The Trenthems learn the meaning of ‘This Old House’By: David Walter
Nestled in a small valley rests a house nearly 140 years old. The aged front porch softly creaks with each step you take while overlooking stunning views of a large mountain range. A small stream runs through the property of nearly 30 acres, supplementing the nostalgia of years past with a faint trickle. While overlooking the scenery it is easy to understand how it felt when the property was over 400 acres when times were simpler.
This house is not imaginary, nor is it located in some far off area of the country. That beautiful mountain range previously mentioned is the Iron Mountains; the house is located in our own backyard, right in Laurel Bloomery. Richard and Mary Lee Eggers Trenthem own this historic property. For the last five years they have been successfully renovating and preserving the house and outbuildings. The result is nearly unrecognizable to what existed before they began their project.
With no real experience in preservation, the couple ultimately decided to tackle this project with little outside assistance. Their motivation can be characterized from an obvious penchant to preserve culture and the history of their family. The house itself has always been owned by Mary Lee’s family. “My family has been here before Tennessee was a state,” said Mary Lee. The property was originally owned by Joseph and Winifred Gentry, who were some of the original pioneers of the region and were Mary Lee’s great-great-great grandparents. The Gentrys lived in Shady Valley from 1770 to 1797 before moving to Laurel Bloomery. Mary Lee’s lineage also traces back to another set of early inhabitants to the region, Landrine and Joanna Eggers. Leonard and Barbara Shoun are additionally distant relatives and pioneers of the area. Mary Lee has served as the treasurer of the Shoun Family Association for over 15 years.
While the house and property have remained in the family, there have been no occupants inside the home for nearly 50 years. The Trenthems have been living in Memphis for some time, but after Mary Lee retired from an international sales career, they made the decision to renovate the property. Preserving the residence proved to be a large undertaking. In the earliest days of the renovation they slept at the houses of friends and family. When they did stay at the house there was a makeshift shower outside that was barely a curtain with a garden hose.
“This is the greenest house,” said Mary Lee with notable exuberance and passion for what they have accomplished. “Much of the house is original, so is the furniture.”
The significance of the preservation is quickly realized after arriving on the property. Next to the house is a large tree that far surpasses the current structure. Mary Lee explained that the tree was originally only two to three inches tall when her grandmother purchased and planted it many decades ago. Surrounding the house are several outbuildings including a garage, cannery, a corncrib and granary, and sections of a root cellar. Behind the house is also a traditional staple of any truly remote historic home, the outhouse. This particular outhouse came equipped with seating for an adult and child.
Preserving the floors, many of the structural beams, and the walls of the house was challenging. “We found quilts, clothes, and cardboard boxes behind the walls,” said Mary Lee. “They put in anything they had for insulation.” The outside of the house is still a project, but few of the original German lap siding has required full replacement. The tin roof is also original to the house and has held up amazingly over time. The grounds of the property were completely overgrown when they began their project. Mary Lee explained that vines had actually grown so thick around the house that they dramatically shifted the front porch.
The small foyer of the house is comprised of several different entryways and a staircase leading to the second floor. The lack of modern plumbing is no longer relevant and the back space leads to an almost hidden washroom that has been sectioned off the previous kitchen pantry. With an intermingling of modern pieces and original furniture to the house, the Trenthems seem to have found the perfect amalgamation to accommodate a modern lifestyle while appreciating the past. The living room contains several piecesof art that represent either the culture surrounding the house or has a personal significance for the couple. “I don’t just hang anything in the house, the art all means something,” said Mary Lee. There are seemingly dozens of rugs and quilts artistically sprawled across the house, many of which are antiques and hand-hooked. The living room also contains an original phone to the house which has been expertly converted to still operate.
The kitchen contains other original pieces to the house including the kitchen table, a wood stove, and the large kitchen sink. If a piece didn’t originate from the house, it is often sentimental and given to them by other family members. A large kitchen cabinet from one of Mary Lee’s sisters sits in the corner. This antique piece was slightly shortened to precisely fit the small slopes of the original floors. Outside the kitchen is a covered area that has several local pieces. Mary Lee recalls a church pew from the Pleasant Home Baptist Church that has always been there. Inside and past the kitchen is a remarkable hearth room with a fireplace constructed from the original stones. This room was the first structure of the house. Later additions raised the single square room to a large two-story house. While renovating the home the ceiling of the original building was removed to open this section of the house and used to create a small overlooking loft. Another gift from the family are two beautiful stained glass windowpanes close to the hearth room’s ceiling that came from a small hotel that the Eggers family lived in and rented out in Memphis.
“The second floor of the house was used for only storage of grains, drying tobacco, and hanging hams,” explained Mary Lee. “There were so many kids in the house; I’m surprised they didn’t use it for living.” The upstairs section of the house now includes two guest rooms, a small sleeping area tucked away for children with four built-in bunks that was used to hold canned goods, a bathroom, and the loft overlooking the hearth room. The loft contains a small study area and bed for guests. Decorating the loft are trinkets from the original property, a small library, and a wonderfully preserved 100 year-old sidesaddle that belonged to Mary Lee’s grandmother.
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