I wanted to adopt my cabin, Servants Quarters, and cart it back home. But unfortunately for me – and fortunately for future guests – the Spear family had already scooped up the antebellum abode, brushed off its rot and provided it with a promising new life.
Stevenson Ridge in Spotsylvania, Va., is like an orphanage for abandoned and decrepit historic buildings. At present count, Dan and Debbie Spear have salvaged eight edifices dating from the 18th and 19th centuries. Some of the structures were relocated from the Virginia and North Carolina countrysides, landing at the couple’s 87-acre property in rough condition. A few, such as the Civil War House and Corn Crib, originated at Stevenson Ridge. But no matter the distance traveled (or not), all were treated equally, with each one receiving the Restorer’s Makeover Special.
When I drove through the gate, my gaze swept across a small village playing peek-a-boo through the trees. A pond unified the setting, a watering hole for bone-dry buildings. The scene reminded me of a living museum, or a starter kit for Williamsburg, Va., but with one missing piece: no grim-faced re-enactors dressed in period costumes. Thank ye.
I first stopped inside the Lodge, the administration building and banquet hall that is partly assembled from a 19th-century Canadian church, plus doors once owned by Ulysses S. Grant. On the ground floor, I met Jennifer Hawkins, the owners’ personable daughter, who was – what a relief! – dressed in contemporary clothing.
While checking in, she debriefed me on the history of the property (former staging ground of Union troops) and her parents’ project. The Spear Era began with the Civil War House, an 1800s caretaker’s residence that they renovated in 2001. Her dad is currently fixing up a pre-Civil War tobacco barn from Pittsylvania, Va. With the twin forces of passion and obsession at his back, I imagine more structures will crest the ridge very soon.
“If it were up to him,” she said, “he’d do one a year.”
Before I headed off to my cabin, I confessed that I was a Girl Scout dropout who failed fire-building class. Hawkins lent me her fiance, a Civil War historian endowed with the survival skills of a frontiersman. (While I drove, Chris Mackowski cut through the trees, arriving well before me. “I was bushwhacking,” he said from the tiny porch.)
The one-room cabin circa 1850 was pre-warmed with electric baseboard heat and a space heater circa 20th century. But I was method-traveling, and I needed a fire to fuel the illusion of a world before thermostats. Mackowski knelt before the fireplace and built bookends with logs. He filled the middle section with newspaper, a chunk of fire starter and a tic-tac-toe of kindling. “Whoosh” went the fire. “Whoa,” I silently muttered to myself, as I took stock of the 360 degrees of wood materials.
Mackowski assured me that I wouldn’t burn down the house. No guest had, though a few did set off the fire alarm. The culprit: the closed flue. We made sure that my chimney was open wide enough to fit Santa and Mrs. Claus.
With his survivalist duties complete, the historian took over. Mackowski told me that you can often determine a structure’s time period by the cut and construction of the floor planks. Servants Quarters’ boards, measuring 20 feet long and 15 inches wide, apparently screamed Civil War. He also pointed out some of the cabin’s original features, such as the bricks in the walls and mantelpiece and the timber frame. And though I would gather my water from the sink instead of a pump, I could take a dip in semi-verisimilitude: An outdoor shower occupied the former outhouse.
The Spear crew incorporated as many first-source materials as possible. When that proved impossible, they installed period-appropriate elements and designs, such as bronze door fixtures and heart-pine floors. Spy Hill, my neighbor to the left, wears a red-painted scalloped shingle roof that echoes Mount Vernon’s topper. The knickknacks also come from dusty antique shelves. In my cabin, a Woodruff file holder from the 1800s tidied up a stack of magazines that were also dated (2013: When we cared if Jen would finally marry Justin). In the corner, an old mop rested after a lifetime of cleaning, its head wrapped in a turban of white cloth.
Modern times do make an appearance, but within the framework of yesteryear. For instance, I watched “American Idol” by the glow of lamps. I brushed my teeth in the kitchenette sink, but, on the plus side, I could also tend to the nearby coffee pot with my free hand. In the loft, I read in bed by flashlight and charged my smartphone from across the room (no outlets by my elbow).
Because I was the only guest that evening, Hawkins invited me to roam through the other lodgings. I grabbed a map and a flashlight and headed into the star-spangled night. I started with Riddick House, a Greek Revival-style plantation with High Tara style, and Spy Hill, built in 1732 on an estate owned by George Washington’s grandfather. A few steps away, I arrived at the cute-as-a-cookie Adrian Cabin, suitable for Keebler elves. Before rounding the pond to visit Post Office (1850s, bright bay window) and Log Home (1830s, four fireplaces, enviable porch), I peeked into Corn Crib, which reminded me of a Florida rental property with its white furnishings and tile floor. Returning to my cabin, I noticed a wood structure not on the map. I cupped my hands against the dark window and saw a jumble of construction equipment – the newest adoption to the Stevenson Ridge clan.
The next morning, I set out to find the Civil War-era earthworks just past Adrian Cabin. I walked by tall clumps of dirt with Chia pet sprouts. I assumed that they were another Papa Spear endeavor, but learned that I was 150 years off. As I walked deeper into the forest in search of more trenches, I heard a crinkle in my back pocket. It was the map from last night. Before long, it too would be an artifact.