April Abode: Near Earlysville, an old farmhouse keeps its history at the fore

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Panelling and scrollwork on the staircase are the old home's fanciest touches. Photo: Paul Whicheloe Panelling and scrollwork on the staircase are the old home's fanciest touches. Photo: Paul Whicheloe

In a county like Albemarle, where vigorous growth routinely fills in open space with new homes, it’s reassuring to know there are still places where the opposite has happened. Wilhoit Mill Farm, near Earlysville, is one of those bucolic spots: a onetime rural village that’s less populated now than it was in the past.

That’s not to say it’s abandoned; quite the opposite. Though the village of Wilhoit—which once boasted its own post office—isn’t here anymore, the site is still lovingly inhabited. Wilhoit Mill these days is a 25-acre farm centered on a spotless 1850s farmhouse, which continues to serve as a family home. The old millhouse that lends the farm its name, as well as several other village buildings, are still standing, arrayed in a protected bottomland around the Lynch River.

Photo: Paul Whicheloe
Photo: Paul Whicheloe

“It’s amazing to think people have been living here for over 150 years,” says one of the current owners, who bought the property in 2006. They had been searching for a property with land and a historical pedigree, and found both at Wilhoit Mill: wooded and open acreage, and a history stretching back well before the Civil War, to when the Wilhoit brothers, Ezekiel Jr. and Milton, ran a grist mill just a stone’s throw from Milton’s house.

A bonus for these buyers: The house needed little in the way of renovation. “We didn’t want to have to do a house,” says one owner. “We just needed to do some landscaping.” The original antebellum home had already been extensively added onto, modernized and updated.

"The original is still very original," says an owner: floors, windows and woodwork, as well as functioning fireplaces, remain. Photo: Paul Whicheloe
“The original is still very original,” says an owner: floors, windows and woodwork, as well as functioning fireplaces, remain. Photo: Paul Whicheloe

Layered details

The house is a pastiche of eras. Thanks to traditional detailing, as the owners say, “it all flows together.” Its original portion, an I-house—that is, a two-over-two colonial farmhouse—has a classically symmetrical façade. It gained a rear addition in 1900, which made the house an L shape and now boasts a double porch, the lower part of which is screened. In 1997, two more large additions brought the home into the 21st century, adding considerable living space and functionality.

The result is a far cry from the simple, one-room-deep dwelling pictured in historical photos. These days, the house is a showplace, with custom stonework and neat garden beds complementing its substantial form. Prominent placement is given to the millstone from the mill: in the center of the flagstone walkway leading to the front door.

Photo: Paul Whicheloe
Photo: Paul Whicheloe

The original section is a visual and historical anchor for the home, while the additions hold the spaces where the family most often gathers. “The original is still very original,” says an owner—meaning the beautiful floors, windows and woodwork (and working fireplaces) but also a lack of insulation. More recent portions are considerably more comfortable.

Still, the original heart of the home—wide center hallway, parlor, dining room and two upstairs bedrooms—has an unmistakable magnetism. Paneling and scrollwork on the main staircase are the old house’s fanciest touches; in essence it is a vernacular structure meant to house a hardworking family. The owners puzzle over what must have been a costly extra—a second staircase in the dining room. Were there, perhaps, two families living here, in need of privacy?

Photo: Paul Whicheloe
Photo: Paul Whicheloe

What’s certain is that later stewards of the property found ways to raise the luxury factor considerably. More than a century ago, the house gained a rear addition that now contains the kitchen on the first floor and a bedroom on the second, both of them opening onto long porches. (Old photos show that this addition was originally smaller, with no second-floor porch; it seems that each generation of occupants has left its mark on the house’s form.)

The current owners found the kitchen recently updated, with cream-colored Shaker cabinetry, granite countertops and beadboard ceiling. Their only change was to enlarge windows looking onto the screened porch. A sitting area near the fireplace—which has been fitted with a small woodstove—adds a note of gentility to the room.

The most recent additions address modern needs. A new sitting room at one end of the original house includes built-in bookcases and a TV niche. Photo: Paul Whicheloe
The most recent additions address modern needs. A new sitting room at one end of the original house includes built-in bookcases and a TV niche. Photo: Paul Whicheloe

The most recent additions, made nearly a century later, address modern wants and needs. On one end of the original I-house, a new sitting room provides built-in bookcases and a TV niche, a large bay window and a nook that luckily made a place for the current occupants to hang a large, beloved horse painting.

Extending along the rear is a garage and mudroom that supports a second-floor master suite with a sauna, two bathrooms and a hallway lined with built-in cabinets. The mudroom is as pleasant a place to spend time as any parlor or sitting room; it has a slate floor, a wall of windows and enough room for a center organizing table and a desk. Of course, the requisite hooks and cubbies are here too, and the nearby bathroom boasts a steam shower.

A rear addition in 1900 made the house an L shape. It boasts a double porch, the lower part of which is screened. Photo: Paul Whicheloe
A rear addition in 1900 made the house an L shape. It boasts a double porch, the lower part of which is screened. Photo: Paul Whicheloe

Living history

Such a property inevitably leads its occupants to curious speculation about the past. “When we first moved in, we would look through those windows on bleak winter days, and think about what it was like to live here” in the 19th century, says the owner.

Old orchards, family cemeteries and even the old bricks in the hearths seem to speak of earlier eras. It’s said that General George Custer camped in the hayfield during the Civil War, but even if that bit of lore isn’t verifiable, many lives have undoubtedly been lived on these acres, including those of enslaved people whose cabins were at one time in the nearby hills.

As much as the history, it is the quietude and beauty of this piece of land that its owners love—a place where they can swim in their own river in the summer. “I grew up in California in a place that was rural,” says one. “Kids ran around and everybody had a horse. This is a replication of that.”

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