Landry had stood hand-in-hand with Grandmother as the old house was pulled down. Everything of use or of historic significance had long ago been taken out and re-used over the years. In fact, Landry had recently filled her parents’ barn full of cypress floor planks, trim work, and doors. She’d carefully packed and stored every salvageable pane of original glass and all the metal hardware she could find. They had pieces of Oak Hill left. But still…watching it fall was heartbreaking. Tears ran down both their cheeks, but they each pretended not to notice the other’s weakness.
Oak Hill Plantation was officially gone, the house a pile of rubble and the last bit of land sold.
Landry and her Grandmother had been the only two who had cared enough about the old place to come witness its passing. It didn’t deserve to go. Landry hated for any old house to be pulled down. Seeing it happen always gave her a stabbing pain in the chest. Sometimes there’s just no way around it, and it’s an ugly realization that many families have faced. Old houses need a level of care that’s hard to afford in modern times.
The wide, welcoming raised cottage was homey rather than grand but had graceful, pleasing proportions. Identical dormers on each end of the roof gave the impression of eyebrows lifted in a smile. In her heyday she was beautiful and full of life, with clean white paint, tall sparkling windows, and neat lawns full of playing children. Inside she bustled with the wonderful, mundane, complicated lives of many generations, both black and white.
But she’d been faded and sagging by the time Landry met her. Time and lack of maintenance had taken their toll. Grandmother had gone every week to look for the small things they could afford to fix – leaks, broken windows, and interlopers of the human or animal kind. She felt it was the very least she could do. Landry always went with her.
This had been Grandmother’s home; she couldn’t bear to stay away from it for long. Standing in the airy dogtrot hall that ran down the middle of the house, Grandmother would heave an unconscious sigh. And then she’d begin to tell Landry stories about the old house and her history.
Oak Hill Plantation’s first house, long gone now, was built by the Wheeler family in the mid 1700’s on a modest land grant from the Crown. When the Revolution came the patriotic Wheelers lost the land. None daunted, the Wheelers worked and worried and lobbied and finally got their home back. As the Wheeler family fortunes grew, so did the number of acres. In time the first house became what they quaintly called the Dower House, as the Big House had been built in 1832 for the current heir’s new bride.
The days of King Cotton were good to Oak Hill and the Wheelers. Fine paintings and furnishings and books were acquired. The ladies of the family were all accomplished and fashionable. The gentlemen were well educated and confident – truly the lords of all they surveyed. The political influence of the family, in South Carolina at least, was firmly established. The one hundred or so slaves were a testament to the wealth of the family.
Then wartime changed everything for the Wheelers. Their men were killed at the front and the ladies were left to shift for themselves and their children. The slaves were freed and had gone, except for a few. Whether the few stayed out of love and loyalty or because they simply didn’t know what else to do, no one will ever know. But together, as was the case all over the South, they survived. They made do. The Wheelers remained pillars of Orangeburg County. Anything less would have been admitting defeat.
Oak Hill, off the beaten path and isolated, had escaped Sherman’s torches. “That Bastard Sherman,” Grandmother still called him, with a vehemence that would surprise anyone but a southerner of good family. His march to Atlanta had destroyed some of the most priceless jewels of the South, in Landry’s opinion – the beautiful houses of the planters. Landry cared far more for houses than for politics. Of course the institution of slavery had to be destroyed. But did Sherman have to burn so much history and beauty?
Landry was born loving wavy glass, ceiling medallions, and sweeping staircases. She adored squeaky wooden floors and high ceilings and enchantingly low doorknobs. She wanted to keep Oak Hill and restore it. How sad that the house had survived two wars, Sherman, Reconstruction, and the many indignities of modern life only to be torn down with just two people there to pay their respects. But she was smart enough to know that the house was too far gone.