Jenkins: Soulful legacy of the Blue House

August 15, 2012 

Steve Petersen went fishing one summer in the dark, cool waters of the Lumber River in Scotland County, and caught himself a family. And that led the musician, who lawyers for a living in Raleigh (he’s a partner in Smith Moore Leatherwood), to pen “Blue House,” a lovely ode to a house, a man, his wife, their six children, their grandchildren and at last count, a few thousand additional kinfolks.

It started in the late 1960s, when Petersen, whose family had moved from Arkansas to Raleigh in 1966, made the friendly Broughton High School acquaintance of Duncan McMillan, now a Raleigh attorney and then a classmate. One summer, he invited Petersen to join him on a trip to Scotland County, in specific to a community called Riverton, where in some piney woods a number of McMillan’s relatives had summer cottages. It is a place of history, settled just about 200 years ago by ancestors who were Scottish missionaries,

At first glance, it’s rustic to be sure. The river is cold and swift and not to every newcomer’s swimming taste, and the houses are modest. One house in those woods, though, has been a temporary home to more visitors than most, a home built a little more than 50 years ago by Raleigh attorney Robert McMillan (father to Duncan McMillan and his three brothers and two sisters) and his late wife, Virginia Maynard McMillan. (Note: I’m a distant cousin in the clan.)

Petersen was struck by a bolt of serenity the first time he saw the place. “It had everything I liked,” he said. “The first time it was a bunch of high school boys going off to the river to have a big time. There was swimming and fishing and canoes, and a big screened porch where we could have fun. Later, it was a lot more.”

And so he did go back, several times over the next few years, and then there was college and family and responsibilities and he didn’t return until the 1990s, again in Duncan McMillan’s company. In 1994, he attended the annual 4th of July picnic and he hasn’t missed one since. He took his daughters some, and they’d always pitch a tent in Robert McMillan’s yard. Then one year, he and his daughters came and there were McMillans in the cottage and a free-standing screened porch built on his usual tent site.

Petersen jokingly complained about his tent site being gone, and after a few minutes, Robert McMillan told him that his son, Roy, a builder, had built the porch. “He said it was for me,” Petersen said.

And then came the big moment. After a Labor Day picnic in 2010, Petersen was helping the McMillans clean up and “Robert said, ‘you all come and sit down and I want to talk to you all.’” There were Petersen, Duncan McMillan, his sister May McMillan Bensen and their father.

“Robert said some very gracious things, and they basically invited me into their family,” Petersen said. “It was a very personal and important conversation to me.” In October of 2010, he went to Riverton and walked into the woods under the moonlight and wrote a song, “Blue House.”

It includes a history of the ancestors, including the hiding of the family silver in the river when Yankees rode through during the Civil War, and the dividing of land among descendants by “Gramma White.” But mainly, it’s about what the place means to people. One partial verse:“If I were to die tomorrow, if my time had run; sprinkle my ashes down along the river, at the blue house in the sun.”

And: “Along the banks of the river, they gave us summers of fun; they sprinkled their love all around us, at the blue house in the sun.”

The closing verse goes, “Since Gramma took the old pasture, and thoughtfully passed it on; five generations now have lived on the acres in this song; we hope that all of our children, will realize what we’ve done; we’ve sprinkled their futures with the love and lessons from the blue house in the sun.”

Petersen said, “I remember that night. I could almost see the ghosts of the family members in the woods and I went in there and thought this is important and I need to get this down. I came out about midnight and the song was done.”

Through many a picnic, he’s often been asked by the kinfolk as to what his Riverton connection is. Finally, one told him, “Well, sometimes it’s better to discover a place than to be born into it.”

“I liked that,” Petersen said.

Yes, it was right on key.

Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins can be reached at 919-829-4513 or at jjenkins@newsobserver.com

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