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The Franklin News-Post
P. O. Box 250
310 Main Street, SW
Rocky Mount, Virginia 24151
540-483-5113
Fax: 540-483-8013

Autos By Nelson - Click for Website
The Grove has long, distinctive history
Historic home will soon be a bed and breakfast
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Courtesy Photo: Brenda Tatum painted this protrait of the late T. Keister Greer, who purchased The Grove in 1959.

Friday, January 3, 2014

By ELIZABETH T. GREER AND ANDREW T. - Special to the News-Post

The years 1854, 1959, 1990, and 2013 were big for The Grove, a historic home that sits among the trees off Floyd Avenue in Rocky Mount.

From 1850-54 the tobacco manufacturer and wealthiest plantation owner and industrialist in the county, John Stafford Hale (1807-1872), widower of Mary Judith Early Hale, whom he had married in 1834, commissioned a member of the renowned Deyerle family of builders to build a basic T-Shape brick Greek Revival house for his second wife, Margaret Ingles Saunders of the Bleak Hill Saunders family.

The main house had a frame portico on the front and western side. In addition, there were a cook's cabin, smokehouse, and several frame dependencies for storage, a brick kiln, stables, service road, brick carriage entry road and an ice house.

The floor boards are all uncut, and as long as each room. There are sidelights, doors made without nails, but with up to 30 pegs per door, transoms over the windows, and 13-foot ceilings.

At the front of the 40-acre property was the brick and frame one-room building used as a pre-Civil War law office by Hale's brother-in-law, Jubal Anderson Early.

Owner of the Washington Iron Works (previously John Donalson's Iron Furnace or Bloomery), John Hale had the builders incorporate some of the shale into the bricks, which he erroneously thought would strengthen them. The house was completed in 1854.

After the end of the Civil War and John S. Hale's death in 1872, Margaret Hale (1817-1884) took in boarders to pay the bills. Over time, 30 acres of the land were eventually sold off or donated by her and the next heir, Edward Watts Saunders (1860-1921).

Places like the residential area along Taliaferro Street (which includes the original Hale Family Cemetery), the hospital, the Presbyterian Church, and the former Lee property across the creek and immediately behind the house all used to be part of The Grove.

By the late 19th century, the house had passed on to Edward Watt Saunders and his wife Nancy Walker Saunders. E.W. Saunders had received his law degree from the University of Virginia in 1882, served in the Virginia House of Delegates for seven terms, from 1887-1901, and was elected judge of the Fourth Judicial Circuit in 1901, and later, after the circuits in Virginia were reorganized, a judge of the Seventh Judicial Circuit.

He simultaneously served in the United States Congress for seven years. Elected to the Supreme Court of Appeals of Virginia in 1920, he died a year later and is buried in the High Street Cemetery.

Congressman and Judge Edward Watts Saunders, Sr. was the first in a line of lawyers and judges to come from The Grove. Others include Grove owner T. Keister Greer, his son , Giles Carter Greer, his former son-in-law, William N. Alexander II, and his stepson, Andrew T. Call.

E.W. Saunders, Sr., and his family lived at The Grove while he was a lawyer, delegate, congressman and judge.

They needed more room, and in 1900 he added the large library wing and added a frame kitchen and sleeping porch and brought many non-native trees from the National Arboretum to the property.

Several of these trees still stand, including the Bald Cypress in the front yard. In 1905, he dedicated the Confederate statue at the courthouse. The statue was made possible by the Jubal A. Early Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, and contributions from many people, including former county resident, Booker Taliaferro Washington.

After the death of the elder Saunders, The Grove passed to a son, Edward "Buck" Watts Saunders, Jr., (1895-1958) and his Charlottesville wife, Nancy George Saunders.

Buck Saunders was dean of engineering at the University of Virginia, and this Saunders family used The Grove mostly in the summers.

In 1959, widow Saunders, known as "Nannie," sold the property out of the family for the first time to a young lawyer, Thomas Keister Greer (1921-2008) and wife Dorothy Leech Greer, parents of three children -- Nancy Taliaferro Greer, Giles Carter Greer and Celeste Claiborne Greer. The Greer family had settled in the county before the American Revolution.

Keister's ancestor, Captain Moses Greer, had served on the first Franklin County Court. Keister's father, Moses Theodrick Greer (1887-1946), had played tennis in white linen tennis garb at The Grove when a child.

Keister said once that he bought The Grove because his father had played tennis there as a guest, before his life forever changed from one of privilege to one of eking out a life as a butcher and coal company grocery store manager all over McDowell County, WV.

After the Greer home burned in 1900, the Greers had to move to the coalfields to find work. Moses Greer's parents and future in-laws, the Shaw family from Lambsburg, were among the thousands trying to find work in the early 1900s, when Roanoke was barely 10 years old.

Under Keister Greer's direction, and with contractors, architects and decorators, from 1959 to 1964 every part of The Grove was updated and renovated and insulated, except for the fancy parlor with its original ornate plasterwork medallions and egg and dart ceiling border.

The Greers removed a whale-oil burning lamp from the center of the medallion and years later replaced it with a crystal chandelier they bought in Venice.

The Greers put a baby grand piano in the parlor for Dorothy Leech Greer (1921-1989) to play and to teach piano. They called that room the Music Room.

They replaced the floor of the library to be like one at Monticello: quarter-sawn, pieced black walnut parquet. They replaced wooden mantles, added crown molding and chair rails, and used marble to face the fireplaces. They kept the sash windows with their original 19th century bubble glass.

They closed off all but two fireplaces and added an elevator years later when their daughter Celeste developed juvenile diabetes in the mid-1960s.

The old plantation hearth in the adjacent wing, while occasionally used by Keister's mother Goldie Shaw Greer (1900-1990), who lived there with him and the family until her death, was expanded with a bedroom and bath for Mrs. Greer.

A Marine officer who had served in the First Division, First Marines, on Okinawa, Keister had a cement bomb shelter built beneath the adjacent building, the Wing, during the Cold War. It later was used only as a wine cellar.

In 1989 Dorothy Greer died of cancer and in June of 1990 Keister remarried. Elizabeth ("Ibby") Taylor Call and her son Andrew, 9, moved to The Grove in September of that year from their home in Roanoke.

By a twist of irony, Ibby and Dorothy turned out to be descended from two daughters of John and Priscilla Mullins Alden, of the Mayflower, and, thus, were distant cousins.

In the Wing, Keister and Ibby added air conditioning, two modern bathrooms, a huge bedroom, with two large cedar closets, a dining room, and a kitchen for Keister's sister, the late Virginia G. Williams (1936-2013) and her husband Bob, to live in. They had been living in the main house.

In 1992 Ibby bought them a house on Taliaferro Street and the Wing was reclaimed for a family room and guest house. She added new brick patios, pool terrace and fence, walkways, steps, driveway and cul-de-sac, ironwork, gardens, and in 1999 a big new room to the pool building.

She bought the old house built by the late Col. Lee, behind the Grove when it came on the market. And in the mid-2000's she and Keister donated five acres of the property along Rt. 40W to the Town of Rocky Mount for the Celeste Claiborne Greer Park, named after his daughter who had succumbed to juvenile diabetes in October 1989.

From 2002 until 2007, the little frame building that had been Early's law office and later a one-room schoolhouse where Sen. Willis Robertson (son of a Baptist minister in town and later the father of evangelist Pat Robertson) was educated at the turn of the 20th century, became Ibby's project, The Blue Lady Bookshop.

During this time, Keister's legal history, "The Great Moonshine Conspiracy Trial of 1935," was published in 2003. It was an eight-pound book full of local history about moonshiners, transporters, conspirators, money launderers, and all kinds of people who were trying to make a living during the Depression and Prohibition. People flocked to the bookstore to get copies and 1,000 sold in a few days. It was reprinted and there are now only a few copies left.

In his nearly 50 years at The Grove, Keister Greer put his heart and his millions into its renovation and upgrading. In her 23 years at The Grove, Ibby put well over half a million dollars of her money into improvements inside and out to keep things up-to-date and safe.  

When Keister died in 2008 at 86, his widow knew she could not stay on at The Grove alone forever. Insurance alone costs over $750 each month.

The beautiful house and its grounds needed a new owner who could keep it elegant and part of the community. She put it on the market in 2008, just about when the Recession of 2008 started. She took it off in 2009 and did not list it again until March 2012.

She sold it to buyers with a great vision for the preservation of the house and its buildings and its history. Preserving the house and property at any cost was more important to her than making a fortune on its sale. Some things, like history, preservation, and hospitality, especially for the owners of this historic home, are more important than money.

The recent book on early Franklin County, published by Arcadia Publishing, makes no mention at all of The Grove, the Hales, the Saunders, their businesses or contributions to the growing town, or Jubal Early's law office on the property. An accurate history of the town should include the plantation from whose lands most of uptown later developed.  

Grove Rocky Mount LLC, the name of the group that bought The Grove on Dec. 18, 2013, has several enthusiastic and knowledgeable people with different functions and activities, including planning, renovating, restoring, setting up The Grove Bed & Breakfast, running the B&B, and putting in some discreet parking for people staying there and visiting The Harvester and the new restaurant across the street.

Friends and business partners, they come from different states, but share a passion for history and being part of Rocky Mount's continued revival.

The Grove sits right across the street from the places in town that comprise The Crooked Road and Round the Mountain Artisan Trails, Quilt Trail, Harvester Music venue, and growing Arts District. The Grove B&B and these other places will all contribute to make Rocky Mount a tourist destination.

As a kind of farewell finale to life at The Grove as a private residence, and as a tribute to and love for the town, Ibby's son, Andrew T. Call, 32, a lawyer in Chicago, has written a story, "Jane Bligh: An American Tall Tale," about early Rocky Mount, as the starting place for American westward exploration and beginnings of the continental coalfields.

This tall tale puts beloved Rocky Mount at the very center of American westward expansion and exploration (think of Johnny Appleseed or Paul Bunyan and their journeys) and is based on actual historical places and geography.

American cultural and industrial history and geography have been passions of the author since he was a child at The Grove looking out the western windows with their original bubble glass panes onto the sunsets over the blue hills beyond.

The story came to Call as a dream and he wrote it down. The details were partly inspired by his late stepfather Keister's and family friend Dr. J. Francis Amos's passion for local history.

Ibby is soon making 100 free copies of the book available at The Franklin-News Post for subscribers to the paper. Copies are also for sale at the Franklin County Historical Society and the Artisan Center Along the Crooked Road on Franklin Street (and on amazon.com and as an e-book for Kindle).

Donald and Erin Bauer are the innkeepers-to-be at The Grove B&B, and want to keep history alive.  

 

 
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