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History lost in fire
Matthews homeplace destroyed
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The Matthews house is seen sometime shortly after its construction in the 1930s. The house was on a hill overlooking the Smith River. (Contributed photo from Thomas C. Matthews II)
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Sunday, March 16, 2014

By BEN R. WILLIAMS - Bulletin Staff Writer

For a century, the Henry County Clerk of Court was a Matthews.

Thomas C. Matthews II broke the trend, choosing a career in construction with the Stanley-Bowles Corp. He also worked for the Henry County Public Service Authority, he said, during which time he supervised the construction of the Chamber of Commerce building on Broad Street.

Matthews spoke to the Martinsville Bulletin in January about the history of the house on the hill overlooking the city hydroelectric dam, and how the house tied into the history of both his family and Henry County.

On Tuesday, the house was destroyed by fire. The cause of the fire is undetermined, although the investigation is continuing, according to Henry County Fire Marshal Pete Draper.

In his family, Matthews said, there was one male heir per generation, and their names alternated between John and Tom.

His great-grandfather, John H. Matthews, was elected clerk of court in 1875. His grandfather, Thomas C. Matthews, followed in his father’s footsteps, and another John H. Matthews followed in his, serving as clerk of court until 1975.

“My great-grandfather was a very wealthy man,” Matthews said, “but he didn’t pass that gene on to my grandfather.”

In the 1930s, Matthews said, his grandfather decided to build a house on the hill above the city hydroelectric dam: four rooms on the first story, four on the second story, one bathroom and a basement with a dirt floor.

“I’ve talked to several people that think the house is much older than it really is,” Matthews said, while others assume that the house was expensive and solidly built.

That is not necessarily the case, Matthews said.

“He built it cheap,” Matthews said, chuckling. “It was a very poorly built house. They put it up with 2 by 4s, slapped weatherboarding on the outside, slapped what they called beaverboard on the inside, which is somewhere between cardboard and Masonite. It had no insulation, and one coat of paint on it when it was first built. They never painted it again. There was a wood cookstove in the kitchen, a big woodstove in the dining room, a woodstove in the living room. And upstairs there was a little bitty tin heater stove that was in the cook’s room.”

His grandfather may not have been a wealthy man, Matthews said, but it was only because he was so generous.

“Grandaddy gave away a lot of what he had,” Matthews said. “I remember one instance, one of his friends came to the clerk’s office and (his grandfather) said, ‘I had an awful good crop of sorghum molasses. I want to give you a little sample.’ And he reached down and picked up a gallon bucket. That was a little sample.”

His grandfather also routinely would buy 100-pound sacks of peanuts and bring them to his clerk’s office. They were free for anyone who happened to stop by.

Matthew’s grandfather’s generosity extended to the construction of his home on the hill. After he built the house, he added an extension in the back, set up on wooden posts, Matthews said.

“That was a pantry,” he said. “(My grandfather) believed in having plenty of stock, because he gave it all away. He died with very little.”

At one point or another, Matthews said, almost everyone in the family spent some time living in the house, including himself, his parents and his father’s three sisters.

“It was a strange situation, and I don’t know the exact details,” Matthews said. “During the Depression, all of his family, my dad and his three sisters, at one time or another, all worked in the clerk’s office. ... The best I can figure it out — and no one really told me this — it seemed like he didn’t pay them a salary. He supported them and gave them a place to live.”

Matthews vividly remembers good times spent tramping around the property as a child.

“There were always quail and rabbit,” he said. “Grandaddy always kept a couple of cows and a bunch of pigs.”

“My grandfather had another farm up between Horsepasture and Spencer,” Matthews added. “He would go up in the fall of the year and gather walnuts by the pickup truck load. He would bring them to (the house on) the hill and dump them out, then watch the squirrels take them off and bury them. I remember when grandaddy died, dad and I walked the property, and there were just walnut trees everywhere.”

After his grandfather’s death, Matthews said, one of his aunts lived there for some time. Other families lived in the house as well until the property was purchased by Wilbur Doyle for the use of its timber at his Doyle Lumber Co.

After that, it stood vacant for decades, Matthews said.

Ultimately, the story of the house on the hill is not about the house, but about the generous man who built it and shared it with his family.

“The house that grandaddy lived in,” Matthews said, “I’m sentimental about it, but the house wasn’t worth saving.”


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