|Wyatt Home Place|
A Piece of Living History in Billingsley
It’s been said people don’t "find" the town of Billingsley. If you are in Billingsley, it is because you were looking for it; you certainly wouldn’t stumble upon it. But, despite its geographical obscurity, it’s full of some amazing people with amazing stories.
I actually grew up in the "suburbs" of the tiny town. There weren’t many neighbors along our county road, but the few we had we’re great, especially Mr. Arthur J. "Ott" Wyatt. He was probably about 60 years old when I was born, but he was one of my dearest friends. In fact, when my mother asked me to make a list of friends to invite to my fifth birthday party, Mr. Ott was the first name on my list. And, of course, like the precious friend he was, he came.
Our friendship was formed when I’d visit his house during the summers. Another one of the "neighborhood" children and I would spend the entire day at the Wyatts, and Mr. Ott would pretty well let us call the shots—not that we’d get into trouble…we knew better! Besides, there was always a candy dish with Skittles® in his den we knew was off-limits for misbehaving children.
Back then, we loved to play "pretend" and the Wyatt’s house was perfect for pretend-playing. It was a really big, old home with lots of antiques like a footed bathtub, an aged (but beautiful) giant chifferobe and an old Fiddleback telephone hanging in the hallway.
When we needed a break from our "imaginary world," there was huge magnolia tree in the yard with a root system that wound and crisscrossed all around the base of the tree. It was a perfect highway system for toy cars and apparently had been for generations since my father said he also had driven his toy cars along those same roots.
At that time I appreciated the Wyatt’s home for all of its entertainment value, but I was too young to appreciate the history of this home. It was more than just a big, old house. It was, and still is, a piece of living history.
The history of the Wyatt home place began years before Mr. Ott lived there. It was built in 1885 by Mr. Ott’s grandparents, Jimmy D. "J.D." DeRamus, a tax accessor and tax collector for Autauga County, and his wife, Sarah. A gentleman Mr. Ott referred to as Mr. Hand built the house with nothing more than a handsaw and a plumb line, and he used only local materials like heart pine and chimney rock to construct the dog trot-style home.
The house was built three feet off the ground with chimney rock supports and features three chimneys, 14-foot ceilings in the "summer" side of the house and 9-foot ceilings on the "winter" side. The original front door still boasts the name of J.D. DeRamus hand-painted on the glass above the entryway.
There were several out-buildings surrounding the home, most of which are still erect. Some of these are a chicken coop, a smoke house with original dirt floor still covered in salt and grease, an outhouse, a pole barn and several other barns to complement the various commodities grown on the farm.
Before the house was completed, J.D. and Sarah planted several Southern longleaf pines in the front yard and a magnolia tree just to the right of the home. Nearly 150 years later, these pines tower above the drive welcoming guests to the home. The magnolia was inspected by the State Agriculture Department nearly 20 years ago and measured 18 feet around the trunk, a state record-holder at the time. Those same magnolia roots where I played as a child now entertain the Wyatt’s great-grandchildren, meaning six generations have played beneath those monstrous branches!
The home place, with its agricultural-geared barns and spectacular vegetation, was a perfect complement to Mr. Ott’s favorite pastimes. He was born in the house December 6 of 1922, and, as he grew older, he farmed the place with his father and grandfather growing cotton, corn, potatoes, sugar cane, watermelons, clover and raising chickens, hogs and cattle. He farmed until he went to work for the United States Department of Agriculture as a Plant Protection and Quarantine Officer.
As Mr. Ott traveled with his job, nurseries from all over the state would give him plants which he would promptly plant in his yard. After years of collecting and caring for his plants, the yard now features over 100 azaleas, along with several other rare plant species, growing amongst the lofty, age-old pines.
The Wyatt’s home has no doubt been a wonderful home place for generations of individuals, but there was one resident Mr. Ott was certain to tell guests about. He simply called him "Uncle Lee."
Uncle Lee was the son of two slaves J.D. and Sarah owned, and he moved to the home place along with the couple. Uncle Lee loved Mr. Ott’s mother Nellie, or "Babe," as she was called. He lived in a small house appropriately dubbed "Uncle Lee’s House" built just outside the family’s home. It had one fireplace and one window, and is now full of articles from a time long past.
Mr. Ott always said Uncle Lee cared for him and in many ways, raised him. Mr. Ott had the opportunity to return the favor as he cared for Uncle Lee upon his death bed. It was 1950 when he passed, and Mr. Ott said he and another fellow from the community buried him about 100 yards in front of the home. They were careful to construct an appropriate burial site, and the burial marker and headstone are thoroughly maintained today by Mr. Ott’s granddaughter. I remember as a child listening to the emotion in Mr. Ott’s voice as he spoke of Uncle Lee; the tenderness in his voice is something I’ll never forget. Uncle Lee’s family members still travel to the burial site at the home place to pay their respects to their forefather.
In 1945, Mr. Ott left the comforts of his home place to fight in World War II. He was a private first class in the United States Marine Corps. He served on a warship on the coast of Japan where he drove the famed World War II DUKW, a vehicle able to be driven on land or water due to its amphibious design. Mr. Ott always had fascinating stories from his time in the war and the house still holds memorabilia from his time overseas.
Just before Mr. Ott left to fight in World War II, he married Claudie Sue Herrod. They were married for 61 years before Mr. Ott passed away in 2006. Over those six decades, the couple took meticulous care of the house, even when they were watching out for little scoundrels like me.
The magnificence of the home and surrounding grounds were no doubt an attraction for me as a child, but perhaps the greatest attraction was Mr. Ott himself. He was a kind and soft spoken gentlemen, but he was always good for a laugh. I’ll leave you with a "chuckle of the day" he gave to his granddaughter, Lisa, who passed it on to me.
Remember old folks are worth a fortune, with silver in their hair, gold in their teeth, stones in their kidneys, lead in their feet and gas in their stomachs.
I have become a little older since I saw you last and a few changes have come into my life. Frankly, I have become quite a frivolous old Gal. I am seeing five gentlemen every day.
As soon as I wake up, Will Power helps me get out of bed. Then I go see John. Then Charley Horse comes along, and when he is here he takes up a lot of time and attention. When he leaves, Arthur Ritis shows up and stays the rest of the day. He doesn’t like to stay in one place very long, so he takes me from Joint to Joint. After such a busy day, I’m really tired and glad to go to bed with Ben Gay. What a life!P.S.: The preacher came to call the other day. He said at my age I should be thinking of the hereafter. I told him, "Oh, I do all the time. No matter where I am, in the parlor, upstairs, in the kitchen or down in the basement, I ask myself, ‘What am I here after?’"
Grace Smith is an associate editor for AFC Cooperative Farming News.