The biography of a house; Part 1 – A Humble Beginning

by | Apr 1, 2019 | Features

Photo by Liz Chrisman

The story of a house is much more than its location. It’s the story of all those who lived within its walls. It’s the story of the community around it, both neighbors and visitors passing through. It is the story of existence at its most foundational level — eating and sleeping, being sick and being well, sometimes including the first gasp of air that is life or the final exhalation of a soul moving beyond the structure of its existence.
The story of a house is one of incarnation and reincarnation, the hopes and dreams of evolving ever outward, ever inward, ever pleasing with the passing of each fad and tradition into new ways of being. That’s my experience, anyway, and I have lived a good long time.
I am the house at 500 South Denver Avenue in Russellville.
When I was first finished in 1858, I was the Torrence Place or sometimes Ezra’s House. At that time, the path before me was known as the Buffalo Road. Even today on warm August afternoons I often imagine the great buffalo herds moving slowly past, making their way down to the river.
In the days of the buffalo, the native Quapaw owned this valley and called it Chactus Prairie. Over time, as I often heard in my younger days, they were joined by the Cherokee, Chocktaw, and other tribes pushed westward from their homelands. As Native tribes and then Euro-Americans pushed through, the buffalo receded. A French man named Dardene homesteaded Chactus Prairie, and for a long time after that it was thought to be a good place for raising cows.
Just one quarter mile north of me, an old military road crosses Buffalo Road. Today the signs show that Main Street crosses Denver Avenue, but if you could see it with my eyes, you would imagine two dusty dirt tracks that brought men and their families from far to the north and far to the east, as far away as the sea. They came here to the edge of the westward expansion,and many stayed because beyond us was Indian Territory. Some could not bear to stay because beyond even that was the promise of gold.
Yes, the intersection of the buffalo and military roads was the most important in the entire valley. I have heard some of the most important people say so, I’m sure.
The property at the cross-roads is the reason I came into existence. You see, about the time the Torrence family arrived here from Gaston County, North Carolina, the Shinn brothers (also Carolinians) had their eye on the southeast corner. Silas tells the story in his own book, which I have heard him read with my own ears, if houses could be said to have ears.
That Silas Shinn, he was a wild one. He had the gold fever and had already been out to California twice to seek his fortune. He was the youngest of the Shinn brothers. The Shinns and Harkeys came out to the valley around 1840, led by eldest brother Ransom. At the time, Ransom would have been in his 50s, brother James Madison in his 40s, and Silas in his early 30s.
Well as Silas tells it, brother Madison tried to get him to calm down. Tried opening a tannery not far from where I stand, but they soon tired of it and set their eyes on the property at the cross-roads. There, Silas said, there you could make your fortune just as Samuel Brannan had done.
Brannan was well-known in San Francisco – the very man who spread the word of the California Gold Rush in 1849, and the first millionaire it produced. But Brannan made every penny while staying nice and comfortable inside his store selling pick axes and gold pans to the miners.
Dr. Russell owned the land all along the north side of the military road. There were plans afoot already to erect a Presbyterian church there along with the sorts of buildings a town needs to conduct its business.
Coke Darnull owned the southeast corner of the intersection. It was only the corner lot. James Madison owned all the land one block south and beyond, far past what anyone thought was valuable. All that land but not the one piece that mattered most.
The Shinns banded together – Silas, James Madison, and Ransom’s son Jacob who was about Silas’ age. They formed a partnership with Coke Darnull and arranged to sell the southern-most land in Madison’s holdings.
With the money, they built a great store where anyone who came west from Little Rock or south from Missouri might stop and purchase whatever they needed for their journey from pick axes to pocket watches. If they came up from the river, why even better. And eventually they might come from the railroad depot, for Dr. Russell and the rest of the townsmen were already holding secret meetings about that.
But let us go back in time a little further, just a few years earlier. On the far side of the valley, down by the river at Galla Creek, there was a farmer named Lawson Torrence. He was also a youngest son, and oh, he lived an unsettled life. One of the letters his daughter Emily sent home to the family in North Carolina prompted a response from brother John. Having just married off his eldest daughter, John made a decision to support Lawson and his family, as well as the other pioneers who had come out to the valley unprepared for a settler’s life. It was a religious commitment to him. He was a high elder in the Presbyterian Church and knew from Emily’s letters that a great effort was underway to build a congregation in the valley.
It is a lovely place, this valley. Hot for only a few weeks in August and frozen for only a few weeks in January. Yet there are hazards — mosquitoes that bring malaria, typhoid outbreaks, and other illnesses against which Dr. Russell had no remedy. It was therefore with grave concern that John prayed with his brother Ezra and determined that he and his family would come to support Lawson and the rest of the community in the wilds of Arkansas.
They arrived in 1854. John brought his wife, a young son, and his seven other daughters. They sought a home near to whatever civilization could be found and purchased 40 acres from the Shinns, including a tannery. Within a few years, likely in response to a letter written by Cousin Emily, Ezra came out as well to minister to the people with what carpentry skills he’d gained from overseeing the construction of the new church in Gaston County, NC. He brought with him a plan for a different type of frontier home.
No more should pioneers live in cabins built from rough-cut logs as Ransom did. The logs were fast disappearing northward anyway. The steam age brought with it saw mills, so that sawn timbers and clapboard siding were readily available. With his simple plan for an L-shaped house that offered a private accommodation on one side, Ezra would help the pioneers create modern homes that would stand the test of time.
I was the first house Ezra built. The story of his brief life is just one of those that make up who I am.

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