Photo by Jeffrey Dubinsky
Naomi Flowers and Dudley Gattis
Naomi Flowers, 102, visits with Dudley Gattis, who recently bought the house she was born in. Photo by Jeffrey Dubinsky.
Dudley Gattis had never even thought about living in an old house. Then he saw the century-old place a mile north of Woodville, Mississippi. Gattis estimates the house had been empty for at least a decade. The three-thousand-square-foot structure has a large center hall with beadboard ceilings, a parlor and dining room separated by pocket doors, three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a kitchen, and an L-shaped front porch. Every room in the house has a double fireplace except the kitchen and bathroom.
“A lady I work with saw the sign on the way home from a funeral in Ferriday,” said Gattis, taking a break from scraping paint inside the house. “It said ‘House for Sale/To Be Moved.’”
Gattis who owns a real estate investing firm, drove over to look at the house last January, planning to move it to an empty lot in Baton Rouge and sell it. “As soon as I saw it, I realized it was too big for the property,” he said. “I wasn’t planning on moving, but I walked into the big center hall and said, ‘I would like to have this house for myself.’ I bought it a day or two later, and I kept the For Sale sign. Then my mentality became, ‘I must find a lot.’”
Gattis bought two lots in University Acres in Baton Rouge. He demolished the house on one lot, which was in poor condition. His mother owns the house next door, so Gattis, his wife Lindsay, and their two young children moved into it so he could supervise work on the Woodville house. “We’ve already poured the foundation,” he said. “We’re ready to move the house in early March, but it’s really up to the weather.”
To prepare the house for moving, Gattis and a work crew dismantled the chimneys and the central hall and removed the porches and the roof. House mover Marvin Wingate secured permits to move the house across state lines from Wilkinson County through West Feliciana and into East Baton Rouge Parish.
Gattis also hired historic-building expert Sid Gray as a consultant. “Very little has been done to the house,” said Gray, who speculated that it might have been a “kit house” popular in the early twentieth century. “The man who built it might have bought just a plan and hired local carpenters to build it.”
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Photo by Dudley Gattis
Woodville House Exterior
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Photo by Dudley Gattis
Woodville House Exterior
Gattis researched the history of the house at the Woodville courthouse. “It was a pain, but I hit pay dirt,” said Gattis, who discovered the house had been the center of a scandal shortly after it was built. “I was definitely intrigued.”
Studying more than a hundred pages of documents, Gattis learned that the house was built between 1910 and 1912 by Clifford Chester MacLeod, a cashier at the Citizens’ Bank in Woodville, and his wife Cornelia Cropper MacLeod. According to contemporary newspaper accounts, MacLeod had built and furnished the house with money he embezzled from the bank. In January 1913, bank officers discovered a discrepancy in the books, questioned MacLeod (who confessed), and had him arrested.
The True Democrat newspaper of Bayou Sara, Louisiana, reported that “public indignation … was aroused to such a high pitch that Sheriff [David D.] McCraine took him to the Natchez jail last Saturday night, for safekeeping.”
After the Bayou Sara sheriff refused the prisoner, the account continued, McCraine and his party, with MacLeod in tow, “went across country to Norwood by automobiles and caught the train passing that place at 2:55 a.m. The party was followed for some distance by a crowd of angry Mississippians, but before the officers could be intercepted MacLeod was safe in the jail at Natchez.”
The St. Francisville Democrat reported that MacLeod had stolen $60,000, much of which he had invested in cotton futures in an effort to repay the money before he was caught. MacLeod was sentenced to ten years in prison and sent to the Rankin State Prison Farm near Jackson, Mississippi, where he was still evidently respected for his accounting skills and was eventually asked to help out in that capacity. “I am answering the questions in the courthouse at Jackson,” he stated while testifying under oath in December 1913. “I am keeping the penitentiary books in the Secretary’s office at the Capitol.”
Cornelia MacLeod, it turns out, shipped her household furnishings to Mobile, Alabama, and moved there. In December of that year, under oath, she testified that she had had no knowledge of her husband’s theft. Cornelia, age twenty-five, said she had left Woodville because she had been “insulted in my home by former friends, and heard of personal threats, and because I had no family or kinsmen to protect me.”
During his courthouse research, Gattis met a Woodville lawyer who told him that the McCraine family had bought the house at a sheriff’s sale. In fact, he said, the buyer was the sheriff, David D. McCraine. “He told me the sheriff’s daughter was still alive and that she was a hundred years old.
“Her name is Naomi McCraine Flowers. I Googled her and found that she was living in Baton Rouge. Around Mardi Gras of 2016, I went over and knocked on her door. I showed her a plan of the house, and she told me what each room was. Now we’re good friends.
“It’s rare to have all those documents and Naomi still alive. Because of her, we have the original house mapped out. She even has a photo of her mom and dad when they bought the house.”
In an interview, Naomi Flowers, who turned 102 last year, said she had been born in the house.
Her father bought the house directly from the bank in 1913. He and his wife, Mae Miller McCraine, had six children. Naomi, the youngest, was born on December 22, 1914.
“We had acetylene lights and beautiful chandeliers,” she said. “We had an underground cistern with a pump on top of it. That was the best water you could ever taste—rainwater. If you saw the rain coming, you left the cistern closed until the rain washed the roof clean, then you opened it.
“We had a chicken yard with two beautiful houses for layers and broilers. One of the houses had the best hens. You never ate a chicken until it was brought to the house and fed for two or three weeks until it was ready to kill.
“We didn’t have a radio until ‘27. Every Saturday right we’d listen to the Hit Parade. That was good music.
“We had a swing on the front porch and blue hydrangeas in front of the porch. We had two orchards. Papa always had them plant sugar cane for us to go out and cut whenever we wanted it. Ribbon cane. We had two huge fig trees. We canned all the figs and gave ‘em away.
“Mama had a mockingbird by the kitchen window. That bird would come sit with her while she ate her breakfast and drank her coffee.”
In the 1970s, Flowers’s brother Elwyn McCraine moved into the house and installed a window unit, added two bathrooms, and removed a servants’ pantry. He also removed a double fireplace from the center hall.
“I didn’t like what he did to the house,” said Flowers.” I would have left it just as it was.”
Gattis plans to finish the attic to include bedrooms for his children and a duplicate of the downstairs central hall. He also plans to dig up and move two mature camellia trees that flank the house.
While working on the house, he climbed into the attic and discovered a decades-old wedding dress, possibly dating to the turn of the century. But his favorite discovery was a label on the back of the parlor mantel that he pried off the wall and hauled to Baton Rouge.
“Written in cursive are the words, ‘C.C. MacLeod, Woodville, Miss.,’ Gattis said. “It truly ties the court documents and MacLeod’s name to the house. I thought that was fantastic.”