Living on the West End: The old house
By Bill Shepard
“This old house is getting shaky,
“This old house is getting old.
“This old house lets in the rain.
“This old house lets in the cold.”
The above lines, taken from their original context, would be fitting to the old house shown in the accompanying picture. The old house, built near the turn of the previous century, was the home of the Shepard family for nigh 50 years or longer.
Built on that part of the Mill Village where this writer spent all of his youthful years, it withstood the attacks of nature for at least a hundred years. It survived the fires of March that were common in the early 1900s. When the houses on each side of the old house were burned to the ground with nothing left but the chimneys, the old house was miraculously spared.
In the mid-1930s, when the Darlington Manufacturing Co. (owned by Milliken and Deering) decided to sell all of the houses on the village, Dad bought the old house.
It remained in the Shepard family for the next 50 years. It was a simple four room house with a floor plan of four rooms with a wide hall separating the two rooms on one side and two on the other. One room was designed to be a kitchen. A chimney leading upward to the roof provided for the large wood-burning stove that stood in one corner.
All the people used wood-burning stoves in that early period. That house was not wired for an electric stove, even if there had been one. Oil-burning stoves were yet in the future for most village folk. The electricity in the mill houses was used to furnish a light cord, hanging from the ceiling, and that was considered luxury!
The company’s decision to sell their employees the houses they were living in was accepted by most of the village folk. For most, it was probably the first time to ever own anything. Most had migrated to Darlington from the surrounding farms, where they had worked as sharecroppers.
Employment at the mill offered a steady job with weekly pay, guaranteed credit at the large company-owned store and a house to live in. The cost of rent was 2 cents per room each week.
The houses on the village had only three or four rooms.
A three-room house was 75 cents a week and the four-room house was $1 per week! There seemed to be an unwritten rule that only families with more than one worker at the mill could rent a four-room house.
Since Dad was the only one employed from our family, we lived in a small three-room house for the first 10 years we were in the village. Later, an older brother was employed at the mill at an early age, allowing us to qualify for a four-room house!
When the houses were offered for sale to the employees, Dad bought one of the larger houses. We were at home, all of us!
The company made it possible for each employee to purchase a house, if they so desired. A small amount would be deducted from the employee’s weekly salary. Before releasing the house to the buyer, it was painted inside and outside.
Minor repairs were done by the mill carpenters and then the house and its upkeep belonged to the buyer. As a boy, I witnessed the change that seemed to come overnight. The brightly and newly painted houses, of various colors, was so beautiful.
I have often wished that I could have a picture of the village as it appeared. One could feel the pride that the villagers showed in their new homes. Trees were set, flower gardens showed up; it was indeed a beautiful village. There is so much I could write about the changes that I observed among the new owners of the Mill Village houses.
The three Shepard boys went into the military, after the war began in 1941. Two young girls stayed at home in the old house, a comfort to Mom and Dad who remained at the place where they had come to live, a long time ago. They had come to stay and raise their family. I think that Dad thought that one day, he would see the smoke rise from the smoke stack at the old mill.
It never happened. My brother, Harvey, went to the Navy in 1939; he never returned to Darlington to live. Harry went into the Army and served as a “gunner” on the Queen Mary, an ocean-liner that was converted to a troop transport ship for the duration of the war.
The war ended and Harry returned home and finished living his life at the end of the very street where we all had lived. My older sister stayed on with Mom and Dad for a short time and then she moved out. Dad was next to leave; he went to wait on us all in a far different world than the one he had known and loved so much. Mom left, but the old house remained standing at the very spot where it had first been built. It reverted back to the way it was, before the Village received its face lift.
Left for me to dispose of, I sold it, hoping that some young couple would move in and raise a family. Let the old rafters hear voices of children, happy at play. It did not happen! Instead, it gave way to the demolition crew that came to remove it.
It still lives on in the minds of my sister and me. As long as either of us lives, the old house will live also.
One of the saddest things I’ve ever known
Is a house, a house that once was a home.
Houses are made of wood and stone,
But more is needed to make it a home.
I passed an old house yesterday,
It seemed the tenants had moved away.
It was just a house with the roof caved in,
But I couldn’t help but think of what it had been.
It needed painting and a new board here and there,
The porch was falling down in need of repair!
Across the field, the woods were closing in
And I thought of things that used to be, and things that might have been.
There was a time when it was filled with laughter
That echoed from the floor all the way to the rafters.
And if you ask me, it won’t take me long
To say it takes that to make a house a home!
I imagined that house was one day filled
With voices that sounded loud and shrill.
Children that were happy and busy at play
And a Mom and Dad to enjoy them that way.
I looked at the house and thought what a shame,
It looked so sad with its broken window panes.
I wondered if somewhere there was a girl and a boy
Who would restore to this house some of its joy.
If some boy would take his spouse
And move into that neglected old house,
Fill it with love and let children be born.
He would change the old house back to a home.
Yes, you can build a house with all sorts of things
But it isn’t a home until laughter rings,
Rings from the floor plum up to the ceiling
And gives that house a homey feeling.
I passed by an old house yesterday
All of its children had moved away.
I was sad and wanted to cry –
Instead, I passed on by.
— Bill Shepard