Sisters Florence and Mary Heavener lived all their days in the Blacksburg, 2-story, brick house their parents bought and finished in the 1920s. The other nine children of Laurisa and Floyde Heavener flew the coop at some point. These ladies rented rooms upstairs to college students and tended their vegetable garden until they passed away in 1987 and 1991.
Michael Etzler was one of the college students renting on the second floor beginning in 1984. Becky joined him when they married in 1988, and they loved the historic home and its setting. Michael spoke to their brother Allen Heavener after Mary died about purchasing the property. “Numerous family members were part owners, so he had to talk with them to settle on a price,” Michael recalls. “I was fortunate they wanted me to have it, so the old family house would not become an uncared-for rental property.”
The Historic House
Michael loves the character of the home. “It was mostly untouched by time with original bathroom fixtures, ceiling lights and hardwood floors,” he relates, noting as well the lack of central heating. When the couple purchased the property in 1992, they went to work upgrading the original wiring and plumbing systems. “Some rooms did not have electrical outlets. One of the fuse boxes was outside on the porch. The house was first heated by individual coal stoves, then changed to kerosene stoves most likely in the late 1940s. There was only one stove on the second floor, and I had to go to the basement to fill a 5-gallon can, carry it upstairs and pour it into the tank.”
None of the bedrooms had a closet, so Michael built some using trim wood materials from houses that were being torn down nearby. “One house had the exact same trim, and most people think the work is original. When remodeling the kitchen, I built upper cabinets like in the original kitchen.”
The Enterprising Etzlers
Like many New River Valley residents, Michael and Becky came to Virginia Tech from out of state – he from Pittsburgh and she from Winter Haven, Fla. Both were English majors, so kind of naturally they met in an English class. But it was when Becky was dining out at Hunan House with her uncle that Michael pulled a creative stunt that may have won her heart.
“I was the waiter, and I put a new fortune in her fortune cookie with a personalized note: ‘Your waiter wants to take you to dinner.’ Becky said the note showed such creativity and initiative that she was impressed. After that, we dated seriously and married a year and a half later at the Virginia Tech War Memorial Chapel.”
Staying in the New River Valley was an easy decision since Becky did not want to live any farther north, and Michael did not want to move any farther south. Both are English teachers, and Michael is experienced in building design, painting and remodeling.
“The basement is one of my favorite places,” Michael says. “It seems like some barns with everything framed out of oak. It also became one of our son William’s favorite places with the ping pong table his great-grandfather built.” So many hours were spent there that William advanced his game and currently serves as president of the Virginia Tech Table Tennis Club.
The Glorious Gardens
There are few words that can adequately describe the stunning gardens that Michael has created and nurtured across more than 30 years. He estimates more than 50 varieties of trees and shrubs, 150 different flowers and more than two dozen vegetables.
“Florence and Mary had a sizable vegetable garden. They would can vegetables and store potatoes in the basement. As they grew older, the garden became smaller, and Mary tended it after her sister died. Our first summer as homeowners, I dug up the previous year’s rectangular garden area with a shovel.”
Each year Michael has added grass pathways to help stop erosion and differently-shaped garden plots for artistic interest. “I planted trees, added flower beds and built a water garden and now, the entire yard is full of garden plots and trees.” Though the property is just slightly under one-half acre, it feels almost larger than life wandering among the corn and tall lilies, immersed in myriad colors, sizes and textures of the plants.
When Michael was a child, his father gave him and his brothers each a small plot to grow what they wanted, and he had many relatives who enjoyed gardening. “All my grandparents had extensive vegetable and fruit gardens, though I am more of a garden appreciator than a gardener myself,” Becky adds..
“When we moved into the house I wanted to continue the Heavener tradition of having a garden in the backyard,” he explains. “It seemed like part of the property. The idea of growing my own food free of chemicals also appealed to me. I could not live this close to town without the wonderfully secluded backyard. I have planted everything that grows here now, and I find great peace and joy walking around the yard.”
The couple loves living in history. Becky is enamored with the architecture and small nostalgic touches from childhood days on her mother’s family farm like porcelain door knobs and fetching potatoes from the basement. Michael added the sunroom with views over the gardens in 2013, and he’d like to add a screened porch along the back. “At this point, however, I’m ready to enjoy all the work I’ve done!”
Text by Joanne M. Anderson
Photos by Tom and Christy Wallace