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The Bungalow in the York River

February 17th, 2017 Sears Homes 1 comment

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.


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.


Hagley Panoram

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


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.


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.


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.


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.



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...


To read more about Rose, click here.


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

January 7th, 2017 Sears Homes 12 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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.



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.



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


See those long chutes?

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



Melvin Wayne Ringer, 1953 - 2016


To read more about Penniman, click here.


Christmas in Carlinville (Illinois)

January 6th, 2017 Sears Homes 2 comments

In an effort to be “anywhere but here,” I traveled to Illinois for the holidays and spent them in Carlinville, Illinois, home of a large collection of Sears Homes, built by Standard Oil.

It was a treat to find the Town Square all lit up for the holidays.

Carlinvilles Town Square at Christmas

Carlinville's Town Square at Christmas

My Sweet Teddy

December 16th, 2016 Sears Homes 9 comments

Dear little Teddy got into something that caused her to vomit within 1-2 hours, and then she recovered. This happened several times over a span of several months, and yet after each “event,” she seemed okay a few hours later. I’m now wondering if she ingested something toxic.

I’d also be grateful to know what might cause such a reaction in a Sheltie. Could it be mushrooms? Antifreeze? What would cause such an event?

She’s been to the vet several times since then and is in excellent health now. Any ideas what could make a 45-pound Sheltie so sick so fast?



Her good health is my best Christmas present.

Her good health is my best Christmas present.


Teddy as a little puppy.

Teddy as a little puppy (early 2009).


To read about Sears Homes, click here.



November 26th, 2016 Sears Homes 7 comments

Through what has been the worst year of my life - I still struggle to find my way out of the pit. Whilst reading books (and talking with others) on healing the broken heart, I learned that finding reasons for gratitude helps re-wire the brain and pulls us out of the mire of deep despair.

This Thanksgiving, I’m grateful for the many kind comments left here at this website.

During my darkest hours (and there have been many), I lie down in a quiet place and verbally recite the names of those who are praying for me. I also just go into empty churches and sit in the darkened sanctuary and ask God to show me the way back to some semblance of normality and/or peace.

It’s become clear to me that prayers are the highest expression of love that we humans can share with one another.

The last couple of weeks, I was in Carlinville, Alton and Champaign, spending time with friends and family, and my friend Linda shared this image with me which touched me to tears. She asked, “What is your first impression?”

I replied, “Look at how much effort the man from Samaria is exerting to save the stranger.”

Linda said, “That was my first impression, too. Saving someone who’s been given up for dead is hard work.”

My soul feels dead in so many ways, but as my daughter says, “Focus on the love in your life. If you focus on anything else, you’re not going to survive this.”

To every one who has said they’re praying for me, please know that it’s your love that is my focus through these holy days.

“Nothing tends more to cement the hearts of Christians than praying together. Never do they love one another so well as when they witness the outpouring of each other’s hearts in prayer.” - Charles Finney


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.


Almost Six Months Out…

October 13th, 2016 Sears Homes 17 comments

Feels like the second wave of grief has hit. Plus, I busted my leg during a bad fall so I’m not able to move around much.

And were it not for my friend and angel “Milton,” I’d have lost my mind. Milton has stayed right with me for six months, even using four weeks of paid leave from his work during the darkest hours. He also orchestrated the move out of my home in Norfolk into a rental home. He has literally exhausted himself trying to save me, keep the bills paid, find a rental, and relocate to another city. When I start sinking into the mire of self-pity, I make a list of the things for which I’m grateful and I literally - speak out loud - the names of those who are praying for me. Those prayers have also kept me on this earth.

If you were one of the people praying for me, I am profoundly grateful.

My eldest daughter Crystal calls me every night to check on me. That is another lifeline that keeps me moving forward, one step at a time. And there’s Barbara, who gave me this advice: “Be gentle with yourself. You need sleep and rest. Live 15 minutes at a time. This may take a year or it might take two, but stop pushing it.”

And my Facebook friend “Bev” who contacted me and said, “What can I do to help?” And then showed up to help with The Big Move into the rental. And held me when I wept.

And there’s Tracie - who from the very beginning - spoke words so profound (and on point) that I pulled out my laptop and transcribed the conversation so that I could read it again and again. And Cathy (Wayne’s sister), who has sent me daily texts reminding me that she loves me, and that I would always be part of her family. And Anne and Mike, who took me into their home for three weeks - the three worst weeks - and kept me going.

I’ve found that there are two kinds of people in this world: Those who have known and/or really understand tragedy and those who don’t. It really is that simple.

I’ve also learned that many of your “good friends” disappear while others - often people that were on the periphery of your life -use all of their best energies to pull you out of the icy seas and into the life boat, and put their best efforts into saving you, just because that’s how they’re wired. They open their homes and hearts to a a veritable stranger because, they’re that type of person that knows about tragedy.

And I have learned that way too many people are too comfortable to allow your discomfort into their circle, so they make up stories as an excuse to keep you out of their life. It’s as though they genuinely believe that you’re contagious.

I’m sorry to say that I’ve seen the very worst of Christianity during this crisis, and yet I’ve also seen the very best. There truly are angels walking among us who can still see a shimmer of God shining in your soul when all you can see is darkness. I’ve spent many hours just sitting quietly in churches seeking respite and peace. And kudos to the Catholics for keeping their churches open throughout the day. A priest in Alton, Illinois spent two hours talking to me - a stranger - and explaining that God was still with me. His words brought much comfort.

And there’s Donna in Illinois who has offered to let me stay with her as long as I need to, so that my shattered heart and soul can heal.

I haven’t abandoned this website but I’m not sure what to do with it.

And thanks again to all those who have sent me their prayers and their love.


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Finding the New Normal

September 3rd, 2016 Sears Homes 12 comments

Finding the strength to face each day is a daunting and almost impossible task. I don’t know how people do it. I always was a “woman of faith” but now I can’t seem to find my way.

I’d be grateful for any and all spiritual support and loving prayers.

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Emails and Such

June 27th, 2016 Sears Homes 9 comments

My husband died a terrible and tragic death 10 weeks ago today.

Well-intentioned people keep sending me emails asking for more information on Sears kit homes.

It’s certainly okay to leave a comment at this site, as a friend is now managing it, but please don’t contact me personally about Sears Homes for now.

Most of my Sears House materials will soon be donated to the ODU Library.

If you’d like to learn more about Sears Homes, please read through the 958 blogs at this site, or join our group on Facebook.

If you’d like to read more about how much I loved this man, just search “Wayne Ringer” at this site.



June 7th, 2016 Sears Homes 16 comments

My husband - the man that was supposed to be the happy ending to my life story - died suddenly and unexpectedly on April 18, 2016. He was only 63.

I’d be grateful for any and all prayers as I adjust to a “new normal.”

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