By Betsy Biesenbach
Biesenbach is a Roanoke freelance writer, title examiner and author of “Bits O’ Betsy Biesenbach.”
Everyone has a passion. Mine is researching the history of old homes. Nearly every structure has a story, but the narrative generally centers around the time before the area was developed and what the occupants did for a living. But occasionally, the house itself tells a story, if you can only figure out what it’s trying to say.
I was intrigued by a particular house in my neighborhood when I first went inside it 20 years ago. It has large rooms, oddly-angled walls and huge closets — though it was built in 1922, when most closets could barely accommodate a rod full of hangers.
The neighborhood was subdivided in 1907. In March, 1921, the empty lot was purchased for $900 by Fred W. Nover, a draftsman and a mechanical engineer for the N&W Railroad, who likely saw an opportunity to make some money in the booming real estate market and wanted to try his hand at architecture. It was the only house he ever built, and it was a one-of-kind.
At the time, women didn’t go shopping so much as the shopping came to them. All day long, a steady stream of tradesmen would come to the front door, offering items for sale, collecting money for milk or newspaper deliveries and dropping off items ordered from the stores downtown. The tradesmen would only be admitted into the public area of the house — an entryway too big to be a foyer, but too small to function as a room. In most cases, the rest of the house was closed off with doors, but this house has an angled privacy wall instead. The adjoining parlor has openings for two sets of French doors, all deliberately designed to allow air to flow freely through the lower level. An upstairs bedroom has high-up windows, like a sleeping porch, and the porch below it is incorporated into the main building, protected on three sides from the elements, rather than open to them to catch a breeze. It seemed like a perfect home for an invalid during the days when ‘round-the-clock fresh air was the only treatment for respiratory ailments.
A search on Ancestry.com confirmed my theory. In 1919, a 31-year-old truck farmer named Robert Wilkerson arrived in Roanoke from Chuckatuck, a hamlet in what is now the City of Suffolk, with his 30-year-old wife, Helen, and 9-year-old daughter, Annis.
They lived in a rooming house on Day Avenue while Robert worked as a stockman for an automotive supply company.
Somehow, he met Nover, who built the house for $6,000, likely to the Wilkerson’s specifications. They moved in on April 2, 1923, but had only a few months to enjoy their new home together. In October, Helen died at age 34 from asthma. She was buried in the family plot in Chuckatuck. Not even a house designed especially for her could make her well.
Robert remarried and had a son with his new wife, Eula. By 1928, he was secretary-treasurer of The R.G. Edgerton Corporation, which was in the business of buying, selling and repairing “new and used automobiles and aeroplanes of the first class.” But the Great Depression of 1929 doomed the enterprise. It went into receivership in 1933, and the last of its assets were sold in 1943.
Unable to pay back the loan he’d assumed to build the house, Wilkerson sold it back to the bank in October 1931, and the family left town. In 1940, they were living in Harrisonburg, where Robert worked as a sales representative and Eula was a teacher. Annis, 29, lived in Williamsburg, where she was an x-ray technician at the Eastern State Hospital for the Insane. In 1943, she enlisted in the Women’s Army Corp as an aviation cadet. She was discharged in 1946.
In 1938, the couple’s 12-year-old son stepped on a thorn and died of blood poisoning, misspelled on the death certificate as “a staffoccous blood infection”. His body was also sent to Chuckatuck, to be buried near his grandparents and his father’s first wife, Helen. Robert joined him there after dying of a stroke in 1962.
Eula moved back to Roanoke, dying in 1971 at age 85. She was buried alongside her son, her husband, and his first wife. Annis spent most of her adulthood in Florida and is buried there.
During the past 96 years, seven families have lived in the house that Robert built for Helen, never knowing it was a labor of love that came too late to save her.