The family echoes came from all directions; reverberating off the empty walls inside the old farm house; reappearing outside along the Floyds Fork bottoms in familiar stories and reawakened memories.
The August 17, 2013 gathering at the 150-year-old Mills-Wheeler House at 11900 Fairmount Road brought together three generations of Mills-Wheeler-Stout-Tyler-Hause families.
It also included the tales of two men who grew up in the house 50 years ago as the sons of tenant farmers – and a woman born 88 years ago in a small frame house on the wooded hill above the 270-acre farm.
The Mills-Wheeler House, its useable outbuildings and the five acres around it, will be preserved by 21st Century Parks as a southern maintenance headquarters for its sprawling 4,000 acres of parklands along Floyd Fork – itself a vital part of the farms’ history.
The 14 who attended the homecoming stood in the summer sunshine for a reunion photo. The house rose up behind them; pure white, two stories tall with a wide front porch, white railings, brick and stone chimneys and black shutters on the windows.
In its early 1860s glory the Greek revival home had seven large rooms with high ceilings, a solid cherry staircase, front and back porches, two-story porches alongside and a chiseled stone foundation.
It had been greatly altered, remodeled and diminished over the 150 years, and yet, sitting there…tucked away at the crook of a big hill at the end of a long road…its innate charm and presence were intact.
“It’s just awesome,” said Ben Adrian Stevens, 67, one of the sons of the tenant farmer. “I’ve only been here twice in the last 50 years. It’s looks different…but yet it’s all the same…”
Ben Adrian Stevens, his brother John Truman Stevens, and their sister Muriel Stevens Cotten, who died a few years ago, had lived in the house with their parents, Everett and Lucille Stevens, from 1949 to 1963.
The brothers wrote a detailed, 41-page history of their lives there entitled “The Parklands of Floyds Fork: Big Valley Vista – Narrative of Life on the Wheeler Farm 1949-1963.”
It’s a sweet and honest narrative of hope, work, faith, fun, family and great expectations; the inevitable Floyds Fork floods and invasive Johnson grass made successful farming very difficult; all three of the tenant farmers’ children would obtain college degrees – and much more.
Their family history covers all that. One included photograph shows both boys dressed in shirts sewn together by their mother from old feed sacks.
There’s a picture of the house as it looked 100 years ago with towering trees in the front yard. The barn alongside it – now partially picked of its thick, rough-cut wooden siding – had once held 24 milk cows, 2,000 bales of hand-mown hay and fragrant racks of drying tobacco.
There’s an image of Everett Stevens on his new, 1949, “Johnny Popper” John Deere tractor – and a faded photo of Fanneli’s Ice Cream Shop in Buechel, a favorite stop on their rare trips off the farm involving treats.
There’s a picture of the farm matriarch, “Miss Virginia” Wheeler – a former Jefferson County teacher and administrator for whom Wheeler Elementary School is named – sitting with Everett and Lucille Stevens at their 50th wedding anniversary.
“She treated our family with respect and dignity,” wrote Truman Stevens. “By example and personal conversation, Muriel, Truman and Adrian were encouraged by Miss Virginia to obtain quality educations.”
The 41 pages of life on the farm are filled with detail and remembrance; milking the cows twice a day between going to school, cleaning stalls, planting and harvesting tobacco and corn, butchering hogs, collecting walnut shards once the shells were deliberately crushed by the milk truck.
There was running barefoot all summer, the family gatherings, squirrel hunting in the woods above the farm, brotherly squabbles, haircuts on a kitchen stool, tending the garden, watching their mother can food and make jams and jellies, memories of their first bubbly, carbonated sip of “nickel Coke.”
It was steady work and parental discipline once accepted and endured because there were no options – and later fully understood and appreciated as the siblings all found success and looked back at the reasons why.
The reunion would include a visit to the fully renovated Stout House about a mile away – an old stone building built on Floyds Fork bottomland once owned by Squire Boone, Daniel’s brother. A few of the guests visited the Hause family cemetery on a quiet ridge not far from the Stout House. Those two families had intermarried over the years.
The reunion guests included Anita Payne, 88, who was born in the small house up on the hill above the Mills-Wheeler House and knew the neighbors and their stories long before the Stevens family arrived.
Wheeler family members Ann Fleming and Cindy Marasligiller also made the trip. Both have been active family historians. Marasligiller’s great-great-grandfather and mother had lived in the Stout house; her great-great-great grandfather was buried in the Hause Cemetery.
The Stevens boys share a common great-great-grandfather with Marasligillar. Jacob Hause was also their great-great-great grandfather.
Martha Ann Driskill Rankin, Ann Fleming’s mother, was a niece of Virginia Wheeler, had lived for a time in the Wheeler House in the early 1940s – and had not been back in almost 70 years.
“The rooms look a lot smaller now,” she said, “But I was only eight years old at the time.”
The Stevens brothers had made periodic trips back to see the old farm, but had rarely been inside it over the last 50 years.
Back then they slept on an old feather mattress beneath layers of flannel sheets. They told stories of snow blowing in through the porch screens on winter mornings, of walking barefoot downstairs from their shared bedroom to a house heated by fireplaces and stoves. Their obligatory Saturday night baths came in small tubs of heated water; being first in line mattered.
They told stories of sliding down the cherry banister to get downstairs, of sneaking into “Miss Virginia’s” bedroom when she was away to admire her antique furniture and taking a peek at her old Life magazines and National Geographic – the latter offering their first glimpses of the full female form.
Their first farm “pay” was a dollar a month; their father had generously offered it as an incentive to work. Their entertainment was a used black-and-white TV; Our Miss Brooks, I Love Lucy, Rawhide and maybe Perry Como.
“We also remember spending some lovely family nights on the front porch of the big house,” wrote Stevens. “We swung on the porch swing and sometimes listened to the radio that was brought to the front room window for such occasions.”
The brothers spent five hours in church on Sunday; morning services first; returning at night for choir practice and more service. Their mother had insisted on it. On Wednesday nights they went to prayer service with their parents.
Fairmount Road ran alongside their house and down through the bottomlands toward Floyds Fork where cars could cross its rocky shallows in low water and crawl up the slope to Bardstown Road two miles away.
The ford was a favorite neighborhood car wash and weekend gathering place for teenagers; the cars that couldn’t make it across in the muddy days had to be towed out by Everett Stevens and his 1949 John Deere.
Lucille Stevens had been baptized in a big pool below that same ford in the 1920s.
The family had one vacation in 14 years on the farm; a journey that included Renfro Valley, Ky., Stone Mountain, Ga., and, eventually, an ocean beach near Charlestown, S.C.
“For the first time in our lives,” Stevens wrote, “we realized there was life beyond the backwoods of Floyds Fork.”
Their education at home was never neglected. Everett Stevens only finished eighth-grade – and pushed his children to learn.
Lucille Stevens had been valedictorian of her 1932 graduation class at Mount Washington High School. She insisted her children go to school, do their homework every night and she grilled them before tests.
All three of the Stevens children graduated from Georgetown College in Georgetown, Ky. The two brothers married school teachers; their sister married a pastor.
John Truman, taught in Jefferson County schools, earned his master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Virginia and retired from the University of Kentucky after serving as a science education professor for 36 years.
Ben Adrian Stevens worked with the Kentucky Farm Bureau Insurance Company for 33 years, retiring as Vice-President of Underwriting.
Muriel Stevens Cotten taught elementary school in Jefferson County and in several Indiana schools, including West Baden, IN., where one of her fourth grade students was Indiana State University and NBA basketball star Larry Bird – another situation where the ingrained Stevens work habits produced results.
“Larry was very intelligent but not among the most aggressive of students,” said Truman Stevens. “Muriel claims to have taken him outside at recess to shoot games of “H-O-R-S-E” as a contingency arrangement to get him to do his school work.
“She would always joke about taking credit for all his success.”
About the Author
Former Louisville-Courier columnist Bob Hill is a historian for The Parklands of Floyds Fork. He travels Floyds Fork writing of the people, the places and the history of the stream within the 20-mile park system – all of which is to be preserved in the Filson Historical Society. Some of Hill’s stories appear in A Landscape and its Legacy, the commemorative book for The Parklands of Floyds Fork project. Hill has also compiled a Floyds Fork “Places & Faces” presentation that adds imagery to the words.