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Posts Tagged ‘Hillsville VA’

In Mt. Airy, North Carolina, I turn onto Rt. 52 North. After crossing the state line into Virginia, the terrain changes from hilly to mountainous and the road snakes almost straight up. I grip the steering wheel and press the gas pedal to the floor, urging my van to keep climbing. Good thing there’s a passing lane so the locals don’t get too impatient with flatlanders like me.

The road almost levels out and I breathe a sigh of relief. A sign says Fancy Gap and a stone arch carries the Blue Ridge Parkway over the highway. I love the Parkway, but grandchildren wait on the other side of the Blue Ridge, so I’ll stay on 52 to Hillsville, after which I’ll take a series of mountain roads to the New River Valley.

Fancy Gap is a quiet village, if you stay away from the Interstate that roars through, and the countryside is a vista of rolling hills and farmland. Between Fancy Gap and Hillsville, as I round a curve, I’m treated to a vision that could have dropped out of a fairy tale. On a hill with a magnificent view of surrounding farmland and mountains, sits the Sidna Allen House, an exquisite Queen Anne home built over 100 years ago.

sidna-allen-house

The first time I saw it, I could hardly believe my eyes. What was this jewel of Victorian architecture, with gingerbread trim and stained glass windows, doing here in Appalachia? The second time, I stopped to take pictures and read the large billboard advertising tours. There was no one at the place, so I jotted down the phone number on the sign. But when I called the number, it no longer worked. I pass through here a couple times a year on my way to and from my daughter’s, generally stopping to admire and take pictures, but I always respected the No Trespassing signs and enjoyed the house from the roadside.

I didn’t give up my desire for a tour. I learned the house had changed hands from the family that owned it to, thankfully, the Carroll County Historical Society. Unfortunately, no one was giving tours. But I remained intrigued.

I searched the internet and found a colorful history. Sidna Allen was a prosperous merchant in Fancy Gap. He built the house in 1911 for his wife Betty and their daughters. Sidna spared no expense. He used the best materials and finest workmanship and the house was a showcase in its day. But now it sat empty. Year after year as I drove by, I watched paint peel and the place look more and more neglected. I hoped the interior was holding up better than the façade. Pictures on the internet showed an artfully appointed residence, shining woodwork, beautiful wallpaper. How I longed to see inside.

The history of the Allen family and Fancy Gap is a tale worthy of the Wild West. Many of Sidna’s brothers and nephews were criminals and bullies, but they were either too slick to get caught or in cahoots with the law. Brother Floyd actually served as a deputy. The house of cards eventually collapsed, however. When two nephews were arrested for assault, Floyd waylaid the deputies who were transporting them and freed the boys. He was subsequently charged with battering the lawmen, but he vowed he’d never spend a day in jail.

The trial took place March 12th and 13th, 1912. Despite death threats, the judge refused to prohibit firearms in the courtroom. Even the defendant was packing. When the verdict came down—Guilty!—Floyd Allen stood up and declared, “Gentlemen, I just ain’t a goin’.” To this day, no one knows who fired the first shot. Over fifty bullets were later collected and the courthouse stairs still has two holes from Floyd’s last shots. When the smoke cleared, the judge, prosecutor, sheriff, a juror, and a witness were dead, and many, including Floyd Allen, were wounded. The incident went down in history as the “Hillsville Courthouse Massacre” and through the years books and songs and a play have been written about it. Floyd and his son Claud died in the electric chair and other family members went to prison, including Sidna Allen.

Sidna’s involvement in the shoot-out has been debated for 100 years. If not one of the shooters, he was guilty by association. His family lived in their beautiful home only a year. Floyd spent his last free night in the house. This was probably Sidna’s last night there as well. The tragedy changed everything. The family of one of the victims sued and the property was part of the settlement.

On August 22, having spent my summer traveling and visiting grandchildren, I set out for Florida. I gassed up in Hillsville and headed toward Fancy Gap. Driving by the Sidna Allen House, I noticed something new: people and activity. A man sat on the front porch. I pulled off the road and asked if I could look inside.

“Just be careful crossing the road,” he said.

As I climbed the steps to the porch, I heard a noise and looked up. A small drone was flying overhead. How odd.

The man turned out to be Ed Stanley, President of the Carroll County Historical Society. He said I could come in and look around, but they were getting ready to do some filming. A documentary. They were trying to raise money to restore the house. A handsome woman in period costume came to the door and invited me in—Betty Allen herself! She said she had a few minutes to spare and took me on the grand tour. At long last! I felt like a kid at Disneyland.

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Not a large residence, it was a palace in its day. Miss Betty is very proud of “her” house and knowledgeable of its construction and what it will take to restore. Despite the tattered wall paper, cracked and peeling paint, and plaster separating from its lathes, the quality remains evident. Floors are oak and white maple. Mantles are cherry and tile. Windows and doors are situated to catch cross breezes in summer. Miss Betty proudly pointed out these and many other features.

She has immersed herself in her character and agreed the story would make a good movie or miniseries. I think part of what makes the tale so fascinating is the characters. Despite being scoundrels, the Allens were smart and resourceful. Sidna was a skilled craftsman. In prison and after, he made beautiful pieces of inlaid furniture.

Sidna and Betty in front of their parlor fireplace. Unfortunately, the historical couple weren't able to grow old in their home.

Sidna and Betty in front of their parlor fireplace. Unfortunately, the historical couple weren’t able to grow old in their home.

I got to meet Sidna briefly and he and Betty allowed me to take their picture in the parlor. I didn’t have the time or opportunity to take more pictures, though, as the film crew was soon ready and I’d promised to be out of their way before they started.

Now the house is being restored. They are still trying to raise money for this expensive project. I can’t wait to see the finished product. For more info: https://www.facebook.com/SidnaAllenHomeFoundation/ This video shows the house’s interior: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aoUTz8WGpbw The Ballad of Sidna Allen may not be quite accurate, but it’s charming: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_uCwBJNCwPo  I look forward to seeing the documentary.

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The month of August saw me traveling and visiting grandchildren, wrestling with my new “smart” phone, and trying to figure out how to use GPS. Before I set out on my trip, I went to a Verizon store for help. I told the nice young man that the GPS insisted on sending me on the Interstate and I don’t do Interstates. “Why not?”  he said. “You get there faster.” What’s his hurry? He’s young. He has plenty of time. As for me, I’m in no hurry to get to the end of my journey, and I prefer to enjoy the drive. You miss a lot when you stick to the Interstate.

You won't find this on the Interstate.

You won’t find this on the Interstate. (Mabry Mill, Blue Ridge Parkway)

Google Maps on my computer gives me the option of avoiding highways. Apparently the young man didn’t know how to program my smart phone this way, so he put another app on the phone that (he said) would do back roads. It didn’t.

After plotting my course using road maps and Google Maps, I headed north.

Or this

Or this. (Near Ludowici, GA)

I planned to camp in Uwharrie National Forest in North Carolina. Since I got off to a late start that day, it was dark by the time I reached to Uwharrie. I thought this was a good time to put the GPS to the test, since I was far from any Interstate. I pulled over and typed in Uwharrie National Forest campground.

The lady’s voice on the GPS—whoa!–that’s too awkward. Let’s call her GyPSy. (We used to have a pony named Gypsy and she was cantankerous, too.) Anyway, Gypsy directed me down a series of back roads and deposited me in front of someone’s driveway. I didn’t think the residents of the house wanted me to camp in their yard, so I drove on, hoping the campground was nearby. I never found it. Gypsy kept telling me to make U turns, turn down such and such a road, and the like for the next hour until I figured out how to shut her up.

Consulting my map, I concluded I’d taken the wrong road to the national forest. It was raining and I didn’t want to backtrack, so I drove on. The next town had a Walmart. With the permission of a manager, I parked there for the night. The next day I stuck to the directions I’d written down before my trip and reached my granddaughter’s house with no trouble.

One thing I’ve discovered is that newer road maps are less detailed than older ones. That plus poorly labeled roads makes it hard to plot a course. Is there a conspiracy? Do “they” want us to stick to the Interstates? Are “they” trying to sell more GPS gadgets? Or is our growing dependence on GPS letting highway departments get away with sloppy work?

I spent two pleasant weeks in West Virginia. Toying with the phone during my stay, I figured out how to program Gypsy to avoid highways. Before leaving for Virginia, I drove over to Hampshire County in search of some ancestors who are buried in Slanesville. Although, I knew my way around, I thought I’d see if Gypsy could find a short cut. No–the poor dear was lost! Maybe I was too far from any Interstate. That thing on a computer that goes round and round when it’s searching for something went round and round and round until I reached Romney.

Slanesville, WV

Slanesville, WV

I consulted a map and spent the rest of the afternoon driving through picturesque West Virginia mountains. Almost Heaven. I hated to leave but was expected at my daughter’s home in Radford, Virginia that night. I stopped to eat in Covington. The day had been pleasant and sunny, but the night turned dark and rainy. Over supper, I consulted my road map for the most direct route to Radford, then I programmed Gypsy.

Computer savvy people refuse to believe that those devious machines have a mind of their own, but they do. I know what Gypsy was thinking: “So, she wants back roads? Well, I’ll give her back roads!”

And back roads I got. Roads with names like 617 and 725. Roads that weren’t on my map. Before long, I was helplessly lost and dependent on her caprice. Gypsy directed me to turn here and there, mostly in unpopulated areas, through two national forests. One road was so narrow that if I’d met an oncoming vehicle, we’d both have scraped paint off trying to squeeze by. Fortunately, I had plenty of gas and my compass told me I was gradually making my way south. I breathed with relief when I came to US 11, Lee Highway. Now I knew where I was and where I was going.

I have to give Gypsy credit—she got me there in one piece and in the time frame she’d predicted. But how’d she know about these forest roads when she was totally lost on a state road in West Virginia?

Is this Tow Mater?

Is this Tow Mater? (Near Hillsville, VA)

On my way home, she successfully navigated me through Salisbury, North Carolina, where I invariably get lost. I planned to spend the night at Santee State Park in South Carolina, so I gave her this destination. She found a short cut that wasn’t on my map, but when I got to the park, she argued with me that the campground was at a ranger’s residence. Don’t you hate a machine that thinks she’s smarter than you?  But I knew better. A sign clearly pointed to the campground.

The next morning, I expected Gypsy to find a shortcut home, but she routed me through Orangeburg, South Carolina. I didn’t mind. I never drive through that city without stopping at Edisto Memorial Gardens to smell the roses.

Edisto Memorial Gardens

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