Between the Floorboards
On Saturday, I sent out a letter about the collapse of our family cabin in Southwest Virginia. Thank you for all of your kind and thoughtful responses to my reflections on family history and time. If you missed my letter, you can find it by clicking the photo of the cabin below. Today, I continue the story of the cabin by sharing some very special photos I took there in 2018.
In 2018, once I’d repaired as much of the damage to the cabin as was possible, I decided to give it a thorough cleaning and sweeping. As I was sweeping upstairs, I discovered clothes between the joists where the downstairs ceiling met the upstairs floor. These worn clothes were placed there for insulation. As I drew them from their hiding places, I photographed them on the floor of the cabin and then laid them in the elbow of a tree. I would have liked to turn them into a quilt, but they were extremely fragile and soil was mostly holding them together, so I decided to give them back to the earth. I also looked forward to seeing how they would age in the open.
I’m so grateful I have these photos and this memory of time spent in our family homeplace. I hope you find these images as evocative as I do.
I don’t know precisely who would have worn these clothes except that they were family. The first residents of the cabin were John Rufus Smith, his wife Susie Ella, and their many children including Avery Smith, my great-grandfather. John Rufe built the cabin in the 1880’s. Then John Rufe’s son Fred and his wife Bertha moved into the house with their seven children after John Rufe’s death. John Rufe was murdered in cold blood in 1936 and I document this killing through the songs and stories in my record Heart of the Mountain, especially in the the song “Aunt Erma.” Erma was married to John Rufe’s son Frazier. They lived near the cabin and she witnessed John Rufe’s murder. This was one of two violent deaths in our family.
For a time, Susie Ella, now a widow, lived in the cabin alone and her various grandchildren including my grandmother stayed with her at night. Then sometime in the 1940’s the Fred Smith family moved there. They moved to Richlands around 1966. Their daughters didn’t know that the wooden cabin was inside the sheetrock and wood siding of the house they lived in. Time and weather slowly exposed the inner cabin once the home was vacant. Their daughters also remember that there was no indoor plumbing. Joan who was twelve when the family moved to “town” told me, “We drew our water from a well and wash day was a pretty big deal.” I am grateful to my living relatives who kindly share their stories and help me to learn and record our history. And I am grateful to you who read these stories and find the magic in them.
It was my intention before the pandemic to find a gallery or community space in which to exhibit these photos (and the ones of the newspaper scraps lining the cabin walls, see my previous article) and, perhaps where possible, to have a concert opening. If you or someone you know would be interested in an exhibition, let me know.
All photos © Jeni Hankins.
Thank you, again, for your response to my letter about the cabin and I hope these photos give you a sense of the lives of the people who passed through its doorways. There are many more images of the cabin and objects from it to share, but I’ll close for now.
Keep going to see those clothes seven years later . . . .
Letters from Jeni Hankins is a reader-supported publication. Writing and songwriting are my passions and with my deepest kindness I thank you for being readers of and listeners to my work.
And here are those clothes in the elbow of the tree seven years later:
P.S. You’ll find my fifth article for Modern Daily Knitting on their website today. Writing for these folks is one of the great happinesses of my life. Today, I share the magic of abstract art and how it can be a spark for your own imagination.