Shenandoah Valley, Va. -- The road from Staunton to Newport hasn't changed much in 30 years. It's been repaved, but the fences and telephone poles still march alongside, day lilies and cornflowers still cover the banks, and every bend still shows a panorama of fields with hazy blue mountains in the distance.
Most of the houses along the road have wood fences and manicured lawns, but these are working farms and horses, cows and sheep graze right up to the yard. Occasionally a car or pickup will pass by, and the driver almost always waves.
The house sits back off the road, partway up the hill. It's a little imposing, a little down in the tooth. The brick part, now the front, where supports are crumbling under the wide front porch, was built just after the Civil War, about 1865. For a while shoemakers toiled in the front corner of the ground floor, and the shelves they used are still there. In an extension, later detached and used as a garage, children in the 1920s still found old button shoes.
Behind the three-story brick part of the house is the original two-story house, built of logs but now covered with cedar shingles. No one in the village remembers when the older part was built, but most people guess it was before the Revolutionary War.
It's early yet and hot for a day in late June, but already several vehicles are pulled up along the drive in front of the house. Further up the hill, toward the barn, is the small white trailer that belongs to the auctioneer.
"Attention, folks," the voice booms over the portable loudspeaker, "this sale is by number only. If you haven't registered yet, please come up to the white trailer and get your number."
Scattered around the lawn, in the shade, people sit on folding chairs or stand in small groups. Other people are milling in and out of the house, carrying the cream-colored brochures that describe the house and the terms of its sale.
There used to be five porches, and more vegetation around the house -- a big old pear tree and huge boxwoods in the front -- and a lot less lawn. Higher up on the hill, in what used to be a field, someone has installed an ugly swimming pool surrounded by a stark chain-link fence. Standing beside the pool, you can see over the house to the three tree-covered hills that Beulah Beard, who lived here from just after World War I until 1968, named Faith, Hope and Charity. She always claimed that somewhere over there, maybe on Faith, three shallow depressions in the soil marked the graves of Yankee soldiers.
More vehicles, mostly pickups, but a few cars, are arriving, directed to parking by a polite teen-ager. "Have you got a brochure?" asks a member of the auction team. The auctioneer, in cowboy boots and a wireless remote microphone, patrols the drive, guiding newcomers and answering questions. How big is the property? It's 12-plus acres. (It used to be more than 100.) Is that house up there on the hill part of it? No, that's another parcel; it's for sale, too, 65 acres. (No well, though, and no right-of-way.)
Inside the house, in what used to be the potato cellar, a couple of men are poking the joists with keys, looking for termites, and studying the jumbled wiring. The shelves behind the stairs are still lined with canning jars, some full of produce "put up" last season.
Upstairs, the front of the house, with its old, scarred pine floors, is largely untouched. Someone has stripped the old trim and replaced the old wallpaper with garish vinyl "Victorian." Many of the old window panes remain, with their flawed, wavery panes. The stairway -- where the painting of the horse in full stride used to terrify small children sent to bed unescorted -- has also been stripped. The old wood looks wonderful, rich and cocoa-colored.
The biggest changes to the house are in the layout. Behind the parlor, where there used to be a hallway to the old kitchen, there's now a bathroom. Thirty years ago the only running water was cold, in the kitchen, brought from the spring by a balky old pump that occasionally needed a good swift kick to keep it going. Also off the parlor was a bedroom you had to walk through to get to the dining room; behind that, in the very oldest part of the house, was the kitchen, which someone has replaced with a bland "in-law" apartment. Once it held an elaborate wood cook stove that baked the best bread in the valley -- despite the oven door that had to be jammed shut with an old piece of wood (slightly charred on one end from decades of service).
It's almost 10:30 a.m. and groups of people are gathering on the side lawn, where there are a few trees and some welcome relief from the sun.
"OK, folks," the auctioneer says, "I see you all like the shade, so we'll just set up right here." In rapid fire he lays out the terms: It's an absolute sale, which means the highest bidder will own the place, it takes $10,000 down, payable at the white trailer, the rest due in 30 days, property as is, but discovery of a major defect will render the sale void. Current owner "has worked hard on the garden" and wants to retain ownership of the produce -- "but most of it'll be harvested by the time we settle."
And then it starts. For a few long minutes it seems no one will bid. "Somebody give me a bid," the auctioneer says, matter-of-factly. "Gimme a bid."
Finally someone does: "Forty." (Village gossip has it this is the amount owed to the bank.)
Bidding is slow, moving at last up to $50,000, then to $55,000.
"Fi'ty-five, fi'ty-five, got fi'ty-five want 60, want 60, want 60, want 60, got fi'ty-five want 60 want 60 . . ."
You could get it for 60. You could get it for 60.
"Sixy-two five, sixy-two five, got sixy-two five, want 70, want 70, want 70, want 70 . . ."
The bids creep up. Sixty-seven five. Sixty-eight. We're down to a couple of bidders now. One of the auction team moves through the crowd. "Want to make a bid? It's going cheap. Want to make a bid?" He pauses by the most persistent bidders, holds quiet conversation.
"Remember, folks," booms the auctioneer, "this is an absolute sale. Somebody will own this place today."
Bidding resumes and the pace quickens -- $70,000, $70,500, $72,000. The auctioneer's assistant is moving back and forth between the main bidders, quietly taking their bids. Seventy-three, seventy-four -- "Sev'ny-four, sev'ny-four, got sev'ny-four . . ."
It's clear this is the end. Seventy-four thousand dollars, for a house that's partly more than 100 and partly more than 200 years old, with 12-plus acres and two barns. Four bedrooms, two baths, a kitchen that needs some work. Original trim, pine floors that could be renewed, some inappropriate "modernizing" that would be easy to rip out. A porch that needs rebuilding, and its latticework and swing restored. A yard that cries out for gardens. A big old house with good bones and lots of promise.
Seventy-four thousand dollars.
The crowd is breaking up, there's more stuff to sell -- a 1978 Dodge Winnebago, "24 ft.w/air, various other household items," says the brochure.
The successful bidder reports to the white trailer. The crowd moves up the hill to the new barn. The chained dog barks, children run up and down. People stand around, talking about the sale, village news.
Walking back to the car, Randy takes out the small white card, No. 61, and writes on the back:
"Number from auction of my grandparents' house June 22, 1991. I couldn't afford the house, but thought my grandparents would at least want me to try."
Next: When an old house presents REAL BIG surprises.
Mr. Johnson is construction manager for Neighborhood Housing Services of Baltimore. Ms. Menzie is Home Editor of The Sun.
If you have questions, comments, tips or experiences to share about working on houses, write to us c/o HOME WORK, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, Md. 21278. Questions of general interest will be answered in the column; comments, tips and experiences will be reported in occasional columns.