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?