The old Presbyterian farmhouses of Bloomington
Four farmhouses built by prominent Presbyterian Covenanters still stand in Bloomington, surrounded by neighborhoods that were carved out of their former farm fields. The Covenanters had met with religious intolerance and bloodshed in their native Scotland. Bud Faris (now deceased) once told me that one of his ancestors had been burned at the stake for his beliefs. The Covenanters emigrated to the United States in the 1700s, where some of them settled in South Carolina. They were committed abolitionists who were completely opposed to slavery. Unwilling to live any longer in a slave state, a group of those Carolina Covenanters then came to Bloomington, where they thrived and built a church adjacent to Covenanter Cemetery at the corner of High and Moore’s Pike.
The first is Faris House, built around 1853. Faris House is rumored to have been a station on the Underground Railroad, and a now-collapsed earthen tunnel in the basement appears to lead toward the brick dairy building a short distance farther down the hill. Bloomington is rarely included on modern maps of Underground Railroad routes, but it must have had at least sporadic activity. That said, the story that is most commonly repeated about the house is completely untrue: that escaped slave Robert Anderson was sheltering at the Faris farm when the Emancipation Proclamation was proclaimed. According to the myth, Anderson went directly to the courthouse and had himself registered as a free man of color, and stayed in Bloomington for the rest of his life, being given land immediately adjacent to Covenanter Cemetery in return for his labor. A descendant of his informed me that Anderson had toiled as a slave in Kentucky under three different masters, the last of whom freed him. After the Civil War Anderson came to Bloomington and bought the land next to the cemetery. “He was a free man when he came here, and he purchased that land,” I was told, and old church receipts prove his payment installments. Hopefully this will be the end of a story that has circulated for generations.
The next old house is often called Raintree House for the raintrees that formerly stood on the property, but it should by rights be called Millen House. Built by William Millen around 1845, the house is very similar in style to the Faris house, with five windows across, a central front entry, and chimneys on both ends. If this house had been only a single room deep, it would have been an I-house, but when a house is two rooms deep, it’s known as a massed-plan house. See the Wikipedia entry on the building at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Millen_House. All of the Green Acres neighborhood used to be the Millen farm. The house is sadly orphaned today, for virtually all of its remaining yard was divided up for little ranch homes after the Second World War. The house looms in a mournful way above the back yards of these 20th-century spec cottages, hemmed in on all sides.
The next old house is the Thomas Smith house, which is the oldest structure of this collection, supposedly built in 1833. There are barely a handful of houses from this era remaining in the whole of the county. The frame part of the house is an addition; the brickwork is original and the bricks were dug on-site, as with the other houses. This house is smaller than the others, reflecting the frugality of the times in which it was built. Apparently a private graveled drive once ran between Smith house and Faris house, directly crossing High Street (which would not have existed in those days). The ghost road runs through the side yard of a house on South High street, whose owners have never been able to plant anything or garden on that side, due to the thick layer of gravel underlying the lawn. The house is now surrounded by modern houses of the Covenanter Hill neighborhood, all of which used to be the family farm.
The fourth house, Blair house, can be regarded as the frame version of the preceding style of brick homes. Built in the 1860s, it is located in the heart of Maple Heights neighborhood, which of course represents the extent of the original farmstead. The Blair family were also staunch abolitionists. The Blairs originally buried their dead near the family home and later in the Presbyterian Cemetery (White Oak). The house today has a completely different aspect due to a 1920s-era brick porch. There is an interesting blog entry about the house and the family at http://bloomingtonthenandnow.wordpress.com/2013/12/28/823-n-maple-street-the-historic-james-blair-house/, posted by Derek Richie of Bloomington Fading.
The thing that interests me is that all four of these 160-year-old-plus houses are still standing and inhabited, while many other notable homes have been demolished. The town was by no means all-Covenanter, and yet the Covenanter houses appear to be over-represented in the historic record for this era. All of the four men who built these houses were local community leaders; but so were the builders of many now-vanished old farmhouses. For some reason, these four survived, and in architectural terms, Bloomington is the better for it.