Five years after the death of Matoaka Sims, her house began to serve in new roles. In 1906 the Chatham Episcopal Institute (Chatham Hall) burned, and James (a Naval engineer) and John (an attorney in Washington, D.C.) Sims gave permission for the Rev. Clevius Pruden, headmaster at Chatham Hall and former trustee of the Whittle estate for the Sims boys, to use the Sims House as the main building of the school until new construction could be finished. During the period the Sims House was occupied by Chatham Episcopal Institute, the house had a telephone system and electricity (a battery house apparently sat in the back), and meals were served in the English basement. Other homes on Whittle Street were used to house the girls, and eight cottages (four still standing and in use as residences) were built as additional living space.
The now-missing kitchen house, which sat behind “the big house” (see photograph above) was apparently still used as a kitchen by Chatham Episcopal Institute. Plumbing excavations in 1997 uncovered a significant quantity of broken institutional china, c. 1905, around the foundation of the old kitchen. Charred timbers found underground nearby hint that either the kitchen or an even earlier structure may have burned.
When Chatham Episcopal Institute moved back to its hill on the east side of Chatham, the Sims House was used by Warren Training School, which later evolved into Hargrave Military Academy (see Warren Training School Graffiti, 1908-09).
The house then experienced an extensive string of ownership. First, Georgia Industrial Realty Company (a subsidiary of Southern Railway) purchased the property in 1915 in anticipation of moving the Southern's main north-south line. As it turned out, the railroad bed construction missed the house, but the western portion of the land was carved off, leaving the house and a number of other subdivided lots, several of which were later built on.
During the Georgia Industrial Realty Company's ownership, the house was rented for residential use. (See the E. L. Ingram family's photos.)
Southern engineer Joshua Nunnally Walker purchased the house in 1920. According to Buddy Overbey (11/9/2000), “J. N. Walker told me that long before he purchased the house, he had steamed by at the controls of trains, looked up on the hill and said to himself, ‘Someday I'm going to own that house!’” Walker extended the upper and lower back porches to create two inside kitchens, making possible an upstairs rental apartment.
Mrs. Victor Adkins of Chatham relates that “the tin roof was torn off by a tornado” while her family lived as renters on the main floor of the Sims House in 1937. (The late Dr. E. D. Overbey of Chatham, son of a former owner of the house, recalled that he had been told that the original roofing had been “imported from Holland by James Whittle and offloaded from a train down the hill from the house.”)
The house and J. N. Walker's ownership of it survived the tornado, but a subsequent card game is another story. Buddy Overbey relates how Walker lost the house: “Walker developed the pattern of a lunchtime poker game with my father (Ran V. Overbey, Sr.) on the front porch of his home (at 110 Whittle Street). Walker ran up his debts to the point that eventually he came by one day in 1944 and threw the deed to the Sims House on the table.”
Mr. Overbey was short of cash, too, so he took the deed uptown and shopped it around until he found John J. “Johnny” Coles willing to buy half interest for $2500 cash. They found the Sims house to be a good rental investment, but Mr. Overbey died soon after, leaving everything to his wife Henson, and the partnership between Coles and Mrs. Overbey became difficult. Mrs. Overbey admired the Sims house very much, and wanted to live in it herself, but she was not in a position to buy out Coles's interest.
Eventually, it was agreed that Henson Overbey's son Buddy would auction the house, in June 1946. The Overbeys were surprised and pleased to find that the auction produced a sale price of $7000, bid by local Ford dealer Robert Grubb. (It is said that his main bidding competition came from Dry Fork postmaster and rail agent Charlie H. Jones, grandfather of current owner Patricia B. Mitchell.)
Robert Grubb refurbished the house to serve as three to four apartments, including one in the English basement, thus initiating a period of the house's most intensive usage. (See At the Sims House with the Logue and Adkins Family, ca. 1951-1961.)
Grubb died without a will in 1952. A Danville bank was appointed trustee of the estate, and continued to administer the property for twenty-three years. However, the massive structure, a challenge to maintain for even the most dedicated of resident owners, gradually declined under absentee management until it was no longer habitable.
In August 1975, on the day that the estate's trustee decided to sell the Sims property, Henry and Patricia Mitchell happened to “find” the house while horseback riding down the nearby Cherrystone Creek valley with local equestrian Harry Gillispie. The Mitchells were amazed, intrigued, and sentimentally attracted by the similarity of the interior of the old Sims House to that of the Devéze-Henderson House in the heart of the French Quarter at 612 Royal Street, New Orleans, where they had been living (but, sadly, that building was now being gutted by its owners). Within a few days transfer of the Sims property to the Mitchells was completed, and a long process of reclamation began. (See Sims-Mitchell House Restoration 1975–Present and The Rock That Turned the Tide.)
Copyright © 1999–2006 Patricia B. Mitchell.