By WHITNEY BURDETTE ∙ firstname.lastname@example.org
CEDAR GROVE — Sisters Patty Ellis Thurman and Shirley Ellis Stennett grew up in Cedar Grove, where they saw the historic Tompkins House every day. They never dreamed that in the future, they themselves would live in and operate a business out of the mansion.
The Tompkins House, built in 1844, is now home to The Haven, an elderly care home Patty operates. The sisters, who bought the house in 1999, are the first owners of the house who are not part of the Tompkins family.
"The widow of the last Roger Tompkins sold it," Patty said. "She felt bad to do that, but he had an early onset of Alzheimer's and died way too young. He was a Rhodes scholar, attorney, attorney general for West Virginia, served in the House of Delegates. He was a brilliant man and did a lot for Cedar Grove. He told her she could sell the house — just don't allow it to be torn down."
Patty said the house, by that time, was in disrepair. There were holes in the walls and floors, a balcony over the porch was sinking and some of the original furniture had been stolen. But a solid foundation, built of cut rock using slave labor, meant the house was salvageable. But the sisters aren't through with the renovations.
The house includes 14 to 16 rooms, including a first-floor bathroom the sisters added. A former slave cabin in the back of the property was once two rooms, but has been added onto over the years. A milk house and smoke house are also located on the back of the property with a breezeway between them and the house. And that breezeway holds a lot of mystery.
An old Cedar Grove rumor says there is a tunnel connecting the house to an unknown location in Cedar Grove, possibly to the river bank or to Virginia's Chapel. The sisters said there probably isn't any truth to the rumor, but it's not impossible.
"The breezeway sounds hollow," Shirley said. "We'd have to excavate that and potentially damage the structure. That's one of those mysteries that enchant me. We don't know."
"We've not found one," Patty added. "Every time we dig, we look around."
The Tompkins were a well-to-do family, the sisters said, who made their fortune in the salt mines at Malden. The family built their home at the mouth of Kelleys Creek on a grove of cedar trees. At the time, the town was called Boat Yard.
The Tompkins family had 10 children, including daughter Virginia. When Virginia graduated from school, her parents asked her what she would like as a gift. They thought she would like a ship trip abroad, but she surprised her parents by saying she wanted a chapel. Virginia's Chapel still stands along Route 60 in Cedar Grove.
The House was also used during the Civil War. Rachel Tompkins, the matriarch of the family, was an aunt of Ulysses S. Grant. When troops from both sides tried to seize the house, she showed them a letter from her nephew saying they could not destroy the house. Troops did use the church, however, and the government reimbursed the family for any damages after the war.
Rumor has it a Confederate soldier died on the third floor of the house. That possible death, the Indian battles and possible underground tunnel fuel speculation that the house and property are haunted. The sisters said they're not sure they believe that.
"I haven't seen one, and I've lived here for 13 years," Patty said. "The floors creak sometimes, but it's old. If you walk certain places, it'll creak."
"It's part of the fun, though, part of the mystique," Shirley added.