The front gate to Umbria Plantation was about a quarter of a mile east of the house where we lived, where I live now. You’d go through the brick gates and the driveway would dip down before rising to the house set back behind two enormous magnolias. Where the driveway began to curve to the left you would look straight up the walk to the wide steps leading from the ground up to the wide veranda that ran across the front of the house.
The front veranda faced north. I remember the wicker swing and with its back to the wall a large wicker armchair with slots for books and magazines and a roll-out container too hold your beverage glass I assume that Miss Eloise’s husband, Mr. Will, made use of that chair. Two or three other smaller wicker chairs and a wicker table were positioned in the area. All of this furniture ended up on our front porch when Miss Eloise Pickens Lunsford had to sell the place in the mid-1950s.
The living room was a seriously big room. I imagine many houses from this period would have had a wide hallway running from those double front doors to the facing ones at the rear, but here the designer opted for open space. In my younger days the enormous table that seemed to take the place of the non-existent wall to the right was stacked high with National Geographic and other magazines. Double doors opened into the dining room to the left, and it was big too: it and the living room made up the whole front of the house.
The main body of the house and the two side wings formed a U which enclosed a formal garden. There was a picket fence with gate across the back. The back porch inside the U overlooked the garden, and stairs near the center led down to the garden and the lower level. Other steps near the kitchen led up to the attic, which ran the length of the house. The kitchen and two bedrooms with a bath between on the east wing were connected by doorways inside, and there were doors from those bedrooms onto the inner veranda as well. The bedrooms on the west side of the house also opened only onto the inner porch, and apparently there was a doorway between the two larger rooms. There was a bathroom on the south end of that west wing, but to get to it you had to go outside onto the inner veranda. Chamber pots, anyone? At least in cold weather.
The ground level, slightly sunken, remained cool in hot summer and could provide for summertime sleeping should the weather be inordinately hot. During my early ears it was used primarily for storage. Wandering through this property and especially the lower level of the house was part of the regular play of us Sawyerville boys in the 1940s. We never asked. We just assumed we had permission. We always seemed welcome.
Construction on the house was started in 1833 by Colonel Samuel Pickens, work continuing until the 1850s. After Miss Eloise was forced to sell the property in the mid-1950s, it passed through several hands, one set of which belonged to a man who had worked on the construction of the Panama Canal. One owner was a psychiatrist born in Alabama but practicing in New York: he tried to make it into an upscale rest home for clients from his practice, but only a couple of patients ever arrived. Another owner was a mortician from Tuscaloosa: he was the last person to die in the house. The house burned in the early morning of December 29, 1971, and according to reportage in the Greensboro Watchman “was reduced to a few brick walls, chimneys, and smoldering ruins.” The home not being occupied at the time, there was nobody on the place to report the fire, and by the time neighbors became aware, the house was gone. Even those ruins have long since been taken down.
After the fire that destroyed the house, the property was sold to a family from Tuscaloosa who used it for hunting and fishing, with one of the tenant cottages providing a place to stay. Later they sold it to a lumber company. In 1999, after it was clear-cut, the owners divided the land up into a number of three- to four-acre lots, which were then auctioned off. There are some quite nice houses on those smaller properties, but the old Umbria is no more.
The land itself, like the lower level of the main house and the outbuildings, was never forbidden to boys at play. Umbria had a stream running through, originating in a spring at the bottom of the wooded hill to the east of the driveway that led from the front gate to the house. The spring itself, which in memory was a decent-sized pool, had its fascinations, and the Umbria folk would use it to cool watermelons before they would be cut and consumed at the star-shaped group of benches at the top of the hill by the Sawyerville children invited over for the occasion.
The woods along that stream were thicker and taller, older, than the ones we were used to in our other play areas. I don’t know for sure that they were native forests, but I do believe that they had stood uncut longer than most of the woods around Sawyerville. There seemed to be a mysterious quality to them and to the stream itself running through toward the south. Going down this stream and through these woods was a serious adventure.
Probably around 1960 a new owner cut the trees and built a dam toward the east end of the property so that he might have a lake. The lake is nice, but something is missing now. The magic. Fifty years later there was a bit of excitement involving the lake. A large alligator which for years had been content living in a lake south of Sawyerville that belonged to my former dentist wandered north to that lake, possibly seeking food or a mate. It was shot by wildlife authorities because of the number of children who now lived in houses around that lake. My dentist had it stuffed for his den. I miss that alligator. Sometimes at night when walking my dogs I would hear its bellow from its earlier home.
During their early years of their marriage, my parents became close friends with Miss Eloise Pickens and her husband Mr. Will Lunsford, of Umbria. Miss Eloise and her sisters had inherited the property from the Pickens family, one that was old, settled, and wealthy. Samuel Pickens, who established the plantation, was a younger brother of Israel Pickens, the third governor of Alabama. The Lunsfords’ only two children had died in infancy, and I have speculated that my younger parents somehow took the place of the lost children in their lives.
Daddy and Mama spent a lot of time with the Lunsfords. Dinner parties, cocktail parties, receptions, quiet suppers together. I am convinced that my mother, a simple girl from a working-class family but smart and observant, learned a lot from Miss Eloise.
During my childhood my father was still paying a modest rent to the Pickens family for the land on which his house and store had been built. I used to think that strange, but I have decided that at the time it was no stranger than the present-day practice of renting land on which to park a double-wide.
Over the years my father had implored Miss Eloise to sell them the acre of land where the house and store stood and the three acres to the east and south of the yard. Oh, don’t worry about it, Miss Eloise kept saying. But they did. In late 1943 my parents were at Umbria for a dinner just for them and whoever was in residence there at the time. An envelope was passed to my parents, and when they opened it they found that the four acres had been deeded to them as a Christmas present. That letter remains in my family possession, preserved in my safe deposit box.
The deed itself, dated November 17, 1943, was signed by Mary Gaillard Cunningham, a widow, Juliet P. Webb, a widow, and F. Eloise Lunsford, a widow. But what they opened that night was a handwritten note:
Dear Annie Lee and Bryan,
Our gift to you this Christmas will be the little plot of ground that your house and store stand on. I know of no two people whom we would rather have share our land with us. You have both been so sweet and good to us on all occasions.
Just as soon as we can get Mr. Bond (?) to survey it, we will turn the deed over to you.
We wish for you every joy of Christmas and may the New Year bring better things to you and to the world.
The Pickens Sisters
I am convinced the note was written by Miss Eloise (the F was for Flora). It was written in ink on small blue notepaper folded to fit into a small blue envelope addressed to Mr. and Mrs. Bryan May. On the upper left of the envelope were pasted three Christmas stars, blue, green, and red. Below my parents’ names was the silver word Greetings. It was one of the kindest gestures ever extended to my family.
In the late 1920s and the 1930s my parents spent a lot of time socially with the Lunsfords. There was less of this after my sister and I came along, although Mama would take us kids over to Umbria with her for morning or afternoon visits. Mama told what seemed to me wondrous tales of accompanying Mr. Will and Miss Eloise to their vacation home across Perdido Bay which forms a boundary between Alabama and Florida way down south. You would go to a dock on the Alabama side and a man who ran a bait shop there would take you across the bay in his boat. In later years when our family first began taking trips to the Gulf Coast, Miss Eloise and some of her family were sometimes in residence and I did get to experience that boat ride to the house that seemed magical at the time.
Because my father’s post office and general store had the only telephone in the area, a lot of messages came for the Lunsfords, and delivering those messages gave my mother a good opportunity to drive over to Umbria. During my earliest years an elderly and tall (well, I was only a very little boy) skinny white man named Mr. Frank would walk over to the post office to pick up the morning’s mail. Mr. Frank had turned up in Sawyerville during the Depression, I assume as a hobo riding the rails. He went about to people’s houses asking to sharpen their scissors and knives for modest recompense. When he reached Umbria, Miss Eloise took pity on him and took him in. He lived at Umbria in one of the outbuildings for the rest of his life, doing light odd-jobs about the place.
Mama remained close to Miss Eloise until the she died. Mr. Will had died in the early1940s. Miss Eloise managed to hold onto Umbria until the mid-1950s, when the money ran out and she was forced to sell off the house, its contents, and property. My mother, assisting her during this time, felt that Miss Eloise was being taken advantage of by many of those dealing with her, but Miss Eloise was not one to bargain or to insist on payment. Miss Eloise in the generosity of her early widowhood had invited two cousins, Miss Louise and Miss Eliza Pickens, retired schoolteachers in Birmingham, to live with her. When she sold the Umbria property she purchased a decent house for her two cousins in Eutaw. Miss Eloise herself at first was allowed to remain in the small schoolhouse out back that had been converted into a guest cottage with small kitchen and bath. Unfortunately she could not resist criticizing and interfering with work being done to the house and property, and that privilege was rescinded. She moved to a small cottage set back from the house diagonally across the intersection from the Presbyterian Church in Greensboro, my mother assisting her with the move. My mother visited her frequently there and later the local nursing home, where she died penniless. Miss Eloise had even pawned her wedding ring, but a niece had redeemed that and returned it to her, that ring and a photograph of Mr. Will being her only possessions at the time of her death.
I cannot overstate the importance of Umbria and the Lunsfords in my parents’ lives and in my own life and imagination. Umbria was central to my childhood, deserving its prominent place up front in any description of my dreams and memories of Sawyerville in my early years