APRIL 2008 – NO. 23
Rebel with a Cause
In search of a Georgia family's 150-year-old ancestral home
Mason family lore has it that, when the War Between the States began, the child who would become my great-grandfather stood on the veranda, saluting the gallant boys in gray as they marched past, and hoping that the conflict would last long enough for him to grow up and join their ranks.
Other family members are equally certain that this could not have occurred. My great-grandfather, they insist, was born several years later in a slave cabin, because the majestic plantation house had been burned to the ground by the Yankees during Sherman's March to the Sea. They paint a vivid picture of the young prince being brought into the world, his castle still smoldering in the background.
No one seemed bothered by the indisputable fact that my great-grandfather had been born in 1887, 22 years after General Lee's surrender.
I made this discovery while researching the family tree for a middle school project. Until then, I had tolerated the tedium of my unremarkable suburban St. Louis existence thanks in large part to the absolute knowledge that I was descended from Confederate aristocracy. It was quite a blow to learn that these cherished legends were apparently nothing more than fantasies fueled by repeated viewings of "Gone With the Wind."
Those who subscribed to the first version of the myth claimed that the ancestral home, "Buckeye," still stood somewhere outside Macon. But given my family's penchant for revisionist history, perhaps there had never been any plantation at all. If I could only find it, then maybe I could sort fact from fiction. Somewhere among the juleps and magnolias had to lurk a kernel of truth. Going back to Georgia became my mission.
The pilgrimage didn't happen until I was 20 and took a semester off from college following an ill-fated romantic entanglement. I had fallen in love with my best friend, which would have been glorious if not for the fact that he was married. Overnight, I'd become "the other woman," a role better-suited for a worldly gold-digger who smoked cigarettes and listened to jazz than for a sheltered bookworm who had once sent a check to a tearful televangelist.
In the traumatic aftermath of my affair's inevitable discovery, Ian and I agreed to take time apart in order to clear our heads and figure things out. I knew that I had to put emotional and physical distance between us, at least for a little while. And so it was under the most wrenching of circumstances that I finally had an opportunity to go south and to find Buckeye. Though I hated the cliché, I hoped maybe I could find myself along the way.
I made reservations at a bed-and-breakfast in the Laurens County town of Dublin, where records indicated my great-great-uncle had registered in the Confederate Army. As I drove along Bellevue Avenue, the town's picturesque main drag, my heart skipped a beat at the sight of each Greek revival mansion along the way. The inn where I was to stay was an antebellum charmer called Page House, and I wondered if one of its ornate neighbors could possibly be Buckeye.
Inside, the lovingly-restored grand dame looked like a frilly Victorian Valentine with its rich, red-patterned wallpaper and dainty knick-knacks. Flanking the common-room's fireplace was a fainting couch, on which many a flustered female must have swooned as a result of emotional overexertion.
Not a bad idea, I thought. Enchanted by the ambiance but weary from the twelve-hour drive, I was escorted to my room by the innkeeper's pretty, blonde wife. Ironically, I had reserved the bridal suite, which was resplendent in crystal and lace but not totally lacking in modern amenities. So I plugged in my cell phone and set up my laptop on the carved mahogany desk, connecting to the inn's free wireless internet and checking to see if Ian had emailed me. He hadn't. Discouraged but not surprised, given the trauma of our last parting, I sank into the giant Jacuzzi tub to wash off the road — and hopefully the horrible last couple of days.
The next morning, I awoke as I believed I always should, nestled beneath a fluffy down comforter and gazing up at ruffled canopy. But I was alone and lonely; the bed was too big for just me, and lingering would only make matters worse. Anyway, breakfast was on the table and I had roots to trace.
Downstairs, an enormous, hearty spread of grits, hash browns, waffles, bacon, and sausage awaited me. Greasy meat, of course, was terrible for the heart, but a plateful of pork seemed to be exactly what my heart needed, and so I dug in. Once the guests were all served, Mrs. Page sat down across from me with a cup of coffee. "So, honey, what brings you down here all by yourself?"
Well, Mrs. Page, back in St. Louis, I was having a torrid affair with a middle-aged married man. When his wife found a used condom in his car, she threatened to ruin him and to kill me. So I'm down here, hiding out and shitting bricks. How did you and your husband get into the B&B business?
"Looking for ancestors," I replied cheerily. "Chasing some ghosts."
"Oh, we get a lot of that down here," she said with a smile. "But I must say, most genealogists are a bit older than you. I think it's nice to see young people taking an interest in their family histories."
Mrs. Page recommended that I visit an attorney named Thomas Stuart, who served as president of the local historical society and knew where all the skeletons — both literal and figurative — were buried. She had never heard of a plantation called Buckeye, but assured me that if there had been such a place, Mr. Stuart would have a record of it. Although she advised me to "just drop on by" his downtown office unannounced, she seemed to sense that my Midwestern reserve would not allow such presumption. "I'll call Tom and tell him you're coming over," she said. "He loves this sort of thing. I swear I don't know when he finds the time to practice law."
Mr. Stuart's office was located in a storefront on the town square, which was dominated by a stately red-brick courthouse. In a circular park stood a limestone obelisk honoring locals who had fought and died in assorted wars. I skimmed the list of names carved around the monument's base and found Daniel Hiram Mason, the great-great-uncle who had guided me thus far. He had died at the First Battle of Manassas.
Downtown Dublin must have once been a bustling place, but now many buildings were empty and shuttered. However, the few businesses that remained open — including a Rexall and a Woolworth's, names that had vanished from my retail radar at least fifteen years earlier — seemed vibrant, if a bit shabby. The same could have been said for Mr. Stuart, who appeared awkward and gangly in an oversized tweed blazer. His salt-and-pepper hair was a little too long and mussed for a typical country lawyer and his '60s-style granny glasses appeared to have come from a counterculture consignment shop. I suppose I had been expecting Atticus Finch, but had found Arlo Guthrie instead. Despite the disorganization of his office and his person, Mr. Stuart gave me a firm, reassuring handshake.
"Mason? Yes, of course," he said when I introduced myself.
I explained my agenda, related some family lore, and repeatedly apologized for intruding upon his time. My anxiety over keeping Mr. Stuart from pressing legal issues turned out to be misplaced, however, as there were no phone calls or visitors in the hour or so we spent together.
"Since Mrs. Page called ahead, I was able to pull the 1860 census records for you," he said, laying a manila folder open on his desk. "Your Laurens County people are right here." He showed me a photocopy of a ledger page, the narrow grids filled with spidery, almost indecipherable handwriting.
"It says that the head of the household was William Lowe Mason, and his wife was Temperance Augusta. It lists five children … another William Lowe, Benjamin Franklin, Daniel Hiram, Phoda, and Druscilla. All the boys were old enough to have joined the army. It also seems that your family owned quite a number of slaves. " Mr. Stuart drew another page from the folder. "This is the slave schedule; they're listed separately from the master's family."
Slavery was an aspect of the family legend that had gone largely ignored. When I'd once brought it up, my grandfather magnanimously replied that we'd "treated our people well," as if administering relatively infrequent lashings mitigated the inherent evil. Still, even if William Lowe Mason wasn't Simon Legree, it sent a chill up my spine to see "his people" listed. I counted 65 in all, with only genders and ages — no names — distinguishing them from one another. The shameful roster included a man of 80 and a little girl of three.
"Now, I was out to your place, oh, about three years ago, and it was in quite good shape. Perfectly safe to go inside, I'm sure. It's owned by the Ogden family now, but they won't give you any trouble. Just say I sent you if any of 'em come around." With that, he pulled a mimeographed map of the county from his folder and, using a nub of a pencil, sketched out the route I would need to follow.
The roads scrawled on Mr. Stuart's map quickly turned to gravel and then to dirt the further I drove out of town. The dirt was red — Crayola would have called it Burnt Sienna — and billowed up behind me. On the way to Georgia, I had kept the radio tuned NPR, catching the same damn broadcast of "A Prairie Home Companion" three times rather than to listen to the hillbilly music Ian and I both loved. But now I longed for some Flatt and Scruggs so, like Bonnie Parker, I could barrel down this backroad with a proper getaway soundtrack.
Then, at the corner of East Jesus and Nowhere Lane, I saw a tarpaper roof peeking through the overgrowth. Mr. Stuart's map seemed to indicate that I had arrived at my destination, so I pulled my dusty Escort to the side of the road and hopped out to get a better look. To my chagrin, the house did not conjure up romantic strains of "Dixie" — but "Dueling Banjos" did come to mind.
Could this really be Buckeye? The grand veranda I'd pictured since toddlerhood was nothing more than a tiny porch, and it had caved in, rendering the door inaccessible. The brick chimney had collapsed as well, and so I climbed inside through the fireplace, keeping a close eye out for snakes, rats, bats, and other distasteful critters.
Mr. Stuart had assured me that the place was sound only a few years ago. What could have happened? Shocked though I was by the unassuming structure — clearly, this was no Tara — I tried my best to imagine how it might have appeared in better days. Illuminated by a kerosene lamp, it certainly could have been cozy, and in my mind's eye I placed a pair of rocking chairs before the fire and a cast iron stove in the corner. I took a few trepidatious, creaking steps to peer into the next — and only other — room. It was even smaller and the floorboards had rotted almost completely away.
Ah well, yet another family myth debunked. But since I had gone to considerable difficulty and expense getting here, I thought I should at least take some pictures. So I exited through the fireplace again and went to retrieve my camera from the car.
"Hi-dee there." A tall, broad man wearing bib overalls and a battered shearling jacket had appeared from nowhere, as far as I could tell. I gasped and froze, contemplating the bitter irony of escaping the vengeance of an enraged hausfrau — only to be hauled off into the Georgia backwoods by a homicidal hillbilly, never to be heard from again.
But the man smiled blandly and introduced himself as Bill Ogden. I stammered an introduction and justified my trespassing, stating, "The lawyer in town said my family used to live here."
"Figgered as much," said Bill, unfazed. "But you're barking up the wrong tree, little lady. That ol' cabin there prob'ly ain't what you had in mind."
"Well, no ...."
Bill, as Mr. Stuart had explained, owned the land upon which we stood. He told me that he'd researched the assorted buildings its acreage encompassed, and hadn't torn down the ramshackle two-roomer because it had historic value. "Can't bring myself to bulldoze 'er but can't afford to fix 'er up either. Kindly like an old dog you can't bear to put outta his misery, even though you know he ain't gonna get no better."
After swapping facts and conjecture, Bill and I concluded that the little house had been built by the Masons in the 1790s, after they received Georgia land grants as reward for fighting in the American Revolution. The following generation saw the construction of a larger home, one worthy of a title, about a half-mile down the road.
"Yep, the big place was called Buckeye, all right," Bill confirmed. "It must have been quite a place, too, in its day. I can drive you down there if you life. Might miss the turn if you ain't careful."
"No, thanks," I replied. "I've come this far — I'd like to find it on my own."
Buckeye stood on a gentle hill, in the shade of a real, live magnolia tree. While it was nowhere near as grand as Page House, it appeared strong and homey. The clapboard siding still showed traces of white paint, and there were two sturdy chimneys on each side. The pitched tin roof was rusty but intact, and appeared to provide protection from the elements. Best of all, a set of crumbling brick steps led to what could reasonably be referred to as the veranda. Carefully, I climbed through a barbed wire fence and made my way to the front door. It stood ajar, as if to welcome me as it had welcomed family and friends almost two centuries before.
Taking a deep breath, I stepped inside and stood still.
On the first floor were five rooms. Four were laid out in a grid and the fifth spanned the back of the house. I presumed the front two were the parlor and dining room, since both were papered in a floral pattern, now faded and peeling. Perhaps the next two were a study and a more informal sitting room; I was pleased to note that one was lined with bookcases, empty though they were.
The back room had to be the kitchen. A double porcelain sink lay on its side and I could see four worn spots on the floor where the stove must have stood. Apparently, it had also once served as the powder room, judging by the metal bucket marked "head" sitting impudently by the window. Bill had told me that in the '60s and '70s the house had been a favorite hangout for hippies and transients, and I guessed that the bucket was their doing.
The religious images were a bit harder to explain. Above the sitting room fireplace were pasted numerous color illustrations from the Bible, including one of Mary Magdalene with the requisite genitalia doodled over her robes. Would my ancestors have been shocked? I suspected that, regardless of how well-read they may have been, the Masons would not have approved of defacing the Holy Book.
I approached the staircase uncertainly, and tested the bottom step with the toe of my boot. It didn't even groan, and so I climbed up to the second floor. There, I found four bedrooms — one large, one small, and two of equal, medium size. The symmetry put me at ease. Everywhere I looked, walls met at proper right angles, floors were solid, and window frames were snug. I marveled at the craftsmanship and wondered how my family's Nixon-era ranch house, with its pressboard and drywall, would look after so many years.
I sat down in one of the medium-sized bedrooms, and after a moment of enjoying the complete silence, I coughed to make sure I hadn't actually gone deaf instead. An hour and couple rolls of film would not be enough to fully appreciate this place, I decided.
That evening, I returned with a brand-new sleeping bag and a Coleman lantern from Dublin's well-stocked Wal-Mart. Despite the luxurious suite waiting for me, I'd decided to spend the night at Buckeye.
I ate my dinner — a sack of Krystal burgers that I picked up on the way — in the empty dining room. In the sitting room, I wished for the first time that I smoked dope but settled instead for a warming swig of Jim Beam. In the kitchen, I avoided "the head" and hoped I could wait until I returned to town before I would have to choose between it and the bushes.
When the sun set completely and the moon disappeared behind a cloud, I realized that I had never before been in an environment so completely void of illumination. Though the dark — city dark, anyway — had never bothered me, I now felt blind and claustrophobic. I fumbled to light the lantern and half-expected to see a passel of gray-clad ghosts when the flame flickered to life.
But the spirits of my ancestors were peaceful. My own spirit, it seemed, was the only tormented one in this house. All I could think of was how much Ian would love this place. He was a writer — it was one of the many passions we shared — but he was also an avid history buff who would happily drive hours out of his way to view an obscure marker commemorating a forgotten event. Hey, baby! We're only forty miles from Chillicothe — it's the actual home of sliced bread! Come on, I want to get a picture of you with the plaque!
We focused our attentions on the past and the here-and-now, and tried not to talk much about the future. But when we couldn't help ourselves, we prefaced everything with "hypothetical." Our hypothetical vacations, our hypothetical wedding, our hypothetical house, our hypothetical children. Hypothetically, this made it all right.
What was Ian doing right now? Was he apologizing to his wife for being led astray by a vampish little co-ed? Or, like me, was he sitting in the darkness, plotting escape scenarios and so lonely that his stomach ached? I had come to Georgia in order to get away from him and all the turmoil our relationship had caused, but he was still foremost in my mind.
Getting back to my roots had been healing; in a world that had quickly become fraught with deception, lies, and countless gray areas, I'd at last found something that was simple and true. But I'd been naïve to think the past could somehow heal the future. While I'd planned to bum around the blue highways for a few more weeks, I decided that the following day I would head back for St. Louis and face things head-on. Satisfied at least for the moment, I unfurled the sleeping bag and snuggled down inside. I liked that it was big enough for only me.
Photo courtesy of K.C. Mason.
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