Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Mr. Wolfe, we're going home again

In the late 1930s when Thomas Wolfe of Asheville, N.C., was finishing up his novel "You Can't Go Home Again," my paternal grandparents were building a new home in McKenzie, Tennessee.

Vilas V. Vawter Sr. and Carrie DePriest Vawter had been forced to make the move to the small town in West Tennessee because the Vawter family farm near Milan, Tennessee, had been taken over by the Department of Defense in order to build the massive Milan Arsenal, a World War II munitions stockpile. My grandfather was one of the last holdouts, but he eventually took his compensation and purchased 120 acres in Carroll County. The farmhouse, sitting on one of the highest points in the county, consisted of three rooms. With little more than a hammer and a handsaw, Vilas Sr. immediately began turning the small single- story house into a seven-bedroom two-story home where he and Carrie would would raise their seven children.

The children -- Vilas Jr., Bobby, Billy, Betty Jane, Carolyn, Nancy and Judy -- would begat 15 first cousins. Every summer in the 1950s and 60s, Vawter cousins would descend on the farm from all over the United States. The huge farmhouse, the hay-filled barn and the fields of cotton, corn and soybean were a place of magic for us. Granddaddy plowed the fields with several of us always on the tractor. We helped chase the cattle and hogs that invariably broke through the barbed-wire fencing. The only baths were on Saturday nights and always three or more in the tub. Gender was irrelevant.

Vilas Sr. died in 1967 at age 78 after a tractor accident. Carrie sold the farm and then the house in 1974. She died in 1983 at age 91.

For more than 40 years the farmhouse was lost to the Vawter family. Some of us would occasionally drive by the house on the Old Paris Highway and vicariously relive "back in the day."

In 2009 on a trip back to McKenzie, Aunt Judy noticed that the old farmhouse was for sale. She pondered. After the death of her husband, Bill, in 2010, Judy's mind was made up. She wrote a check for the house and put a sizeable chunk of money in the McKenzie bank for the home's renovation.

Aunt Nancy, still a resident of McKenzie, knew all the good craftspeople in town, including a wonderful Amish carpenter. I signed on as the unofficial, absentee and ersatz general contractor. While the cosmetics were in sad shape, the bones of the house (all sawmill red oak) were as solid as they were 75 years ago. I defy anybody to drive a nail into a joist or rafter. The house will be there long after the present generations are gone.

To date this is what has been done to the Vawter House:

• New green metal roof.
• New electrical service and wiring.
• New windows and screens.
• All new siding, fascia and soffits.
• New kitchen cabinets, countertops and appliances.
• New central heat and air conditioning.
• New ceilings.
• New tongue & groove walls in most rooms.
• Reframed back porch.
• New bath. (That's right, seven bedrooms and one bath. The Vawters have always been a close family!)

Along about the first week in May, all the Vawter cousins will gather for 10 days of painting, general cleaning and final trim work. In June floors will be refinished, new carpeting will be laid in the bedrooms and new lighting will be installed. Judy has gathered furniture from near and far to furnish the house.

On July 4th the entire Vawter family and many friends will celebrate the renovation of Vawter House with a family reunion. Over that weekend we will tell and retell the hundreds (thousands?) of family stories. We're hoping that Cousin Jill Holland, who just happens to be the new mayor of McKenzie, will proclaim the day as Vawter Day in McKenzie. We will take part in the city's parade and the Vawter Family Bluegrass Band will play.

As readers of Deerfield Diary know, I rarely post anything that doesn't have a direct connection to my own family's home in Deerfield in Louisville, Tenn., but on further consideration, the Vawter House in McKenzie house has everything to do with Deerfield. I vowed in my retirement to try to recapture some of the rural magic of McKenzie, to ramble around on a tractor, to plant, to build and to remember. It all started in McKenzie in the big old white house that was cold in the winter, hot in the summer but always filled with laughter and love.

In many ways, Thomas Wolfe was right. It is difficult to go home again, but then he never met the Vawter family.

(Painting of the Vawter House is by my late aunt, Betty Jane Vawter Harris.)


  1. Informative post, I learned several new things about my own family. Hope I can make it there for Vawter Day!

  2. A wonderful story, Vince. Thank you for sharing it. I hope you all have a great time together during the work project and on 4 July.

  3. I want to come for Vawter Day, too! And I'm no Vawter. This is an amazing story--it did my heart so much good to read it. As it turns out, I am from West Tennessee. Milan is just a "few" minutes from my family's farm. I grew up in outside of Martin, TN.

    Thank you for commenting on my blog and telling me about yours. I love this story. As you share more of it I'd love to post on my blog about it. I can't wait to hear how this turns out!

  4. Amy: You are officially invited. Julie will be there unless her son (my first grandson) decides to come early. We'll keep in touch.