Estimated reading time: 14 minutes
An ode to small towns, to the places we once belonged — to homecoming, rediscovery and living in communion with land
I would be remiss in telling you how two suburbanites found home at our farm, ‘Oakhaven’, without first sharing our motives. There were a few. We had been watching the steady decline of the small towns we love for some years now, especially since the late 90’s.
One of my favorite childhood memories is riding with my parents across the back roads of Georgia to visit my grandparents for Christmas. The dark country roads would suddenly brighten with strings of twinkly lights against the cold night sky. Fuzzy tinsel outlines of candy canes, Santas, and gold and silver bells hung from lampposts along the street. I know it sounds idealistic, but that’s how the world is supposed to be when you’re a child – full of magic, wonder and stardust.
But now, during the day, the sun outshines the strung lights and the truth is laid bare: small towns are drying up.
Historic main street buildings sit vacant, slowly crumbling, waiting on investors. They are like their elderly, forgotten in local nursing homes, quietly living out their last days staring out the window at the parking lot.
Tides turned on small town America and somebody, somewhere, somehow decided that they were no longer fashionable — and left them to dwindle and starve. Swarms of people and industry packed their bags and moved away. It’s a harsh reality, but there is still time to turn things around.
There are a growing number of us who have seen through the trappings of easy city living. Our memories from childhood are calling us back to these small towns we once escaped from. We are rediscovering our true values, understanding that a successful life is one of simplicity, humility, and close relationships — of belonging. We recognize small towns as the jewels that they are, for it’s in community that human beings thrive, not isolated and anonymous in a city.
It was my grandmother who called me to come back here. She’s been gone for 17 years, but I feel her with me every day.
My grandparents are the ones who knitted my spirit into the land during summer visits to their farm. Memories of standing barefoot with her in the garden, eating tomatoes off the vine and lazy afternoon pond fishing have had a boomerang effect on me in my empty-nesting years.
I found Oakhaven while daydreaming and perusing a real estate website. It consisted of an 1870’s farmhouse on 100 acres with a stocked 2-acre lake, a chicken house, and a few old barns. My soul was aflutter. It was the perfect setup to lead a more self-sufficient lifestyle and to be in better relationship with the land as the provider of our food. After following the listing for over a year, we decided to visit it in person.
Stepping onto the land for the first time in May of 2020, we knew Oakhaven was special. So many places in the world have their history covered up under layers of concrete and ambition, but out here in rural Alabama, the stories of the people are alive in the soil. We felt it. The towering oaks, magnolias, and pecan trees were heavy with thick, leafy branches as it was almost June. The pear and lemon trees were beginning to bear fruit, and in the distance, we could just see the pond at the base of several sloping hills.
The house had stood unoccupied for years but remarkably hadn’t yet fallen into disrepair. It was stately but not ornate, a balance of 1870’s Italianate style and farmhouse function. Entering the front door, my husband, Neil, and I both felt we had been transported back to our grandparents’ generation, when time was marked by seasons, and families lived in harmony with the land. Our connection to this place was instantaneous, and we knew by the end of the day it would be our home.
The house had waited for us.
Neil and I were both born in Alabama — Birmingham and Dothan respectively — but our lives had taken very indirect routes around the globe to bring us back to this part of the world. His interest in martial arts led him to study with a grandmaster in the mountains of Japan. Later, a career in the military opened a door to even more adventures in South America and the Middle East. I, on the other hand, had lived abroad in Europe and Africa, studying art and raising children. We met later in life and found our way back home together. They say that life eventually comes full circle, and for us that is happening on a farm in Eufaula, Alabama.
As we would come to discover, Oakhaven was rich in history and had been home to three families over the past 150 years. Colonel Hiram Hawkins and his wife Louisiana headed south after his regiment in Kentucky surrendered at the end of the Civil War. They relocated to Eufaula with his mother and built the house, living there until Colonel Hawkins was the last to pass in 1914. For some time after his death, the house was vacant and fell into disrepair.
An historical article reports that in the early 1930’s, much of the rare wrought iron had been scattered across the yard. The prominent Comer family purchased and completely restored the home, caring for it for the next 60 years. When we found it, Oakhaven was being used as a hunter’s weekend getaway, and it hadn’t been fully occupied by a family in decades. In August of 2020, it was love at first sight, and we became the fourth owners. Once again, the home was in need of a major restoration and love.
We were excited to spend our first weekend in the empty house before restorations began. During the day, we would take walks and sit in different parts of the property. The views in every direction were intoxicating to us. On more than one occasion, I’ve been moved to tears by something I can’t quite put into words. The feeling hits me at the spirit level. My attention skips from pine groves to sweeping skies to tiny wild daffodils.
Reorienting to the land and to open spaces is like traveling to a foreign country.
The senses are alive and awake to everything that feels unfamiliar. Over the course of two days, I spotted a black widow spider, the remains of a timber rattler, and caught sight of a family of wild boar in the front yard. At sunset, the coyotes performed their chaotic evening serenade just over the ridge. For the first time in my life, I felt what it was like to live among the untamed. It was both thrilling and unsettling at the same time — writhing in aliveness.
Out in the country, the absence of people is heard in the silence and seen in the darkness. When the moon and stars disappear behind clouds, the black night becomes one thing and takes up all the negative space. It’s surprising to learn how living remotely brings life back to simple truths that are millennia old.
Living on the land makes me understand how traditional roles make sense. In the city, a woman feels confident in the order of things, but in reality, she is heavily dependent on systems to organize life and play the role of the protector. Out here on the farm, my illusions of control were shattered in one weekend. Not only did I experience the need to feel safe, but also the sheer workload ahead of us made me realize my reliance on my husband’s physical strength. Add to that the fury caused by rousing a long-dormant septic system from its sleep, and I had to surrender my feminist card.
Dependence is a difficult thing for the modern woman to admit, but there is something profound in this kind of partnership with each other and with the land.
If Oakhaven is our Eden, then paradise will sooner or later reveal a snake. That first night in the house, I decided to take a shower and wash our two little dogs at the same time. The three of us piled into the tub. I was shocked at how dirty the dogs were. The water turned a filthy brown and made its way toward my knees. Next, I heard a guttural belch from the toilet. The sink chimed in. I yelled for Neil, who appeared with a plunger, and heroically began pumping, first the shower, then the toilet, and then the sink.
After several minutes, the swampy water receded back down the drain and we were saved. I buried the thought that anything more than dirt had come out of the pipes. It had probably been years since anyone had taken a shower in that house. My mind flashed to the bathtub scene from the movie, “The Money Pit”, and I felt sick to my stomach. The three of us emerged from behind the shower curtain, dirtier than when we entered. Tired, we dried off and headed for the blow-up mattress. What had I gotten us into?
Fall was approaching, so the nights began to offer some reprieve from the heat. Little did I know that the slight change in temperature would have such a dramatic effect on the house. At night, when we settled onto the air mattress with the dogs at our feet, the house came alive.
Loud bangs and groans of what sounded like metal ships hitting icebergs pierced the contrasting silence.
As I lie awake, I heard the scratching of an animal under the floor. By morning, the air had leaked out of the mattress and the four of us woke up in a life-size taco. Groggy and irritable, we sat in our beach chairs in the kitchen. Just as I was about to take my first sip of life-giving coffee, Neil turned to me and said, “I think we have a poltergeist.”
Of course, he was only kidding, right? Ghosts don’t actually exist. Everyone jokes that an old house has a ghost or two, that’s just part of the charm. But on the off-chance ghosts are real, I rationalized, has anyone ever been murdered by a ghost?
Neil proceeded to tell me that at some point in the middle of the night, he heard not only what sounded like footsteps, but also the crashing of dishes in the kitchen. He had jumped up, pistol drawn, and searched the house, including the dirt floor crawlspace underneath, but found nothing. When he shared this story, I got angry. It’s hard to sell a haunted house. We were stuck with it. I yelled out to no one, “Get used to us, we’re not going anywhere!” Then I looked at Neil seething with anger and told him to never say that again.
If this line of thinking sounds irrational, please know it happened pre-coffee. I did come back to my senses, and after a little research online, I read about the settling noises old houses make during the change of seasons. A new friend and fellow historic homeowner assured me that this was normal. As a matter of fact, she told me old homes that had been vacant for a while had the most to say when new owners moved in. She reassured me that the house would settle down once it got to know us and learned our habits and patterns.
Once she explained this to me, the way I saw our house shifted. We were less homeowners and more caretakers now. Oakhaven had its own personality, formed by a history full of families with stories that had accumulated into the walls and floors.
Everyone says that old houses are special because of their character and the quality of their materials. I think they are special because they are archives of memory, silent witnesses to the passage of time.
Over the course of this first weekend, Oakhaven initiated us as stewards. Now it was our turn to add a chapter to its story. For all my concerns about safety and being out in the middle of nowhere, I couldn’t wait to come back again. The unknowns of country life were beginning to take the shape of adventure in my mind. With these realizations, I began to settle into a kind of peace that only comes from a deep knowing.
We had finally found a home to belong to.
I have always tried to live by the old adage, ‘To whom much is given, much is expected’. We have always known that Oakhaven was not meant to be our private escape from reality. It is a place of peace to be honored and shared with others. We intend to share its beauty and historical significance by offering art and writing workshops, homestead learning experiences, as well as advanced martial arts and wilderness survival courses. It is bursting with inspiration for creative endeavors.
More than anything, we hope to reach back and help the younger generation to reconnect with the spirit of local community and traditional ways of being with the land. This knowledge is their spiritual birthright as human beings no matter how far and wide they may travel. We are betting on a bright future for our children, and that starts with a foundation of wellbeing, harmony and connection with nature.
To see more of Christie’s artwork, you may also enjoy reading In The Service of Art.