Little's Mills, 2. Elizabeth Clarke. With permission of the artist.
As I recount elsewhere on this website, up until the very last months of his life, my father was utterly estranged from his cousin, who had inherited Little’s Mills, according to my father, and according to my father had allowed it to go to ruin. Less than two weeks after my father died, his cousin’s caregiver contacted my mother to say that Little’s Mills was up for sale and she wanted us to see it.
That Saturday, which happened to be Halloween, my mother, her mother, and I drove for the first time into the county that had been so significant to my father. The entire day was haunting. Already floating on that strange endomorphic cloud that follows a death, now we were heading our car directly into the childhood of the man we had just lost.
We drove through the town of Mt. Gilead, and shortly afterwards found a house that fit my father’s description. It was no Twelve Oaks -- just a very large, mid-century farmhouse, with some outbuildings in the back that might have been homes of enslaved workers or tenant farmers. We thought the house must have been worked on, because my father had told us that his cousin had let it get very run down and that it eventually caught fire, but this house was in relatively good shape.
A few months later for my birthday, my housemate Elizabeth and another friend drove me back for a photography session. As I got out of the car, I was thrilled to be greeted by a boxer dog, a breed my father and I both loved to distraction. I petted the dog, wondering what it was doing at an abandoned house, pocketed a rock as a memento, and went on to Greensboro to join more friends for a birthday lunch.
A few days later, when Elizabeth developed the pictures, we thought we saw someone pulling curtains back, looking down on us. My father had told me that homeless people would sometimes break into Little’s Mills; in fact, that was the cause of the fire. So if there really was someone looking out the window , while it may have been creepy, it wasn’t a huge surprise.
I guess it was 30 or more years before I went back. I was driving to the beach with my husband, mother, and children and detoured to Richmond County to see the house again. It had been so long we were not sure where it was, but we followed our noses and eventually found a 19th century farm house about where we expected it. The house was occupied and in very good condition. What surprised me was how close it was to the river. I didn’t remember having noticed the river at all the last two times we had visited, yet there it was big, wide, beautiful, in keeping with stories I had heard from my father.
When I began work on the chapbook, I designed a cover using one of Elizabeth's pictures. Later, I pulled out of an old file a copy of a newspaper article about Little’s Mills. It was not the same house. I felt stunned, crushed really, because the visits to what I believed to have been Littles’ Mills had meant the world to me.
From the Richmond County Historical Society, I ordered a book, in which I found a photograph of “The John and Fanny Little Home Place”, an over-grown old house, abandoned and dilapidated, just as my father had heard it was. Although house pictured in the newspaper article was freshly painted and far less run down, it was the same house. I acquired permission for use of that house for my cover, but was still deeply disappointed that the house I had visited was someone else’s house. I sent Elizabeth’s picture of the house we had visited to the Richmond County Historical society, saying I had always thought it was the home of my great grandparents, Fanny and John Little. The answer I got was essentially, “Well, of course it is.” Now I was REALLY confused, but also really relieved.
After considerable emailing, I learned that there were two houses. The house my father’s cousin inherited was NOT the house my father grew up visiting. After the Civil War, because the family was having repeated bouts of malaria, they built a second home further from the river: the home my father knew, but NOT the home his cousin had inherited. The home my father knew had been sold out of the family long before I was born. Somehow, my father never got the memo and died believing his cousin had allowed the home he loved to go to ruin. And somehow, I ended up, on my 25th birthday, standing in someone’s front yard, posing for pictures, petting their dog, pocketing their rocks, driving in circles around their house, while they looked out the window, wondering how long it would take for the police to arrive.