Touching more of the past

This return to the mountains has been a life changing event in so many ways!  I have gained a new passion (or addiction) since coming here that doesn’t seem to have an ending or a cure.  It has been a treasure hunt in some ways and an archeaoligical expedition in others and just as difficult at times.  My explorations began early on in the process as I took possession of two trunks–one that belonged to my grandfather and one belonging to my grandmother.  Old fashioned steamer trunks that had been a part of their lives for their adulthood.  They had been put to sleep in the attic of their home and their they stayed until long after they were both gone.  None of the grandchildren had known what they contained or how long they had been unopened.  But as we made plans for my mother’s transition to an assisted living facility the discovery and exploration of these trunks changed my life and began the impetus for much of what spurs my work.  

Each trunk contained hundreds of letters written by them and to my grandparents, dating back as far as 1923. I have written about my findings of dance cards and love letters in the past.  More touching and exploring have revealed my grandmother’s wedding dress with all it’s components though faded is intact within her trunk.  Old banks books with entries dating to 1917 were in my grandfather’s.  Pictures, dried flowers, and hand-made items from my great-grandmother are among the treasures I have been able to touch, explore, and I still wonder at their ability to safe-guard and keep all of these mementos from their days of youth.  With each exploration I find something new and exciting.

The latest treasure I have touched is not one that was found in a trunk but rather rescued from an old home place that was built by my great-grandfather in 1898.  He built this house shown here while his wife was pregnant with their first child–my grandfather.  It was not the log home style he had been brought up in, but a wood frame house sitting high on a steep hillside in what was then Ashe county, North Carolina.  The photo I have was made much later and there were likely changes to the exterior of the home made after they moved to more valuable bottom land a few years later.  But the chimney, foundation and things are as they were when he built it

Mabel, North Carolina
Mabel, North Carolina

This home burned several years ago in 1997, but at least one item was salvaged from the home site and it was the fireplace mantle.  My great-grandfather built this mantle by hand long ago and a family member brought it to my mother’s home where it sat in the basement against a well untouched for many more years.  When it came time to empty the basement I brought it here, to my own new home on a steep hillside in the mountains.


I can’t tell you how many layers of paint were on this mantle, but I know I saw black, blue, pink and the outer layer was white.  This white was pretty gray in color to be honest after the smoke damage from the fire.  And it weighed a lot!  I couldn’t lift it at all without my husband’s help.  It was a huge undertaking to get it here!  Yet, here is the mantle after I started working on it.  My goal was to strip it down to the bare wood and then see what was there.  Well, let me tell you that stripping finish that goes back over 100 years is no easy task!  Two coats of stripper and then washed and scrubbed with odorless mineral spirits and still there were areas that didn’t come completely clean.  I admit freely that I am not a wood expert but did a good bit of research on what and how to go about this.  Other things I lacked were tools to do the job properly.  My great-grandfather had carved into the wood a pattern of sorts and it took a bobby pin to get the stripper and old paint out of these designs as you see them now.  As I look at it now I see many imperfections and yet there is part of me that says I should leave it just this way with many more coats of tung oil to deepen the finish and let these bits and pieces of paint stand as testament to the history that this mantle has lived through.

After second stripping--the wood is making an appearance!
After second stripping–the wood is making an appearance!

I found myself talking to my great-grandparents as I scrubbed with steel wool and scrapped and sanded.  I hoped they were happy that I was here, working on this piece of wood that they had both touched so long ago. I also hoped he wasn’t scowling at me with my poor attempts to work on his craftsmanship.  Today I wish I could have seen the fireplace where it had stood and found myself wondering about just what items might had sat on top of the upper shelf in their home.  I know the fireplace that sat within this mantle provided heat and comfort for them in their first home.

Today it still sits on the porch waiting for another coat of tung oil and with each application I look forward to the day it is sitting inside  of my home on a wall for me to treasure and share with my own children, and their children as a visible and touchable link to their own mountain heritage and roots that extend back many generations.


Share the Mountains

More about Colleen

Colleen Patton EdD, RN, PA-C Curriculum Scholar with focus in Narrative Inquiry Appalachian native and writer Physician Assistant Educator

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