Written by Wendy Callahan
Once upon a time, there was a house that sat on a hill. It was a nice house. Simple in its design but quite large for its day. It was a house that was built to be filled with a family. A sturdy structure to keep them safe and warm while fields were worked and fortunes made. That was the intent, at least.
This house is my house. But I didn’t build it. The Thompson family did back in 1853.
In the year 1853, the Thompsons were wealthy folk by any definition. Home owners. Land owners. Business owners. Prominent in the community. George W Thompson owned a grist mill, a plantation, was a state senator (1844-1849) and was one of the founding trustees of what is now Wake Forest University. He was a man intent on the education of the local young men. There is some talk that George actually built the house to accommodate a college preparatory school he started called Forest Hill Academy (and there are some existing clues in the house that it may have served as a school at some point), but more than likely it was built for William Marcellus Thompson, George’s son, and Mary Adelaide, William’s bride and third cousin. A classic “Four Over Four” Greek Revival (four rooms on both levels, each with a fireplace, divided down the center by two central halls on each floor and also with dual staircases), it was going to be their dream home.
But the dream didn’t have a chance to last for long. War broke out as the South decided to secede from the North and William, who was 31, felt compelled to draw arms and head into battle.
Sadly, he didn’t make it home from the Battle of Graves Mill. Or did he? We know that he was felled there during the battle, but a rumor remains all of these years later that Mary, a number of months pregnant with their fourth child, went up to Virginia to the battle fiend and retrieved William’s body. We can’t know for sure, as there is no grave marker with his name on it in the family cemetery, but there is an unmarked space next to his father’s grave. A few months later after William’s death, Mary gave birth to a little girl, William Marcellus, who would be known the rest of her life as Willie Mae.
Luckily for Mary, George was a generous man and gifted her the house and some land for her and the children to live in the rest of their lives. It’s possible that George and his wife also moved in, although it’s hard to say for certain who lived in the house and for how long. We do know that the house was sold by the Thompson family to Hubert and Mary Holden in 1945, where they raised their family and then in 1981, the house changed hands again and was sold to a group of three folks who rented the house out over the years.
By the time the Bay Leaf Baptist Church bought the house and its 19 adjoining acres in 2001, the home had been empty for some time, had been used illegally as a taqueria, serving the construction workers building the homes in Wakefield Estates and while essentially intact, was in quite a state of disrepair. The church wanted to build their new second location on the very site where the home stood and for a time, the house’s fate was uncertain.
That is until a local real estate attorney and preservation enthusiast, Kathy Drake, stepped in and offered a solution. After a year of negotiations and with the assistance of Capital Area Preservation (an organization that assists historic homes at risk in Wake County), she bought back two of the 19 acres at the very back of the property and the church gave her the house to have it moved across a field and onto the two acres. But that was just the start of the structure’s journey.
Along with the house, two large stone columns that had flanked a drive were relocated, as was a corn-crib that was falling down, but the same era as the home, justifying its renovation. In April of 2004 the great move westward began. The house was first secured – windows and doors were removed and saved to be re-installed, the four chimneys were dismantled and bricks retained so that each chimney could be painstakingly rebuilt and the house was hoisted up on beams for the trip across the field.
Once there, the home still had quite the journey. It needed all new wiring and plumbing. Bathrooms, closets and the completely ruined kitchen had to be rebuilt (too much grease and no proper ventilation from its time as a taqueria left the kitchen mostly unsalvageable). Plaster walls had to be repaired. Paint and varnish on each of the eight mantles had to be stripped off. Floors needed refinishing. The project took over a year to complete, at the guidance of a contractor who specialized in historic preservation of such structures.
Kathy Drake, already living in a historic home in downtown Wake Forest with her husband, never intended to live in the house. Her mission was to save it from demolition, guide its resurrection and then lovingly pass it on to new owners to act as the next caregivers. During the construction, a young couple bought the home and with their input, the renovation was completed and they moved in and had a young son.
They added landscaping, a new garage that resembled a barn (one of the requirements of any new structure or improvement to the land or the house itself is that it has to appear as if it fits with the design and must be approved by Capital Area Preservation first) and retrofit the corn-crib to become a workshop. Unfortunately, that chapter for the house was relatively short-lived and after the couple’s marriage dissolved, the house was sold to my husband and I and after some minor updates (paint, new countertops in the kitchen and other minor repairs) we moved in with my husband’s three daughters and our two dogs in June of 2015.
We feel very lucky to live in such a wonderful home! To build fires in those fireplaces. To walk the same floorboards that William and his family walked all of those years ago. We view ourselves simply as the current caretakers of the historic home, more so than “owners”. We’ve been lucky that Willie Mae’s descendants have reached out to us and we can share the home and the renovations that have been made with them. It’s a fantastic house and an amazing piece of history!
But speaking of sharing – we feel we share the house with some other folks. Folks that perhaps used to also walk the floors but that we can’t necessarily see. However, I’ll save those stories to share with you for another day.