Josh Shaffer

From an abandoned house, a family’s history is found

Michelle Bowers starts to venture inside a tobacco barn in Franklin County, where she photographs abandoned houses as a hobby.
Michelle Bowers starts to venture inside a tobacco barn in Franklin County, where she photographs abandoned houses as a hobby. jshaffer@newsobserver.com

The house stood hidden by shoulder-high weeds, its front door wide open and its windows busted out, empty beer bottles strewn around the yard.

Michelle Bowers couldn’t resist looking inside. It’s her hobby and her weakness. Some people collect stamps or play bridge. Bowers photographs falling-down wrecks along country roads, looking for clues forgotten people left behind.

She keeps two rules: Never disobey a “No Trespassing” sign, and never take souvenirs. But this house, sitting on U.S. 401 just over the Harnett County line, was different. She found family pictures. She found a church ledger from 1933, all the tithes recorded in pencil. She found an upright piano standing in the bedroom.

“Something told me to grab what I could,” said Bowers, 45. “I took the pictures. I took the ledger with all the tithes. I put them on my Facebook page and said, ‘I would love to find somebody living.’ ”

She learned that even long-gone people leave traces, and that the smallest scraps are precious to strangers somewhere. Not only was somebody living. Somebody recognized the faces in the picture, knew the church from the ledger and remembered holding the hand of her bedridden great-grandmother while the family gathered at the piano.

“I could not believe it,” said Latesha Howard, 40, a travel agent in Pittsboro. “That was my first time ever seeing my great-grandmother’s handwriting.”

By now, Bowers has explored hundreds of rickety houses across the state, the sort where critters jump out of the dark and feet crunch through rotten floorboards. Her Facebook page, Abandoned Homes of North Carolina, has more than 25,000 likes from fans.

One of those fans, Annette Taylor, noticed the photos from Harnett County and offered help from her own hobby/weakness: genealogy. She pored over online death records, census reports and graveyard histories – searching for names to match Bowers’ artifacts, working backward from the 401 address. The names she had to work with: Oris and Maggie Stephens.

“Sometimes,” Taylor said, “if you’re lucky, you can get a nibble.”

A message on Facebook

When the name Latesha Howard turned up in Pittsboro, Taylor tried a wild stab and left a note on her Facebook page. Know a Maggie Stephens? But since Howard and Taylor weren’t acquainted, the message landed in Howard’s “other” folder, which few people ever check. (Reporters everywhere, this one especially, lament this Facebook policy.)

This all happened last summer. Time marched on while Taylor’s message sat unread. Then on March 30, Taylor heard back. Yes, Howard told her. I know Maggie Stephens. That’s my great-grandmother.

“We talked all day,” Taylor said. “I was super-excited. Her history had been lost.”

Taylor hadn’t seen the house in almost a decade. When I asked how to find it, she couldn’t remember right away. The landmarks had all changed. The last relative she knew under that roof, a great uncle, moved to a niece’s house in Texas and had died years ago.

But Maggie Stephens she remembered. She had Sunday dinners there as a child, along with 20 to 30 other cousins and assorted relatives. Stephens was confined to a bed at the time, near death well into her 90s in 1981. But as a girl, Taylor held her hand.

“I would just sing to her, and the family would come in and gather around the piano,” she said.

When Bowers brought her finds to the family last weekend, Taylor’s mother thought the woman in the photo might be an Aunt Virginia. The back of the picture identified a minister, most likely from Mission Temple across the street, which still stands. The ledger from 1933 counted the pennies that came from their neighbors’ hands, deep in the Depression.

“These houses can sometimes be depressing,” Bowers said. “You never find the story behind it. Why are they still there? This was the one time you could put a face to it.”

I visited Wednesday after Taylor shared the address. I found hats still hanging on their hooks. I found a rotary phone still connected. I saw the piano, where vagrants had propped their empty bottles.

I didn’t feel like an intruder. With its stories still scattered on the floor, the place wanted to be found.

jshaffer@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4818

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