South Huntsville Living
The Soul Soothing Elixir that is, Southern Hospitality
On a whim late in the afternoon, I turned in to the driveway of a home located just south of Whitesburg Baptist Church on Whitesburg Drive. Passersby can catch only fleeting glimpses of the large, old home, tucked behind magnificent Magnolia trees. What lies behind the green curtain? Beauty, history, and the tradition of Southern hospitality are in the midst of south Huntsville.
Shade from the Magnolias intermingled with bursts of late afternoon sunlight and danced across a brick paved driveway which led to the front door. I hesitated, taking note of the stamp on each of the bricks, “GRAVES B’HAM, ALA.” Half expecting no answer, it was almost startling when a beautiful lady opened the door with a big smile, “Hello! Can I help you?” After a brief introduction, Mrs. Sally Walker not only consented to my request to take a few photographs of the exterior grounds, but offered, along with her husband Ben Walker, to share the beauty and history of their historic home with South Huntsville Living readers.
One hundred years ago, Sally’s grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. Aaron Fleming moved south to Madison County from Tennessee. In 1914 Mr. Aaron built a 2 story bungalow on this piece of his property, which eventually became a 4,000 acre farm. When the original home burned in the early 1940’s it was replaced with a red bricked, Greek Revival style home. Many changes have taken place over the years, most of which were the result of another fire (caused by a lightning strike,) in 1986. However, Mr. and Mrs. Walker have beautifully preserved much of the 1940’s house while also making the home their own.
During the period of construction during the 1940’s wartime shortages were a challenge. In addition to the lumber, one of the home’s most stunning features was re-claimed from the Monte Sano Hotel, which was demolished in 1944. As guests arrive, the staircase, framed by a 127 year old walnut newel post and gently turned balusters, unfolds before them.
To the left is a study and the home’s original master bedroom and bath. Now offered to overnight guests, the bedroom presents one of Sally’s most treasured heirlooms. The impressive, hand carved, four poster bed, along with its original bed steps once belonged to her grandmother. Mrs. Walker took care to explain that the bed steps were also multi-functional with a storage compartment hidden under the top step and a chamber pot tucked into its center.
To the right of the entry lie the formal living and dining rooms which pass through to the kitchen. In addition to a beautiful, Philadelphia highboy which was inherited from Sally’s mother, Mrs. Walton Fleming, the room holds a curious quirk. The fireplace, original to the home, is noticeably off center between two windows. It is assumed that this was a mistake during construction.
As we proceeded through the dining room, Mrs. Walker explained that the antique dining set had always been a permanent fixture in the room. While one might assume the two large portraits on the wall were her grandparents, that’s not at all the case. Sally actually rescued the paintings from being destroyed many years ago. The stark appearance of the strangers in the paintings was a source of eerie speculations for children over the years.
Ben Walker’s talent as a craftsman shines in the renovated kitchen. Handcrafted cabinets, each sanded to appear gently worn, hewn wood beams, and heart pine floors have been brought together to create a warm and inviting space with the feel of times past and the convenience modern cooks enjoy.
In 1986, Ben and Sally stopped at Baskin Robbins on their way home from an evening out. As they exited the parking lot on their way home, fire trucks passed. The couple pulled out, driving behind the trucks toward home. They worried they might be headed to the church, but soon realized the trucks were stopped in front of their home. The upper floor was lost, but damage to the lower floor was mostly from water and much of the home and its contents was recovered. After the fire, Ben and Sally added a large sunroom and a pool to the back of their home. The casual space overlooks lush gardens on two sides and the pool on the third side. Another family heirloom, a white wicker baby buggy, is parked alongside the contemporary furnishings.
The smaller building that sits across gardens from the main home is located on the same spot where the Flemings once had additional living quarters. The current building is Ben’s workshop where he spends time building when he’s not busy crafting the delightful gardens which meander through the property.
What about the stamped bricks in the driveway? They were reclaimed from the Madison County Courthouse in downtown Huntsville, long ago when the area was the center of city entertainment and commerce.
In 1835, author John Abbott, credited with coining the term, “Southern hospitality,” described his southern travels as encounters with strangers who went out of their way to make him feel at home. During the two day period of soaking in the past and present of the home, the warmth and kindness of the home owners touched me as deeply as the home itself. I thanked Sally for her generosity. She replied, “We’ve been blessed. Ben and I decided a long time ago we want others to enjoy our home and its history as much as we do when we gather with family and friends.”