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Posted April 2, 2013 | comments Leave a comment

Passing historical muster

Fisher's Hill property added to registers for historic places

By Josette Keelor

William and Martha Erbach never intended to live in their house at 2900 Battlefield Road in Fishers Hill. They purchased the property in 1974 as a way of building equity while moving from place to place, wherever Erbach was stationed as a chaplain with the United States Army.

Nearly 40 years later, they're living in what both describe as the place of dreams. It's a home they also share with neighbors, travelers and now the rest of the country, since the house recently became a stop along the National Register of Historic Places.

With Tumbling Run winding its way through the Erbachs' 105 acres, it's easy to see why the couple chose to settle in Fisher's Hill, even though it would take 15 years for the couple to call it home.

When they purchased the property -- which included the house, a mill, and three other buildings -- the Erbachs used it only as "a vacation place or escape place," Erbach said. It wasn't what most would expect.

"At first it was literally camping," Erbach said. They used an outhouse and washed in the creek. They set up a Coleman grill on a wooden shelf in what is now the living room. Both parents slept in that room, and their three children upstairs on old iron beds.

It felt like a luxury when they started running an extension cord from the neighboring house, where a renter lived keeping an eye on the property for the Erbachs most of the year, even several years at a time.

"In truth it was an investment," Erbach said. They planned to sell it when he retired from the Army and use the money to buy a house somewhere else.

Between 1974 and 1989, they lived in New Jersey, then Germany for three years, Georgia for three and Germany for another four before finally landing at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Md.

Erbach said that's when the couple took a "serious look at restoring the house so we could live in it when we retired."

It was their middle child who influenced their final decision. The family was living in Germany the second time when Jim, then 17, was part of a school championship game in Brussels. Because he and his siblings traveled so much growing up, his parents assumed he had little opportunity to identify any one place as home. But at the championship game, Erbach said, his school announced him as Jim Erbach, from Fisher's Hill, Va.

In the summer of '89 after Erbach retired, the couple moved into the house by then more suitable as a permanent home, they said.

"This is her house," Erbach said. "The mill is mine."

Separated from the house by a curving driveway, the circa-1772 mill has been modernized with stairs leading up to three floors above the main floor, which now includes a garage. It houses Erbach's "man cave" -- a library with wall-to-wall shelves of everything from novels to Boy Scouts of America handbooks -- but it also offers apartment space for traveling students or missionaries and a place for family reunions or other events. The Erbachs provide the location free of charge on a first-come, first-serve basis, with the condition that those who use the space leave it the way they found it. So far it's worked.

The couple restored the mill intending to add it to the Virginia and national registers, but it was the house that most interested historians. The mill wasn't restored to its original use like the house was, said Erbach.

"They would not accept the mill without the house because to them the mill has not been restored," he said.

Built in 1847 by Abraham Stoner, whose family lived in a house across the street for two generations before him, the house later was purchased by John Keller in the 1890s, Erbach said. In the 1920s, he split the mill, the property and a feed store on the property among his three sons. The family kept the mill until the '50s when they stopped milling. The feed store closed in the late '60s.

The Erbachs purchased the house and mill on 42 acres for $82,000.

It was a big amount at the time, Mrs. Erbach said. "I thought it was the national debt."

They paid $500 a month through a 15-year balloon payment, her husband said.

"She had to go back to work to pay the $500 a month," he said. As a former head nurse of troops at a clinic at Kelley Barracks in Germany, Mrs. Erbach took a job teaching in the nursing department at Dowell J. Howard in Winchester, later completing the last 15 years of her career on the faculty in the nursing department at Shenandoah University.

They added onto the house in 1994 and 2005, with a kitchen and L-shaped living space offering a panoramic view of Tumbling Run off the back of the house. Upstairs two rooms were added attached to the main stairs by a short run. The couple also had the old root cellar of the main house finished off.

Erbach said his wife "made a very strict rule that we were going to restore the old house, not renovate."

In December 2012, the couple learned their house was added to the Virginia register. A letter they received dated Jan. 4 from the Department of Historic Resources also stated the property was recommended for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.

They're still waiting on the official letter, Mrs. Erbach said, but "We have gotten permission to get plaques saying it's on the national register."

Though the Erbachs said most remaining mills in the country don't have other buildings with it, the Keller Mill is typical of the Shenandoah Valley during the 19th century.

"This was a unique example of how people lived," said Mrs. Erbach. "And to them that was very unusual."

Contact Community Engagement Editor Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137, ext. 176, or jkeelor@nvdaily.com


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