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So Damn Tough…

May 11th, 2017 Sears Homes 6 comments

Thanks to the intercession and help of many skin-clad angels, the Penniman book is so close to the finish line. Heretofore, my friend Milton has done most of the proofreading, because reading this manuscript sends me into such a tailspin that I invariably end up sobbing or in a bad state - for hours.

Every page, every jot and every tittle is a painful memory now. Wayne sat right with me - for five years - as I ruminated over every paragraph. He and I talked for hours about the difference between shrapnel shells and high explosive shells. We discussed the minutiae of the layout of the village, the styling of the houses, the logistics of moving those houses, the manufacturing of Amatol (TNT) and every other detail that one can imagine.

We laughed and we talked and we argued and in one memorable moment, he came up with an inspired solution to a very thorny problem and I said, “You must be the most brilliant man walking this earth,” and I (again) told him how much I adored him, and then pulled him out of his chair and into the bedroom and said, “Your intellect is such a turn-on.”

Little did I know that that would be the last time that I was intimate with my husband.

After his death, I found out that my adoration of my spouse was not reciprocal. It has nearly broken me.

Too many people have said, “You need to move on and forget about Wayne.”

That’s not helpful. He was my husband. Our lives were inextricably linked for a decade. He was the man that I promised to love forever. And he left me with one hell of a mess.

This manuscript is also a vociferous memory of that former life and former home and former Rosemary. There are days when that life feels almost like a fuzzy dream, and that’s also unsettling.

It’s taking every single thing I have to get this book completed. I’m not sure that I can proofread it again, but I know that I must. Let’s hope I can plow through it one last time, and emerge from the other side without losing it.

All of which is to say, when this book - in its finalized and published form - sees the light of day, it will be a miracle of grace.

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On April 9, 2016, I wrote this blog expressing great joy that the book was nearly finished.

To read more about Penniman, click here.

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The manuscript has been completed and proofed by a dear friend, but in truth, I need to read it myself one more time - cover to cover. And its so damn tough.

The manuscript has been completed and proofed by a dear friend, but in truth, I need to read it myself one more time - cover to cover. And it's so damn tough.

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The research materials are now at my rental home, where they sit in the living room, just in case I need the notes for some reason.

The research materials are now boxed and stored at my rental home, where they sit in the living room, just in case I need the notes for some reason. My faithful companion guards them.

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When Wayne came home, I insisted he pose here too.

This photo was taken on April 9, 2016 and was the last photo I have of Wayne Ringer. He killed himself seven days later. When he came home that day on April 9th, I asked him to "look erudite" and this was the pose he struck. I adored him, and he knew it, but those feelings weren't reciprocal.

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These were the books that I used most often.

The manuscript - and everything associated with it - are a memory of my life pre-April 2016. That's part of what makes this so agonizing. These were the notebooks that I referenced most often, a collection of newspaper articles from the "Virginia Gazette" and the "Daily Press."

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A street scene of the now-lost village of Penniman.

A street scene of the now-lost village of Penniman. The streets are mud and the houses are fresh and new. The village was built in 1918 and abandoned in early 1920. Photos are courtesy of the Whisnant family.

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On April 9, 2016, I did this blog expressing great joy that the book was nearly finished.

To read more about Penniman, click here.

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“Happy Widow’s Day”?

May 4th, 2017 Sears Homes 34 comments

This isn’t a post about architecture or Sears Homes or the ghost town of Penniman, Virginia. It’s about surviving to the one-year mark of the worst tragedy I have ever known.

Someone told me that yesterday (May 3rd) was “National Widow’s Day.” I don’t know much about that, but I do know that it’s been a little more than a year since my husband killed himself.

Grief is a messy business and way too much folks seem to think that after the earth has spun around the sun 365 times, a widow should be “over it.”

I understand their position: It’s tough to see someone in pain and it seems that grief - a type of extreme emotional pain - is especially difficult to watch.

My husband was seven years my senior and I’d always assumed that I’d outlive him, but not like this and not so soon. I always assumed that I’d be a “good old widow” and cheerfully reminisce and cherish the memories of our long life together.

The suicide tainted everything. Every single thing.

It’s true that “suicide is a death like no other.”

Obviously, my husband wasn’t happy. Obviously, he didn’t want to grow old with me. Obviously, this wasn’t the love affair I thought it was. Obviously, I was not the wife that he wanted, and obviously, this wasn’t the life that he wanted.

Or maybe it was.

But I’ll never know. There were no clues and no hints and not a whiff of an idea of what he was planning. April 18th, 2016, he dropped me off at the Norfolk International Airport so that I could travel to Boston and see my middle daughter. As soon as I landed in Boston (five hours later), I called him and asked him how he was doing. He was starting a big court case on Tuesday morning and I’d been very worried about his health.

He answered my questions and then started an argument over the phone. His words were so vitriolic that I was stunned.

I asked him why he was doing this.

He simply continued with the angry words. Wayne knew, “he who asks the questions controls the conversation.” He was in control of what was going to be our last conversation. I don’t and won’t remember how that conversation ended and/or who hung up first. One year later, it’s a path in my brain that must remain barricaded and closed and permanently sealed, lest I slip into insanity.

About 10:00 am, he sent me a text claiming that his next action would be my fault. It was a text that was both puzzling and terrifying. Yet not in my worst nightmare could I have imagined what would come next. As soon as that text had been sent, he turned off his phone and left his office at City Hall. Within 90 minutes, he’d be dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

For several weeks, I slept at friends’ homes and lived out of a Harris Teeter shopping bag. I lost more than 30 pounds in two months. Three or four times a week, I returned to my beautiful home in Norfolk long enough to get fresh clothes and then took off again. Sometimes, I traveled to see friends in Illinois. For a couple weeks, I stayed at a religious retreat in northern Virginia. A couple times, I spent the night in the car. So much of that time is lost to memory. I was in deep shock, and didn’t even realize it.

Family and friends feared that I was slipping away. There were days that I thought that insanity might provide some relief to the excruciating emotional pain. For the first time in my long life, I understood - with great clarity - why people become homeless and why they become alcoholics and drug addicts. I wanted to slip under the radar of society and take my Harris Teeter bag and disappear into a crowd somewhere and live out the rest of my days, weeks or years with “my people” - the hopeless homeless.

Lyrics from my favorite song “Don’t Laugh At Me” (Mark Willis) became crystal clear.

I lost my wife and little boy when
Someone crossed that yellow line
The day we laid them in the ground
Is the day I lost my mind
And right now I’m down to holdin’
This little cardboard sign…

Would people say that the day Wayne died was “the day I lost my mind”? People had cracked up under less. Would this be the event that cost me my sanity?

As I slipped further into the deep black well of hopelessness, friends tried desperately to lean over the rock-ribbed walls and throw a rope down to me. The problem was, I was too cold and too weak to grab onto it. The turning point came sometime in Summer 2016 (I don’t remember the date). A friend - someone that had been on the periphery of my life - appeared and said, “You’re going to come stay with me. I have a spare bedroom in my house and I live out in the country. Pack up some things and come out tonight.”

For four months, I lived with my friend on a peanut farm. Each evening, when she returned home from work - too tired to take a deep breath - she’d stand at the foot of my bed and talk with me, and pray with me. Every morning, she’d greet me with a smile and pray for me and help me remember that I was loved.

There was another friend that I’ll talk more about later. These were two of my angels (and there were so many others), who kept me going when I no longer had the will, the strength, the desire or the vision to face one more day.Without them, I would have been another statistic.

Throughout this last year, I have literally craved love. Over on Facebook, at my “Sears Homes” group, I asked the 1,600 members to post a few happy words about how my books had blessed their lives. I read that thread again and again and again.

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About six months after Wayne’s suicide, I moved into a rental home where I’m living now. I remain hopeful that - in time - I’ll find a home to purchase, and can then unpack my things and restore some order and structure to my life.

I know that several readers of this blog are prayer warriors, and believe in the healing power of prayer. If that describes you, I’m so very grateful for your love and your prayers. Please know that at the darkest times of my year, I’ve visualized those many prayers being poured into my soul, and that imagery (and the love behind it) has brought me much comfort.

Because of Wayne’s suicide, I’ll never be the same. This has forever changed me. But because of Wayne’s suicide, I’ll always be part of a “club” that understands the full depths of human suffering, as well as the unbelievable amounts of divine love and genuine kindness that can be found in a stranger’s heart.

Each day is still a mighty struggle, but each day, I strive to find one thing for which to be sincerely grateful. And many days, I find several things.

Perhaps that’s what healing looks like.

Let’s hope.

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Please leave a comment below.

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Horise and Rosemary in Illinois

These days, I have a new travel companion: A cute little stuffed horse that's been named "Horsie." Here's Horsie and Rosemary in a selfie, taken in southwestern, Illinois.

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Horsie gazes longingly out the window in Elsah, Illinois.

Horsie gazes longingly out the window in Elsah, Illinois.

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Horsie has mixed feelings about flying home to the modest rental. More than 50% of my worldly belongings are in storage, while we hope to find a suitable home to buy in a suitable place. Its taking a lot longer than I thought, which is adding to the stress.

Horsie always enjoys flying in an aeroplane. It's all that darn waiting and security and hassles BEFORE that drive Horsie nuts. On a recent security screening, Horsie endured a very personal examination which left him feeling rather humiliated.

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Horsie is glad to be back on solid ground. Flying is nerve-wracking for so many reasons, and ever more so when youre already stressed from other life events.

Horsie is glad to be back on solid ground at RDU (Raleigh/Durham airport). Flying is nerve-wracking for so many reasons, and ever more so when you're already stressed from other life events.

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I prefer to end on a happy note, so theres a picture of another Horsie (tentatively named Horsie II) thats on its way to my house.

Horsie has brought me so much joy that I decided to add another Horise to the fold. Tentatively named "Horsie II," he's now living with Horsie I in my home in Virginia.

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Good

Vincent Van Gogh - The Good Samaritan. Vincent Van Gogh was staying in an institution for the mentally ill (following a psychotic break) when he painted this work, in May 1890. Saving someone who has been given up for dead is incredibly hard work, as this picture so beautifully shows.

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That Rascally Haskell

March 30th, 2017 Sears Homes 6 comments

Today, despite all the publicity about recycling, we’re still a very wasteful society, and even more so when it comes to housing.

More than 35% of all debris at modern landfills is construction debris. HGTV is the worst offender, encouraging millions to rip out and destroy old kitchens and baths, while violating  the first commandment of old house ownership: “Thou Shalt Not Destroy Good Old Work.”

A century ago, when Penniman was abandoned, the overwhelming majority of the houses were “knocked down” (disassembled board by board) and moved to another site. Some of the houses were moved intact and whole. Today, the majority of these houses are still alive and well in Norfolk and Williamsburg.

And now, thanks to the foresight of the Whisnant family, we have pictures of the residential area of Penniman, showing these houses within this village, built by DuPont for workers at the shell-loading plant. Below, you’ll see images of the “Haskell,” living in Penniman and later in Norfolk.

To learn more about the Penniman houses in Williamsburg, click here.

Read about the Norfolk Penniman houses here.

Images below are courtesy of the family of Joseph and Ola Whisnant. Thanks to the foresight and generosity of the Whisnant family, we have street views and genre scenes of life in Penniman. Cameras were probably forbidden within the cantonment of Penniman, and visitors would have subjected to a daunting search of their personal belongings, entering and exiting. These images are the only known existing photographs of the residential areas of Penniman.

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Street view of the newly created village of Penniman. The streets are mud and the houses are fresh and new. The village was built in 1918 and abandoned in early 1920. Photos are courtesy of the Whisnant family.

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Whisnant

Another view of the village. Notice the hydrant to the right with the easy-to-access valve. The model of houses shown in this picture (Cumberland, Florence, Haskell and a piece of the Georgia) eventually landed in Norfolk and Williamsburg, Virginia.

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whisnant fam

A close-up of the Haskell.

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others

Thanks to the Norfolk city assessor, we have a picture of this same model, taken in the 1950s. There are more than 50 of these homes - built at DuPont's Penniman - along Major Avenue and Glenroie Avenue in Norfolk.

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fesef

Comparison of the house in Norfolk (1950s) and the house in Penniman (1918).

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House

This "Haskell" has been resided with a substitute PVC-type shake, and the belt course on the gable line was moved up closer to the peak. Other than that, it looks much as it did when built in 1918.

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whisnant

The Haskell, as it appeared in a building catalog in 1920.

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Thanks to clyde Vir Pilot December 1921

In December 1921, these houses were moved from Penniman to Norfolk via barge. Many thanks to professional photographer Clyde Nordan for cleaning up the images. (Virginian Pilot, December 1921.)

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To learn more about the Penniman houses in Williamsburg, click here.

Read about the Norfolk Penniman houses here.

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The Bungalow in the York River

February 17th, 2017 Sears Homes 2 comments

Bunny Trails: They’re one of the best parts of doing historical research. And while researching Penniman, Virginia, I read newspaper accounts from Pennimanites, talking about a house “sitting on stilts” in the York River.

And while systematically reading through every single page (from 1916 to 1925) of the Newport News Daily Press, I found this gem: “[John Ross] Built His House On the Waters” (September 1922).

It was an indepth article about John’s home in the York River. And then last month, it got even better when Carolyn Willis contacted me through this website, and shared some pictures from a family photo album of Joseph and Ola Whisnant. She’d found the word “Penniman” on the old snapshots, but didn’t know exactly what a Penniman was - until she googled the word.

Carolyn’s photos showed me pictures of day-to-day life within Penniman, and provided an incredible peek of life inside the village. Each of the 22 pictures was a treasure, and I’m so grateful that Carolyn found me, and was willing to share those pictures.

The article in the Daily Press said,

John E. Ross is wiser than the man who ‘built his house on the sands,’ as related in the Bible, to have it destroyed when the winds came. The windws may come, storms may kick up a sea in the York River, and the ice-packs of winter may crunch and grind around his abode, but it will stand the buffeting of every day assaults that nature can make. At least it has done so for years past and appears to be as firm and safe as when first it rose above the waters…Mr. Ross and his family live in happiness and security in one of the oddest abodes in this section.

Mr. Ross is a well-to-do oyster planter and located near here years ago. He conceived the idea of building a bungalow on stilts in the York River, far enough out to escape the discomforts on inshort. Pilings were sunk and upon this structure arose the neat little house that has long been the home of his family. He solved the water problem by sinking a deep artesian well and has one of the best over-flow wells in this section. A fast motor boat tired up at the foot of a pair of steps leading down in the water solves the transportation problem.

The Ross home, located almost at the mouth of King’s Creek, several hundred yards out in the water, is one of the most unique in this section and never fails to attract attention from visitors. It is just off Penniman. Probably 20 feet off water is to be had the house, and all all Mr. Ross has to do when he wants fresh fish for a meal is to drop a line out the kitchen window and wait for a bite.

They live happily in peaceable surroundings, not disturbed even by their neighbors’ chickens (September 8, 1922).

A local genealogist found this additional information on John Ross: John Edward Ross left this house sometime in the 1920s and in 1930, he was living at 24 Channing Avenue (the Cradock section of Portsmouth). In 1910, he was a widow with a child and living with his father. By 1920, John, wife Grace and 16 year son Edward Ross (by John’s 1st wife) were living on the York River.

The Hurricane of 1933 destroyed a tremendous amount of property along the York River, and this bungalow on stilts was surely one of the houses that became flotsam.

Thanks to Carolyn and the family of Joseph and Ola Whisnant for the pictures shown below.

Learn more about Penniman here.

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Hagley Panoramic

The panoramic image of Penniman shows a house out in the York River, not far from the Penniman Spit. Image is courtesy Hagley Museum and Library.

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Hagley Panoram

A close up of the "bungalow on stilts." Hagley Museum and Library.

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Permission Carolyn Something

Here's a picture of John's house on the York River. According to the "Daily Press," it's at "the mouth of King's creek, several hundred yards out in the water, and is one of the most unique in this section. It's just off Penniman." Thanks again to Carolyn Willis for sharing this image. Photos are the courtesy of the family of Joseph and Ola Whisnant.

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House in Nansemond

I've never seen anything like the John Ross house but there is a duck-hunting club sitting in the middle of the Nansemond River. I took this photo from the bridge that spans the Nansemond River on an early Sunday morning as I drove to church in Suffolk. Fortunately, there were no cars behind me.

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Bungalow in the York

Close-up of the duck-hunting club in the Nansemond River. I am curious as to how this building handles the discharge of waste.

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Do you know of any houses built in the middle of a river? Please send photos. I’d ask for an address, but that would be problematical.

Learn more about Penniman here.

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Moving On With Life

February 4th, 2017 Sears Homes 9 comments

These last few months, I’ve lived in a small rental home in Southeastern Virginia, and most of my possessions are in storage, which is discomfiting. A few weeks ago, I started looking at houses for sale in different cities.

Throughout 2015 and early 2016, I had a recurring nightmare that Wayne had died and I was forced to move into a modest (and dirty) rental house. It was terrifying, and it was one of those dreams that just went on and on and on for what felt like days.

On one occasion, I wrote this in my prayer journal, “Thank God it was just a dream. Wayne is still alive and well. I am so grateful to awaken from that horror, and find myself sleeping in my own bed in my beautiful home, in my soft bed, with my husband asleep beside me.”

In April 2016, that nightmare became my reality. In August 2016, I started looking at rental homes and became physically ill when I viewed my first rental: A dirty, greasy, roach-infested house, with busted asbestos tiles on the floor, bugs scurrying across the broken Formica countertop and a filthy tub outlined in soap scum.

The price was $1,200 a month - the top of my “comfort level.”

I left that house in tears, got in my car and drove around, trying to pray and trying not to cry. Ultimately, I found a sparkling clean rental in a safe area, but it wasn’t cheap.

It’s been nine months since Wayne died and looking at houses to buy has proven to be a tonic for me. Little by little, the lights are starting to come back on in my soul. It’s funny what God can use to breathe life into someone that feels dead and buried deep in the rubble.

Perhaps in my case, it will be nothing fancier than an old house that needs a lot of love and tender care and elbow grease and time (and a little money) to be restored to its former grandeur and original beauty. Maybe saving an old house will be the very thing that saves me.

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Rosemary

When I look at a house, I really LOOK at a house. It was a miserable crawl space and way too low, but I had to know if the house was sound and worthy of restoration. The next day, this 57-year-old body felt the challenge of slithering through a dirty crawl space. Of course, someone was there with a camera...

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To read more about Rose, click here.

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Need to Find a Graphic Artist to Help Finish the Penniman Manuscript

January 7th, 2017 Sears Homes 13 comments

On April 18, 2016, I left my home at 4:00 am to catch a 5:30 am flight for Boston, Massachusetts, where I’d visit my daughter and her son. After four years of intense research and work, the manuscript on Penniman was finally 98% complete, and now it was time for a graphic artist to assemble the artwork and prepare the book for a printer.

An impressive history-loving group in Colonial Williamsburg had asked me to give my first public talk on Penniman on April 24th.

The morning of the 18th, I was running around the house getting ready for my trip to Boston when my husband asked, “Do you have a coat? It’s going to be cold in Boston.” When I said no, he handed me my favorite beige winter coat and said, “I don’t want you to get cold.” I gave him a big kiss and a hug and said, “Have I told you lately that I love you?”

He dropped me off at the airport and I gave him another big, long hug and then grabbed him and said, “In four days, we’ll be happy again.” He smiled and said, “Yes, in four days, we’ll be happy again.”

For several weeks, Attorney Ringer had been preparing for an upcoming trial involving the non-fatal shooting of a woman by a Norfolk cop. As the Chief Deputy City Attorney, it was his case, and he felt responsible for its successful outcome. The trial started on April 19th (Tuesday), and I kept reassuring him, “This will end, and we’ll be happy again and then you’ll retire 30 days later. It’s been a long road but we’re on the home stretch.” I shortened this refrain by saying, “In four days, we’ll be happy again.”

When he seemed especially tuned out, I’d sit down beside him with my laptop and show him pictures of other trips we’d taken. I told him, “We’ll go back there after you retire and I’ll teach you the fine art of traveling cheap and we’ll have a good time.” He said flatly, “I’m looking forward to that.”

As soon as he’d found out that I’d landed in Boston, he left his office at City Hall and committed suicide. Within an hour of landing in Boston, I received a phone call that my husband was dead, by his own hand. The day of my “big talk” in Willliamsburg turned out to be the day of my 63-year-old husband’s funeral.

Since then, I haven’t been able to look at the Penniman manuscript. Even now, it’s hard to look at these photos, but I know - after talking with other “suicide widows” (as we’re known) - that there comes a day when you have to push past the agonizing emotional and physical and spiritual pain and try to do one small thing. And yes, there is agonizing physical pain. I suffer from unrelenting and at times, crippling chest pain. It’s my constant companion.

Writing this blog and asking for help is my “one small thing” today.

This morning, after talking with “Leslie,” (a fellow writer and suicide widow), I realized it was time for me to climb back into Penniman and get this book finished. And that’s where I need some help. I’m in need of a graphic artist that can help me assemble the manuscript (22 chapters and 37 photos) into a print-ready document.

If you know of anyone who’s willing to help with this project, please leave a comment below.

Thanks so much.

To read more about Penniman, click here.

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The story of Penniman is an amazing one. Penniman was a boom town about six miles from Williamsburg (Virginia), where TNT was loaded into shells for The Great War.

The story of Penniman is an amazing one. Penniman was a boom town about six miles from Williamsburg (Virginia), where TNT was loaded into shells for The Great War. This is a picture of one of the shell-loading lines, courtesy Hagley Museum and Library.

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One of the little bungalows at Penniman, named The DuPont. This very model is what drew me into this story of Penniman. After Penniman closed, 18 of these houses were taken to Norfolk by barge.

The little bungalows at Penniman were built at several DuPont sites, and were named "The DuPont." These hipped-roof bungalows sat near the York River (not far from where Cornwallis surrendered). This very model is what drew me into this story of Penniman. After Penniman closed, 18 of these houses were taken to Norfolk by barge. Photo is courtesy Hagley Museum and Library.

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This photo is from the Norfolk tax assessors office. It is from 1949, and shows The DuPont in largely original condition.

This photo is from the Norfolk tax assessor's office. It is from 1949, and shows "The DuPont" in largely original condition.

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The people of Penniman are part of what make the story so compelling. There was a 312-man army detachment at Penniman known as The Shell Inspectors. It was their job to make sure that, at every point and turn, the shells were correctly loaded and stored.

The people of Penniman are part of what make the story so compelling. There was a 312-man army detachment at Penniman known as The Shell Inspectors. It was their job to make sure that, at every point and turn, the shells were correctly loaded and stored.

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It is the people of Penniman that make the story come alive.

It is the people of Penniman that make the story come alive. More than 50% of the civilian employees at Penniman were women. They're shown here at the train depot within Penniman, where shells were shipped out on their way to the front. Photo is courtesy Hagley Museum and Library.

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A woman worker loads explosive charges into a shell.

Dr. John Henderson (far right) sits with other medical personnel at the Penniman Hospital. Photo is courtesy of the Henderson Family. The names of the other workers are lost to history.

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ff

More than 900 wheelbarrows were purchased for the building of Penniman, and a large number of African-Americans were employed in its construction and day-to-day production. Photo is courtesy Hagley Museum and Library.

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smoke

Those double doors require only a push to open, and on the other side is a long chute, leading to the ground.

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See those long chutes?

See those long chutes? Photo is courtesy Hagley Museum and Library.

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Way

Melvin Wayne Ringer, 1953 - 2016

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To read more about Penniman, click here.

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“Barn Builders” Blunders Badly

April 11th, 2016 Sears Homes 3 comments

Last week, my buddy Milton saw an episode of “Barn Builders” (DIY TV, Season 2, Episode 9), which featured a short bit on a Sears Home. According to the episode guide that accompanied the program, “the guys restore an 1856 log cabin.”

The log cabin sat on a spacious old family farm. The “Barn Builders” did a fine job with that 1856 cabin, but it all went off the rails when they decided to do a snippet on another structure on the land, sitting a few hundred feet away. The house in question was a very primitive house, probably built in the late 1800s, and on the cusp of collapse.

As one of the crew members wandered over to the badly dilapidated structure, he said, “this looks like a Sears kit house.” Thus began a four-minute segment on Sears Kit Homes, replete with quick shots of Sears Modern Home catalogs from the early 1920s and house plans and other imagery.

Next, the Barn Builder walked into the old house and made several comments affirming his remarkable find of a kit house from Sears.

The entire four-minutes worth of shenanigans left me shaking my head in disbelief. The show probably has a wide-spread audience, which means that “Barn Builders” has now disseminated a whole slew of bad information about kit homes to a whole new audience.

It’s mighty frustrating and even more so when you think about the fact that this house wasn’t even built in the right CENTURY to be a Sears kit house.

Enjoy the pictures below and if you happen to know anyone involved in the production of “Barn Builders,” ask them to give me a call.

Did you enjoy this blog? Please share this link with your friends on Facebook!

Read about another unfortunate use of the airwaves and old houses, click here.

To read about a bona fide Sears House in West Virginia, click here.

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Fine

This tired wooden house sits on an old family farm in West Virginia, and was featured on a recent episode of "Barn Builders." Its condition is very poor.

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After a few minutes, this fellow leaves the project (an 1856 log cabin) and strolls over to the old farmhouse for a closer look. As hes walking, he identifies the old house as probably a Sears kit house. Thats when the real fun begins.

After working on the 1856 cabin for a time, one of the workers leaves the project and strolls over to the old farmhouse for a closer look. As he's walking toward the old house, he says that it's "probably a Sears kit house." That's when the real fun begins.

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The

There are many reasons as to why this is not a Sears kit house, but let's start with the "low-hanging fruit." First, it was probably built in the late 1800s. Sears started selling their "Modern Homes" in 1908. The house shown here is supported with what's known as "rubble stone" piers or "dry stacked stone" piers. While this type of foundation remained in use into the early 1900s, it was more common in the mid-to-late 1800s. And a rubble-stone foundation would not have been considered acceptable for a Sears kit home. And there's this: The house had no exterior sheathing. Those clapboards were nailed right to the studs. This is not a good way to build a house, and it's certainly not a kit house.

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The

It's rather amazing that this old house is still upright.

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If this house were in the south, wed say it was a mess.

There are no windows on the side of the house and there are two unusually long windows on the rear. This was a house designed and built by a novice. In short, it was the cheapest way to cover air in the 1800s.

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Inside the house, the man rambles on about the fact that the kits came with nails and paint and everything else.

Inside the house, the man rambles on about the fact that the kits came with nails and paint and everything else. If you look at the trim in the house, you'll notice that it's also extremely primitive. Again, it's pretty clear, no architects and no professional builders were consulted in the building of this house.

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These fellows should stick to building barns.

These fellows should stick to building barns.

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Read about another unfortunate use of the airwaves and old houses, click here.

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Thanks to Jim, We Found Sears Modern Home #158

April 11th, 2016 Sears Homes No comments

Twice in the last several months, I’ve done a blog on a Sears House that I’d never seen, but had hoped to see, and both times, readers have found those houses! The first one was the Sears Monterey, which Jennifer successfully found and identified in Pennsylvania. And now, Jim has found and identified a Sears Modern Home #158 in West Virginia!

I wrote Jim a letter and asked, “How did you do that?” He replied, “The listing said it was a Sears and it’s pretty unique design with the first-floor porch tucked under the bedrooms, so it wasn’t difficult to identify.”

Part of what piqued my interest in this house is that it merited an honorable mention in a book titled, “Flesh and Bone” by Jefferson Bass (2007).

Thanks to Jim for contacting me on this #158!

Many thanks to the unnamed and unknown Realtor who took the photos. If I knew who you were, I’d give you some link love.

To read about Jennifer’s find in Pennsylvania, click here.

The blog to which Jim responded can be found here.

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Sears Modern Home #158, as seen in the 1910 catalog.

Sears Modern Home #158, as seen in the 1910 catalog.

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Interesting floor plan

It always tickles me to find a Sears kit home with servant's quarters.

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Jhs

The bedroom on the front left is 12x20, which is massive for a Sears House.

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Cement, brick and plaster were not included in the kit, due to weight and freight.

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Ffff

As Jim said, it's a pretty distinctive house!

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There it is, in all its beauty, in West Virginia.

There it is, in all its beauty, in West Virginia.

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Closer

If anyone ever decides to leave me a Sears House in their will, I hope it's in West Virginia. What a fabulous place to live! I'd also settle for Western Virginia. Or Southern Virginia. Or North Carolina. Or South Carolina. Maybe Maryland. And California. And even Hawaii. Heck, I'd take one anywhere.

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Cool

Put side-by-side, you can see that the house in West Virginia is a really nice match, down to the detail on the underside of the porch roof. And what a delight to see that those full-length porch railings are still in place.

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Nice back yard, too. Plenty of room back there for some horsies.

Nice back yard, too. Plenty of room back there for some horsies.

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The outside is lovely, but its the interior that made me swoon.

The outside is lovely, but it's the interior that made me swoon.

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My heart is all aflutter just looking at these images.

My heart is all aflutter just looking at these images.

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ss

Now that's a view to wake up to!

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Beautiful, isnt it?

Beautiful, isn't it?

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Nice front porch, too.

Does the swing convey? How about the adorable baby Adirondack chair?

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ff

The fireplace surround probably isn't original. Looks very 1950s to me. I could be wrong...

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However, Im fairly certain that all this original wood planking is original to the house. And its too beautiful for words. Heres hoping the new owner doesnt paint it or tear it out.

However, I'm fairly certain that all this original wood planking is original to the house. And it's too beautiful for words. Here's hoping the new owner doesn't paint it or tear it out.

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Thanks again to Jim for contacting me about this treasure!

Thanks again to Jim for contacting me about this treasure!

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To read about Jennifer’s find in Pennsylvania, click here.

The blog to which Jim responded can be found here.

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Where’s Rosie?

April 8th, 2016 Sears Homes 10 comments

That might be the question on my friends’ lips, as I’ve well nigh disappeared from polite society for the last several weeks. I didn’t realize how long I’d been “under the radar” until last night, when I glanced at an entry in my personal journal and saw that I went silent the second week of January.

That was three months ago.

After years of researching and writing about  Penniman, I realized that this book would never be completed unless I made it my raison d’être and singularly devoted myself to that task. For the last 90 days, I’ve spent 10-12 hours a day, seven days a week, finishing up this manuscript with a few days off from time to time. There were days that I worked for 16 hours straight. Not a fun time.

It’s been intense, and now the first draft is done. From here, it gets much easier.

We’ve been researching this topic since 2010, but it turned the corner and became a “manuscript” about three years ago. For more than 18 months, an entire room of my beautiful old house has been in a state of great disarray and extreme messiness. Wednesday night, I stayed up until 2:00 in the morning (that’d be Thursday morning) pulling notes down from the walls and tidying up. My entire collection of research now sits in five large plastic bins, ready to be stowed.

Before I dismantled The War Room™ I snapped a few photos.

I seriously thought about titling this blog, “So you want to be a writer?” but decided against it. When my children were young, my daily prayer for them was, “May these three sweet girls realize their full potential in this life.” I think some of those prayers rebounded into my own life, because researching and writing this book has required 100% of all my emotional, mental, physical, spiritual and intellectual abilities.

But I must add, now that it’s done, I’m a very happy girl. My feelings of joy and satisfaction and accomplishment are unmatched in my life experience, and those are some very good feelings. Enjoy the photos, and you can expect to hear more about “the book” very soon.

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If there was a single word that could be used to describe this mess, it might be post-it notes.

If there was a single phrase that could be used to describe this research effort, it might be "post-it notes." There were many of these involved and in many places.

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There were a few on the fireplace mantel.

There were a few notes on the fireplace mantel. This was late in the process. The notes on the left were the "completed" tasks. The ones on the right were the "need to be done." That's my dear sweet Mama are on the far right, smiling at me as I toil away. She passed 14 years ago.

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These were the books that I used most often.

These were the books that I used most often, a collection of newspaper articles from the "Virginia Gazette" and the "Daily Press." There are a few post-it notes here, too.

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Early on, Teddy figured out that post-it notes were the best way to get my attention.

Early on, Teddy figured out that post-it notes were the best way to get my attention.

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fff

The 1950s lamp was not spared the indignity of note placement.

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Not counting the material adorning the walls, the notebooks were an impressive lot.

Not counting the material adorning the walls, the notebooks were an impressive lot. There were seven additional notebooks that didn't make it into the pile. The rolled documents are maps.

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There were a few post-it notes within the pages, too.

There were a few post-it notes within the pages, too.

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When Wayne came home, I insisted he pose here too.

When Wayne came home, I insisted he pose here too. He was instructed to "look professorial and erudite." I think he nailed it.

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Perhaps I should have asked him to look patient. He never said a word when I started covering the walls with 100-year-old newspaper stories - you know - the walls hed just painted the year before...

Perhaps I should have asked him to "look patient." He never said a word when I started covering the walls with 100-year-old newspaper stories - you know - the walls he'd just painted the year before...

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Ever the varnished door was not spared.

Even the varnished door was not spared.

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back

And nothing accents a 1950s Mid-Century Modern house like cheap plastic banquet tables.

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All in the name of history!

All in the name of history!

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And it all started with those little bungalows in Riverview...

And it all started with those pretty little bungalows in Riverview, moved to Norfolk from Penniman...(Photo is courtesy Hagley Museum and Library, Wilmington, Delaware).

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To learn more about Penniman’s little houses, click here.

To contact Rose, please leave a comment below.

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A Penniman Bungalow - in Larchmont!

March 13th, 2016 Sears Homes No comments

Larchmont is a prestigious neighborhood in Norfolk, filled with stately Colonial Revivals, Cape Cods, Dutch Colonials and Neo-Tudors from the 1920s and 30s. As far as older neighborhoods go, Larchmont is one of Hampton Roads’ most expensive communities, and prices range from $350,000 to $1.2 million.

If you had asked me last month, which early 20th Century neighborhood in all of southeastern Virginia is least likely to have a Penniman house, I would have said “Larchmont.”

But you might be asking yourself, what’s a Penniman house?

Penniman was a World War One munitions plant, built by DuPont, about six miles from Williamsburg. The village of Penniman sprung up around the plant, and by Summer 1918, about 15,000 people were living on the 6,000-acre site, with two miles of frontage on the York River. More than 5,000 laborers and carpenters worked long hours building dorms and apartments and cottages and houses.

Large caliber artillery shells were loaded at the plant and sent onto Newport News, by rail, where they were loaded on troop transports and shipped to the Western Front in France. Penniman was one of the largest shell-loading plants in the country and according to The History of Explosives, workers at Penniman produced more than 27,000 shells per day.

The war’s end on November 11, 1918 took many folks by surprise. Most thought that the war would go on for months if not years. When Armistice came, construction at Penniman ceased immediately and the government canceled contracts. As one local newspaper said in 1919, “Penniman was deserted almost overnight.”

The houses built at Penniman were designed by DuPont, built by Hancock-Pettyjohn, a Lynchburg contractor, and paid for by Uncle Sam. The finer houses were closer to the York, and were occupied by higher-end management, and were offered in more than a dozen designs. “The Cumberland” (shown below) was not the biggest and not the smallest, but probably leaning toward the upper tier of housing options at the plant.

When the plant closed down after The Great War, the houses (most of which were less than six months old) were not torn down but salvaged. Two Norfolk men (Warren Hastings and George Hudson) purchased several of the houses and moved them - by barge - to Norfolk.

Before last week, we knew of 20 Penniman houses that had been moved to Riverview, 27 to Riverfront and 4 to Willoughby Spit. That was it, and frankly, that seemed like a lot, but we suspected there were more. How to find them?

My buddy Bill Inge took this task on last week and had phenomenal results. While we’d been looking around waterways and inlets, Bill had a novel approach: He went looking for land records. In his searching, Bill found that Warren Hastings had also purchased a lot in Larchmont. Converting the legal description to a street address, he found the precise location. Bill then texted me and said, “Is it possible that there’s a Penniman house in Larchmont?”

When I first saw his text I thought, “Whoa, wouldn’t THAT be a story!” but I had my doubts. After all, Larchmont is a high-dollar, impressive community full of fine homes. Was it really likely that someone had moved a war-time frame house into Larchmont?

I googled the address he gave me and within a few seconds, I realized Bill was right: It was a “Cumberland” from Penniman. When I write about unusual Sears Homes, I often wonder, “Do the people living in this house know what they have?” Based on my research, about 75% don’t know that they’re living in a Sears House. What are the odds that people know they have a Penniman? I’d say it’s a lot less than one percent!

Thanks so much to Bill for all  his help and for finding this house!

If you enjoyed this blog, please share it with friends or post the link on Facebook!

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Penniman was a very crowded place.

Penniman was a very crowded place, occupied by 15,000 at its peak. The houses that were moved to Norfolk are the two-story houses in the background of this photo. Picture is courtesy Hagley Museum and Library.

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Cumberland

The model that ended up in Larchmont is The Cumberland. Designed by DuPont for their plants, this house was also built in Old Hickory, Tennessee, another munitions plant.

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house

The Cumberland was one of their nicer homes, but it's still not very big.

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Floorplan

That's upstairs bedroom is 8x11. In the 21st Century, we call that a closet.

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Cumberland

The Cumberland was a traiditional foursquare. A distinctive feature of many of these DuPont houses is the windows flanking the front door, and a fixed transom over the door.

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Hanckcok

About 50 years ago, this metal tag was found near the site where the Penniman houses were originally built, and probably served as a chit for workers checking out tools from the tool shed. The "H-P. Co." is for Hancock-Pettyjohn, the Lynchburg-based company that built the houses at Penniman.

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house house

In December 1921, this appeared in the "Virginian Pilot," showing the houses coming from Penniman to Norfolk. To the right are two Cumberlands - back to back.

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Riverfront

Here's a Cumberland in Riverfront (on Major Avenue). Notice the windows next to the door. There's another Cumberland next door to this one. Prior to Bill's discovery, these were the only two Cumberlands we knew about in Norfolk.

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Larchmont

According to assessor records, the porch on the Larchmont "Cumberland" was removed in 1957, which is a real pity. As shown here, the house has been covered in substitute siding, and that's probably when the windows and transom disappeared (by the door). This photo was taken in 1959.

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house house house

The city records say the house was built in 1920, but in fact, it was built in Spring of 1918 by Hancock-Pettyjohn and moved (by barge) to its current site in 1921 or 1922.

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dimensions

According to the city's information, the dimensions for the house are correct.

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Google

An image from Google Maps (2015) show the house with new siding (third layer) and replacement windows.

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Penniman

Yesterday, when Milton and I drove past the house, the porch had been restored and it looks like the homeowner did a fine job. And it looks far better with a porch. Not sure what's happening with the transom.

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Penniman

Do they know that their house was born in Penniman, and then traveled by barge to Larchmont?

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Cumberland 1918

Do they know that their house looked like this in 1918?

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Location

If you look at a map of the home's current location, you can see how accessible it is by water.

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Mr. Hastings who brought this house

Here's a picture of Mr. Warren Hastings, standing in front of the homes in Riverfront.

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DO they know

And it all started here - in Penniman.

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To learn the details of how Mr. Hastings moved these homes by barge, click here.

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