The iconic, antique house with the green roof on Pine Street is nearly as old as Ripley itself (Ripley was founded in 1836). To be its custodian means not just to preserve its physicality, but to preserve its legacy.
I have written much about the changes FGG and I have made to the home since moving 800 miles from Florida to Ripley this past May, and I have been humbled by the outpouring of reader interest in our ancestral family home. This home is so much more than a renovation project to us, and that must be obvious to the readers who connect with our story of uprooting our lives in a metro area of four million people to move to a city of around 5,000 to carry on the family legacy here in Ripley.
FGG can proudly claim to be the third Frank Gay to live in our home. This home is where generations of our family lived their lives. I know a little about FGG’s grandmother and grandfather, who lived here before FGG’s father and mother bought the house. I wanted to know more about them, and the ancestors who preceded them, after a visit to the Tippah County Historical Museum here in our neighborhood back in October.
Snooping around in the attic one day, I happened to discover some antique medical stirrups. They obviously belonged to Dr. Marsh, a previous resident of our home. Our family decided to donate the stirrups to the Tippah County Historical Museum. I didn’t know much about Ripley prior to moving here from Florida, other than there was a killer flea market here each month. I left my private tour of the historic museum that day with a greater understanding of what makes Tippah County special: the pride that local families have in their ancestors. I was curious as to who these prior residents were, and I sat down for a phone chat with my father-in-law, Frank Gay, Jr, to take down an oral history of the home, as he remembers it.
Spoiler alert: we are related to the Southern Sentinel’s founder! More on that later.
Apparently, Southern Sentinel already featured our Pine Street house in an article a long time ago, but my father-in-law cannot recall exactly when. Unfortunately, there are no digital archives of past issues: only hard copies at the Sentinel office. Poring through volumes of past issues to find the article to use as a reference for my column this week is something that makes my tired eyes cross, just thinking about it. Bor-ing! So, I did what any lazy person would do: I skipped the microfiche and picked up the phone. My father-in-law grew up in this house, and I was excited to interview him about its history, as he remembers it.
Getting my info directly from Frank G. Gay, Jr., was anything but boring. If you have ever taken an oral history, you know that no human source is ever infallible. Frank Jr. even gave ME his disclaimer that readers should do their due diligence on fact checking anything he shares regarding Dr. Marsh’s time living in the home or before. Everything after Dr. Marsh’s time, though, he is certain of.
The Duncan and Marsh Years
Our Pine Street home celebrates its 117th birthday this year! The public record has the house built in the 1920s, but that is inaccurate. According to FGG Jr., construction on our Pine Street house began in 1896, and was completed in 1904. It was built by the Reverend James Duncan, who had a large family consisting of seven children. FGG Jr. said his mother, Catherine, always claimed that Reverend Duncan was kin, but, as FGG Jr. explains, “We claim everyone as kin around here, except criminals,” so, who knows if we are really related? Reverend Duncan built the home as an L-shaped house, without the current foyer and porches. A 1908 picture of the house provides a stark contrast to how the house looked after renovations were done by the second resident, Dr. Marsh. FGG Jr. continued to explain to me that there used to be front steps directly to a small porch that was adjacent to what is now the family room. Dr. Marsh added the brick columns and existing front porch. Our family relationship is through Dr. Marsh’s wife, who was the sister to my father-in-law’s Great Aunt. My father-in-law retains Dr. Marsh’s ledgers of house calls and what he charged his patients. Flipping through the ledger, one can’t help but wish that healthcare was still that affordable!
Cousins and a Parrot
Every child has memories of a favorite relative who makes them feel special. For my husband’s grandmother, Catherine Ladner, Mrs. Marsh was that relative. Martha Rae Barnett grew up with my husband’s grandmother, Catherine, and was not only her first cousin, but also one of her best friends. Catherine was born in 1924, and lived up the street from the Pine Street house, and Martha Rae lived on Main Street. As five, six, and seven-year-old girls, they would visit the Pine Street home and feed the goldfish in the pond that was located on the side patio (and apparently, we still have the concrete vessels where the fish swam in and out of there).
Mrs. Marsh, who was related to the girls, would always invite them inside. These little girls loved when they were welcomed in her home, as Mrs. Marsh had a parrot that would talk to the girls! On the Marsh’s front door, there was a brass parrot door knocker. Mrs. Marsh removed it prior to selling the home in the 1940s and gave it to Martha Rae, as she knew how much she loved the talking parrot. In 2000, the door knocker came full circle when Martha Rae gave it to Catherine, where she had it installed back on the front door as it had been, 70 years prior. The parrot door knocker is still on our front door to this day.
Single Family to Multi-Family
Life can throw curveballs, and our successes are determined by how we deal with them. Dr. Marsh died in the 1930s during The Great Depression. Mississippi was hit hard, especially Tippah County. There were outstanding doctor’s bills people did not pay. Mrs. Marsh had this big house she wanted to live out the rest of her life in, so she got creative and converted the upstairs to two apartments and on the back of the house, a back porch was added with stairs for the tenants. The tenants shared the upstairs bathroom. The storage room upstairs looks unchanged from the 1930s. It has the original sink and cabinets from one of the two apartments still in there! The old kitchen cabinets (from the second upstairs apartment) were, until this week, still in our garage.
When I am up in those rooms, which have since been converted back into bedrooms, I think about Mrs. Marsh and how she decided that she was going to be a victor, not a victim, creating income for herself by becoming a landlord so that she could live on her own terms. What an inspirational woman. I love the stories attached to the pieces in this home, and love to decorate with as many original pieces from the home as I can. I ended up pulling the old apartment cabinets out of hiding in the garage so that I can use them regularly. Not only do those cabinets symbolize overcoming adversity, but they are unique, and I am excited to use them in my decor.
A Childhood Dream Come True
What girl doesn’t want a guy who will give them the world? In 1946, Franklin Gerald Gay Sr., my father-in-law’s father, bought this home for Catherine, who, as I mentioned, played in the home as a little girl. She always loved this house, and now, it was finally hers. At the time, my father-in-law was two or three years old. When FGG Sr. bought the house, he decided that he did not want tenants. He gave the tenants ample time to move out so the home could be converted back into a one family dwelling. FGG Jr. said he even remembers being a little boy living in the house while the tenants were still there. I am certain that Catherine is smiling down from Heaven because her grandson bought this house for me on my birthday.
My father-in-law’s father, Frank Gay, Senior (FGG Sr.), was a successful entrepreneur and owner of several automobile auctions and a motel in Baldwyn. In the 1960s, FGG Sr. did a massive renovation to the home, including hardwood oak floors, upstairs carpet, and the drywall installation throughout the home. A custom cabinet maker renovated the kitchen, using solid wood, knotty pine that we still have today (and love). Other renovations included the installation of central heat and air, modernizing both bathrooms and upgrading the electrical system. I initially thought I would rip out the vintage pink tile in the downstairs and mint green tile in the upstairs, but, after living in the house for a while, the vintage tile colors have grown on me. Design trends are embracing retro chic, and now, when we renovate the bathrooms, I will be sure that we keep the original pink and mint green color schemes!
The gazebo in the backyard was built in the 1980s. FGG Sr had a hot tub installed within it because of his love for Hot Springs, Arkansas. The outbuildings in the backyard were originally built as stables.
The story behind the chauffeur’s house is that Dr. Marsh often made house calls in the middle of the night, and his chauffeur would stay & sleep there to be easily available. The small house is approximately 300 sq feet and had a wood stove heater. There was no plumbing, and an outhouse was most likely utilized by the chauffeur. Catherine loved this home so much that, later in life, when FGG Sr. became increasingly successful and offered to buy her an even grander home here in town, Catherine declined. Just like Mrs. Marsh, she wanted to live out her days here on Pine Street. If you spend any amount of time here in the house, you will understand their commitment to this special place. Now that I live here, I get it!
Sentimental Sentinel Connection
As I alluded to at the beginning of the column, we are related to the Sentinel’s founder. Captain Thomas Spight, who founded the Sentinel, is my father-in-law’s great, great uncle. My father-in-law’s sister, “Ginger,” was named after Capt. Spight’s wife, Virginia Barnett. Capt. Spight founded the Sentinel after the Civil War in order to make news available to the people in Tippah, giving “the Southern side” of what went on during the reconstruction. He went on to law school after the War, where he was wounded in Atlanta. He was also elected to the state legislature, then to Congress for two terms.
The Sentinel was founded in the family store in the upstairs of where Studio One is on Ripley Town Square. My father-in-law’s great-grandfather, A.G. Barnett, Jr. owned that building. The founders of the newspaper, for which I write each week as a columnist, are our kinfolk! It gives me chills.
There is so much more to share about our family history, especially about my father-in-law’s parents, Frank and Catherine Gay, and my father-in-law and mother-in-law, Frank and Rebecca Gay, but space here prohibits me from telling it all right now. All you really need to know right now is that, regardless of the accuracy of some of the early history, one thing is for sure: this home has always been, and continues to be, filled with love. Knowing our home’s history makes me proud, and I thought other residents might enjoy knowing about it, too, because heritage is valued. I am grateful to this house for opening the door for me to become a columnist for the Sentinel. A feature story about our house is how this all began for me!
Since moving here, FGG and I have pivoted, and now have big plans for the house, beyond just renovating it. The more I learn about our home and write about it here in the Sentinel, the more I receive positive responses from our readership about our family story. That visit to the Tippah County Historical Museum planted a seed in me that heritage should be preserved by being shared. Our intent is to pay tribute to the family who has preceded us here on Pine Street and share our family legacy with the public. FGG and I are excited to make our mark on Ripley by making this property something that both the community and future generations of the Gay family can be proud of. Stay tuned for details. It’ll be exciting!