On Saturday, an old friend took me on a tour of the Pensacola community where she grew up. I had only seen her in passing for the past several years, and the opportunity to catch up and look at old houses was too good to pass up. Her house is only a twenty-minute drive from town, but as I drove the curvy road, I couldn’t help but think what it must have been like when the only mode of transportation was horses. It would have taken much longer.
To get there, you drive across the mountain, then the land opens up into a long, wide valley. The road follows the river most of the time, and the view is spectacular. The valley floor is cultivated, with hayfields, corn fields and gardens, and the mountains are covered in forests, and these days, houses. At one time, this little community was a boom town, at the height of the timber industry. The railroad came here, and the original depot is now a private home. Just driving through, you get a sense of the past.
The houses she showed me are all in various stages of decay. Some are worse than others. One sits in the middle of a hayfield. At some point, it was used as a tobacco barn, and the braces and tier poles are still inside. One is collapsing in the back, a jumble of boards and windows. Another is somewhat kept up, the yard mown around it and the lilacs in bloom, but the windows are broken and the inside is full of junk.
One look will tell you that these were the homes of the affluent, people who made their money logging the chestnut timber these mountains were famous for. But in the early 1900’s, the chestnut blight hit. The trees died, and the biggest part of the timber industry died with them. The big houses were expensive to maintain, they were hard to heat, and gradually, the families moved out and they fell into the ruins we see today.
There are no ghosts here, but if you be very quiet and still, you can almost hear the past, whispers of sound right on the cusp of hearing. The swish of long skirts, the laughter of children, the sounds of grief-stricken crying. The stories are still here, of ice cream socials, of adultery and murder, of birth and life and death. You can almost hear them. Almost.
Or maybe it is only my imagination.