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Finding a Sense of Place in a Historical Small Town | VRChristensen

Finding a Sense of Place in a Historical Small Town


As I write this, I’m sitting in my daughter’s bedroom looking out the window and shivering under a blanket. It’s snowing, and our outdated electrical system only allows us to run so many heaters at a time. My daughter’s room, which has the luxury of two circuits, is consequently the warmest. And yet, as I watch the snow fall, I can’t help but feel grateful. This historic neighborhood is beautiful! And I’m in love with my house. Maybe that’s why, while my kitchen is dismantled, only one bathroom works, and I’m not sleeping in my bedroom while the plaster ceiling is being repaired, I can think of all of this as an adventure. And yes, I’m having fun. But this story isn’t about why I chose to live in this derelict house. It’s about why I chose to live in this wonderful, Southern small town.


While I don’t have it quite as bad as a military wife, we have moved around a lot. My story begins on the coast of Washington state, where my grandmother’s family had moved from western North Carolina, and where my father had grown up after being adopted at the age of 3. I never felt that I belonged there. I was out of place–an oddity. I felt it polite, you see, to say hello to passersby, who subsequently looked at me as if I were a little strange. I had a habit of waving to people, both strangers and acquaintances, when I saw them on the street. They would turn their heads, half-ashamed to acknowledge such an outlandish gesture. Worst of all, I had an exaggerated love of European and early American history in a state that was too new to appreciate what little history it had managed to record. I snatched at straws of significance in modern events. I was in the sixth grade when the Challenger exploded on take off. I would mark the anniversary every year. “Did you know it was five years ago today?” I once said to a classmate. She looked at me blankly. “So what?” she said to me. “Who cares?”

I don’t mean to paint Washingtonians as heartless. They are hardly that at all. But the people I was surrounded by seemed not to have much interest in things of the past. My personal family history was only granted, in bits and snatches, after years of perseverance and of irritating my elders until they were persuaded to tell me what little they knew, if only to shut me up. And they told it as if they were ashamed, even when they had nothing to be ashamed about. Though, to be honest, they just as often did.


We moved from Seattle to Savannah in 2001. My parents, grandparents, and siblings were not pleased by my desire for distance, particularly since the attacks of 9/11 occurred but two months after we had left. I worried for them worrying for me across busy circuits. But it was the history that drew me. A sense of place and self that comes only from the perspective that past stories offer. Even if they weren’t my stories. Savannah was fun in its way, but it wasn’t home. Old South likes its Old South Families, and we were not one of them. They liked to remind us of the fact.


In 2004 we moved again. This time to a small college town in South Carolina. I knew from the start it was only temporary, but, ever anxious to surround myself with history, we bought a 1918 Colonial Revival in desperate need of TLC. That’s what they call it there when a house needs complete restoration. I was up for the adventure. The second week we were in the heat (a series of ancient, oil-burning heaters, one the size of a small refrigerator) went out. We camped in the living room with a kerosene heater and the windows cracked so we didn’t suffocate. But we did restore it, and we lived in it and we loved it. Only a lack of protection for these houses and an under-appreciation for their value meant that, four years later, our beautifully restored and updated house is still on the market. Amelia Street was the place to live in Orangeburg at the turn of the century. The street is lined with old houses still, but most of them are run down now, empty and abandoned. On the opposite side of the street from where our house is situated, the phone company has begun tearing them down. The empty spaces sit like gaping holes in a child’s smile. A gated parking lot lies between two of the most impressive houses. No one wants to live there because there is no permanency. There’s no guarantee that Bell South’s need for ample parking and their optimism toward possible future expansions won’t outweigh the city’s need of outdated and under-appreciated architecture. I decided that, when the time came to move again, I would choose a house in a city with a strong preservation ethic.


Because, here’s the thing, those old-fashioned Victorians knew then what some of us know now; they were building art, and they were building it to last.


In 2010, my husband took a job in Martinsville, VA, but it was Danville’s astounding collection of historic homes that persuaded us to choose the commute. It took us a long time to find a house, nearly three years, but at last we did, and I can say I’m not sorry we waited. There were certainly plenty of houses to choose from, but it took a while for the right one to appear. We are now comfortably situated in the Old West End Historic District, in a rundown house with limited electricity and little in the way of real heat. And we have found our home.


Danville welcomed us. My eccentric habit of saying hello to people on the street, of waving to strangers, is not only accepted here, but considered a way of life. It’s just what you do.

As is preserving our past.


As Westerners, there is an innate ambiguity about Civil War history. We’re not Yankees, and we’re not Southerners. We’re something in between, which confuses people. Sometimes it confuses me. But I’m not without my Southern connections, after all. My grandmother was here when that episode in history took place.  She was born, ironically, in North Carolina, where generations upon generations of her family were born and raised, and where the streets, nearly all of them, are named after her and her kin. They are my kin, too.

2014 snowstorm

Danville was the last capital of the Confederacy. I’m not sure I realized just how significant this fact was just at first. It seems that, with the inhabiting of this house, I suddenly feel a kinship with the people who lived here before me; the Day family, a photographer by the name of Oliver Cole, P.F. Conway, who is responsible for building most of the Victorian houses on on my street, and, I suspect, many other of Danville’s historic homes. (It’s suggested he may even be responsible for building the magnificent Masonic Temple.) I suddenly relate to these people, I am interested in them. My life in this house is no longer so much about me, but it’s about the community as well. It’s about what happened before I came to live here, and what will happen when I’m gone. History lends perspective. Danville’s history, evidenced by its old houses and historic buildings, is what, in my opinion, and in the opinions of those who come to visit me here, gives the city its charm. It gives it character, and the revitalization of our historic districts, despite the seeming mass exodus of a decade or so ago, is what will allow Danville to maintain an air of significance and permanency, even while we—yes, I said we, for it’s my home too now—look to the future.


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