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Posts Tagged ‘penniman’

Where’s Rosie?

April 8th, 2016 Sears Homes 9 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 1 comment

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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Was This School for African-Americans Ever Built in Pottstown?

February 10th, 2016 Sears Homes 2 comments

Update! Mystery solved! Click here to read the latest.

“Mr. W. L. Jones, chairman of the Williamsburg school board, said that he…purchased the bricks…[from the demolished Penniman smokestack] to build a public school building [in Pottstown] for the colored children” (Newport News Daily Press, December 22, 1922).

On December 19, 1922, the 250-foot tall smokestack at the Penniman powerhouse was taken down with 35 sticks of dynamite. According to the Daily Press, the powerhouse at the DuPont munitions plant cost more than $3 million to build. The smokestack sat on a solid concrete base that was 30 feet square, and 20 feet in diameter at its base. A DuPont employee told the Daily Press that the smokestack had more than 150,000 bricks.

As historian R. Wythe Davis quipped, “Penniman was not erased, it was dispersed” - right down to the bricks in the smokestack.

Before the smokestack was blown, W. L. Jones had agreed to purchase all the bricks within the stack. Pretty bold, considering that he really didn’t know how this would end.

Now I’m wondering, was this school ever built? Despite some searching, I can’t even find a Pottstown (outside of Pennsylvania) and it seems unlikely that a school board official from Williamsburg would buy 150,000 slightly used bricks to ship to Pennsylvania.

The day that the smokestack was blown to smithereens, the Daily Press reported that the bricks were bought by “Mr. Jones for the city school board to be used in the erection of a colored school building in Pottstown” (December 20, 1922).

I’m wondering, was Pottstown a community near Williamsburg? If so, it wasn’t mentioned in period newspapers (that I can find). Where was Pottstown? Surely these bricks weren’t shipped to Pennsylvania.  And was this school ever built? If it was built within Williamsburg, did it survive the restoration in the early 1930s?

Another mystery.

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Penniman about 1918.

A panoramic view of Penniman - in 1918. The York River is in the background, and that's Kings Creek to the hard right. Photo is courtesy Hagley Museum and Library.

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These photos

These old black and white photos show phenomenal detail. This is the base of the smokestack, which measured 20 feet in diameter. The concrete base was 30 feet square. Photo is courtesy Hagley Museum and Library.

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I cant even imagine how long it would take to load 150,000 used bricks into a 1920s truck.

I can't even imagine how long it would take to load 150,000 used bricks into a 1920s truck.

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Two days later, this article appeared, providing addition detail.

This appeared on December 22, 1922 in the Newport News "Daily Press."

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To read more about Penniman’s dispersal, click here.

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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, Newspapers.com 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.

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Pasted

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.

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Penniman

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).

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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.

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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.

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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."

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News

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

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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.

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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?

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Ra

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

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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.

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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.

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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).

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Webster Groves, Missouri: Part III

August 2nd, 2015 Sears Homes 1 comment

Webster Groves has a multitude of interesting old kit homes, and one of my favorite finds is this 1910s Dutch Colonial, offered by Lewis Homes.

Lewis was one of six national companies selling kit homes through mail-order catalogs in the early 20th Century. Sears was probably the best known of the kit home companies and Aladdin was probably the largest, but Lewis Manufacturing (based in Bay City, Michigan) was a serious contender.

It’s been many years since I drove the streets of Webster Groves, looking for kit homes, and I’m not surprised that I missed a few back in the day, such as this Lewis Homes Dutch Colonial (”The Winthrop”).

Last week, I was back in the St. Louis area, visiting family members and decided to revisit Webster Groves. I didn’t have time to do a thorough survey, but in the four hours I spent there, I found an abundance of kit homes.

To read my prior blogs about Webster Groves, click here and here.

Interested in learning more about marked lumber on kit homes? Click here.

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Webster Groves

What's not to love? It possesses "unusual charm and dignity"! (1924 catalog)

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The Wintrho

That inset front porch is a defining feature of the Lewis Winthrop.

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I sure do love a nice Dutch Colonial, and this one has a front porch!

I sure do love a nice Dutch Colonial, and this one has a front porch!

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Oh my, what a fine-looking home!

Oh my, what a fine-looking home!

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And it looks good from every angle!

And it looks good from every angle!

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Home

In this image, you can see those distinctive attic windows.

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house

Who wouldn't love coming home to this every evening? As philosopher Samuel Johnson wrote, "To be happy at home is the ultimate result of all ambition, the end to which every enterprise and labour tends."

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But heres where it gets frustrating.

But here's where it gets frustrating.

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As soon as I spotted this house, it tickled the neurons.

Here's a Lewis Winthrop I found in Toana, Virginia. Like the house shown above, it has no fireplace on the side, but rather three windows. Is this a pattern book version of the Lewis Winthrop? For now, I'm going to make an educated guess that these two homes are the Lewis Winthrop, because I haven't seen a pattern book match. But who knows! Time will tell!

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To read more about the Lewis Winthrop in Toana, Virginia, click here.

To read my prior blogs about Webster Groves, click here and here.

Interested in learning more about marked lumber on kit homes? Click here.

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Penelope Johnson Allen: Tell Me About Penniman

March 30th, 2015 Sears Homes No comments

This morning, there was a lovely surprise in my email from Lori Jackson Black, who’s not only a professional historical researcher, but also someone who’s interested in Penniman!

She found an obituary for Penelope Johnson Allen, a Tennessee native, historian and author, who worked at Penniman. The “important part” of the obituary says simply,

During WW1, Mrs. Allen worked in the DuPont shell loading plant in Penniman, Virginia, where she was an assistant to the supervisor in the large caliber area.

This was an exciting discovery. When Mrs. Allen left Penniman, she returned to her home in Chattanooga and took a job with the Chattanooga News, working as an editor and reporter through the years. Surely, someone like Mrs. Allen - a writer by trade - took the time to pen a personal reminiscence of her life, including the important work performed at Penniman.

However, I’m learning that so many of these stalwart souls didn’t talk about Penniman after leaving there.

For instance, there’s Dr. John Henderson, who was the chief physician at the Penniman Hospital, and was present during the Spanish Flu outbreak in October 1918. Late in life, he had two children, both of whom are alive and well today (and in their 90s).  Dr. Henderson’s children and grandchildren tell me that, for the rest of his long life, they never heard Dr. Henderson talk about Penniman.

And then there’s Sadie Bowers, a native of Newberry, South Carolina that traveled to Penniman in Spring 1918 and took a job inserting boosters into large caliber shells. Despite the fact that she was the daughter of a college professor, an educator and a writer, she never wrote a word about Penniman. Family remembers don’t recall that she ever spoke of her time at DuPont’s 37th munitions plant.

And now we have Penelope, who was a devout historian, researcher and writer, authoring several books on genealogy. I can only hope and pray that Mrs. Allen shared something about Penniman during her long life.

If any readers here have any insights, please leave a comment below!

Read Mrs. Allen’s full obituary here.

Penelope

Here's a picture of Penelope Johnson Allen, sometime in the late 1910s/early 1920s. Photo is from Gary C. Jenkins, "Johnson House of St. Elmo, The Study of a House, a Family, a Suburb" (Chattanooga, Jenkins, 2009).

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Penniman

Dr. John M. Henderson is at the pictured at the far right, together with the other 23 staff members at Penniman Hospital. Finding this photo was quite the coup, because for several years, I didn't know any of the names of the medical staff at Penniman Hospital. Reading an unpublished reminiscence, I found a passing mention to Dr. John Henderson, medical doctor at Penniman. After contacting the descendants of Dr. Henderson, I was delighted to find that they were willing to not only talk with me, but also share this glorious photo. Photo appears courtesy of the family of Dr. John M. Henderson and may not be used or reproduced without written permission.

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At its peak, 15,000 people lived and worked within the village of Penniman (six miles northeast of Williamsburg).

At its peak, 15,000 people lived and worked within the village of Penniman (six miles northeast of Williamsburg).

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Penniman

The women worked have worked in buildings similar to these, with what we call "Get the heck out doors." Those chutes provided a quick means of egress for the munition worker. In Alice Hamilton's autobiography ("The Dangerous Trades"), she tells about taking a tour of a New Jersey munitions plant. Her guide pointed at these doors and told Dr. Hamilton that if she ever had occasion to use those doors, she was to "hit the ground running and keep running and do NOT look back!" Photo is courtesy Hagley Museum and Library.

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Interested in reading more about Penniman? Click here!

To learn more about Lori Jackson Black’s services, click here.

To read more about Sadie Bowers, click here.

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Burnt Ordinary Kit Homes: Lewis Winthrop

March 23rd, 2015 Sears Homes 3 comments

Believe it or not, that title is not “word salad” or aphasia: It will make sense in a minute.

On Sunday (March 22), my husband and I visited Williamsburg and (per my request) we drove to Toano (a few miles west of Williamsburg) so that I could look for houses from Penniman. I didn’t see any Penniman houses, but this little pretty caught my eye. I wasn’t sure where I’d seen it, but my first impression was “Lewis Manufacturing.”

This morning, I looked it up and sure enough, it’s a Lewis Winthrop.  (Lewis was a kit-home company based in Bay City, Michigan which [like Sears and Aladdin] sold kit homes through a mail-order catalog.)

As to the title, Toano (in James City County, another interesting term) was founded in the late 1800s, and this little fork in the road was originally known as “Burnt Ordinary.” (Yeah, it puzzled me, too.) Like so many of our modern terms “ordinary” meant something a little different 200 years ago.

An ordinary was a place where food and drink was served. In the 1700s, there was an “ordinary” at that site known as John Lewis’ Ordinary, and it was subsequently named Fox’s Ordinary, which burned down in 1780. In 1781, George Washington’s cartographer marked the area as “Burnt Brick Ordinary.”

In later years, it was designated “Toano” which is an Indian word for “high ground.”

Whilst driving through the tiny town of Toano, I spotted this house and took a picture with my TV-phone (as my husband calls it).

Best of all, it was my first sighting of a Lewis Winthrop, and it’s in beautiful shape!

To read about another Lewis Home, click here.

What’s a Penniman? Click here!

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As soon as I spotted this house, it tickled the neurons.

As soon as I spotted this house, it tickled the neurons. I knew I'd seen it somewhere.

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This morning, I pulled out my catalogs and found it!

This morning, I pulled out my catalogs and found it! (1924 Lewis Homes).

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That indented porch was a feature that caught my eye.

That indented porch was a feature that caught my eye.

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On the upstairs, the bathroom window is gone, which is not uncommon. These houses were built with tubs, and when its time to put in a shower, the bathroom window often disappears. This has has vinyl siding, so its easy to cover up such changes.

On the upstairs, the bathroom window is gone, which is not uncommon. These houses were built with tubs, and when it was time to put in a shower, the bathroom window often disappeared. This home had vinyl siding installed, so its easy to cover up such changes. Notice also the tiny closet window is gone. Removing this window creates a little bit more space in an already tiny closet. The "sewing room" (on the right rear) has no window on the side, which is also a good match to the house in Toano.

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Close-up on the sewing room side.

Close-up on the "sewing room" side.

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Toana

Unfortunately, that room addition on the side looks a lot like a mobile home.

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That darn tree made photographing the old house extra tough.

That darn tree made photographing the old house extra tough.

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Pretty house!

Pretty house! And I'm pleased that I "guessed" the right angle for my shot!

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This One’s Asking For Advice on Old Cook Stoves…

March 13th, 2015 Sears Homes 1 comment

A delightful anecdote from 1921 tells us that, when the Penniman houses were shipped to Norfolk, some of the workers went into one of the houses - as it made the slow 36-mile trek across the water - and made a full breakfast, using the oil cook stove in the kitchen.

That’s the kind of story that really makes history come alive.

The article, which appeared in the Peninsula Enterprise says,

Several workmen crossed the bay on the first barge that brought the houses. They had an oil stove in one of the houses. They got hungry and cooked some bacon and eggs and heated some coffee. They enjoyed a meal cooked in one of the houses while it was being towed to Norfolk (December 24, 1921).

More than being an interesting tidbit, it also illuminates this detail: Every kitchen in every Penniman house, built by a three-party contract between DuPont, Hancock-Pettyjohn and the US Government, came with an oil-fired cook stove.

Including an appliance in each house would have substantially increased the per-unit cost. Which is probably one reason why they did this. The houses were built on a popular-WW1 program known as “The Cost Plus Plan.”

When America entered WW1, we were in such a mad rush to get these munition plants up and running that there wasn’t time to seek bids and wait for bids and open bids and investigate potential contractors, so DuPont was charged with finding a trust-worthy contractor and the government agreed to pay all expenses of construction plus 8-1/2%. The downside of the Cost-Plus Plan is that the more money the house cost, the more money the contractor pocketed. Put another way, it took away incentives for the contractor to be efficient.

But I think there was more to this than just padding the price of a house.

This was a munitions plant where there were lots of opportunities for lots of things to go boom.

And when this contract for 200 houses was signed on December 31, 1917, the realities of the danger of TNT would be very fresh in everyone’s mind.

Three weeks earlier, December 6, 1917, the SS Mont Blanc, a French freighter, had just left Halifax heading for Bordeaux, France, where it would deliver 5,000,000 pounds of war-time explosives. It was about 8:45 am when the Mont Blanc collided with a Norwegian ship, the Imo. Despite the slow speed (about 2 knots), there was a resulting fire on the Mont Blanc. Sailors tried desperately to extinguish the growing fire, but eventually abandoned ship. About 20 minutes later, the drifting vessel returned to the wharf, and moments later, there was an explosion on the Mont Blanc.

According to the book, Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes and Why, the resulting blast shattered windows 60 miles away, and more than 1,000 people lost their sight due to flying glass. A tsunami eliminated a nearby community.

All in all, more than 1,900 people died. During WW2, scientists working on the Manhattan Project studied Halifax because the magnitude of the explosion emulated an atomic bomb in so many ways.

Not that anyone at DuPont would have needed any such reminders. The engineers and architects employed by the company would have been well aware of the grave risks of a single errant spark.

Which also explains why each house had steam radiant heat, supplied by a central heating system. No risk of sparks from an independent residential coal-fired heating system.

Which also explains why each house did not have a coal-fired or wood-burning cook stove: The risk of embers and fire would have been too great.

Which leads me to my question: It appears that - maybe - these late 1910s oil (kerosene) cook stoves didn’t require a chimney or any venting. As my friend Milton said, they appear to be similar to kerosene space heaters (which were hugely popular in the 1980s). There’s a reservoir of kerosene, fed by gravity to a burner with a large wick. The unit produces small amounts of carbon monoxide, but not enough to cause CO poisoning.

If that’s true, why did every house in Penniman have a brick chimney?

Heat was supplied by a central heating plant. And I suspect (although I’m not sure) that the oil-fired cook stoves didn’t require venting.

Was it more evidence of the inefficiencies of the “Cost-Plus Plan”? Every house gets a chimney, whether or not it needs it? Or did the oil cook-stove need venting?

Thanks for any insights.

To read more about Penniman, click here.

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Perfection cook stoves were a big deal in the 1910s and 20s.

Perfection cook stoves were a big deal in the 1910s and 20s.

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These blue cylinders were called Chimneys but they were

These blue cylinders were called "Chimneys" but they were the burner mechanism for the stove.

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H

Lighting these puppies didn't look simple.

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fef

That does look pretty hot.

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This looks like a lot of work. Why not electricity? Two reasons, electric stoves required tremendous amperage and re-wiring a house to receive an electric stove wouldnt have been easy. Electric stoves didnt really catch on until the late 1920s.

This looks like a lot of work. Why not electricity? Two reasons, electric stoves required tremendous amperage and re-wiring a house to receive an electric stove wouldn't have been easy. Electric stoves didn't get a foothold in the household appliance market until the 1930s.

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ffffe

The last line is the best. Wow.

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Bacon. Its whats for breakfast. In a barge house.

Bacon. It's what's for breakfast. In a barge house. Virginia Pilot, December 1921.

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A Penniman house in Norfolk, about 1960.

A Penniman house in Norfolk, about 1960. All of these homes had chimneys, accessible from an interior kitchen wall. The question is - why?

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Read more about Penniman here.

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