Thursday, May 15, 2014

Neighborhood "secrets"...

New neighbors running the re-opened Thornrose House at Gypsy Hill at 531 Thornrose Avenue caused me to recall what I'd been told of the history of the neighborhood. I have seen one photo of the land before these houses were built across the street from Gypsy Hill Park (at 531, 543, 549 and 561 Thornrose Avenue) but no others. If any exist I certainly would like to see and scan them! Anyway, something was not right about those stories. I had researched the family who built our house and so knew some of the background which didn't jive with the supposed background of the builders.

After visiting the re-decorated B and B next door, I was moved to do some investigative work on the neighborhood and specifically, 531 Thornrose Avenue. This is what I have discovered so far.

531 was apparently built in 1911/1912 by Powell Goodman Stratton whose family were wholesale grocers in Staunton. Powell and his brother Richard Haygood Stratton, apparently took over the grocery business from their father. They were quite well-to-do for the time. Richard moved into 561 Thornrose at about the same time that Powell built 531. Of course, when Powell built the house the address was given as "Thornrose Ave near city water works". Not very precise and probably not needed due to the limited number of dwellings out here. The city water works was, at that time, right across the street about 100 yards from the house. Later the address was given as 523 in 1914 and then, finally, as 531.

So, by the late 1920s all four of these houses had been built and were occupied by Powell Stratton (531), Emmett Frank Fishburne (543 built in 1926), Sidney Erastus Matthews (549 built in 1925), and Richard Stratton (561). All were very well to do and with the elegant park just across the street this was an "upscale" neighborhood. That was quite a change from the industrial feel of the area which had been (after being a farm) home to a tannery and the water works. The value of 531 in 1930 was given as $20,000 or about $284,000 in 2014 dollars. The other homes were valued at $13,000 ($185,000), $10,000 ($142,000) and $18,000 ($256,000). In 1926 the Robert E. Lee High School was built facing Churchville Avenue next door to 561 Thornrose (on the other side of DuPont).

In 1936 Powell died and his widow, Irma Lang Stratton (daughter of Henry Lang, the jeweler), apparently sold the home and moved to 522 Frederic Street and went to work as a bookkeeper. The new owner was George Herbert Spalding.

George had immigrated from England, been a baker in Beckley and was a naturalized citizen. He was married to his second wife Julia and they lived there with their daughter Ethel Louise. However, it seems the house didn't suit because, although they were there in 1940, they were living in Norfolk by 1944. In as much as George was retired by that time I don't know why they moved. George listed an income of $6,000 a year for 1939 (about $102,000) but no job/business/work. That was very good for the times as there were many in Staunton who show no more than $300 income for all of 1939.

So who bought it after the Spaldings? I don't know, yet.

Apparently Powell's death affected his brother's fortunes as well as he and his family moved to a much less expensive house at 307 Glenn Avenue where they lived in 1940. Their former home at 561 was then occupied by John and Maud Snyder, both age 54. John apparently had a hardware store and his recorded income for 1939 was $5000. John and Maud moved to 561 from Fayette Street and were still living there in 1942 when John registered for the draft. John died in 1947, Maud in 1955.

Except for the two Stratton brothers, none of these people were closely related which is at odds with the stories I'd been told about the neighborhood. At least some of the story is now right. More would take a look at the courthouse records. We'll see.

Another interesting thing, several of the daughters of the residents of these 4 houses served in WWII. Margaret Wheeler Stratton (later Conway) was a communications yeoman in the US Navy. Ethel Louise Spalding trained in the Cadet Nursing Corps as did Sue Barret Stratton (daughter of Richard Haygood Stratton at 561 Thornrose). This is not without precedent in the family though as Richard Stratton served in the Navy as a storekeeper in BOTH WWI and WWII.

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