Posts Tagged ‘penniman virginia’

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!

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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.



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.



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



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



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.



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.


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.



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.



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.


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.



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



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



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.



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


Cumberland 1918

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



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


Mr. Hastings who brought this house

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


DO they know

And it all started here - in Penniman.


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


The Great Atlantic Fleet - Parked at Penniman

March 8th, 2016 Sears Homes 2 comments

While reading the Newport News Daily Press, I stumbled upon a little item in the 1923 paper that connected a lot of dots. In the article (from the Associated Press), Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels explained that during The Great War, the Navy had stationed “more than a dozen battleships” at the mouth of the York River, near the Chesapeake Bay. He described the location as “an ancient naval base” adding that under “voluntary censorship” this information was never published.

“We were anchored right where Admiral Rochambeau’s French fleet took its stand and cut off relief by sea for General Cornwallis,” Daniels told the Associated Press (February 11, 1923).

For the geographically challenged among us, that’s mighty close to Penniman. If you were standing on the beach at Penniman near King’s Creek (the southern boundary of Penniman), that very spot - where Rochambeau parked his fleet - would be about four  miles southeast.

Secretary Daniels described the unnumbered group of ships as “the world’s greatest deposit of battleships,” and “the home port of that part of the Atlantic Fleet” (during the war). The article also explained that metal submarine nets had been stretched across the mouth of the York River. (A few days later, another article appeared, explaining that local fishermen were begging the Navy to start removing the “huge steel nets.”)

“Penniman is on the south side of the York River, and near its mouth,” wrote George Harris, an Army private stationed at Penniman. Written October 28, 1918, the letter was published in Harris’ hometown paper (Spirit Lake Beacon, Iowa) a few days after the war ended.

“We can stand out on the beach and see the Chesapeake Bay,” Harris noted. “Several battleships are stationed in the mouth of the river and the bay. One day, I counted 14 of those ships and four more in the distance” (November 17, 1918).

Those battleships anchored at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay must have been a remarkable thing to see, because several letters written about life at Penniman mention that view.

Not surprisingly, the sailors on board those ships took their liberties at Penniman.

In June 1918, a YWCA* worker filed a report on conditions of the munitions plant at Penniman. She wrote, “There’s a [soda] fountain that dispenses drinks at all hours to a motley crowd, resembling nothing so much as a Douglas Fairbanks wild west movie. This affair is even more thrilling to the girls by the arrival every evening of the crew of a minesweeper or battleship from the fleet at Yorktown, four miles below.”

Two months later, a “confidential report” was given by M. S. Shephard on “the moral situation” at Penniman. The head man at the plant, Mr. Benesh, appealed to the YWCA for help, and it was suggested that a police woman work undercover, and that a “especially good morality worker” provide regular lectures at the plant.

“The situation at Penniman is not a simple one,” the letter continued, “for the girls and women are of all types” (August 7, 1918).

The war ended three months later, and hopefully most of those “girls and women of all types” went home with their virtue unblemished.

Why did the Navy decide to park their battleships at the mouth of the York River? Mark Hardin, a phenomenal researcher and hard-core history lover, recently discovered an old map showing the placement of four three-inch anti-aircraft guns positioned in and around Hopewell (site of a WW1-era DuPont guncotton plant). Did Penniman have anti-aircraft guns as well? It was one of two of America’s largest shell-loading plants, and was vital to the war effort.

I suspect that the Great Atlantic Fleet provided all the protection that Penniman needed.

Thanks to Mike Neal for sharing images from this wonderful book (shown below).

*Penniman-YWCA letters are courtesy of the Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College.


Superdreadnought (Battleship)

When Private George Harris stood on Penniman's beach and looked out toward the Chesapeake Bay, did he see this? This is Superdreadnought (Battleship) Arizona, commissioned October 1916. According to Harris, he saw at least 14 battleships in the York River in Fall of 1918.


Heres a picture of the Great Atlantic Fleet underway (1917).

Here's a picture of the Great Atlantic Fleet underway (1917).


Sailors on board an unnamed battleship, with 14-inch shells which were just supplied by a lighter.

Sailors on board an unnamed battleship, with 14-inch shells which were just delivered by a "lighter."


These guys look like they could show a young girl a thing or two. I hope that especially good morality speaker went to Penniman with due haste.

I hope that the "especially good morality speaker" went to Penniman with due haste.



That guy on the right looks a lot like Vladmir Putin.



The caption of this photo states that fencing helped develop confidence, courage and control. That boat shown in the upper right was probably also used to get the young sailors over to Penniman.


These images appeared in this rare book, published in late 1917. Thanks to Mike Neal for allowing me to use images from this delightful old tome.

These pictures shown above are from this rare book, published in late 1917. Thanks to Mike Neal for allowing me to use images from this delightful old tome.


To learn more about Penniman, click here.

Want to learn how to identify kit homes? Here’s the place.


Pottstown and Penniman and A Mystery School - SOLVED!

March 6th, 2016 Sears Homes 2 comments

We found Pottstown, and it isn’t the one in Pennsylvania.

About a month ago, I wrote a blog about a mystery school house mentioned in the Newport News Daily Press. The story, from December 1922 said that the school would soon be built for African-American children in Pottstown, using salvaged brick from the Penniman smokestack. Problem was, no one seemed to know anything about a community called “Pottstown” near Williamsburg.

Then not one, but two of my favorite researchers found a bibliographic reference in a book, mentioning Pottstown and citing a plat book at the James City County Courthouse.

I toddled down to the courthouse one day (about a 50-mile drive from my home) and went into the clerk’s office and asked to see page 31 of “Plat Book Number Three.” The mystery was quickly solved. In the early 1900s, Pottstown was an African-American community in the heart of Williamsburg, and the school in question was the James City County Training School, built (finished) in 1924, and sitting at the corner of Nicholson and Botetourt Streets.

The article in the Newport News Daily Press (December 20, 1922) said that Williamsburg School Board Chairman W. L. Jones had purchased the smokestack while it was still vertical, in hopes of using the slightly-used bricks to build a public school for black children in James City County. After discovering the location of the school in question, I was still left wondering, “Did he use those bricks from Penniman?”

After a lot of digging around, I don’t have a definitive answer, but I do have a strong suspicion. Based on the voluminous materials I’ve studied in the last three weeks, I’ve come to the conclusion that W. L. Jones probably did use those bricks from the Penniman smokestack for the James City County Training School.

In short - financial reasons.

The first bids received for the James City County Training School, came in at about $30,000. The school board’s budget for building the solid-brick, six-room schoolhouse (with a center auditorium) was $13,000. Even in 1924 dollars, that was a trifling amount for a schoolhouse (about $180,000 in today’s money). There was much weeping and gnashing of teeth as school board members struggled to figure out how to reduce costs. One of the suggestions was to lop two classrooms off the plans.

Ultimately, two African-American contractors (Sylvester L. Vaughan and J. Andrew Jones) stepped forward and managed to shave the bid down to $16,650. The plumbing, heating, electricity and insurance were not factored into these early bids, raising the final price to $20,280. Local black patrons raised an additional $3,700 and the Rosenwald Fund contributed $1,500. A Williamsburg contractor, R. W. Holmes, offered to supply the plumbing and heating system (and all materials) and wait one year before billing the school board.

In 1924, salvaged bricks cost about $15 per thousand (clean) or $10 per thousand (not clean). In other words, if  you’re willing to sit down and chisel mortar off a whole lot of bricks, you’ll save about 33% on your costs. Some ciphering shows that the school would have required about 44,000 bricks. And some extra-fancy ciphering shows that the 250-foot tall tapered Penniman smokestack contained more than 150,000 bricks (and probably closer to 300,000).

In December 1922, W. L. Jones told the newspaper he was buying those bricks to use in a school building for Pottstown. Given the enormous budget constraints, it seems likely that he did just that. Other sources revealed the following:

1) In July 1922, Reverend Thomas Potts had sold two lots to the school board for $1,300. When Jones bought those bricks, a lot had already been purchased for the new school (School Board Minutes, July 1922).

2) Years earlier, Jones had given the black community a personal promise that he would build them a new brick school house. The promise was re-stated in a letter to the editor that appeared in the Daily Press in May 1923.

And there’s this: In the early 1900s, Americans were very thrifty and smart when it came to recycling quality building materials, and the bricks used in a DuPont smokestack would have been of the very highest quality. As of 1902, W. L. Jones had owned a brickyard in Williamsburg and he probably knew quite a bit about bricks. Buying salvaged bricks was such a common practice in the early 1920s that their prices were advertised in building journals and magazines. And salvaged bricks were considered a fine alternative to the higher cost of new bricks, as long as they were being used in a one-story structure. More on that below.

Bids for the new school were solicited in May 1923, and the contract with Jones and Vaughan was closed in July 1923. On Monday, September 15, 1924, the James City County Training School welcomed almost 200 new students on its first day.

Unfortunately, the James City County Training School fell into terrible disrepair in the early 1930s. The biggest problem facing the school was moisture intrusion on the interior plaster walls and non-stop leaks throughout the predominantly flat roof. Was this a failure of building materials or workmanship? Given the age of the structure, I’d have to lean toward workmanship, but it’s impossible to know for sure.

Perhaps one of the main problems was that, according to the July 1935 minutes of the school board, they’d hired “Mr. Leakey” to fix the problems in the roof. That doesn’t seem like a good choice.

By February 1935, Rockefeller’s restoration of Colonial Williamsburg had caught up to Nicholson Street and the school board decided to stop repairing the dilapidated building. The school board officially decided that ugly was good. “Money spent [on repairs] should be spent on the inside and not on the outside, in the hope that the Restoration might buy the property if its appearance were too unsightly” (February 1935).

Estimates to repair the building ranged from $8,000 to $10,000, and in early 1936, the 12-year-old school was condemned. The restoration committee stepped up to the plate and paid $10,000 for the old school building and donated a new lot for the new school (Bruton Heights). The new school would be built at a cost of $245,000 (and completed in 1940).

For a time, Penniman’s bricks lived on, a little bit more.

The school board minutes from June 1940 showed that gravel was being tracked into the shiny new Bruton Heights School. It was suggested that school board member, Mr. Byrd, contact the “Restoration People” and ask if the brick from the old building could be used for walkways around the new building. In August 1940, it was reported that the “bricks from the old building have been hauled over to the school grounds.” Children from the NYA (National Youth Administration) were sought to help remove all that mortar and lay the pavers in place. Additionally, bricks from the old school were used for the underpass walkway (a pedestrian tunnel under the train tracks, by the new school).

Last week, as I strolled the grounds of the old Bruton Heights school, I saw only concrete walkways at every point and turn. The underpass, classic 1930s Art Deco construction, is also 100% paved in concrete. Do our Penniman bricks rest quietly under all that concrete?

I can only hope.

Thanks so much to Mark Hardin, Milton Crum, Bill Inge, Pat Spriggs, Dale Wolicki and Anne Hallerman for providing research help.

And thanks to The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation for providing the vintage images of the James City County Training School.

To read the prior blog on this school, click here.

And I’m eager to know - did the desks come from Sears and Roebuck?  :)


This plat from James City County Courthouse

This plat from James City County Courthouse shows that "Pottstown" was a small community within Williamsburg, and James City County Training School was located at the corner of Nicholson and Botetourt Streets. Outlined in red (for emphasis) is the school in question. Harmon Athletic Field is in the upper right-hand corner of this plat.


And right on the face of this plat is our answer: Pottstown.

And right on the face of this plat is our answer: Pottstown.


Bill Inge

Norfolk historian Bill Inge found this 1933 Sanborn Map, which says that the JCCTS was built with hollow tile and brick. These were very common building materials in the early 1920s. Plaster could be applied to the interior face of the hollow tile, creating a fire-proof wall, and this was of utmost importance in early 20th Century America. In more expensive applications, the interior face of the hollow tile was glazed, creating a finished appearance that required no plaster.


James City County Training School - on the hoof.

James City County Training School - on the hoof. This 250-foot-tall smokestack dominates most views of Penniman. According to the Daily Press, it took 35 sticks of dynamite to topple this behemoth.


My smart friends and I are flummoxed by this view.

My smart friends and I are flummoxed by this view of the smokestack. Is that brick on the exterior? It looks very squarish. Is the brick turned "end out"? Based on contemporary building standards, we know that the smokestack walls were more than four feet thick on the first 20' section near the base, a little less than four feet thick at the second 20' section, and so on. That means that there's a whole lot of brick within this "tall chimney" (as they were then known). Photo is courtesy Hagley Museum and Library.


Heres what started the ball rolling. This article states that school superintendant W. L. Jones bought the bricks to use in the schoolhouse in Pottstown.

Here's what started the ball rolling. This article states that School Board Chairman W. L. Jones bought the bricks to use in the schoolhouse in Pottstown (Daily Press, December 20, 1922).



And it was reaffirmed two days later (December 22, 1922).



In May 1923, Jones wrote this letter to the editor of the Daily Press, re-stating his promise to build a brick school house for the African-American children of Williamsburg.



And he made good on that promise. The James City County Training School is shown here, in all of its solid-brick glory. Judging from the muddy mess, it seems likely that this picture was taken soon after the school was built (1924). Photo is courtesy The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.


Another view

Another view of the James City County Training School. The auditorium was in the center of the building, with clerestory windows (barely visible in this photo). These windows provided an abundance of natural lighting. Photo is courtesy of The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.



Bricks and mortar bind mechanically. That bond is compromised on salvaged brick. New mortar and old bricks don't have the same strong "bond" as new brick, because the old brick's pores can be clogged from prior use. For this reason, only one-story applications would have been recommended - even in the 1920s. Today, used brick is considered suitable only for pavers and short non-structural brick walls. The image above is from the 1927 Homebuilder's Catalog.


Bricks for sale. Cheap.

This one is a puzzler. W. L. Jones apparently had quite a few bricks on his hands. This advertisement appeared in May 1923 (Daily Press). And why are the bricks pricier at Penniman? That's another mystery.


Seems like he was anz

And he was offering extra-cheap bricks to people who bought his lots in College Heights. This appeared throughout March 1923 in the Daily Press.


By February 1935, the school had fallen into disrepari.

By February 1935, school board minutes reflect that the JCCTS had fallen into disrepair, and the school board hoped that the "Restoration" might buy the property. Ultimately, they were successful, and the school and lot were purchased by Rockefeller for $10,000.



School board minutes from August 1940 show that the bricks from the JCCTS had been carted off to the new school, to serve as pavers. Are those our Penniman bricks? I think it's likely. NYA (National Youth Association) was a "New Deal" program.


Today, every place where our Penniman bricks should appear is covered in concrete.

Today, every place where our Penniman bricks should appear is covered in concrete, such as this pedestrian tunnel under the train tracks (near Bruton Heights school) and the walkways around Bruton Heights.


J. Andrew Jones was a professional carpenter and brick layer, and he did a beautiful job on the brick work. What a pity that it was razed a mere 16 years later.

J. Andrew Jones was a professional carpenter and brick layer, and he did a beautiful job on the brick work. What a pity that it was razed a mere 16 years later. Photo is courtesy The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.


Sears Schoolhouse specialty catalog

Did you see that part about The Rosenwald Foundation providing $1,500 in funding for the JCCTS? How fun is that? Wraps it all up in a neat and tidy bow, doesn't it? I spent more than three weeks of my life chasing down every detail on this story and it all comes back in full circle - Sears was involved! In 1908, Richard Warren Sears retired from the company he'd spent 22 years building, and Julius Rosenwald became president of the mail-order business, and also became a very wealthy man and a philanthropist. Catalog shown above is from 1926.


Thanks so much to Mark Hardin, Milton Crum, Bill Inge, Pat Spriggs, Dale Wolicki and Anne Hallerman for providing research help.

And thanks to The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation for providing the vintage images of the James City County Training School.

To read the prior blog on this school, click here.

Did you know Sears sold school desks too?


A Penniman Murder Mystery: Ethel and Ralph

February 7th, 2016 Sears Homes 1 comment

Ralph and Ethel were married, but not to each other.

About 7:00 o’clock, standing on a sidewalk at a busy intersection in downtown Richmond, Ralph and Ethel got into an argument. Ethel had just stepped off the train, and the two started quarreling. Ralph pulled a pistol out of his pocket and shot 39-year-old Ethel twice in the chest. She collapsed immediately. Ralph (55) then turned the pistol on himself, and managed to shoot himself twice in the chest before he fell. Splayed on the sidewalk, bleeding out from the two wounds, Ralph summoned the strength to prop  himself up on an elbow and fire the last two bullets at Ethel, with one bullet striking her in the head.

Ralph then fell back on the sidewalk, where a sailor kicked the empty pistol out of his hands.

Richmond Patrolman Walter M. Angel had just passed the couple at 14th and Main moments earlier. Upon hearing the gun shots, he rushed back to the corner, and commandeered a citizen’s vehicle. Ethel was rushed to Virginia Hospital, a modern three-story hospital about a mile away. Another patrolman rushed Ralph to the hospital, where he died less than 30 minutes later.

It was November 13, 1918. The Great War had ended two days earlier. The entire world rejoiced when Germany surrendered and hostilities ceased, except for Ralph E. Walker, as it meant that he’d soon be separated from Ethel.

The two had met each other at DuPont’s munition plant at Penniman, Virginia, about seven miles from Williamsburg. Many of Penniman’s residents regularly took the C&O train to Williamsburg when they wanted to get out of the village. Ralph and Ethel probably hoped that Richmond would be a safer bet, where it wasn’t as likely that they’d be recognized. According to newspaper articles, the story of their involvement was already well known throughout the munition plant.

In Chattanooga, Ralph’s hometown, this story of the “suicide-slayer” was headline news for several days. The Chattanooga News immediately sent a reporter to Richmond to interview Mrs. D. S. McDonald of Williamsburg, where Ralph had been a boarder. According to Mrs. McDonald, Ralph had told several people that he had “a sweetheart at the DuPont plant.” Ralph also told Mrs. McDonald that she shouldn’t be surprised if she came into his room one morning and found that he’d committed suicide.

Ethel lingered for 10 days. As soon as Ethel’s mother received the news, she rushed to Ethel’s bedside from her home in North Girard, Pennsylvania. Ethel, who was lucid part of the time, refused to make any statement about the events, admitting only that they’d been quarreling, and that Ralph had a terrible temper. Despite intense questioning from both the medical staff and law enforcement officers, both Ethel and her mother managed to keep Ethel’s true identity secret. The story made the headlines up and down the Eastern Seaboard, but - from what I can glean - nothing appeared in the newspapers around Ethel’s hometown of Girard.

At Penniman, Ethel was in a supervisory position (probably on the shell-loading line) and Ralph managed the livestock at the stables,  at the edge of the Penniman camp. Back in Chattanooga, Ralph had a wife and six children. They lived at 801 Union Avenue. His eldest child, Ralph E. Walker, Junior (30) had been in a tragic streetcar accident years earlier and was now an invalid who suffered from frequent convulsions. Ralph, Sr. came from a prominent Chattanooga family, with two judges in his immediate family (a brother and a cousin).

Before meeting Ethel at the train, Ralph had checked into Rueger’s Hotel under the pseudonym of F. H. Armstrong of Birmingham, Alabama. Letters from his wife and youngest child (Mark) were found in his suitcase.

Despite the agony that Ethel must have been experiencing, she wouldn’t give anyone her real name, identifying herself only as “Mrs. N. E. Brown.” Eventually, she told the staff that her name was Ethel Mae Brown. The newspaper articles explained that she wished to keep her identity a secret, because her husband was “a prominent physician in Pennsylvania.”

By all accounts, Ethel’s sufferings were great. With Mother at her bedside, Ethel dictated a will, bequeathing her “jewelry, diamonds and other effects” to her. On November 22, 1918, Ethel succumbed to her injuries, “with the secrets of this [story] still locked in her heart” (Richmond Times-Dispatch, November 23, 1918).

And for 98 years, that’s about all we knew about the murder/suicide in downtown Richmond.

Soon after I discovered this story, I asked Milton Crum, my BFF and genealogy genius if he could “spare a few minutes” to track down this mysterious Mrs. Brown. Frankly, I thought it was hopeless. But he found her, and that’s when we learned the rest of the story.

Ethel’s husband back in Girard was not a prominent physician, but a 41-year-old army doctor who enlisted in March 1918, and was serving somewhere in France. His name was Dr. Sydney R. Titsworth, and he met Ethel in the early 1900s, when she was a nursing student at J. Hood Wright Hospital in New York. Secretly married in 1905 after a very brief courtship, they had no children.

Milton first found Ethel when he discovered her death certificate. Her mother (the informant) gave false information on this document as well, stating that her daughter’s last name was “Brown,” and giving her age as 28.  A 1900 Census gives a birth date of 1879 for Ethel, which corresponds to newspaper reports, putting her age at “about 35″ in 1918.

Ethel’s mother, Carrie Grace Schneittacher, made the necessary arrangements to have her only child, Ethel Mae, buried in Girard Cemetery. Ethel’s tombstone bespeaks the deep shame her own family felt toward her. Stripped of her married name, deprived of the traditional familial connections and dates, it says only, “Ethel, dau of J.W. and C.G. Schneittacher.”

Less than 14 months after Mrs. Ralph Walker (Mary) buried her husband in disgrace, her eldest son (Ralph, Jr.) died during a convulsive fit. He was 31 years old. Mary died in 1938 at the age of 70. Her occupation was listed as “domestic.” It must not have been an easy life for either family. Four years after Ethel’s tragic death, her father (Wilford Joseph Schneittacher) died from cirrhosis of the liver.

So what is the mystery? There are many.

Did the Pennsylvania papers carry anything on this story? I’ve searched several archived newspaper sites (LOC’s Chronicling America, and Find My Past) and can not find a single mention of this story. What happened to Ethel’s mother, Carrie Grace Schneittacher? She just disappeared after the death of her husband.

And what about Ethel? Did anyone in Girard ever know what happened to her? Was there an obituary for Ethel? The family had been in Girard since the 1900 Census. Surely, someone would have missed this woman.

Lastly, is Ethel buried in the family plot, or in some corner, forgotten by her family - even in death? If Girard wasn’t so far from Norfolk, I’d drive up there, just to see for myself.

There are many interesting stories we’ll find when we go digging around in history, but this story of Ethel is one that I’ve found especially sad and haunting.

Thanks so much to Milton Crum and Anne Hallerman for assisting with the voluminous research.

The above is a preview from Rose’s forthcoming book, Penniman, Virginia’s Own Ghost City. You can read more about Penniman here.



Ralph and Ethel met at Penniman, Virginia, a World War One munitions plant and village, built by DuPont. It was located about seven miles from Williamsburg. At its peak, more than 15,000 people inhabited the 6,000-acre site on the York River. Penniman was established in Spring 1916, and by 1921, it was a ghost town.



About 6,000 men and women worked at Penniman, loading shells for The Great War. After the war, Penniman was disassembled and in 1942, the land was purchased for use by the Navy (Cheatham Annex).


Thanks to Hagley Museum and Library, we have many wonderful images from Penniman, but no names.

Thanks to Hagley Museum and Library, we have many wonderful images from Penniman, but no names. This shows the freight depot, where the 155mm and 75mm shells were shipped out to Newport News, for transport to France.


Ralph had a background in buying, selling and managing livestock. At Penniman, he got a job managing the livestock.

Originally from Chattanooga, Ralph had a background in buying, selling and managing livestock, and that became his job at Penniman. In the upper left hand corner, you can see the stables for the donkeys, horses and other animals. The small square buildings at the top are chicken coops. Located on the edge of the property, this is probably where Ralph spent much of his day.


This is the lone photo of Mrs. Ethel Brown. It was published only in the Chattanooga News, and the accompanying article described her as a good-looking woman.

This is the lone photo of "Mrs. Ethel Brown." It was published only in "The Chattanooga News" with the accompanying headline, "Same Old Story of Human Emotions Repeated in Virginia City."



This article appeared in the "Richmond Times Dispatch" on 11.14.18


Ethels mother, the informant misrepresented the true facts about Ethels name, age

It was my history loving buddy and genealogical wizard Milton Crum who figured out Ethel's real last name, and I'm still not sure how he did it, but I think it was the discovery of this death certificate that started it all. Ethel's mother, the "informant" misrepresented the true facts about Ethel's name and age.


It was my history loving buddy and genealogical wizard Milton Crum who

This 1900 census shows Ethel is still living with her father "William" and mother "Gracie" Schneittacher in Girard, Pennsylvania. In 1918, when Ethel "disappeared" did anyone in Girard ask about her?



Ralph Walker's body was shipped back to Chattanooga where a "family only" service was held.


Ethels husband

Ethel's husband was discharged nine months after Ethel's death, in August 1919. He spent the next several years traveling the oceans, working as a ship's physician. He remarried in 1925.


Most heart-breaking of all is this tombstone at the Girard Cemetery.

Most heart-breaking of all is this tombstone at the Girard Cemetery in Erie County, Pennsylvania. Stripped of her legal, married name, Ethel's marker is nondescript. It's my impression that - even in death - Joseph Wilford and Carrie Grace wanted to put a little distance between themselves and their only child.


An interesting update - just as I was finishing up this blog, I found this article in a Pennsylvania paper, The Kane Republican.

An interesting update - just as I was finishing up this blog, I found this article in a Pennsylvania paper, "The Kane Republican" (November 15, 1918).


What Exactly Did You Have in Mind, Mr. Dozier?

April 24th, 2014 Sears Homes 4 comments

It was Mr. J. M. Dozier of Lee Hall, VA that purchased Penniman after World War I ended.

Thursday, after spending many hours at the York County Courthouse, I learned that Mr. Dozier bought Penniman from DuPont in April 1926, after the U. S. Army left.

J. M. Dozier and his wife Annie paid $84,375 for the whole kit and caboodle, which included 2,600 acres, and all tenements, hereditaments and appurtenances.

DuPont even financed the sale for Mr. Dozier with no money down.

The first payment of $28,125 was due in April 1927, the second payment due one year after that, and the third (and final payment) due in April 1929.

It was a pretty sweet deal.

According to an article that appeared in the January 1926 Virginia Gazette, Mr. Dozier had big plans for Penniman.

“The development of [Penniman] will entail the expenditure of a considerable sum,” said the article in the Virginia Gazette (January 15, 1926).

And yet, it never happened.

In 1926, $84,375 was a tremendous sum of money. Surely Mr. Dozier had plans to develop this 2,600-acre tract on the York River. Did something go wrong?

Did they discover that the land was uninhabitable for some reason? Or did they find a few too many buried live shells, left over from the U. S. Army?

What happened?

After 1926, Penniman disappeared from the pages of the daily papers until 1938, when Dick Velz with the Richmond Times Dispatch did a retrospective piece on this “Ghost City,” which had been left largely undisturbed since the U. S. Army cleared out in the early 1920s.

Penniman is a fascinating piece of Virginia’s history but there are days (like today) when the mysteries pile up so high and so deep that I fear I may never figure out enough of its story to write a worthy tome.

To read more about Penniman, click here.

If you have a theory as to what happened to Mr. Dozier’s big plans, please leave a comment.


January 16, 1926

Sounds like these two "outstanding Peninsula business men" had big plans for Penniman. ("Virginia Gazette," January 16, 1926).



What happened after Mr. Dozier paid $84,375 for 2,600 acres of choice real estate on the York River? Did something go terribly wrong? Did they learn that the land was unsuitable for residential development? (This appeared in June 1938 in the "Richmond Times Dispatch.")



Amongst the piles of papers I have collected on Penniman is this treasure asking Dr. Goodwin if he's interested in buying Penniman on the York River. And look at the date. It was after Mr. Dozier had paid off his note to DuPont.



Penniman was situated between Kings Creek and Queens Creek, on the York River, and during WW1, it was home to about 15,000 people. It was probably one of York County's finest pieces of land. This map shows the village of Penniman as it looked in Spring 1918. Map is courtesy Hagley Museum and Library.


To read more about Penniman, click here.

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Girl Scouts Hunt German Spies

April 18th, 2014 Sears Homes 1 comment

In the Summer of 1918, the Great War was very much on everyone’s mind.

In reading through Ladies’ Home Journal and McCalls‘ magazines, I’ve found a plethora of articles about women’s’ war work, and what ladies could do - at home - to help defeat Kaiser Wilhelm.

But one of the most memorable articles I found was in the July 1918 McCalls’ Magazine. A short story featured a division of 35 Florida Girl Scouts, who walked a ten-mile patrol each night along the St. John’s River - with rifles slung over their shoulders - on the hunt for German spies.

“They have been trained in marksmanship,” the article said, adding, “They are afraid of nothing and ready for anything.”

Last year, I read a book called, Unintended Consequences.

It was a fascinating, well-written book and rich with history, but its most memorable point was that a mere 100 years ago, Americans were comfortable with firearms, and in the early 1900s, most Americans grew up on farms, and we knew how to  handle shotguns and rifles. (Contrast that with today’s nuttiness, where a student was suspended last week when he brought a bright yellow water gun to school.)

Can you imagine what would happen today if we armed 13 to 16-year-old girls with rifles, and asked them to patrol a stretch of coastline, prepared to shoot enemy combatants?

Oh MY!

To read more about why I’m reading 100-year-old women’s magazines, click here.

To learn about kit homes, click here.

Girlie Scouts

"The few, the proud, the girlie scouts!"


To read more about why I’m reading 100-year-old women’s magazines, click here.

To learn about kit homes, click here.

Want to purchase “Unintended Consequences”? Click here.

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Little Piece of DuPont History For Sale

April 10th, 2014 Sears Homes 6 comments

And it’s right on the Delaware River.

The 97-year-old beauty is located in Carney’s Point, New Jersey, home to one of DuPont’s many WW1 munitions plants. This most certainly would have been a house for the upper management at the Carney’s Point facility. It’s a huge house (three full stories and a basement), and it sits on a beautiful lot, facing out to the Delaware River.

We’re coming around to thinking that these houses were probably designed by Aladdin (a kit house company based in Bay City, Michigan), and they were probably built with materials supplied by Aladdin.

For now, that’s mostly speculation, but based on what we’ve learned heretofore, it seems very plausible.

The listing says that this house was built in 1917. That’s believable. We entered “The Great War” in April 1917, and that’s when we went crazy building munitions plants throughout the country. Interestingly, Great Britain credited DuPont and their munitions production with being largely responsible for their victory in The Great War.

To see the more modest housing provided to munitions workers, click here.

To learn more about how we got started on this topic, click here.

Pieceo of history

It's a beautiful house and appears to be in good condition. It was probably designed by Aladdin and built with materials supplied by Aladdin. Probably. We don't know for sure - yet. Photo is courtesy Patricia Siedle Shorter.



This house was also built at Old Hickory, TN (another DuPont munitions plant). This page came from a 1920 catalog featuring the houses of Old Hickory.



The floor plan is rather simple. That pantry is a real mystery.



The "half story" is the third floor, and it appears to be quite spacious.



The Bay Tree, up close and person. That gate on the side porch is a curiosity.



And here's our Bay Tree, 97 years old. Photo is courtesy Patricia Siedle Shorter.


And its also a pretty house

Do the owners know of its unique history? Photo is courtesy Patricia Siedle Shorter.


And its also a beautiful house.

I'm a sucker for sunporches. Very nice! Photo is courtesy Patricia Siedle Shorter.


house house house

This ad appeared in the September 1918 DuPont magazine. We know that DuPont had a long-term working relationship with Aladdin, and turned to Aladdin to supply worker housing at several plants, including Hopewell, Virginia, and Carney's Point, NJ. We're trying to figure out if DuPont turned to Aladdin to supply houses in Penniman, Virginia.


To learn about how we got started on this DuPont project, you have to read about Penniman, Virginia’s own “Ghost City.”

To see the original real estate listing, click here.

To contact Rose, please leave a comment below.

“Perhaps You’d Like to See Our Tombstone Catalog…”

March 27th, 2014 Sears Homes 4 comments

According to “Sears, Roebuck, USA: The Great American Catalog Store and How It Grew,” a Sears customer wrote the Chicago Mail-order giant and asked if she could return several bottles of patent medicine that she’d purchased the month before.

In her letter, she explained that the medicine had been intended for her husband and after ingesting the first bottle, he’d quickly passed on.

The clerk who received the inquiry responded quickly, with an assurance that certainly, she could return the unopened bottles, and by the way, would she like to see a copy of Sears’ Tombstone Catalog?

Funny story, but the sobering fact is, traditional, elaborate Victorian funerals were expensive. Tradition dictated that certain rituals and procedures be done, and a middle-class family might endure shame and scorn if they couldn’t afford a decent marker for their loved one. And what about the poor? Often, they had to quietly and stoically endure the humiliation of seeing their loved one placed in a pauper’s grave.

(An aside:  There’s a 1920s pauper’s grave in Williamsburg where 35+ bodies (many of whom are children) are buried. The only “markers” at the site were small granite stones - the remnants of tombstones - that were provided by the undertaker. These markers outlined the individual graves. With the passage of time, those graves were forgotten and now  there’s a condo built on top of part of that cemetery.)

After Aunt Addie’s exhumation made the headlines, several people shared “old family legends” about a time when a young child died, and the family - unable to afford a real burial and/or pay burial fees - surreptitiously stole into the city graveyard in the dark of night, and buried their little one in a make-shift coffin.

By contrast, such stories make a pauper’s grave seem like a mercy.

I have no pictures of Sears tombstones, but with all these testimonials, they shouldn’t be too hard to find. Plus, they were made from Vermont Slate, which as a distinctive color and veining.

If you look up Sears Tombstones on the internet, you’ll find there are folks claiming that Sears tombstones were hollow, zinc markers (metal) but this is one of those apocryphal stories. Not sure where it started, but it’s not true.

To learn more about Victorian burial customs, click here.

To read about early 1900s burial rituals, click here.

To learn more about Addie, click here.

Verse 1904 Thomb

The Tombstone Catalog from 1904.


people loved them

Does anyone in Plain City, Ohio want to get me a picture of the Frazell tombstone? I would love to see one of these. And there's the Chitty tombstone in Rapid City, SD. That's also a fairly unusual name.


freight costs might seem

You'd think freight costs would be prohibitive, but Sears had it all worked out.



Inscription cost six cents per letter, unless it's a verse, and then its 2-1/2 cents per letter, unless it's on the upper base and then it's 15 cents per two-inch letter.


here lies mary

Mark Hardin observed that most of these images in the 1904 catalog depict young people. In the late 1800s, one out of five children passed on before they reached adulthood. In early 1900s America, there would have been very few families whose lives hadn't been touched by the death of a child.


Mary again

When I was researching the life and death of my Aunt Addie (died in 1901), I came across one story in the 1893 Lake Mills Leader that I will never forget. It was the height of a diphtheria epidemic, and the diphtheria was present in many counties in Wisconsin. In southern Wisconsin, a family had lost seven of their eight children to that single epidemic. The paper reported that the "eighth child had also contracted the diphtheria" and was not doing well. The article said that the children apparently had "weak blood." Today, we'd call it a genetic predisposition .


another one

The epitaphs mostly depict a young child.


house tombstone

When my beloved mother died suddenly in 2002, she was cremated and her ashes were scattered. In retrospect, I now more fully understand the comfort that a marker such as this can provide to greiving families.



For a poor family desperate to have their loved one remembered, the economical "Sears option" may have been a God-send. It provided an option to an unmarked pauper's grave.



"Verse inscription ideas - at no extra cost to you, our loyal customer."



I sincerely hope that no one chose this verse.



This is not a Sears Tombstone, but I find the last line quite interesting. My daughter Crystal found this in an old graveyard near Hartwell, Georgia. Photo is copyright 2010 Crystal Thornton and may not be used or reproduced without written permission.


To read about Penniman’s poor flu victims that were buried in a forgotten grave, click here.

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William & Mary College and Kit Homes

October 28th, 2013 Sears Homes 12 comments

Recently, I was on the William and Mary College campus doing research on Penniman, Virginia. (You can read more about that here.)

As part of the research, I was reading through the early 1920s college yearbooks and happened upon an interesting photo in the 1922 yearbook, “The Colonial Echo.” It was a picture of the Theta Delta Chi fraternity fellows, seated in front of their fraternity house, an Aladdin Colonial.

How apropos, I thought to myself! What else would you buy for a college campus in a famous colonial town, but THE Colonial?

For first-time visitors to this site, Aladdin was a kit home company that (like Sears), sold entire kit houses through mail order catalogs in the early 20th Century. Each kit came with 10,000-12,000 pieces of house, and included a detailed instruction book, designed for the novice homebuilder.

Update: Andrew Mutch has found the house, but it’s not happy news.

Our Aladdin Colonial, aka “The Clark House” (located on Jamestown Avenue) was demolished in 2004.

A press release put out by the college in 2004 said the house was built in 1911 and had been deemed “physically unsound” ten years prior (1994).

Ding, ding, ding, nice try and thanks for playing.

The Colonial first appeared in the 1915 “Aladdin Houses” catalog for a price of $1,980, but the Colonial on the W&M campus was built in 1920 or 1921 (based on info gleaned from the college yearbooks). This means the 1911 date is quite a boo boo.

As to the “physically unsound” part, I have serious reservations about that, too.

It’s a good thing they got rid of that early 20th Century kit home with all that first-growth southern yellow pine from virgin forests, and those oily old cypress clapboards.


This was an egregious waste of America’s irreplaceable and most-precious resources. Approximately 30% of all waste found in landfills is construction debris. Doesn’t make much sense to fill a campus with recycling receptacles for paper, plastic and aluminum if you’re going to send 350,000 pounds of architectural history to the landfill.

Images of the 1922 William and Mary “Echo” came from  If you have several hours to kill, I highly recommend their site!

And - again - many thanks to Rachel for finding these high-resolution images at!



While looking through the 1922 "Colonial Echo," I found a most interesting picture!



The full page from the 1922 "Echo" shows the Theta Delta Chi gang, seated in front of their freshly built Aladdin Colonial! Wouldn't it be interesting to know if these fellows assembled that Aladdin kit house on their own!


What a beautiful

What a beautiful house! The Colonial was first offered in 1915. The image above is from the 1922 "Colonial Echo," so it's possible that the house was newly built (which may be why it merited its own photograph). I wonder how long it was used as the house for Theta Delta Chi?


The Aladdin Colonial, as seen in the 1919 Aladdin Homes catalog.

The Aladdin Colonial, as seen in the 1919 Aladdin Homes catalog.


Heres an Aladdin Colonial in Roanoke Rapids, NC.

Here's an Aladdin Colonial in Roanoke Rapids, NC.



Rachel Shoemaker, researcher extraordinaire, found this picture (also at of the Theta Delta Chi boys gathered around the front porch of their newly built Aladdin Colonial in 1921 (from "The Colonial Echo" 1921). In prior years, the frat boys were photographed in front of a different (older) house. I would love to know - did these guys BUILD this house? What a pity that W&M saw fit to destroy this house in 2004. An aside, with 15 minutes of searching the yearbooks, Rachel figured out that this house was built in 1920 or 1921.


In addition to the

In addition to the Aladdin Colonial shown above, Williamsburg also has a Sears kit home, "The Oak Park" (shown above). (Vintage image is from the 1928 Sears Modern Homes catalog.)


And just down the street is this Wardway Mayflower. How appropos!

And just down the street is this Wardway "Mayflower." How apropos!


To learn more about kit homes, click here.

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These Are a Few of My Favorite Things…

January 30th, 2013 Sears Homes 1 comment

Since August 2010, I’ve written almost 700 blogs. That’s a lot of blogs. Each blog has three or more photos. That’s thousands of photos.

Some of these blogs took several hours to compose, and then get bumped off the page within a week of their creation.

So I’m posting a few of my favorite blogs below. If you’ve enjoyed this site, please leave a comment below. I’d love to hear from you.

The Sears Corona has always been one of my favorite houses (1921).

The Sears Corona has always been one of my favorite houses (1921).


Sears Corona in Gillespie, Illinois.

A perfect Sears Corona in Gillespie, Illinois.


Last year, I wrote a blog about the San Jose. I’ve never seen one, but this was Rebecca’s find. Awesome house. Click here.

This blog was devoted to Alhambras, and had pictures of my favorite Alhambras of all time.

The Magnolia is my favorite house, and this blog has photos of all six Magnolias that are in existence today.

In this blog (also picture heavy) I provided lots of info on how to identify a Magnolia.

And this features a story from a 92-year-old man that built a Magnolia in the 1920s.

This blog was created from photos sent in by Pat, an Ohio resident. LOTS of Sears Homes in Ohio!

West Virginia is one of my favorite places in all the world, and Lewisburg is loaded with Sears Homes. Click here to see many fun photos.

And if you have about 10 hours to spare, click here to read the story of my Aunt Addie’s apparent murder. Let me warn you, her story is addictive! You can’t read just one link!!

Click here to read about her exhumation, and let me tell, that’s quite a story too!

Really awesome photos of Carlinville, IL (which has 150 Sears Homes) can be seen here.

This is one of the MOST popular blogs at this site. It’s picture-heavy tour of my old house in Colonial Place. We sold it a couple years ago, and yet this blog is a perennial favorite.

Another perennial favorite is the story of how we redid our bathroom in the old house. Came out beautiful, but what a project!

Here’s a detailed blog on one of Sears most popular homes: The Vallonia.

This was another fascinating historical research project: Penniman - Virginia’s Ghost Town. Wow, what a story that turned out to be!

Those are just a few of my favorites.  If you want to read more, look to the right of the page and you’ll see this (shown below). Click on any one of those months to navigate through the older blogs.


Click on this column (to the right) and you'll find the rest of those 680 blogs!


Thanks for reading the blog, and please leave a comment below!

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