Dearing homeplace in 1886 with both the white and Black Dearings who lived there.
"Silas and Polly Dearing took up land in Bedford County near Stewartsville...They arrived there in the fall of the year and only had time to build a lean-to before very cold weather came...Without the help of neighbors...they might not have survived until spring."
— Maxinne Kitts, my great aunt and author of "Decedents of Silas Dearing"
Y'all might remember that, though it was never part of our life plan, my husband and I recently purchased a large farm in Bedford, Virginia. We now hold the deed to 225 acres of rolling hills with stunning Blue Ridge views plus the remnants of a farmhouse that has occupied my imagination for most of my adult life.
Until recently, all its doors and windows were boarded, but just before we bought the place, one door was opened by someone else, probably a vandal. It was unnerving to learn some hoodlum broke into the house, but it wasn't much of a surprise. The place is dilapidated and, at this point, a bit spooky, making it a favorite haunt of bored teens. And there was an upside to having one door open — we got to see inside for the first time ever. We were stunned by what we found.
Beginning in 1779, Treasury Land Warrants were issued by the Commonwealth of Virginia for "waste and unappropriated land," meaning, of course, former tribal land. Among The Commonwealth's stated goals — "encourage the migration of foreigners hither."
First, some context. My family occupied this farmhouse for a very long time. After being cleared of native people, the surrounding land was purchased from the Commonwealth of Virginia in 1850 by my great, great, great grandfather, Silas Dearing. He was likely the first European to own it. Age 45 at the time, Silas was a German immigrant who came to this country when he was very young. At least that's what his great grandchildren told my great aunt Maxine when she was doing genealogical research in the 1960s and 70s.
Old timers also said that, after securing the land, Silas and his wife Polly built a lean-to, finishing it just before a devastating winter. The freezing temperatures might have killed them, oral history suggests, had it not been for kindly neighbors. Once snow melted and the ground thawed, the couple built the first part of their house. It was just one or two rough-hewn rooms with a loft.
Dearing homeplace in 1889 with two-story extension on left and servant shack in the right foreground.
Silas must have done well as a farmer because he managed to add a two-story extension to the house and purchase several human beings. This chilling reality — that people were held captive on our land as forced labor — is difficult to absorb, but we're trying to face it with eyes wide open. After Emancipation in 1863, some former slaves stayed on the farm as servants. A census from seven years last suggests that as many as seven Black and mixed-race people lived in the crude, one-room shack that abutted the farmhouse.
It's worth noting that the mixed-race folks were almost certainly related to my ancestors. (More on that in future posts.) I mention it now because it means my family looked out the windows of their comfy home — with three fireplaces and plaster covering its log walls — to see people who were part of their daily lives, some of whom were their relatives, living in nearly the same conditions as their livestock.
I often hear folks say, "Well, it was a different era," or no one living today is responsible for the past. Sure, those things are true. But when I stand on our tallest hillside, next to Silas and Polly's ornate gravestone, trying to figure out where Black people are buried because their graves were not marked, I can't pretend my ancestors were a mere reflection of their time. They had a choice in how they lived, and in this case, they chose so poorly.
The Dearing homeplace today with the chimney of the former two-story extension in the foreground.
Fast forward a century. My grandfather's generation was the last to be raised on the farm. By the 1960s, no one resided there, and by the mid-80s, the two-story extension was demolished and the remainder of the house boarded up. The servant's shack collapsed soon after and area youth began breaking inside and vandalizing the place.
Parlor of the Dearing homeplace.
Devil worship has been a favorite theme of the vandals.
Kitchen of the Dearing homeplace.
And we can't help but wonder what Snoop Dogg and the fellas from Metallica would think of their handiwork.
Stairs leading from the Dearing homeplace's living room to its loft.
A few furniture pieces are still inside the house, though most are badly damaged.
My brother Mike and his wife Erin inspect the loft inside the Dearing homeplace.
All told, the house doesn't look like much, but with foot-thick log walls and a roof that’s holding, it's surprisingly sound. Over the next year or so, we'll restore the existing farmhouse and expand it, turning it into a vacation rental and a retreat for friends and relatives.
Along the way, we'll dig through its historic rubble — both literal and figurative — which is daunting but also important. Nowhere means more to me than this farmhouse. To truly love it is to try and understand its rich and complicated past.