for her husband and former life, I am sure she was saddened by its decline.  Perhaps she saw the house as a metaphor for her own aging.  They were both the products of a South that no longer existed.

After Sarah’s death in 1884, the house soon caught the eye of a another lady, a friend of Sarah’s, who was to give it an injection of new life.  Mr. Powell sold the estate to The Tuskaloosa Coal, Iron and Land Company in 1887.  The company subdivided the old plantation and started building houses on the lots.  The house itself was sold to Judge William Cochrane.  He  and his family subsequently undertook a major renovation.  On May 3, 1888, The Tuscaloosa Gazette reported “Mr. Cochrane is having valuable improvements made to the old Drish place which will ad much to the grandeur of that beautiful mansion.” The renovations took about a year to complete.  The work was primarily on the interior of the house, since no large scale architectural changes were made. Mrs. Cochrane likely modernized the kitchen and redecorated.  I like to think that she and I are kindred spirits, both us seeing potential in the Drish House!  The Cochrane’s were to live in the house until 1903.

 

 

“Just the Facts, Ma’am”

There is a lot of speculation involving my new project, the Drish House. It is an old and complicated house, and has certainly had an unusual history.  Over the years rumors have spread concerning possible paranormal activities.  Many of these are quite entertaining, but I thought it best that we begin with “just the facts.”   In this post, I wanted to share the “facts” concerning the builder and original owner, John Drish, and his family.

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Dr. John Drish was born in Virginia in 1795, where he trained as a physician and married a wealthy widow, Catherine Washington.  He had one daughter born to this marriage, also named Catherine.  Unfortunately, the first Mrs. Drish died while her daughter was still quite young .

Following his wife’s death,  Dr. Drish left his daughter with relatives in 1822 and came to seek increased fortune in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.  He married another wealthy widow, Sarah Owen, in 1825.  There are many first-hand accounts of his good looks and charm – he certainly used them to his advantage in marriage!

Dr. Drish used his second wife’s money to buy 160 acres on the southern border of Tuscaloosa and dubbed the new plantation “Monroe Place.”  He began construction on his house in 1837.  Originally, the house would have quite plain, in the Federal style, but it was one of the largest houses in the county.  Catherine Drish came from Virginia to live with her father and step-mother and the family moved in the new house.

An avid builder, Dr. Drish was not content to just live in his new house.  In the 1840s, as Greek Revival style swept the South in the wake of Greek independence, Drish added massive porticos of columns to the house.  He chose the more formal Ionic style for the front and the Doric style for the rear.   Later, in the 1850’s as Italianate architecture came into vogue, Drish added a large, three-level Italianate tower to the house, along with many new trim details.  The house fit his stature as one of the wealthiest men in the state.

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The Civil War devastated the fortunes of the South’s planter elite, and John Drish was no exception.  The house survived the war, likely because the invading Yankees had received news that Confederate forces under General Nathan Bedford Forrest were nearby.  However, there was no money left for upkeep of the grand house and it fell into disrepair.  Dr Drish died in 1867 and Sarah followed in 1884.  They are buried in Tuscaloosa’s Greenwood Cemetery.

There are many more “facts” to come before we delve into other realms.  Be patient and let the story unfold.

The Many Faces of the Drish House

The Drish House has a colorful past.  It has been a home, a school, an auto parts store and a church.  Here are some historic photos of its many faces.  Views of both the front and rear facades are included.

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When Playboy Came to Town…Looking for a Southern Belle

The Southern Belle is a peculiar stereotype, based on daughters of the affluent plantation owners in the Antebellum South.  Chaste, yet flirtatious, the belle was “laced-up” tightly both literally and figuratively.  The Belles were as iconic an image of the times as columned mansions in which they lived.

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After the Civil War, the economic system that supported the Southern Belle was shattered, but image survived.  Young Southern women were still expected to play the coquette.  Think of Scarlett O’Hara entertaining the Tarleton twins in the opening scene of Gone With the Wind.  Again, the mansion is part of the total image; inseparable from the Belle.

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In the Fall of 1982, Playboy Magazine came to Tuscaloosa.  They were searching for a genuine Southern Belle to represent the University of Alabama in the first “Girls of the SEC” issue.  In addition, they were looking for the ideal spot to pose the chosen girl.  They found a lovely young woman and and, more importantly, a beautiful old house.  Even in the late twentieth century, the girl and the mansion are intertwined in the eyes of the South.  Look closely at the woodwork behind the girl (perhaps harder for some of you than others) and it is plain that this is the second floor balcony of my old house.  My neighbors remember the day of the shoot well.  This is, I suppose, a modern twist on the Belle.  The house, of course, remains the same.

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Southern Ladies

Jennie Baker Caples (Feb 13, 1895 – Oct 17, 1994)

Married to Fred Caples (Oct 7, 1861 – Oct 20, 1934)

Burial – Tuscaloosa Memorial Park

I have recently been privileged to hear from several friends who lived in  my old house while they were students at the University of Alabama in the 1960’s and 1970’s.  I have really enjoyed all the memories they have shared.

During the 1960’s and 1970’s my old house was owned by Mrs. Jennie Baker Caples.   She is the ‘Caples’ portion of the house’s official name, the Foster-Murfee-Caples House.  Mrs. Caples and her sister, Sarah, are depicted with their nephew, Dave Sherman, in the photo below.   My thanks to Dave for providing this wonderful photograph.  They are standing on the front lawn of my old house.  Dave is wearing his ‘Million-Dollar Band’ uniform.

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By all accounts, Mrs. Caples was a real Southern Lady.  Southern Ladies were once more common in Alabama than they are today.  The real Southern Lady was a woman of strength and character, not the simpering belles depicted in most books and movies.  Think Ellen O’Hara rather than Scarlett.  Southern Ladies settled a frontier, built a civilization, endured a Civil War, suffered defeat and survived a painful reconstruction.  They lived through a great depression, two World Wars and the Civil Rights Movement.  They marched through history in pearls, high heels and tasteful cosmetics.  They were pillars of their communities, churches, and families.  And, through it all they remained genteel.

Genteel: a. well-bred or refined; polite; elegant; stylish: b. having an aristocratic quality or flavor.

To be a Southern Lady was to embrace all that life has to offer, the good and the bad, with style.

I wonder if my generation still embodies the qualities of the true Southern Ladies.  Few of us wear heels to the Piggly Wiggly, but I hope that (underneath our yoga pants) our spirits still burn as brightly as those of our mothers and grandmothers.  Do you agree?  I would love to learn what ya’ll think constitutes a true Southern Lady in 2013.

Trying to Connect the Dots

Today has been spent ‘trying to connect the dots’ between my old house and Alabama’s history.  It  is the 50th anniversary of a watershed moment in the Civil Rights movement, Governor George Wallace’s “stand in the schoolhouse door.”  The”stand” took place on June 11, 1963, when Gov. Wallace attempted to prevent two African-American students from enrolling in the university.  Only the intervention of National Guard troops enabled Vivian Malone and James Hood to enroll in classes.  This strange bit of political theater took place on the steps of Foster Auditorium, a landmark on the campus of the University of Alabama.

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My old house is the Foster-Murfee-Caples House.  I know the connections between the house and the Murfee family and that Mrs. Caples owned it in the 1960’s and 1970’s.  However, I have yet to discover the link between 815 17th Avenue, my old house, and any member of the Foster family. Can anyone help me discover a link? Connect the dots?

The Foster family played a prominent role in Tuscaloosa’s history and the University of Alabama.  For example, Robert Clarke Foster was the president of the university from 1937-1941.  Foster Auditorium, built by the Works Progress Administration in 1939, is named for him.   As the scene of the “stand” Foster Auditorium is a lovely building with an indelible stain upon its history.  So it goes with buildings.  They are associated with the events that took place and the people that dwelt within their walls.

My old house, however it is connected to the Fosters, was certainly in use during the Civil Rights era and would have been a silent witness to all the events that shaped a new South.  It’s first fifty years saw the end of slavery and the second hundred the end of legal segregation.  What changes may the next hundred years bring?  We have come a long way since 1963.  My oldest son has lived with two African-American roommates and students of all races and religions are comfortable on our campus and in our town.   They all welcome here, in my old house.

 

The Home Place

“More than any other part of America, the South stands apart.  Thousands of Northerners and foreigners have migrated to it…but Southerners they will not become.  For this is still a place where you must have either been born or have ‘people’ there to feel it is your native ground.  Natives…are conscious of…loyalty that transcends the usual ties of national patriotism and state pride.  It is a loyalty to a place where habits are strong and memories are long.  If those memories could speak, they would tell stories of a region powerfully shaped by its history and determined to pass it on to future generations.”

Tim Jacobson, Heritage of the South

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Southerners understand the deep connections families make to the places they call home.  Most of us have a ‘Home Place’, a house, neighborhood or town where we feel that special sense of belonging.

Many families have lived in 815 17th Avenue, but one family that shared that special connection to the house was the Murfees.  Laura Owen was born in an upstairs bedroom on June 30, 1841 and married James T. Murfee in the front parlor on July 11, 1861.  They endured a war, separation, and reconstruction in the house.  Laura bore eight children, five sons and three daughters, and buried four of them in infancy.

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They saw such extraordinary changes in their lifetimes.  The rise and fall of the Cotton Kingdom, and the coming of a new century.   In July of 1911 their family gathered at 815 17th Avenue to celebrate James. T. and Laura’s fiftieth anniversary.  They look so proud at the center of a group of children and grandchildren.

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James T. Murfee passed away in 1912.  Laura moved to Marion, Alabama to live with her daughter Mary, and sold the old ‘Home Place’ in Tuscaloosa.  Laura died on June 9, 1920, just a few days short of her eightieth birthday.

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Good Bones

Demolition in a house is like an x-ray.  It gives one a rare chance to glimpse inside and see the ‘bones’ of a house.  Over the past week, I have come to appreciate the ‘bones’ of my house.  They are old bones, but they are strong.

When 815 17th Avenue was built, Alabama was not quite twenty years old.  Our state was just beginning the journey that would take it from raw frontier to cotton kingdom.  Settlers who were described as having “Alabama Fever” poured in to lay claim to the rich farmland that would yield the wealth of the antebellum south.  They brought with them the African-American slaves whose labor would carve that wealth out of virgin wilderness.

Those slaves built 815 17th Avenue, starting with the ‘bones’ I see laid out before me.  The beams, joists, and other heavy timbers were shaped from trees felled here on the plantation that once spread out from this house.  Most of them are still sound almost two centuries later.

My carpenters seemed to feel a kinship with those who had passed before them at this house, and determined to match the quality of craftsmanship shown by their predecessors.  They were so proud to invite me to watch them work.  They are an odd pair, one tall and lean and the other short and stout, but they work together with the easy harmony of men accustomed to each other by long practice.  I settled in a lawn chair as they assembled tools and materials.  First, they put four 2″x8″ planks together to match the dimensions of an original rim joist that had to be removed.  They worked as quietly and precisely as surgeons, bracing the corner of the house, removing the damaged piece, and setting the replacement joist into place. I watched them with admiration.  My talents definitely do not lie in woodworking!  In the end, they walked over to me and we all stepped back to contemplate their work.  They were tired and sweaty, but wore expressions of satisfaction. The ‘bones’ of my house are all strong once again.  They should endure another century – or two.ImageImageImageImage

Key to the Past

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 The key to understanding the past to realize that William Faulkner was right when he wrote: “The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.”

     In 1861, Marmaduke William’s granddaughter, Laura Owen, married James T. Murfee in the front parlor of 815 17th Avenue. He was a professor at the nearby university and she was heiress to the plantation surrounding the home. The massive sliding doors that separated the double parlors would have been open and guests would have spilled out into the grand entrance hall as the happy couple exchanged their vows.  Slaves would have gathered in the quarters to celebrate with their own party, perhaps including gifts of meat and whiskey.  It would have been a festive occasion, although celebrated under the shadow of war. 

     I’m standing here in the front parlor, in front of the fireplace where they were married all those years ago, wondering if they could foresee that the war would sweep away the world they knew. And, pondering how much that world is still present in the hearts of southerners.  We carry the germ of nostalgia for a place and time none of us has ever experienced.  Little girls in Alabama still imagine themselves as hoop-skirted belles and little boys as heroes in gray.

     The newly-wed Professor Murfee was a soldier of the Confederacy and so were his young students.  In addition to teaching them mathematics, he also commanded them in the university’s cadet corps.  As the bloody years of war dragged on and older students left to join Lee’s army and fight for the south, Professor Murfee stayed behind to command a corps of brave boys, mostly 15-16 years old.

     In 1865, Union forces reached Tuscaloosa and Professor Murfee rallied his troops on the front lawn of his home.  I can still make out a slight depression that marks the spot a massive oak once stood around which they gathered. They marched off to meet a more-experienced, better-equiped army of Federal troops.  Two of those boys never saw another sunrise on the campus they loved.

     I can’t help but wonder what they felt on that long ago day.  Did they know the war was all but lost?  Did they still hope they could salvage the only way of life they knew?  Were they afraid?  Did Laura shed a tear as they marched away?  They are all long gone, but the house is still here.  The house saw it all unfold, and keeps its secrets.

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Time on the Cross

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These hand-forged nails were used during the original construction of the house almost two centuries ago.  I found them while cleaning up and have been carrying them around in my pocket to remind me of what life was like for the people who built 815 17th Avenue.

The house was built in 1838 using slave labor.  The men and women who built it the property of Mr. Marmaduke Williams.  He gave the house to his daughter, Agnes, as a wedding gift.

One of those anonymous slaves was the blacksmith who forged these two nails and hundreds (thousands?) like them.  Other slaves would have been busy making bricks, planing timbers and carving trim work.  The work of many hands went into building this grand old home.

What was life like for the slaves whose labor created such beauty?  I really can’t imagine a life without the freedom to live my dreams or without the security of knowing my family can’t be separated at the whim of a capricious master.  We know so little about the lives of those African-American men and women.  Even their names are lost to history.  Yet, the work of their hands endures.

I hope they enjoyed working in the spring sunshine, as I am doing now, to create beauty.  I hope they were proud of their work.  They built something strong and beautiful, and I wish they could know it has endured to carry forward their voices from the past into the future

I promise to do my very best to preserve their legacy.  And, to never forget what they suffered during their ‘time on the cross’.

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