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Posts Tagged ‘penniman’

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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house

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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Penniman: My Path to Healing

March 28th, 2017 Sears Homes No comments

Several weeks ago, I had dinner with Robert, a friend and fellow history lover. I told him that I was a lost soul. He asked me about the Penniman book. I told him that I didn’t think I could face the manuscript again and that my writing days were over.

He asked specific questions about the people of Penniman, and I felt like something deep inside my soul came to life again. I felt a spark of joy and zeal and hope.

After our dinner, it became so clear to me: It was time to finish the project.

One year ago - April 24th - I was scheduled to give a talk on Penniman in Williamsburg. It turned out to be the day of my husband’s funeral. At the time, the Penniman manuscript - a book on which I’d labored for 4+ years - was 95% complete.

Now, one year later, thanks to Robert and Pat and Milton and others, that manuscript is finished, and after some finishing touches to the artwork, it will be ready for the printer. Hopefully.

The casual outsider may not understand that this is more than just a book.  It’s a project that helps me stop thinking about the ongoing emotional angst that is my constant companion. It’s a project that helps me forget - for a few seconds at a time - that my husband died by his own hand, 48 hours after telling me that we’d grow old together.

In short, it’s a rope that’s been tossed down into this hellish pit, and it’s a way out.

It’s so much more than a book.

I’m grateful for each and every prayer offered in my name. And I’m grateful for the people that have shown up and said just the right thing at just the right time. They’re angels walking this earth in human form.

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.

To learn more about Penniman, click here.

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house

Members of the Whisnant family pose on the streets of Penniman. The houses shown in the background were moved to Norfolk, Williamsburg and other surrounding communities. From left to right is the Cumberland, Georgia, Florence, Haskell and a piece of another Georgia. These models were built at other DuPont plants during The Great War.

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ether

According to reminiscenses, the streets of Penniman were a mess of mud and muck. This wonderful picture gives a detailed view of The Village (as it was known), where the workers took their rest after a hard day on the shell-loading line. The women workers are known as Canary Girls, because the TNT (loaded into shells) was bright yellow, and stained their skin and hair. It was also a toxin.

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what

These houses were known as "Six-Room Bungalows" and were covered with Ruberoid siding, which is nothing more than heavy tarpaper. These bunkhouses and dorms (not shown here) housed the "lower class" workers.

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Thanks again to the Whisnant Family for sharing these wonderful pictures.

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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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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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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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The Great Atlantic Fleet - Parked at Penniman

March 8th, 2016 Sears Homes 3 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.

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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.

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

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

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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."

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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.

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Vladmir

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

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ff

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.

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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.

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To learn more about Penniman, click here.

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

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Oh Dear Ethel, What Were You Thinking…

February 15th, 2016 Sears Homes No comments

According to newspaper accounts, Ethel didn’t die easy. For 10 days in November 1918, she lingered in a Richmond hospital before succumbing to her injuries, caused by two bullet wounds through her left lung.

In the last days of her life, between labored breaths and unimaginable pain, Ethel dictated her will to her mother and bequeathed “many pieces of diamond jewelry” to her mother, Carrie Grace Schneittacher. Carrie had come down from Girard, Pennsylvania so that Ethel Mae wouldn’t die alone.

Ten days earlier, Ethel Mae Brown had stepped off a train in downtown Richmond to meet her lover, Ralph E. Walker. It was a Wednesday night, about 7:00 o’clock, on a typical November night with temps in the mid-40s. Ethel and Ralph had met at Penniman, a World War One munitions plant on the York River. Ralph did the same work at Penniman as he’d done back home in Chattanooga: He managed the livestock at the plant. Ethel was a foreman, probably in the shell-loading area.

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

Eyewitnesses later told police that there was an argument between the two as they stood on the sidewalk at 14th and Main Street. Ralph (55) pulled a pistol from his pocket and shot Ethel Mae (38) twice in the left chest at close range. She fell to the ground immediately. He then pointed the pistol at his own chest, and fired two shots before collapsing on the sidewalk.

Splayed on the sidewalk, bleeding out from two wounds, Ralph managed to prop himself up on one elbow, point the pistol at Ethel and fire two more bullets at her, with one bullet grazing her head.

Ralph then collapsed.

Richmond Patrolman Walter M. Angel had just passed the couple moments earlier. Upon hearing the gun shots, he rushed back to the corner, and saw the horrid scene. Using a citizen’s vehicle, Ethel was rushed to Virginia Hospital, about one 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. While the entire world celebrated, Ralph fretted. Soon, he’d be separated from his sweetheart.

It’s my opinion that Ralph had decided sometime earlier that he’d either sweep Ethel away to a new life, or take both of their lives. Either way, Ralph had no intention of returning home. Shortly before meeting Ethel at the train, Ralph had checked into Rueger’s Hotel signing the register as “F. H. Armstrong of Birmingham, Alabama.”

Back in Chattanooga, Ralph had a wife and six children, one of whom (Ralph, Jr., age 28) had become an invalid after a terrible street-car accident. Ralph, Sr. came from a prominent Chattanooga family, and was the youngest son of Judge Dawson Walker, and the brother of Judge Seth Walker.  Ralph’s work had always centered around buying, selling and managing livestock.

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Despite Ethel’s suffering, she consistently refused to provide details of the tragedy to the police or medical staff.  When admitted to the hospital, she used the name, “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.”

Ethel would only tell the police that Ralph “had been despondent for some time,” and that he had a terrible temper. Ethel told the police that Ralph had shot her “in a fit of anger…following a quarrel.”

In the wee hours of November 22, 1918, Ethel breathed her last, “with the secrets of this [story] still locked in her heart” (Richmond Times-Dispatch, November 23, 1918). Her body was prepared by Henry W. Woody Funeral Home of Richmond and shipped to Girard later that day.

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Until a couple days ago, that’s a summary of everything we knew about Ralph and Ethel. Thanks to Genealogist Extraordinaire Milton Crum and Ohio Historian Ashley Armstrong-Zwart, we now know quite a bit more about Ethel.

Ethel and her mother misrepresented Ethel’s age on several legal documents, but we now have a confirmed birth date of October 23, 1880. Her father was Wilford Joseph Schneittacher and her mother was Carrie Grace Young Schneittacher. Carrie was born in 1865, and she was only 15 when Ethel was born.

On June 3, 1905, Ethel married Dr. Sydney R. Titsworth in Manhattan. The two had met at J. Hood Wright Hospital (also in Manhattan). Sydney didn’t tell his poor blind mama about his marriage for more than a year. When he went home to Plainfield, New Jersey, he sprung the news on everyone. The story of the young doctor who returned home with “a diploma and a bride” was a headline in the New York Times (June 14, 1906).

As the inimitable Milton Crum said yesterday, “There’s a reason you don’t tell your own mother about marrying a certain ‘type’ of girl, and it’s not a good reason.”

The newspapers said that Ethel made a statement to the police, informing them that her husband was “a prominent physician in Pennsylvania.” Milton and I thought Ethel was talking about Sydney R. Titsworth. We were wrong.

And we also assumed that Ethel had created the pseudonym of “Mrs. Brown” in order to hide her true identify. We were wrong about that too.

Our big break came when Milton discovered that Ethel was enumerated twice in the 1910 census. She was enumerated in early April, living with her physician husband in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and then ten days later she was enumerated again, this time as a boarder in Manhattan, and working as a manicurist.

In other words, there was trouble in paradise. Sometime between those two enumerations, Ethel grabbed her diamond jewelry and left Dr. Sydney R. Titsworth, landing in Manhattan at a rooming house. In 1911, the good doctor sued his soon-to-be-ex for divorce. Seems that Ethel was a friend of the drink, and to hear Sydney tell the story, she was a mean drunk.

By 1912, Ethel was back in Pennsylvania, working in Erie as a corset dealer at 924 State Street. In December 1915, Ethel married Frank Arthur Brown, and lied about her age on the marriage certificate. Most likely, Ethel headed off to Penniman in the Summer of 1918, about 2-1/2 years after marrying Frank. The 1910 census shows that Frank was a laborer, and his 1917 draft card showed he was a laborer at American Fork and Hoe Company.

On May 26, 1918, Frank became something else: Part of Pershing’s American Expeditionary Force. Private Frank Brown survived one of the worst battles of World War One: The Meuse-Argonne Offensive. It raged from September 26, 1918 until the end of the war, November 11, 1918. More than 26,000 Americans died and 95,000 were wounded. Frank survived with no permanent physical injuries.

While Frank was serving his country and trying to stay alive in the mud-filled trenches on the Western Front, Ethel was serving in the second-line trenches at Penniman, and in her spare time, she was playing “who’s got a secret” with the guy in the stable.

Ralph Walker, the man with a wife and six children in Chattanooga, told several people that he had a “sweetheart” at the plant. He also told the lady who ran his rooming house that she shouldn’t be surprised if she came into the room one morning and found that he had killed himself.

When Ethel got off that train in Richmond on Wednesday night, she was probably returning to Penniman to pack up her things and go home. The previous few days, she’d been on a short vacation in Girard, visiting the folks back home. The war was over. Perhaps Ethel decided that it was time to end the affair and go back home to Pennsylvania and get on with her life. Frank would be coming home soon, and she could forget all this ever happened.

Instead, standing on a sidewalk in Richmond, still wearing an expensive diamond brooch and “handsome diamond ring,” she was mortally wounded when an angry lover pressed a gun to her chest and pulled the trigger - twice.

In death, Ethel didn’t fare much better. The story of her very bad ending was kept out of the papers in and around Girard. Her hometown paper, The Cosmopolite Herald, which detailed every citizen’s runny nose, sprained ankle and wandering chicken, had almost nothing to say about Ethel’s death. In a newspaper where even an infant’s death merits a front-page 200-word obituary, how did Ethel get overlooked? It must have been intentional and/or a gentleman’s agreement with Mr. and Mrs. Schneittacher.

Ethel Mae Schneittacher Titsworth Brown was buried in Girard Cemetery with the simplest of markers. The only child of Carrie Grace and Wilford Joseph Schneittacher rests alone in the cold ground. Cemetery records show that three plots were purchased for the three Schneittachers, but only Ethel’s plot was used. The remnant of the Schneittacher family lies in Gustavus Cemetery, more than 50 miles south of Ethel’s grave site.

Some may ask, is this really a story about Penniman? Yes, I’d say it is. It provides a thumbnail sketch about what happens in war time when people are put under difficult circumstances and endure grievous dangers and hardship. In short, it’s a story about the people of Penniman, and that’s what makes history so enchanting.

Thanks to Milton Crum, Ashley Armstrong-Zwart and Anne Hallerman for their help and brilliant research work!

To read an earlier article about Ralph and Ethel, click here.

Learn more about Penniman here.

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Pasted

Ralph (from Chattanooga) and Ethel (from Erie) met one another at Penniman, Virginia, a World War One munitions plant and village, built by DuPont. 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.

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Penniman

Ralph and Ethel were only two of the 6,000 workers employed at Penniman. After the war, Penniman was disassembled and in 1942, the land was purchased for use by the Navy (Cheatham Annex).

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Ethel Nove 16

Ethel's story appeared in "The Chattanooga News" on November 16, 1918.

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Titsworth

In early 1911, Dr. Titsworth sought a divorce from Ethel.

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1911

And the divorce was granted a short time later.

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In 1912

The 1912 directory shows that Ethel is a "corset dealer" in Erie.

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Even after the divorce

Even after the divorce, Ethel kept the name.

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Married

On December 15, 1915, Ethel married Frank Arthur Brown.

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S

Ethel's father died on March 30, 1923 from cirrhosis of the liver. Did he become an alcoholic after his little girl's death or was that a contributing factor to Ethel's many problems?

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In a town where every sniffle makes the news, its hard to believe that this was the only mention of Ethels death.

In a town where every sniffle makes the news, it's hard to believe that this was the only mention of Ethel's death.

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Ethel

Ethel Mae Schneittacher Brown rests alone in the Girard Cemetery, with her grave marked with the simplest of headstones, offering only the barest facts as to her life and death.

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To read an earlier article about Ralph and Ethel, click here.

Learn more about Penniman here.

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