In books, I had always read of people finding out some form of forgotten lore, some forgotten story, and investigating it to find great riches or fame. Little did I realize, about 6 months ago I would find myself in such a situation. The difference is, it didn't bring me fame, riches, nor anything tangible whatsoever. Instead, what it did bring me was a story. A story that started in the most unlikely of places, and although unimportant in the large scheme of things, one which is significant to one particular area, and one which is now mostly forgotten.
As this story begins, I was researching possible haunted locations near me. I thought there had to be some which not many know about. After all, Virginia is an old state, the oldest in fact. Full of history and lore from one border to the other. As well as plenty of old timers who are generally willing to drop hints at least, as long as they trust you and don't think you will make fun of them. My searching led to a website called www.theshadowlands.net . I had found this site before, but never paid it much attention, but thought I'd look again just in case. To my surprise, I found reference to a mansion in Ivanhoe, VA called the Wilkins Mansion. The post stated it had burned down approximately 30 years ago, and the area is now very wooded and the road is rough, however the sounds of slaves and singing can be heard.
I was a little surprised initially, then confused. I was familiar with this area, and there are some larger houses, but nothing which would come close to a mansion. Curious now, I asked some people more familiar with the area than if they knew anything of this. Amazingly, no one knew anything. I'm not sure what, call it a hunch, but something led me to keep digging. My next step was to contact the Carroll County Historical Society. This is where some local oddities come in to effect confounding my efforts. Ivanhoe lies mostly in Carroll County, VA. But a good portion of it also lies in Wythe County, VA. Further, Ivanhoe lies in a fairly large area for a very small population. So, depending upon who you speak to, areas which really lie within Austinville, or Piney, (which are adjacent areas), may be referred to as being in Ivanhoe. Further, without a specific location known, the county the location resides in is in question. When I contacted the Carroll County Historical Society, they had no records of a mansion, however they did provide me the contact information for a local historian for Carroll County. When I contacted this gentleman, he informed me that he'd be happy to help however Ivanhoe was Wythe County, so he had no information. This wasn't entirely true, however I was in no position to press the point.
I thought at this point it wouldn't hurt to contact an historical society in Wythe County just to see if there was an information available. The next day, I called the Wythe County Genealogical and Historical Association. They were exceedingly gracious, and said they would check for me. I was
shocked when not terribly long after the call, I finally received some answers.
I was sent a clipping of a newspaper article concerning some history of the William Wilkins family, primarily their daughter Elizabeth Warren Wilkins, which also included a picture of the mansion itself.
Of great interest to me in this was a couple of points. The first being, such a place actually did exist. The second, was that I was aware of no ruins remotely resembling such an amazing place anywhere in Ivanhoe. The third, was that the actual name was Homewood not the Wilkins Mansion, which I'm assuming is and was only a local phrase referring to the residence. The article itself was no less fascinating. In summary, the article centered around Elizabeth Waller Wilkins, who in 1925 was a student at the Industrial Arts School in Philadelphia. Some of her work was shown at the Academy of Arts and she was honored at an academy reception. Later, she and her sister had traveled to Europe to study art but once the stock market crashed, they were forced to return to Wythe County. During the summer, the doors of Homewood were opened to boarders who stayed for brief periods and paid rent. Some of these were very notable, and included Stephen Vincent Benet, his mother and sister. Stephen was a poet, short story writer, novelist and Pulitzer Prize winner. One of Elizabeth's paintings and many of her sketches adorn documents in the Kegley library at Wytheville Community College.
Elizabeth's parents had deceased around 1950 and Homewood was later sold then burned even later around 1970. Elizabeth had moved to New Orleans but would make trips back to Wytheville by bus. She later died as the result of a robbery on the street in the 1970s. I was in shock, this wasn't a wealthy farming family, but at least at one point, a very wealthy and seemingly influential family with many connections. Why was finding any information so hard and why did this seem more and more to be mostly forgotten?
Next I contacted the Kegley library. I didn't expect any research for free, in fact, I'm not sure what I was expecting. To my surprise, the person I spoke with was extremely helpful, and before long I had much more information. I was sent a document of the recollections of John Topham, (who was also referenced in the newspaper clipping), concerning the summers he had spent at Homewood over the course of about 12 years.
Elizabeth was the daughter of Helen Moore and William Wilkins. Helen's family owned a lot of land between Piney, (a small area outside of Ivanhoe), and Ivanhoe. William was a mining engineer and traveled extensively with his family. They were married in 1901. William was originally from Pittsburgh, and was wealthy in his own right. William's grandfather, William Wilkins, who I assume he was named after, was a banker, very active in politics, a Senator, Minister to Russia and the Secretary of War in Tyler's cabinet. Our William Wilkins was born in 1858, and retired in 1910. They had two daughters, Elizabeth, who was born in 1903, and Matilda, (Rhiney), who was born in 1906.
Helen had inherited some land near Piney and that's where they decided to build their house. According to the article, the spot they chose was on a knoll above a creek, a mile west of the intersection of the road over Sand Mountain from Wytheville and the road around Sand Mountain to
Piney, which continued to Ivanhoe. They named it Homewood after William's ancestral home in Wilkinsburg, Pittsylvania. Wilkinsburg later became part of Pittsburgh and the home itself part of the Homewood yards of the Pittsburgh interurban railroad. Homewood itself is now referred to as a southern plantation style mansion, although it was a replica of a mansion in Pittsburgh. The mansion itself was extravagant for its time, and had many amenities and pieces of art. Some of the latter from Russia. The large columns in front on the picture where built of solid masonry. They ran a dairy farm there, and hired locals to help run the house and farm. They lived an isolated life, but had frequent guests, often hosting hunting parties and picnics on the mountain.
Helen was an active Episcopalian and along with her church in Wytheville sponsored a community house in Piney to help what was referred to as 'the mountain people'. These were poorer farmers who lived in the hills and hollows around Piney. The community house would have doctors,
distributed clothing, had social activities and encouraged the youth to stay in school. Despite the well wishes, many of the mountain people did not consider themselves to be part of the law. In the 1920s there was a Christmas party at the community house in which a few of the mountain boys got drunk and began to misbehave. William then asked them to leave. Later that night, the community house was burned down. William prosecuted. In retribution, their dairy herd was poisoned, their smokehouse was robbed and various other nasty things occurred.
This all changed in 1929 after the stock market crash. The Wilkins were left only with Homewood and a few small holdings in Wytheville. The family lived as they could after, taking in guests as they could who would pay rent for their stay. Elizabeth helped to support the family and
herself with her art. A good bit of this was displayed in significant buildings and for prominent families in Wytheville.
After the death of the elder Wilkins, the house was sold around 1950 and was burned down in 1970. A new house was built over the old foundation.
I found this story to be wonderful, amazing, and sad all at once. I knew my suspicions were correct, the original article about a haunting was not likely to be true, but the mansion itself was real. Real and yet forgotten even by those who should not have forgotten it. I wanted to find where it was desperately. The only clue I had was the vague directions referred to in the article. I myself have said that not much changes in rural areas over the years, and generally this is true. However, this was close to 100 years ago. On top of that, roads seem to be the exception. I had no road names and no 911 addresses. I convinced my wife we needed to try to find this place, and we spent a lot of time traversing back roads and finding very interesting things, however nothing which made sense.
Finally, I spoke with a local man I had previously worked with, and he found out the location. It was on a road we had passed many times and had disregarded. I wasn't able to exactly pinpoint the exact location of the house now, suffice to say the roads and landscape have vastly changed. Also the road comes to an area we were nervous about following due to it looking as though it leads into private land with very clear no trespassing signs. What I can say for sure, is that there are no longer any visible remnants of this once stately manor nor of the family that once lived there. I feel that what happened to them was truly a shame, as they seemed to be good people by all accounts, and very influential for the area. The bigger same though, is their memory being forgotten by time.