Yesteryears: The Shanty had a sturdy spot in local history - The Daily Progress: Yesteryears Column

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Yesteryears: The Shanty had a sturdy spot in local history

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Posted: Sunday, April 28, 2013 6:00 am

Whatever grandeur the house might have once held was mostly gone by the summer of 1938.

By then, the dwelling that fronted Park Street, sided on High Street and stood opposite Court Square had long been known as "the Shanty." What it might have lacked in polish and poise was more than made up for by its place in Albemarle County history.

A few of Charlottesville's oldest citizens remembered being told that John "Jack" Jouett had stopped at the house during his epic ride to Monticello in 1781. On that night in early June, he had ridden the 40 miles from Louisa to Thomas Jefferson's home at breakneck speed to warn him that British troops were on their way to capture him.

Those hearing this story who were familiar with the route Jouett took to Monticello might have scratched their heads, or simply discounted it as a tall tale. History has it that Jouett crossed a ford in the Rivanna River at Milton, and from there went up the "little mountain" that Monticello crowns.

Only after warning Jefferson, and being thanked by the then-governor with some "fine Madeira," did Jouett ride to Charlottesville. Once in town, he immediately went to the Swan Tavern, owned by his father, to alert legislators staying there of the approaching danger.

Fortunately, when word spread that the Shanty was going to be torn down to make way for a garage to house Albemarle County school buses, the discrepancy got cleared up. The person who set the historic record straight was Leta Drane.

Mrs. Drane once had lived in the house, and she revealed that it formerly had been located in Milton. Back in Jefferson's time, the little town about three miles east of Charlottesville had housed the post office he would have used.

Mrs. Drane didn't know the date the house had been moved, but she was quite certain it was sometime in the early 19th century. Court Square was much more open then, and an account in The Daily Progress said the house had originally been surrounded by an acre of land.

Edgar Woods mentioned the house in his book, "History of Albemarle." He wrote that there was a ravine at the back of the property that contained a spring known as Prison Spring.

Mrs. Drane said the house got its nickname soon after her father, Oscar Reierson, purchased it in 1873. She and her siblings had started calling it the Shanty, and the nickname stuck.

Reierson had the house reconditioned and enlarged. When the work was finished, the home was a story and a half tall in front and three stories in the rear. This configuration was possible because the land in the back of the house sloped down toward the ravine.

George Spooner had been in charge of the remodel, and in 1938, he was living on Ridge Street.

Spooner told The Daily Progress that when he was working on the house, the dining room and kitchen were in the basement, and there had been two rooms in the half-story at the front of the dwelling.

The house had been heated by a centrally located Latrobe stove. In addition, each of the major rooms also had fireplaces, which is an indication that the place hardly met the definition of a shanty.

Apparently, after the Reierson family moved from the house, and it went through a number of owners, it did become rundown. When the story about the Shanty appeared in The Progress on July 6, 1938, it already was gone.

"The old order changeth, giving way to the new," was how the story ended. Perhaps by then the historic house was too far gone to save.

But years later, when some of the city's oldest and most beautiful homes on Park Street started being torn down, many people realized what was being lost. That Park Street exists today as one of Charlottesville's most historic and beautiful thoroughfares is due in large part to individuals who understood that new doesn't always mean better.     

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