I once lived in a haunted house. No, this isn’t a Halloween post, but a history one. It’s partly my history and that of the farmhouse where I lived for a year as a child.
My husband and I recently took a road trip from Maine to rural, southern West Virginia to visit my dearest childhood friend. I won’t share how many years that is, but it’s a lot! I hadn’t seen her in about fifteen years, we’re both getting on in years, and it was time to go.
We had a wonderful visit which included a stop at the old farmhouse that is my focus here. A little of my personal history first. My father had been teaching in Greenbrier County, a beautiful valley of green field, hills, and small towns and named for the river that flows through it. While completing his doctoral program in education at the University of Virginia, he took the job of principal, grades 1-12, in the farming community of Smoot. It was there I started first grade and met my forever friend the first day of school. But that’s another tale.
While our small house was being built near the school, my parents and I boarded with Lillie Deitz in her 1840 brick farmhouse a few miles away. The house sits on a high knoll with gently rolling pastures and nearby woodlands.
Mrs. Deitz’s son and daughter-in-law also lived there and worked the farm. My little family occupied two rooms on the second floor.
A door on the other side of the central staircase led to rooms that were unoccupied… by anyone living. I was told that during the Civil War (Civil War was meaningless to me at age five and a half) that side of the upstairs had been a hospital. I was to stay out of there because ghosts of soldiers haunted the rooms. One day the door stood slightly ajar. I gathered my courage and nudged the door inward. Cold air and the odors of dust and something dank raised goosebumps on my arms. The glimpse of faded and stained canvas and wood cots and a table with dusty metal implements was enough to back me out and close the door. Looking back now, I think the parental warning was because the medical instruments would be dangerous to inquisitive little fingers.
I don’t know why all that was kept. Maybe the Deitz family knew it was important to preserve it, although the heirs didn’t pursue having the house designated an historic site until much later. It was designated a National Historic Place in 1992.
On my previous visit to the house, also with my friend as guide, I had been appalled to see the deterioration of the house. A fallen oak had crushed part of the roof. Vandals had broken windows, damaged fireplaces, and sprayed graffiti. The porch was gone.
So why beyond being a hospital does this farm deserve to be in the National Register of Historic Places? Because it was way more than I knew until this visit. Between 1861 and 1865, the farm served as a headquarters and military hospital by both sides of the war. General Robert E. Lee occupied it twice in 1861. In 1862 and again in 1864, Union troops commanded by General George Crook used it as headquarters and hospital. During part of this time, this was western Virginia. West Virginia became a state in 1863.
On two knolls are the earthwork remains of Confederate fortifications. In a depression between them lie military trenches and unmarked graves said to be of Confederate soldiers who died in the hospital. On some inside walls are about two dozen soldiers’ names and regimental inscriptions by members of both Union and Confederate troops.
At some point the owner returned, and in the early 1900’s Lillie Deitz’s father bought the property. The current Deitz heirs eventually raised money to restore the house and applied to the state and federal government for recognition. Today the structure has been repaired and restored to its original design, except the windows are still boarded up, for vandalism prevention, I imagine.
The Deitz House, according to the National Register, is a fine red brick Greek Revival, two-story gabled-roof home, built by a wealthy captain in 1840. The restored wooden porch across the front is supported by four columns. The interior is divided by a central staircase and has long wide windows on both floors. At the back is a brick kitchen. Hardwood floors and four brick-and-stone fireplaces, two on each floor, add elegance. And heat.
Barbed wire and security alarms on the surrounding fencing prevented us from getting close enough to peek inside. I don’t know if the interior is restored or if there are plans for visitation. If that happens, I’ll be the first to sign up.
You must agree there are good reasons ghosts might linger inside and outside. Have you ever lived in a “haunted” or historic house?
Yes, our house in Hartland came with a ghost. She was nine or ten and had died of diptheria, but not in the house. She came every so often because it was her favorite place when she was alive. We knew she had visited when the kitchen clock radio came on at off hours, or small shiny things vanished.
John, that’s spookier than my haunted house.
loved reading about this house and its history. Thanks!
I’m so glad. Thanks for commenting.
Fascinating! I’ve been to “thin” places, where it was easy to imagine ghostly presences.
I like the idea of “thin places.” I once wandered around a restored Texas frontier fort. When I entered one plain, square, empty building I felt an immediate change in the air and a chill. Later I learned it had been the fort’s morgue.
A “thin” place, an interesting term. Of course it comes from you, who created a fictional ghost. Yes, this was such a place. Even visiting it years later, when it was deteriorated and vandalized, I felt a presence.
Fascinating post, Susan – thank you! I once lived in an apartment that was part of an old house in Kennebunk Lower Village that was haunted. I think there were two ghosts, a man and a woman. They were not scary, but very present. The closet door in my bedroom (which shared a wall with the main house) had a working latch on it, and didn’t swing open on its own. Every night I latched it before bed and sometimes found it open in the morning. I had an apartment mate who noticed similar things. Neither of us mentioned our observations/sensations to the other for a long while, and when finally we compared notes, they were darned similar!
Brenda, that’s an amazing story. After that, it would be hard not to believe ghosts exist.
Our family owns this house, and my father taught at Smoot at one time. We left there in 1963, but began restoration of the house in the 1990s. The house is almost completely restored now. I was born in 1955, but I never saw any “faded and stained canvas and wood cots and a table with dusty metal implements” when I was a boy, nor did I ever hear about that, but the other facts you mentioned are generally accurate. I will ask my Mom about that. My parents were married in the late 1940s, and we all lived there until 1963. Please contact me, as I am curious as to when you lived there and other details of your stay.