Vanishing America


Dan, a man in his early 70s, is selling his Tidewater house to developers who intend a McMansion on his large corner lot in suburban Washington, DC.  Dan is reluctant to discuss the sale for fear that publicity will anger the new corporate owners.  I assure him that my interest is historical.   “Well ya know,” he says, “I bought the place 30 years ago because it reminded me of Cracker Barrel.  That’s when I began to make decorations.  Do you like ‘em?  Neighbors do.  Kinda looks like Cracker Barrel, don’t ya think.

There is something of the hippie bureaucrat in Dan, and something of Virginia’s Tidewater, though the accent is rather more workingman Piedmont.  Just now he is taking down Christmas lights.  “Yup, last time.  No wife.”  And with cold cracked hands he neatly rolls the line of weather-worn multicolored bulbs.  If ever a wife, I cannot say.  Nor can I say what will become of the bulbs.  “Movin’ to a condo.  Retired.”  Dan pauses to glance at the house.  The glance tells nothing.


Vanishing America, condemned

Vanishing America, Alexandria Tidewater.  credit: M. Curtis


“Do ya know, there are lotsa houses like this near the cri-ick [Little Hunting Creek, once the property of George Washington].  Me ‘n my dog saw ‘em when walkin’.  Think they’re still there.  Think they are.”  He points toward the creek.  There is no evidence of a dog around the old house, and the Tidewaters were demolished years ago when high-rise cubicles and squeezed townhouses were erected.  Dan has little to say.  He smiles.  Waiting.  “The house was built around 1930,” he offers.  “Thanks,” I say, “Well done.”  “Thanks.”  Dan has nothing more to offer.

I wait for demolition fencing and dumpster.  The big dull McMansion will look odd surrounded by brick block duplexes, but no more odd than this delightfully eccentric Tidewater.  The old Tidewater is all that is left of small suburban farms that buffered the city and allowed the eye to breathe.


Vanishing America, map

Vanishing America, 1951 Greenfield Village Map.  courtesy: Greenfield Village


Five hundred miles away in Dearborn, Michigan is Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village, a nostalgic collection of houses that tells our American story: Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park laboratory, the Wright Brothers bicycle shop, Noah Webster’s house, Robert Frost’s house, Stephen Foster’s house, George Washington Carver’s cabin, McGuffey’s schoolhouse, a Cotswold cottage, and dozens of other buildings curious and peculiar.  And here at Greenfield Village, the 1880s Tidewater house of Amos and Grace Mattox, a well-to-do family of rural Georgia.

The Mattox house was moved by Ford in 1943 from property that Amos Morel (Amos Mattox’s grandfather) purchased in the 1870s.  Near the Mattox house were many houses of the extended family, cousins, aunts and uncles who purchased and subdivided the former plantation, each family building a house on their little section, each house fashioned as best suited family hopes and means.


Vanishing America, M. Curtis

Vanishing America, Mattox House, Greenfield Village.  credit: M. Curtis


Most of the extended Mattox family were farmers, alike their enslaved grandparents.  Yet Amos was rather more resourceful, a shoemaker, carpenter and barber who sometimes worked at the sawmill, the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad, and the Seaboard Air Line.  A devout, hardworking man, Amos was also a deacon at the Bryan Neck Baptist Church whose prayer house was half a field from the Mattoxes’ home.  Alike Amos, Grace was diligent, crocheting and embroidering, canning, homemaking and childrearing, each day walking the mile to and from school to provide her children a “proper hot lunch”.

As with 9 out of 10 1930s rural houses, the Maddox house lacked electricity and running water, yet it did have a battery-operated radio and a hand-crank phonograph (as did my grandparent’s house, antique treasures I discovered in the elephant-infested attic … Grandpa insisted that the haunting attic noise was tiptoeing elephants).  When Ford moved the house to Greenfield Village, the newspaper wallpaper was reconstructed, the Mattox furniture was arranged as it was in Georgia, and a photograph of Amos was hung above the fireplace.  Today, the house feels like old Tidewater, even to the bottle cap checkers on the checkerboard.


Vanishing America Interior of the Mattox House Greenfield Village. courtesy Greenfield Village

Vanishing America, Interior of the Mattox House, Greenfield Village.  courtesy: Greenfield Village


The exterior of the house also remembers its Southern heritage.  Accoutrement for chickens, hogs, and goats are set about, and the vegetable garden is tended: corn, sweet potatoes, peas, beans, tomatoes, okra, mustard, collard and turnip greens.  And then there is the grape arbor, source of shade and cool, and of that Southern summer refreshment, muscadine wine.  You will notice that the near-yard is broom-swept to prevent entangling vegetation, mosquitoes and snakes.
When in 1943 Henry Ford bought and moved the old Mattox Tidewater to Greenfield Village, he built for the remaining Mattoxes a new house with new furnishings.  And there in swampy Bryan County, Georgia, the Mattoxes lived until Henry and Clara Ford’s deaths (1947 and 1950) when the Mattox family was evicted by the Southern Kraft Timberland Company.  Seems that the Fords had not foreseen the intentions of the new corporate owners.


Mattox House 5

Vanishing America, Mattox House, Greenfield Village.  credit: M. Curtis


Yes, I suppose I should bring this brief consideration of vanishing America home to a neat conclusion.  Cannot fault corporations for acquiring profits to feed families, nor can I fault retirees for abandoning dreams, nor can I fault those who see and know for dying, we each and all work to feed, retire, die.  All things pass away, expecting God and our eternal souls.  Even so, in these days when the most dangerous place to be is the womb (one in three mothers murders her own child) and 25% of the Gen-Z consider themselves queer, I do mourn the loss of a people devout and good, honest and true, and regret their erasure by a people eager of vanishing America, its houses, virtues, and traditions.


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Featured image: Cracker Barrel Hearth. courtesy: Mike Kellett and Cracker Barrel

See The Beautiful Home for more on the Tidewater Style.


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