The Biography of a House: Part 2 – Lineage

by | Jun 1, 2019 | Features

First January, 1859
Clear and cold. Left camp, crossed the Pine ridges between Piney and Illinois Bayou a 9 mile drive. Passed several saw mills on our way. After crossing the Bayou a four miles drive brought us again to the ancient village of Russellville, a small inland village, the buildings all appeared to have been erected years before. But we found all the dwellers to be good and clever people, a few of the descendants of the old settlers are still there, an honor to their predecessors.
John Darr’s Pioneer Diary
Sometime after they settled, John Darr and his family came to see us at Christmas…oh, I remember it was before the Civil War broke out, because after that so many of our men were gone. Even when they came home there were years of trouble to follow. But this was a good year.
Lawson rode in with his children. Being Presbyterians, we did not celebrate Christmas as the Catholics do. I know this because the children whispered to each other in a quiet corner where only I could hear, that if it had been a Green house, we would have a giant holly wreath full of berries on the door, and a great candle in the window to guide Mary and Joseph. There would have been Christmas carols, which I knew nothing about at the time. And while I do still consider myself to be a Presbyterian house, I was happy when I heard they celebrate Christmas nowadays. I’m not fond of candles, but the music is lovely.
As I remember, Mister Darr made quite a presentation, reading from the diary he kept of his journey to the Arkansas Territory. He wished he had written more at the time of his experiences, but even I could tell from what he’d recorded that every single day was a trial of excitement and exhaustion as they journeyed in their wagon this way and that to find a place fit enough to settle.
Some of the “good and clever” people he spoke of were my Torrences, who remembered meeting the Darrs at the time. I think we all shared in the pleasure of being mentioned if not specifically. I was in just as grand a state at Mister Darr’s first inspection as I was at his Christmas-time visit, with space aplenty for men to meet, children to play, and women to chat as they set a large table for dinner – which was quite plentiful enough to be considered a Christmas meal. Our kitchen was outside then, but the well-spiced goose on the spit announced itself in every room and made merry hearts even merrier.
Oh, what a glorious time that was. They talked of those other families in the valley, like the Shinns who had come almost two decades before, and had at the time three generations living in Russellville and yet another in the ground, since their old mother had died in 1852. Ransom’s eldest daughter married young to Coke Darnul, and now their eldest daughter was married and hoping for a child soon. But I’ve forgotten, the Darnuls had all moved to California by then. Even so, besides Ransom were nine other siblings alive at the time, with too many children and grandchildren to count. Even Jacob Shinn, who had only recently married, was already blessed with two little ones. And his store an eight-year institution by then.
The tannery was also eight years old. It had proved to be a fine investment and occupation for John Torrence. I benefited handsomely; why just consider my having no less than thirteen large windows with six panes each, at a time when such things were unheard of. They boast about it at Potts Inn the next town over, but Kirkbridge Potts wasn’t the only one having glass shipped up the river from New Orleans. He would say he gave Ezra the idea, but I believe it was the other way around.
It was no small thing, my Ezra coming west. He arrived in 1855 having looked into all of the particulars and bringing such additional supplies as we might need. Even as I came into consciousness, I knew there was an air of deep gratitude whenever the brothers were together.
Not so many years before, as he worked to settle his valuable bottomland homestead, Lawson discovered the lack of a sturdy house jeopardized his success and the family’s safety. They were in the path of many a season’s tornadoes whereas I am safe in the uplands. John came as much to help as to settle his own family, but he discovered as Lawson did that building a shelter took skill even when you had the help of your neighbors. Back in Gaston, Ezra was overseeing the building of the new church, and he must have sensed with each letter from Lawson’s daughter Emily that his knowledge was gaining in importance.
It became an obsession that some certain of the cousins did not appreciate. On the Mendenhall side of the family — and it still burns to think of this so I wonder I should share it — these words made their way Westward at the suggestion this young man might extend his condolences on the loss of the very man who gave him work fixing up homes to match my design.
If you will inform me in your next the name of that cousin who says I am not doing my duty I will call on them & inquire what my duty is. As to fixing up I only fixed an ell and bedroom & I don’t think that is any bodys business but my own, for I suppose a man can work where he can get employ.
It was only when I heard Ezra’s obituary that I developed an idea of what he’d left behind when he came to build me.
He was the child of pious parents, who early instructed him in the principles and precepts of the gospel, and under the blessing of that God who is ever faithful to his covenant, young Ezra was led to the Savior, and to devote himself to the service of his Redeemer. He united himself with the Independent Presbyterian Church, and ever afterward maintained a strictly upright, honorable and pious deportment. In 1854 he was elected and ordained a Ruling Elder in Olney Church, but soon afterward removed to Arkansas, where he continued to reside until the time of his death.
A Ruling Elder is much like a deacon, and in time John would hold this same title for the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Russellville. The accomplishment, nomination, and bequeathal was no small thing to the Torrence family. It was indeed an honor, as well as a grave responsibility. To leave this post and one’s congregation…I can only imagine. I have spent many decades thinking of it and I am both proud and humbled by the idea that I exist as a symbol of Ezra’s love and duty to his family. I am a memorial to his remarkable life.
Many were the letters that flew to Gaston, explaining the events that led to the family’s loss. How Ezra and John had been to visit a certain Jasper Holland in his illness. That was early March 1859. By the end of the month he had bouts of illness, and always seemed to be pulling out of it until May arrived and with it the fullness of Typhoid fever. Cousin Emily wrote:
He continued bad the 5th day after he was confined to bed. His mind began to wander, his speech went as his mind went. He would often try to talk but could not speak so as to be understood. O how very painful it is to have a friend so dearly beloved as he was leave us and not be able to speak while they are sick. He called my name some times. That and Father’s name was all that we could understand.
When Ezra died, Lawson sent word since he was soon taken ill himself. It was left to John to settle whatever income and debts were left behind. There was a house, like me only larger, newly completed in Dardanelle. John paid a visit there to receive the final payment. I often think of that house as a sister, only she was lost with the rest of Dardanelle during the skirmishes of war.
Mother Torrence was Ezra’s only heir and John dutifully provided her with whatever remained of his brother’s worldly goods. There was not much, since Ezra wasn’t a creature of this world as I am. One or two mocking cousins aside, the family spoke often of a future reunion in the heavenly realms; a solace I cannot share.
All these events had dimmed by the time the Darrs returned. They had not met Ezra to speak of him, and so the talk was of the hardships that other families were even yet facing as they poured into the valley. Darr shared such tales as we had already heard of “good-hearted” folk selling out to the weary pioneers. They might labor for months repairing whatever tiny hovel they’d purchased before learning they’d overpaid some crafty opportunist who never had the title in the first place.
Before I was made, there might have been several other structures where I stand. I do not know if the Shinn brothers had a shack where they rested after working at the tannery up the way. When they arrived from Gaston, John and his family likely slept in tents and their wagon as most pioneers did. Then there would have been a house-raising as all the families had; timbers erected from the remains of other cabins as was common in the valley. I’ve heard people speak of house raisings almost carelessly, as you might a birthday party, knowing the meager dwellings will be replaced in better times when circumstances offered better materials and a better plan.
Nobody spoke of a place that existed before me, and as houses cannot speak (at least, in ways humans might notice), there was no way for me to ask the many questions I’ve accumulated over the years.
Ezra preached from his arrival about building good homes on good foundations. He was against the squatters whose only vision was to get by until it was time to settle up. They came and went often. A squatter’s rights came about when the land sold and even then their only right was to make the first offer. Meanwhile, the job of settling 80 or even 40 acres was a mighty large feat that required years of good planning, good luck, and good weather.
It was Ezra who convinced John to divide our land into small portions that people could afford to purchase and build sensible homes. He often said good people were looking for a good town with good jobs. He was right, and within half a century his dream was accomplished even if he never lived to see it.
John, Lawson, Ezra and the children, they all came from genuine, Christian people. These are my people, as much a part of my heritage as the valley.

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