Friday, February 10, 2012

Sad Buried Treasure in a Victorian Bedroom

People like me, who live for restoring and cautiously updating old houses, also live for the hidden treasure. Treasure found inside old houses is usually devoid of any monetary value, but the sentimental value can be off the charts. Recently, while uncovering an old, hidden closet in my bedroom, Mr. Vagabond and I discovered something we truly didn't expect.

But lets begin at the beginning.

My bedroom was once covered in 70s paneling. Ugh. The original plaster walls were assaulted by furring strips which were used to hold the paneling nails. In my mind, repairing the plaster is much easier than installing paneling, but what do I know? The result of the odious paneling was this:

Don't get me started on that ceiling.
While Mr. Vagabond was out of town for a couple weeks, I took it upon my self to rip out the paneling. That was fun, especially the part where I opened the bedroom window and slid the panels down the old metal roof over the kitchen and into the backyard. When Mr. Vagabond returned home, he was not amused. You see, in his mind paneling was at least a finished wall. In my mind, it was offensive and had to go. 

For the next two years, we lived with really ugly plaster walls that were in serious disrepair. So maybe he was right about having finished walls. He can be right one time. Pfft. 

Because the bedroom isn't a place where we invite our neighbors, it's also low in terms of critical finishing needs. Several months ago, we decided to finally uncover the old closet that was boarded up and convert it into a book case. The things inside would blow your mind. These people actually walled over medicine bottles, shoes and a pair of little boys underwear (WORN!). Ahhh, the treasure in an old house. I do not have photographic proof. You'll have to take my word for it. 

So anyway, on we went with gutting the closet. 

We stuck foam board against the exterior wall until we put insulation inside. Also, why is one of my baseboards and a bed frame in there? The world may never know. 

In the wall to the right of the closet, we succumbed to the pressure of drywall. I know, I know. But desperate times called for desperate measures. In other words, the plaster on that wall had fairly turned to sand. It was bad. Really bad. I can repair most any plaster that is still somewhat sound, but I was not prepared to tackle replastering a whole wall in the middle of March.

One very interesting thing I noticed after unboarding the closet was the 2-by-4 they installed as a brace. I guess measuring tapes were too much to deal with since it was approximately 1 inch too long for the space. It bowed out and curved to the right. :facepalm:  At least the header was in no danger of falling! 

I'm getting to the treasure part. 

The day we worked on this closet, the whole room was filled with old soot from the fireplace that was long since removed and what seemed like 100 years of dust, dirt and old crumbling wallpaper. While sweeping up, I looked down at my feet and saw something strange. It was a small book. I asked Mr. Vagabond if he'd noticed it before, but he hadn't. 

This book seemingly materialized dead center in the pile of dust, dirt and wallpaper. 
Initially, the book was almost black. I carefully dusted it off to read the cover.
Scholar's Monthly Reports. Neato!

I remember those things from back in the long ago before today's report cards. I quickly opened it. 

Ella Whittier!  We have a name! 1925. Amazing.
The remaining pages showed me that little Ella was perhaps more focused on other things besides silly old schooling.

Sewell Whittier must have been little Ella's father
Alas, little Ella was retained in the fifth grade.
Finding this book sparked my curiosity, of course. I've got mad research skills, so I put them to work and turned up some interesting facts.

The first bit of information is difficult and sad. 

I lifted this from the October 7, 1926 edition of the Rockwood Times:


October 7, 1926

SEWELL WHITTIER FOUND BEHIND PILE OF COAL ------------------- Many Funerals Yesterday and Today 14 Bodies Remain in Entry Fire Not Encountered --------------------
The body of S.P. Whittier was found this morning about 10:00 o'clock by helmet men behind a pile of coal in his room off Rodgers entry and was brought to the surface at 2:00 this afternoon. A search of Whittier's place last night failed to disclose the body, which was entirely concealed and which was finally traced from its odor. It is said that the body was not badly torn or mangled. --------------------


Chills ran through me, as they do again while I write this. Little Ella's father was killed in a mine explosion only months after he signed her Scholar Report for the last time. 

More research revealed that Mr. Whittier left behind a wife and six children. 

But the sun does come out, even on sad revelations. Even more research (I told you I am a research whiz) uncovered more information about Miss Ella. 

I found this at a local mortuary:

Mrs. Ola “Punkin” Rowley, age 68 of Walnut Street, Spring City passed away Wednesday, July 8, 2009 at Baptist West Hospital in Knoxville.  Mrs. Rowley, who was of the Baptist faith, was born April 21, 1941 in Rockwood to Arnold Franklin & Ella Katherine Whittier Gibson.  Besides her parents she was preceded in death by a sister, Ruby Sexton Gaylardo; and a brother, Jack J. Gibson. 

Miss Ella went on to apparently have a very full life. She was married to Arnold Franklin, had seven children (according to Ola's funeral notice), and several grandchildren. I haven't dug any more to learn about other relatives.

Reading Ola's funeral notice really put the time thing into perspective. Ella's school report was dated 1925, and she was in fifth grade. Her daughter died in 2009 at the age of 68.

Each time I hear some strange noise in the house, I wonder if Sewell is rustling about. He was clearly gone before his time. Lots of folks talk about disrupting or unsettling spirits when an old house is undergoing renovations. If that is true, and if Sewell does stop by occasionally, I can only think that he's happy with what we're doing. 

Who knows what will turn up in the rest of the house. I did find a little hidden floor panel / trap door in one of the bedrooms...


  1. I think Sewell will at least be happy you got rid of that godawful 70s paneling :-)

  2. I sure hope so. If he visits, he's also likely happy that I covered that hideous fuchsia paint on the foyer doors. = )

  3. How come the papers are not detiriated or atleast have somewhat or a tearing when it's claimed to be from 1920s? I think it's a bit odd....

    1. If you can conceive of any possible benefit I could ever gain from, as you infer, claiming that the booklet is as old as it is, please do share that with the class. Because I clearly missed the train on that one.

    2. I have old family deeds (found in great condition) that date back to the 1800's; they were stored in an old purse hanging in a closet for decades. This little grade book looks so good, Anonymous, because it was in a dark closet & not exposed to light or a lot of open air for almost 100 years... THINK a minute... in the Smithsonian (it's a big fancy museum, in case you haven't heard of it), they use DIM lighting on their documents, and keep them in sealed glass cases... DUH, they must be on to something!