Published Tuesday, March 12, 2013
By Martha A. Woodham
Special to The Newnan Times-Herald
A small, three-line ad in the real estate section of a newspaper 14 years ago led Michael and Deborah Simmons from Alpharetta to a dilapidated farm house in Coweta County with a mysterious past.
The mystery began with the ad. Real estate agent Ed Moor was surprised when the Simmonses called. The 1850s house hadn’t been listed yet, he said. But there it was, in black and white: a house and 10 acres near Moreland for $85,000, so Moor showed it to the couple.
“You had to be real careful when we came to look at it,” recalls Deborah. “The porch had holes in the floor, and the chimney had fallen in the kitchen.”
There was no electricity, no insulation, no indoor plumbing. Although the previous owner had installed a toilet in the closet, it drained out into the yard. The five fireplaces were small, made for burning coal, but the previous owners had used wood, so they had smoked, streaking the plaster walls with soot. The outside of the house hadn’t been painted in 80 years.
“We’d thought about buying an old house while we rented in Alpharetta,” Michael says. The couple wanted land for their horses, and the price was right. But the house needed so much work—rewiring, plumbing, new siding, a new roof. Deborah overheard another couple who were also touring the house when the wife hissed at her husband, “Don’t you do this to me!”
Still, the bones of the house — with tongue-and-groove pine paneling and oak floors—were good. Michael, who was in construction and had studied architecture, saw possibilities. He just didn’t know it would take him five years—and living in a tiny camper in the back yard for months on end — to restore the old farm house to a grandeur it never quite had before.
Today, the lovingly restored three-bedroom, shotgun-style house is the result of the couple’s ability to see beyond the obvious. Michael removed and meticulously reglazed every window — which had 16 panes each. He added two side porches accessible by French doors and expanded the back of the house by 10 feet to add a walk-in closet and two bathrooms. He remounted some of the original doors as pocket doors and transformed a closet into a powder room with “the world’s tiniest sink,” says Deborah.
Michael, who today has a construction company called Sheltering Oak, devoted himself to the restoration project for five years, driving back and forth from north Atlanta where Deborah worked as a mortgage consultant or staying in the camper.
“It was the only way we could afford to do it,” he says, laughing as he recalled how he painstakingly made corbels by hand to match those around the doors and windows and then discovered a millwork store that had “millions” of the decorative mouldings for sale. “Now you can buy them!”
As the couple worked on the house, visitors dropped by — curious neighbors and members of the family that had once lived there— and the Simmonses slowly pieced together some of the mysterious history of the place, originally a 96-acre farm. The house, built by one of two brothers (the other brother’s house just down the road still stands), had been surrounded by outbuildings, barns and sheds, mostly rotted away by the time the Simmonses bought it in 1998. The building the couple converted into a horse barn had been an old cotton gin, and Michael points out the double walls of the “potato house,” where neighboring farmers brought their sweet potatoes to be cured. Their names are still visible where a record of their harvests had been penciled on the walls.
Other tales revealed the rich history of a Coweta family. During the Great Depression in the 1920s, the government foreclosed on the farm, which once had a mica mine. The old house caught fire when a child threw gasoline in a fireplace. And a great-grandson informed the couple that the vegetable garden they put in behind the old smoke house had been the location of the family outhouse. Today the fertile spot is a rose garden.
The couple learned that their house was once home to an elderly woman people called “the witch of Moreland” because she wandered the local roads alone at night. And the house had been touched by tragedy: a young son was accidentally killed by another child playing with a gun in the front room of the house, in a corner that the Simmonses think may be haunted by a ghost that their three dogs and 10 cats can see.
“The dogs and cats go in that corner and go crazy,” says Deborah. Maybe it was the ghost, she adds, who during the remodeling, interfered with their measurements so that boards ended up one inch too short or two inches too long. Ghost or no ghost, the restoration was a success. Oftentimes people familiar with the house recall Michael’s changes as original.
“We tried to do all of the restoration and addition so it looked like an original part of the house,” he says. “But we’ve been here so long now that we’re starting to need to redo stuff.”
To view additional stories from the March-April edition of Newnan-Coweta Magazine, go to the magazine website by clicking on the following link: http://newnancowetamag.com .