If these walls could talk, old Culpeper home tells a story

When Robert Bobbitt saw the rundown home with a large lot on West Piedmont Street earlier this year, he saw an economic opportunity to quickly demolish the old structure and build between six and eight townhouses on the site.

â??The porch was falling,â? said Bobbitt. The town in December 2014 deemed the house an unsafe structure.

â??It was unsafe because it was heaving out to the street,â? said Culpeper Code Inspector Gary Cole, who later inspected the property and noticed the deteriorated foundation as well.

The first thing Bobbitt did was remove the porch that was tilting toward the street. The cracked retaining wall, apparently constructed by the town during a street widening many years ago, was failing. The rock foundation was cracked.

When he started removing some of the siding and interior walls, he turned a page in Culpeperâ??s history book.

â??When I bought it, I didnâ??t think it was an old house,â? said Bobbitt, as he looked around the structure with exposed beams and joints. â??Itâ??s grown into a lot bigger [project].

â??I ordered an excavator six times and cancelled it six times,â? said Bobbitt, laughing.

The old construction techniques and woodwork provided a clue that the house was much older than the 1900 county tax records indicated. The 22 ½-foot long and 12- by 14-inch wide hand-hewn beams and boards covering the floor in a large room at the front of the house offered up clues as to age. It was obvious that later additions had been constructed, but the front room fascinated Bobbitt.

Old style handmade nails and wood pegs were discovered as well as wind braces that appeared to have been recycled from another even older structure were exposed.

History helper
Realizing that he may have purchased a building with significant history, Bobbitt contacted Zann Nelson, noted award-winning freelance writer, local historian, preservationist and regular columnist for the Star-Exponent.

Nelson had been eyeing the house for 15 years, but didnâ??t have permission to conduct any extensive onsite excavation or research, that is until Bobbitt called.

â??I could see a portion of the foundation,â? said Nelson about the message the house was sending about its age and possible history.

â??Come look at me a little closer,â? the house whispered in Nelsonâ??s ear.

Bobbitt found artifacts of interest in the attic or second-story loft, which was probably added later to the one-room original home on what was then known as West Slaughter Street. Five bags of goose down feathers were discovered in the attic, along with 175 books.

â??There was a chest,â? said Bobbitt. â??It had all these books.â?

One of the books was about the 44th U.S. Congress from July 29 to Aug. 15, 1876.

Nelson marveled at the construction methods, which have somewhat helped to date the oldest portion of the house. She estimates it was built between 1835 and 1850. She is unsure if it was built on site or moved from another location.

â??Preliminary finds indicate the house was a modest one-story structure with two rooms bookended with matching chimneys and built prior to 1860,â? she wrote in her first column about the house in August. In a later column she noted that the original structure was probably built with a single room. The room was later partitioned to make two rooms â?? one about twice the size of the other.

â??The familyâ??s input has been very helpful,â? said Nelson.

Payne family legacy
Peeling away drywall and plaster revealed a stairway to the loft, indicating a second floor â?? either loft or second-story â?? added later to the modest home, at least prior to it being purchased for $200 by local barber Sawney Payne in 1892 from the estate of J.M. Wood. The home remained in the Payneâ??s family until sold to Bobbitt earlier this year, according to court records.

â??Sawney Payne was my great grandfather â?? Cora Payneâ??s husband â?? patriarch of the family,â? Lisa Jackson, one of the former property owners wrote in an email. â??My great grandmother and grandmother lived in the house most of their lives, with continuous Payne family occupancy until my motherâ??s passing in 2005 and sale in 2015.â?

Since Bobbittâ??s discovery and suspicions that the house held historical secrets, Nelson, architecture construction experts, archeological volunteers and everyday citizens with an interest in uncovering and preserving history spent countless hours at the site looking for clues to the age of the house and who might have stayed there. Nelson also spent time in the courthouse researching old land and court records to learn more about the house.

Town of Culpeper records kept by the Clerkâ??s Office provided evidence that Cora Payne, Sawneyâ??s wife, attended a town council meeting in April 1935 requesting that the town fix a fence at her house that was â??much damagedâ? when the town made improvements to Slaughter Street (now Piedmont Street). The town council referred the matter to the Streets Committee, which met and sent the matter back to town council on May 7, 1935. The measure to approve town-paid repairs was unanimous, according to the minutes of the meeting. No records could be found to determine how much the town spent to affect the repairs.

The â??structure,â? as Nelson refers to the original building since she does not believe it originally was built as a house does not appear on the 1835 Thompson Map, but it shows on the 1876 Grayâ??s map.

Nelson said it is possible that the structure was built earlier than 1876 and moved to the West Piedmont site, as moving structures was not uncommon in that era.

As summer wore on, Nelson and a cadre of volunteers unearthed all manner of artifacts from the 18- by 22-foot original structure providing a glimpse into the history of the house.

Buttons, coins, clay pipe stems, pieces of rusted metal, clay marbles and parts of a porcelain doll were discovered in the layers or earth carefully dug up and sifted. Among the finds were military buttons traced to the coats of Union officers. Later, a button indicating a New York officer was located. Nelson said as many as 20,000 Federal troops camped in town in the Winter Encampment of 1864, with thousands more camped in the county.

Leaving the main room of the house, Nelson and her sleuthing cohorts began looking into an area believed to be the kitchen. Not to their surprise, cooking and eating utensils, pottery and broken bottles were unearthed.

A coin minted during the Civil War to honor Louis Kossuth the so-called Father of Hungarian Democracy was found. Nelson has no idea how it made its way to West Piedmont Street.

While Bobbittâ??s plans for a quick demolition were thwarted by the historical significance of the house, he went one step farther. Painstakingly, with Nelsonâ??s help, each piece of wood was numbered and photographed. Each stage was documented to allow the structure to be rebuilt in the future as it was originally.

â??I hate to lose it,â? said Bobbitt. â??I would like to put it back the way it was.â?

In addition to the building, earth from the property has been stored for later investigation with metal detectors.

â??Heâ??s taking his time and documenting everything,â? said Nelson, about Bobbittâ??s efforts to save a part of Culpeper history. â??Culpeper is really lucky that Bob (Bobbitt) bought this property.â?

Are there more historical architectural treasures to be found in the town?

â??Yes,â? said Nelson, without hesitation. â??There are a few that are candidates for early 19th Century architecture.â?

When one of those homes whispers to Nelson, she is ready to listen to its story, roll up her sleeves and dig in the dirt.

Wally Bunker is a freelance contributor with the Culpeper Times. You may reach him at wallybunker@outlook.com

Photo by Wally Bunker.
Old construction techniques were revealed in the foundation at the home on 121 West Piedmont Street.