One of my recent field trips took me 45 minutes north of downtown to a place called Sharps Chapel. Located in Union County, just north of Maynardville off Highway 33, it's a place I'd never thought to visit until friends undertook an extreme relocation from urban Knoxville to that rural community. They've been inviting me out to see their new, old digs for two years, but it took a driving tour with Union County historian Bonnie Peters to get me out there. Now I wonder why I waited so long.
My friends Dave Whaley and Tomica Miller were fixtures in the Old North Knoxville neighborhood for years. So was the bed and breakfast they operated - The Brimer House Inn. Their inn was a popular destination, but Dave discovered he preferred restoration work over changing sheets and dealing with the sometimes maddening behavior of their paying house guests. So he and Tomica began driving country roads looking for land and plotting their escape to a peaceful, rural setting.
The story of how they found their current project sounds like a combination of serendipity and fate.
Dave and Tomica first stumbled upon the Jacob Sharp House when they were lost on the back roads of Union County. They could just make out the form of the two story brick house obscured by vines and brush at the end of a dirt road. After a little trespassing they knew they had found a treasure and wanted to find out who owned it.
They backtracked to a little store down the road where one of the locals told them it was known around there as the Bait Ousley House and they should contact the WIVK DJ Gunner, who was related to the owners. Gunner put them in touch with R.T. Ousley who, along with his sister Pauline Janes, had inherited the house from their parents in 1974.
The five-bay Federal style house was built in 1835 by Jacob Sharp on 700 acres of land originally granted to his father, Revolutionary War veteran Henry Sharp. Jacob was a Methodist minister and successful merchant at the time. In 1874 the house was sold to Jacob Ousley and remained in his family for 132 years. The house was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1978 due to community efforts to protect it, but it languished, unoccupied, for almost 30 years. It was known as the area's old haunted house and few thought it would survive.
The Ousleys had given up hope of restoring it when architectural salvager Scott Brady showed up in 2003 and bought the place with the intention of moving it to another location. Luckily, he was distracted by a massive distillery deconstruction in Kentucky and the house remained in place.
This turned out to be a bit of serendipity. Dave had met Brady while restoring the Brimer House Inn and was able to contact him immediately about the house. A purchase was arranged and the Ousleys happily sold them the land on which the house stands.
It could be said Dave and Tomica purchased a ruin in 2006. The house was uninhabitable, so after they sold the Brimer House Inn they took up temporary residence in a mobile home on the property. The roof and portions of some walls of the house had failed. Some critical architectural details were missing. That is another interesting facet of this tale.
For several years Dave had admired some massive fireplace mantels Brady had stored at his salvage business. When Dave talked with him about replacing the missing mantels out at Sharps Chapel, Brady informed him the mantels he'd admired came from the Sharp House and he returned them to be installed in their original location. They are there now in the place where they were installed almost 150 years ago.
The Jacob Sharp House is definitely a product of the time it was built. Most materials original to the house were produced on the land surrounding it. The bricks were made by slaves and you still can see a handprint captured on a brick in the wall of the ell at the back of the house. The floor and ceiling joists were milled from trees cut on the farm.
When Dave decided to complete most of the restoration himself he also decided to follow in the tradition of those who built the house. He has been working on it for over two years so far. He and a friend cut yellow pines from the property and set up a saw mill on site to cut the floor and ceiling joists needed to replace those that had rotted. But even portions of those compromised original timbers will be remilled and incorporated into floors needing repair. With the help of WASCO, masonry experts, Dave took down and cleaned 30,000 bricks from the east and south walls of the ell and put every single one back in place atop the limestone foundation rebuilt on new footers.
On the day I visited, I was given a tour of the house and property. As we explored the portion of the house Dave and Tomica will occupy first, an elderly yet spry man I'd never met climbed the back staircase to join us. I was taken aback when he announced he'd been born in the house. It was R.T. Ousley, farmer, educator and descendant of Jacob Ousley. He was obviously pleased by the current efforts to preserve his family's architectural heritage. I am grateful he helped get the house into good hands.
The question I had for Dave seemed obvious to me. When are they moving in? They bought the place in 2006 after all. His answer was well thought out and requires the patience of a saint. He explained to me that before they can occupy a portion of the house the following things need to happen over the next 18 months:
- Replace the deteriorated two over two replacement windows with new ones replicating the original nine over six windows.
- Complete the repair / replacement of the roof and floors.
- Complete the septic, plumbing and electrical systems.
After that they can move out of their temporary housing and begin work on the front portion of the house. I think this can be described as nothing short of a labor of love. I will look forward to seeing the final restoration since it will be a rare and beautiful thing.
If you are wondering what the executive director of Knox Heritage is doing running around in Union County, here's your answer:
Knox Heritage began as the preservation advocacy organization for Knoxville and Knox County 35 years ago. During that time we were supportive of other preservation organizations in the region but never had the resources to provide the assistance needed by some communities. That changed last year when we won a three year grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation to expand our services to the nine county region. The Partners in the Field program allowed us to hire Ethiel Garlington to provide assistance in the eight counties surrounding Knox County and reconstitute the Nine Counties Preservation Alliance. For more information on how we can assist your community or organization, contact Ethiel at (865) 523-8008 or firstname.lastname@example.org.