It’s the end of an era. Per stipulations of our parents’ will, our family home in Gray Court has been sold. A nice young couple will start their lives in a place I’ve thought of as home for 48 years. I’m not exactly sad. In fact, I’m not sure how I’m feeling. Probably more relief that the place did, in fact, sell quickly, and that there won’t be any lingering issues. We’ve spent the past weeks going through the remaining family items in the house and helping my sister Glynda get moved. As of this weekend, for the first time in nearly five decades, the Gray Court house is no longer occupied by a member of our family. I thought some reflection was in order.
In 1967 we were living on a farm in Laurens and my dad was principal of Ford High School. That year he was named as area superintendent of Gray Court Schools, which included Gray Court-Owings School and the then-segregated Pleasantview School. We could have stayed on our farm, but the house was small for our large family. Worse, yet, a vermiculite mining operation opened right next door to our property. Land was cleared, and dust constantly blew over our place. Mom and Dad were in constant fear that one of the kids would wander over there and get hurt. It was time to leave.
I remember walking through several houses in Gray Court before we settled on the home on North Main Street. I have driven by those houses numerous times, and occasionally wonder how life would have been different. Regardless, the house we chose was large enough for our brood, and within walking distance of GCO. So, in summer of 1967 we made the move.
The house wasn’t perfect, by any stretch of the imagination. It was built sometime in the early 20th century, date unknown. The downstairs had four large rooms, equally spaced between two large hallways. There was a kitchen off one of the back rooms and a screened porch. Upstairs was one large room with large closets at either end. The roof was (and still is) a mishmash mess. It was rumored that a tornado took off the roof and that it was rebuilt haphazardly. I haven’t been able to find any evidence of this, so it’s probably apocryphal.
The grounds were what made the house, though. It sits on two acres of land, a huge lot that connected North Main Street with the street at the back. There was an old garage and another old out building. There were large oak trees and pine trees, but also a grove of persimmon trees that made a mess of things.
The house was heated with ancient free-standing oil heaters and coal fireplaces. There were two fireplaces upstairs, but no other heat. Air conditioning wasn’t even a consideration. This photo is from our first Christmas in the new house, and if you look in the background you can make out one of those old oil heaters.
Dad began adapting the house to our needs. The old oil heaters were replaced with a modern furnace system throughout the house. The room arrangement upstairs was changed completely, creating two smaller bedrooms and an office for Dad. Over the years Dad made many other alterations to the house, some good, some not so smart, and some left incomplete. He also purchased the large open field across from our house so that his wide view from the porch would never be obstructed.
Life in Gray Court was…interesting. Our house was on a street of widows. Mrs. Willis next door became one of our best friends. Mrs. Owens lived next to that, then Mrs. Curry. Across the street was Mrs. Abercrombie, next to the reclusive Mrs. Taylor (no relation) and her son. All of these houses were of the same vintage as ours, and I’m sure our lively crowd was a real change. Despite all of these houses changing hands several times they are still referred to by old timers in town as the “Willis House”, the “Abercrombie House”, etc. Our own house was the “Owings House,” never the “Taylor House.”
Next door on the other side was the Crowder home. Charlie Crowder was my age, and would become my best friend for many years in elementary school. North of the Crowder house was a series of very run-down homes, and this presents one of the mysteries of Gray Court. I didn’t know it at the time, but my great-grandfather had lived just outside of Gray Court in the Dials Community, and was buried in the Dials Methodist Church Cemetery. In these run-down houses north of us lived distant relatives from that family. For whatever reason we were not allowed to associate with them. We claimed relation to so many distant cousins that it now seems so odd to me that we would exclude a large chunk of our family. To this day I know nothing much about them.
As the son of the school principal, life at GCO wasn’t ideal, and I had a hard time fitting in. I was also a geeky kid in a time when that wasn’t popular at all. Then there was the issue of integration. My dad had to bring together two communities, and it was a challenge. I grew up hearing the most egregious racial stereotyping and epithets. My father received threats, but somehow he was able to rise above the fray and bring the two school communities together. This all happened in 1970, when I was in the fourth grade.
The large yard wasn’t as extensive as our farm in Laurens, but it was still a great place to ramble. Dad had a large garden, and we even kept a horse at one time. Dad had fenced in part of the yard and had built an elevated fort/tree house for us. Like so many of his construction projects, this was left unfinished until it was eventually torn down.
Our domain extended beyond the large yard. My younger sisters, Beth and Ann, and I would walk the half mile down to town and spend a dollar or less on candy. We would then walk back past the row of widows’ houses. I spent many afternoons on my bike riding for miles outside of town.
We always swore that the house was haunted. At night you could hear creaks and groans throughout the place. We decided that the ghost’s name was “Homer” for some reason.
Mostly I remember Christmases. That’s probably because there was such a photographic record of our gatherings. The older siblings would be home from college, and we would all gather to sing carols and be together. There were other family gatherings of aunts and uncles, as well.
By the time I got to high school things had changed. Dad was now at the district office as assistant superintendent. Gray Court was no longer a high school, but only ran through junior high. A new district high school had been built, and that’s where I would attend, along with students from the former Ford, Hickory Tavern, and Laurens High Schools.
Dad continued to alter the house and grounds. The fence and tree fort were gone, but he purchased an old portable classroom to use as a shop and storage. It had been in bad shape when Dad moved it onto the property and it has not held up well since then.
With a drivers license and friends across the county, my range spread from Gray Court. I seemed to have less and less to do with the other denizens of the town. Some of my friends and I formed a band, and we used the house as a location for a photoshoot.
After high school came four years of college, living off and on in the Gray Court house during the summers and in between terms at Furman. When I got back from Furman Dad had retired from the school district and accepted a job as pastor of a church in Newberry. He and Mom moved down there with my younger sisters, and I moved back into the Gray Court house to begin my own teaching career.
I lived in the house as a first year teacher with fellow Furman grad Alan Russell. Alan taught in Clinton, and I taught at Gray Court. It was a bit weird returning to a school where I had been a student, but I knew much more about the place than any of my fellow teachers. As for the house, we had many parties and gatherings, none of which my parents would approve. I remember one party where my friends and I climbed one of the old magnolia trees in front of the house and speculated on life. It was henceforth known as the “philosophy tree.” It was a fun, early adult time.
I met Laura, we got married, and moved into our own home in Greenville. From that point on my visits to the Gray Court house were limited to visiting Mom and Dad. They fixed the house up even more, adding a garage. After her divorce, Glynda moved into the house with Chip and Katie. The house was once again full.
Glynda moved back to Greenville, and Mom and Dad bought another house in Prosperity in Newberry County. They split their time between the two houses. We still held all of our big family gatherings in Gray Court.
Glynda moved back into the Gray Court house a few years ago, and Mom and Dad spent their final years in Prosperity. Last Christmas (2015) we held one last big gathering at the house, the second time without either of my parents. I flew back from Florida just to make sure I was there.
My parents’ will stipulated that their assets had to be divided equally among the siblings. That meant that all properties had to be sold. As we prepared to close out the Gray Court house and move Glynda into a new home I walked around the property capturing a few memories. First, there was the front of the house, including the large front porch where my parents and the rest of my family loved to watch the traffic around town.
There was the field out front where I would fly kites, and which provided a view up to Gray Court-Owings School.
I wandered around the yards. They look much the same as they did for the past few decades.
Moving into the interior, I took photos of the large room downstairs. The front two rooms still had the same paint scheme that Alan and I had painted back in 1984. The creaky stairs still make the house seem haunted.
The house still has many of its quirks. My favorite was the old push-button light switches which we just didn’t have the heart to replace.
With Glynda moved out, the house is even emptier than shown in these photos. Siblings have been coming by to help clean out the house and get things ready for completion of the sale. The siblings as well as the grand kids have shared memories of our time there, and some of them are having a harder time letting go. I told Chip that the house is kind of like the Mirror of Eriseid from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Different members of our family see an idealized memory in the house – their deepest desires for a happy childhood. It’s hard to turn lose.
Glynda and I share a unique perspective, though. We are the only two to have lived in the house by ourselves as adults. We understand the problems with the house, and what a pain it can be to maintain it, pay bills, etc., etc. Still, I can understand how some may feel about letting go of the family home.
But, it’s time. As many good memories as I’ve had in this house, I’m ready to turn it loose. Gray Court is no longer the place of my childhood. The town has suffered from poor management and problems with crime and illicit drugs. The area has become industrial, and now the noise from the plants at end of the street disrupt the night’s peace. The trains, which were a novelty when we were living there, are now loud, constant, and obnoxious. I would prefer to keep my memories as ideal, with the mellowing that time brings.
6 thoughts on “Requiem for a Homestead”
Ahh Tom …… so glad you captured this in pictures and your words! This will be a treasure for us all!
Nice job Tom. Thanks. (Although some of the early pictures of us are a bit scary! )
There are some even scarier ones I could have included. 😉
This family/home history is a treasure! I feel privileged to have known your family pretty much since 1st grade. And my close friendship with Glynda has survived many moves and houses for both of us. I’m so glad I was able to visit her here for the last decade, and enjoy your house and family. I learned to play the piano from your mother, and have had tremendous admiration for you dad most of my life. Best wishes to all of you!
Love love love this!! Thank you for writing this. This place is so special to me!