Text by Jennifer Poff Cooper
Photos by Always and Forever Photography
The Keith family home place, built circa 1910, sits in a quiet spot a half-mile from cars whooshing by on Route 8 between Christiansburg and Riner. The house was sited here because it was believed the highway would run close to the house, when in fact it ended up far on the other side. It was a blessing in disguise. The idyllic, serene setting now overlooks a sparkling pond with lush, green surrounding fields. The house exudes the “Southern Living” ideal – the feel of having been added onto over time, layer by layer, as it was in 1981, 1995, 2007 and 2010.
My grandfather, Edwin Keith, grew up in this house, which was constructed by his mother’s cousin. The Keiths purchased the home and surrounding farm in 1917, the year of his birth. The family farmed and operated the first Grade-A dairy barn in Montgomery County, except for Virginia Tech, and they owned the land and house that includes Sinkland Farms. My grandfather sold that house and half of the farm to Henry Sink in 1981.
At that time, my grandparents, whom I affectionately called Nanny and Papa, poured their hearts into the home place they had inherited. In this major renovation, the wiring, plumbing, papering and plastering were redone. The original kitchen and dining room were torn away and rebuilt, and downstairs rooms were added. With its new glittery crystal chandelier, eight-person cherry Queen Anne table, and elaborately molded built-in corner china cabinet, the dining room was Nanny’s favorite. She and Papa kept the old stairs with short risers, the high baseboards and original heart pine flooring to evoke a sense of antiquity. So striking was the mix of old and new that the house was once featured on the Montgomery historical homes tour.
Nanny only lived in the house about five years before cancer took her life. Soon after, I graduated from high school and college, married and moved to Alabama. In 2006, Papa died, and a turning point came on Easter Sunday the following year. My mother phoned to say that she was going to sell the house and surrounding six acres. I bristled at the idea of letting the property leave the family after three generations.
As the only grandchild and heir, I began hatching a scheme. My family would move to Virginia. I longed to stay connected to this house that held so much of my history. The generational home was irreplaceable, and it was built with far more than wood and nails. It had had fallen into disrepair, but after a consultation with a contractor, my husband and I realized it had “good bones.” As we talked about putting our stamp on the property, we became excited. The bar we had always wanted in the kitchen; a formal living room for the Christmas tree; bookcases galore. The remodeling took six months. When old carpet came out, the musty smell improved. Fresh paint in historical but current colors brightened each room. The downstairs master suite was revamped to accommodate his and hers bathrooms and closets.
Upstairs, our teenage son appropriated my uncle’s former living quarters to store his Legos and running trophies in the built-in cabinets. This room had more space than our son had known, since the suite was fashioned by knocking out a wall to join two smaller bedrooms. Our then 8-year-old daughter’s bedroom is in the original section of the house. Previously it housed antiques, including the wash basin and razor strap my great-grandfather used. Although retaining those mementoes was important, I boxed them up as the room required adaptation for a modern-day girl. She didn’t love the heart pine floors, but agreed to forgo carpet if she could have fluffy rugs. We created a monster closet out of an old stairway landing.
We maintained the parlor, a room original to the house, and much of its furniture. Papa made the drop-leaf cherry table from wood he cut on the farm. A round marble-top table was a gift from a cousin. The couch purchased by my grandparents at the time of their marriage was reupholstered in 1981 to match the new living room décor.
Old pieces pepper the rest of the house as well. In the kitchen, the rolling pin and dough board on the wall belonged to Papa’s mother, Mama Keith, a renowned cook in the Riner area. The pressing irons used as kitchen decoration also belonged to Mama Keith. The rocking chair in the family room came from Nanny’s aunt. Also in the family room is the powder horn carried in the Civil War by Papa’s grandfather Howell. Grandfather Howell was wounded in the Second Battle of Bull Run and retained a bullet in his knee for most of his years. The school bell on a bookshelf was used by Nanny’s mother when she began teaching. Papa’s handmade baskets are showcased throughout the home.
The house and property feel comfortably connected to the past and to the generations that came before, even as my family makes new memories. At each stage that the house was refurbished, it perked up from the fresh attention lavished on it while seeming to relish in its history.
Jennifer Poff Cooper is maintaining her “family ties” while living in the home place with her husband, Lee, and children, Alex and Inessa. She is a regular writer for New River Valley Magazine and freelances in the region.