“There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know.”
~Harry S. Truman, quoted in William Hillman Mr. President pt.2, ch.1 (1952)
One of the most rewarding aspects of historical research is the reminder that although the past does not change, our interpretation of “facts” absolutely must as new information is discovered. People often ask historians, “Why focus on events that cannot be changed or on stories which have already been told and accepted?” Our understanding of the past does change however as it is informed by the present and thus evolves to impact the future. Contrary to conspiracy theory, the world is not flat as once believed; neither is history. It is a vibrant, fluid journey which offers each generation an opportunity to build upon the work of those who came before them.
One such journey begins in King William County, Virginia, where the fire of 1885 at the Clerk’s Office resulted in the destruction of key documents. When the Clerk’s office moved in 2004 to a new building, boxes of old records were discovered. Local historian Bibb Edwards “spent the next two-and-a-half years photographing the individual documents, making professional digital copies and storing them on his computer, an endeavor he only recently completed.” Mr. Edwards and his team worked closely with Patricia M. Norman, Clerk of the King William County Circuit Court, to bring this historic project to fruition. Without her support and cooperation, the project would not have been possible.
These images are priceless for researchers attempting to reconstruct stories built on bits and pieces of evidence from the past. Like so many generations who have called this region home, these resilient records survived and are anxious to tell their stories.
My favorite quote from Mr. Edwards in the 2015 Daily Press article is this: “Historians are like drunks looking for their keys under a street light. They didn’t drop them there, but the light’s a good place to start looking.” Absolutely! In my own search through this treasure chest, I began with a simple focus—locating information about lot 216 in West Point, Virginia.
As I write and the memories in this house wash over me, I realize this could be a book of its own. I’ve gone through two husbands here (both are wonderful people and yes still very much alive), given birth to two amazing children, beat breast cancer, and accepted the fact my relationship with this old house is permanent. We will celebrate our 20th anniversary this year which officially makes this love affair my longest relationship ever. If my house had a Facebook page, I would tag it in a relationship with me as “it’s complicated.”
There is a country song, The House That Built Me by Miranda Lambert which always makes me cry for some reason. I did not grow up in this house, but yet I did. Within these walls I have experienced some of my greatest joys. It is here I have survived my deepest sadness, overcome my most challenging battle, and built amazing memories with my heart and soul—my children.
The purpose of this series is to share with others what I have found about their old houses and the families who once lived there—or spaces where old houses used to stand. I hope you enjoy this journey through West Point’s past as we learn together in the present and march fearlessly toward the future.
The Back Story, Lot 216
I purchased a house here in 1998 and was always told you can only go back so far because of the fire. I have a long, complicated relationship with this house on lot 216. First, I had no real intention of moving to West Point. After graduating from William and Mary as a “nontraditional” student (code for old), my plan was to stay in Williamsburg or move back to Richmond. As the search began however, I saw a delightful ad promising I could own an old house with a water view for MUCH less than where I was searching. My stack of student loans insisted I check it out as option c.
As I drove over the bridge and turned right on Main Street, I knew I was home. The promised water view in reality could only be obtained if I stood in the street and stared toward the end of the road to the beach park (oh, or looked carefully through some trees from the bathroom window upstairs in winter). But it was too late–I was sold out in love.
I quickly met my neighbors from lot 217 next door which at the time was owned by Retta and Vaughn Novotney, fellow history buffs. They had a good laugh at my expense as I wondered what happened to the mailbox? Once I processed the fact I had to go to the post office for mail and discovered local food delivery was a foreign concept, I was back on the honeymoon path with my old house. Sure, I hated the hunter green exterior trim and the paler green siding. I despised the yellow oil paint they had used to cover the original interior wood. I wasn’t a fan of a lot of things in the house. But I was in love. I’ll change all that I thought . . .
I was determined to restore it to its original condition. Ah, if I could only go back and explain to the younger me how naïve she truly was. The first thing I unpacked was a heat gun that in my delusional vision of the future would be used to strip every bit of paint from multiple mantels. The rest of that story will have to wait for the full lot 216 house history which I will not publish until the entire mystery is solved. That goes for 217 as well though I am so close!
Back to the introduction–after tearing up a few walls, some flooring, and discovering old jewelry in the attic (the ghost story will have to wait for another day as well), I took a break from the reconstruction a.k.a. destruction party so I could focus on what I know best—research.
An older gentleman in town approached me one day and said, “You know this house was moved here from another location, right?” Uh no, no I did not. He pointed toward 4th Street, but then he had to go before I could learn more. I never got his name or saw him again. So the search continues . . .
Next up in the series—lot 228. Although a study was done a few years ago, the recently discovered burned records answer a few lingering questions about early owners. Stay tuned!