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Guest column: Lemuel lives on in house he built

Roger Barbee

By Roger Barbee - redhill@shentel.net

We are relative newcomers to this house built in 1890 when The Pike was a dust track on the land. The Civil War was a recent memory, and Lemuel was engaged, so he built his intended a fine house on a small rise looking south toward Mt. Jackson. The remodeled house we live in is much different from the two-bedroom farm house Lemuel built for his bride-to-be, but what he built stands solid and is a reminder of his craftsmanship.

The doors he hung still hang true, the pine floors still shine, the large pantry doors still open and close with ease, his corn crib serves many functions today, and the front sidewalk that led to the dirt track of a road has no cracks like the new asphalt road. Yet, his house was empty because his intended ran off with another man and left him to live and farm alone.

Elderly twin sisters, whose father often brought them on his visits to Lemuel, stopped at our home one summer evening and asked if they could see "Uncle Lemuel's house." They told us of a man full of sorrow over his being jilted, but also a kind, hard-working, guarded man who lived his life with the memory of what might have been.

They asked if the bear trap was still in the singular closet that held his few clothes and valuables. We never found the bear trap, an early form of home protection, but when a worker was drilling a hole in the closet for a wire, he hit a dead spot in the wall. It was a small drawer made to look like the rest of the bare lattice. On the side of it were pencil notations recording cash amounts that Lemuel had put in it, below the thin board used to protect the paper. In 1929, he noted, "100 stole." I guess that person knew of the bear trap. Before they left, they told of the last time they saw him in 1958 as he lay in a nursing home, dying. He motioned them to come nearer, and as they did he showed them a locket around his neck that held a young girl's picture. Undoubtedly, it was she, the one who left him for another man.

So, living in Lemuel's house, we find his mark in many places. In the corn crib we found a green shutter that now hangs in the screen porch as a decoration, but also as a reminder of this house's history.

Once, as we were digging a hole to plant a tree behind the corn crib, we found the remains of a massive corner post that he had set to hold a line of fence. We tend and trim the English boxwoods that he planted along the then small, dirt road. Each time I mow the back field, I search for the depression that marks his spring house. As my wife Mary Ann walks in what is now her potting shed, she walks on the gravel that Lemuel placed in his meat house. She uses his meat hooks to dry flowers on.

We have a wall mounted with "artifacts" that we have found - hand-forged hinges and door closers he made. We have a photograph of Lemuel and another man loading a hay wagon next to the Pike. A girl and her other young friends sat atop the piled hay, and Lemuel, with his long, powerful arms, stands next to the wagon, hay fork in hand along side another man. That photograph hangs in what was Lemuel's sitting room, but is now our libray. Yet, our image of Lemuel remained one of a life full of work and sorrow - a life unfulfilled. However, that changed when Gordon, a neighbor, gave us a stool.

After Lemuel had made the stool, he gave it to Gordon's wife's family.

When I lifted the stool, turning it around, its maker came alive through his creation. Made of oak and pine, the stool was solid in weight, but light in form because of its proportions. The four, w-turned legs mirrored each other as did their stretchers. No saw marks marred the wood, and the thick, circular top was expertly cut. His hand-bored holes held their pieces perfectly without glue, and the legs aligned with a stabilizing harmony that any musician would envy. Full of heft and grace, the stool, like the house, had function and form. We were excited to have some item made by Lemuel, something that we saw as a sort of homecoming, an item he had made to place again in his house. But one thing was amiss - someone had painted the stool a dull brown, and I began to slowly remove the offending color. As often happens, one coat of paint led to another, but after two other coats, I found the original paint. And it was with this discovery that our image of Lemuel changed.

The legs of the stool were green, his favorite color, and the seat and stretchers were red. He had taken the time to paint his stool in festive colors. He had bothered, had taken the time to "dress up" his stool. The colors mattered as much as the cutting, sanding and joining. Because of this he came alive as he had not been seen before. Yes, he lived a lonely life farming and raising hogs, but it was a life that produced functional items that today give us joy for their usefulness and beauty. Through this stool, we see Lemuel in another light.

Roger Barbee is a retired educator who lives in Edinburg with his wife Mary Ann, four dogs, and five cats. You may contact him at: redhill@shentel.net


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