Until late 20th century, many Shenandoah Valley farmhouses only had rainwater

by Richard L. Thornton, Architect and City Planner

In the image above, you see Mary Tipton, first wife of Colonel John Tipton, who died in childbirth in 1776, while he was away at war. She became one of several ghosts, who inhabited the house or farm. Mary stayed upstairs, where she died. Sometimes, she would possess my former wife, causing her to walk the floors in her sleep, looking for her lost baby. The farm was a Civil War battlefield (Battle of Toms Brook) and the house was a Civil War hospital, so there were also plenty of ghosts floating around the premises and pastures.

Ghost of Old Man Wisman smoking a pipe on the front porch, before it was restored.

In 1780, Col. Tipton and his partner John Sevier, led wagon trains to what was to become the State of Tennessee. There Tipton built a copy of his house in Shenandoah County, Virginia. That house is now a Tennessee State Historic Site and museum.

Rain water harvesting has a long history in the valley

When we first arrived in Shenandoah County in the autumn of 1986, many houses outside of municipal water distribution systems, relied on rainwater, stored in underground cisterns. The reason was that much of the underground water was covered by a dense strata of dolomitic limestone, which could not be penetrated with hand tools.

Also, until the late 1990s, the Shenandoah Valley received most of its precipitation in the winter months. June, July and August were its driest months. In the winter, the ground literally swelled as snow melted and filled natural cisterns in the dolomite. That rock strata looks like Swiss cheese in profile. Now, the climate has changed radically. The region now has a climate like the Southern Appalachians, where July is the wettest month!

I am currently working on a book about my most interesting historic preservation projects. This photo of our chimney before I restored the house is an excellent example of how Shenandoah Valley farmers once collected all of their water.

The stone cellar walls of this house were the base of a blockhouse (fort) during the French and Indian War, constructed in 1754. Most of the house was constructed in 1770. There were decorative changes and the additions of porches in 1793 and 1832. The house was extensively repaired after the Battle of Toms Brook. The wide heart pine floors still bear blood stains in the shapes of bodies and the date, a day after the battle, carved into the Dining Room floor. In the late 1980s I built a wing between the house and a building used for dying and spinning wool, to create a huge “country kitchen” and an architecture office.

The restored house in 1991.
The Country Kitchen (left) is built over the location of the underground rainwater cistern. On the right is another Shenandoah Valley tradition, which I restored . . . the fenced kitchen herb garden. Interestingly enough, traditional Maya and Creek Indian houses also had fenced kitchen gardens. I photographed several, while touring eastern Campeche in a Jeep with a future ethnologist, who specializes in Maya dancing. At the time, though, she was a rising senior in college, planning to teach history in some Mexican high school.

Now you know!

1 Comment

  1. WOW This is interesting Richard. You had a lot of work to do on your house.I know what that is like seeing that My husband and I have in the past re-stored two old houses but it’s nice to see the finishing results. Hope things are easing off a little with the Covid pandemic in your part of the world.

    Liked by 1 person

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