The Rock That Turned the Tide

An autobiographical sketch by Henry H. Mitchell.

Henry Mitchell with the rock

Henry Mitchell in 2002, with the rock discovered several feet underground at this spot near their house in 1985.


The little flat disc I found in the spring of 1985 has become a symbol of several streams of our family's life, and of a crossroads we came to that year.

For six years I had been planetarium specialist for the Pittsylvania County Schools' Planetarium in Chatham, Virginia. I found it a highly enjoyable job, even though it perhaps paid a little less well than some other options I might have chosen, and even though its future seemed a bit uncertain due to the vicissitudes of public funding. One especially bright spot in my activities there had been the production of several programs on local Native Americans. In researching those programs, I had learned from naturalist Bill Hathaway that some of the best “Indian sites” are found on knolls near significant streams. Our Whittle Street home is situated in just such a spot, but I had never heard of anyone's having found a single Native American artifact in our neighborhoold.

We had purchased our 1875 house at its centennial in 1975. It was in terribly run-down condition, basically abandoned, and over ten years we had invested a tremendous amount of physical labor into the house and its grounds. And in the meantime, our Sarah and David had been born.

The old Sims House (rear), 1975

Our house, nearly derelict, as we first saw it while riding horseback through the thicket which nearly surrounded it in 1975. (The photograph was taken a few days later, after we bought the property.)

In the late summer of 1984, I had given our lawn mower cord an all-I-could-muster jerk, and heard a loud pop and ripping sound in my right shoulder as the mower cord broke. My shoulder was quite painful after that, but healing did seem to be taking place. We hired the mowing done for the rest of 1984, and by spring of 1985 my shoulder seemed almost well. But one evening I was carrying rambunctious little one-year-old David on my right side, and he swung his full weight around in his normal wiggly manner. I heard that awful sound in my shoulder again, and felt sharp pain. This time, my arm was immobilized except from the elbow down, and to put any pressure at all on the shoulder was excruciating. Medical analysis seemed to indicate that surgery was the best alternative. I was skeptical, having heard mixed reports for acquaintances who had suffered similar injuries, so I was just waiting, thinking, and praying about it.

Sims-Mitchell House (rear), 2001

Our house recently, as seen from the same rear view as above.

As Easter week approached, we were happily anticipating a few days at the Chesterfield Inn in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Then, on (not-so-?) Good Friday, we found that the drain line from our house was blocked. Our plumber advised us that the problem was tree roots (we'd had the line cleaned with a cutter several times already), to the extent that no solution was possible except for replacement. And since the water line lay in the same trench as the sewer line, we might as well take this opportunity to replace it, too.

Into the Trenches

I quickly called a local excavator who had done work for us before. “Near those gas lines? No way!” was his response. (The lines had been installed without “tracers,” so it was impossible to find them with a detector on the surface.) I assured him that I knew where the lines were. “But I'm the guy with the backhoe, and I'm not going to risk it. You'll have to get it done by hand.” I tried another company, and heard the same response.

So we attempted to contact a local laborer who had done some digging for us before. He was not to be found. Holiday weekend. At 5 p.m. I started digging the line myself.

By midday Saturday it was obvious that my one-armed pick-and-shoveling was going to take a long time. We cancelled our beach reservations. Even with heavy work gloves, my office-soft hands had experienced many broken blisters, and my right forearm was scraped raw from supporting the shovel. The ground was dry and hard packed, not to mention that the trench was under our gravel driveway. This had turned into a much bigger job than I had guessed.

After a Sunday of rest and wound-nursing, it was back to the trench on Monday, then Tuesday, then Wednesday, then Thursday. By late Thursday afternoon I was at the end of my stamina and emotions. I was picking and shoveling in hard-packed red clay, creating a new utility path beside the old one. At least I was past the fill earth consisting of brick fragments and gravel, which had been my bane while I was working a little closer to the house. Suddenly my mattock and hand jangled with a hard glancing blow — “chink!” — on something about three and a half feet below the ground's surface, about fifteen feet from the front corner of the building.

Tricia had helpfully commented, “Think positively! Maybe you'll strike buried treasure out there!” But this was no pirate's chest, only a rock. I dug around it, chipped at it, and pried on it for a few minutes, complaining to myself that I could have been sitting on the beach right now if it weren't for the awful timing of this sewer backup.

The rock

The rock from the trench, scuffed and scarred from its encounters with mattock and shovel.

Eventually the rock came loose from its tight red matrix of earth, and I hoisted it out with a shovel of loose dirt particles, over the side the trench. But as it sailed out of the shovel, I noticed that it didn't look like just any old local rock. I clambered out of the pit and retrieved it, brushed it off, then took it to the outdoor faucet for a more thorough cleaning. Much to my surprise and happy amazement, it appeared to be a smooth, almost perfectly symmetrical disk. Possibly it could be a water-worn stone, but no such thing is found anywhere near our locality. It was human-transported, if not manmade. With my recent efforts at the planetarium, I concluded that it had a high likelihood of being a Native American game stone. Had I found possible evidence that, sure enough, our ridge was a former Indian habitation?

A probable grinding stone

A probable Native American grinding stone (mortar) was plowed up in neighbor Florence Stutz's garden.

During the next few days, we mentioned the find to others on our street. We were told that our neighbor Flo Stutz had had her garden deep-plowed, and the tractor had pulled up a large stone basin, most likely a Native American mortar for grinding corn. Flo had temporarily installed the venerable relic on a tree stump as a bird bath. So the proof was in, no matter the history of our little rock. Native Americans probably once lived on Chatham's Whittletown hill.

The trench is complete

After ten days, the trench is finally complete.

The discovery of the rock cheered me immensely and gave me enough added energy to bull on through to the finish, so that on Monday, eight days after Easter and ten days after the digging had begun, the plumber came to hook up our new sewer and water lines. Little did I know that the rock would become a symbol of a crossroads in our lives, literally a “watershed!”

The Watershed

In mid-afternoon, after my last planetarium program of the day was complete, I received a desperate telephone call from Tricia. “There's a huge geyser of water out front, coming up through the street pavement! It's as high as the house, and it's covering the white Mustang with red mud! What should I do?!” I asked if the plumber was finished with his work, and she replied in the affirmative. I, driving our other car (yes, we were a two-Mustang family), made it home in a hurry.

As it turned out, the act of re-attaching a new water line to the water meter was just enough disturbance to crack the water line's joint at the water main. We had already been advised that our lack of water pressure in our old house was due to built-up deposits in 50-year-old galvanized-iron water pipes within the house. But the geyser and its repair proved that assertion untrue. The clogged pipe was actually the one extending from the water main to the meter. When that corroded supply pipe under the street was replaced by the town crew, we had incredible pressure inside the house. It even blew the relief valve on our water heater (good thing I was standing beside it when they turned on the water again, or we'd have had a flooded basement, too!).

The rock

The town utility crew works to repair the break at the water main. (Note the standing water in the background, remaining from the geyser.)

Tricia's response to the new water pressure? “Now we can have a bed and breakfast!” My reply to her was “No way — we don't have the money for startup!” But local civic sparkplug Audrey Millner just happened to call, offering an emergency rush freelance photography job. A few weeks later, unexpected check in hand, we started moving furniture, painting, and doing minor repairs in preparation for opening day.

On the evening after we started shuffling furniture, I received an unsolicited job offer for an engineering position in Lynchburg, an hour's commute away. (Is there always one last test of will?) It would have been a large increase in salary over my present planetarium pay, and a day earlier I probably would have considered it a dream job. But now we were in motion, on an adventure, not to be deterred. The rock had been nicked in time.

In fairly quick succession our B&B was opened, Tricia started writing historical cookbooks, and our son Jonathan was born. Eventually I left the planetarium to tend to our growing home business, and this large family of webpages began to appear. (Yes, along the way my shoulder was healed, but that's too much of another story to add to this page.)

And the little flat rock is our remembrance of the week we didn't go to the beach, but the tide turned anyway.


This webpage is sponsored by Mitchells Publications and the Sims-Mitchell House, Chatham, Virginia.