Imagine sorting through 4,000 photographs to best tell the story of the genesis of a Winston-Salem landmark. That immersion in the archives set the course for Barbara Babcock Millhouse, who intended to write a “guided tour” of Reynolda House, decided to think bigger and published instead the new pictorial history “Reynolda: 1906-1924.” Her book chronicles the transformation of a “patchwork of eroded and worn-out farms” 3.5 miles from the city center to a model, productive country estate on 1,067 acres at its peak.
A public event Tuesday night revealed Millhouse’s task to document the achievement of this model experimental farm as an obvious labor of love. Reynolda was the creation of her grandmother, Katharine Smith Reynolds (1880-1924), wife of R.J. Reynolds (1850-1918), founder of the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.
“I think it (Reynolda House) really just has good vibes,” Millhouse told Michele Gillespie, Kahle Family Associate Professor of History at Wake Forest. “It has a very positive presence….The house itself: I think the architecture of the house is very strong, very cheerful, very joyous, and I’m happy to say and surprised, I suppose, that I think the new wing really does have the same feeling of cheerfulness, sunshine and joy.” Gillespie called Reynolda House “an oasis, even mythical to us as members of the community who get to use it.”
She interviewed Millhouse on stage at Reynolda House Museum of American Art, whose collection Millhouse has championed from the beginning. A slide show behind them illuminated the faces of Reynolds’ family members, long-ago workers on the estate, including the dashing supervisor of the greenhouses, and even a visiting opera singer whose photo had been a mystery until Reynolda director of public programs Philip Archer solved the case. (For decades the mystery man had been suspected of being a banker, wrongly. He was Mario Chamlee, the Metropolitan Opera’s star tenor, who performed love songs for 500 guests inside the main house in 1921 after rain cancelled his outdoor performance.)
Millhouse complimented the Philadelphia architect Charles Barton Keen (1868-1931) on his ability to design a beautiful house that has “a sense of shelter and security.”
Millhouse never knew her grandmother, nor did she ever live at Reynolda full-time. She grew up in Greenwich, Conn. During the war years, her father was in the Army and her mother decided to move the family to Winston-Salem when Barbara was seven. “We lived in the electrician’s house,” she said. “We lived in a cottage for four years on the other side of Reynolda Road. And I remember that that was the happiest time of my childhood because we could roam anywhere around; it was very much a farm…We had a large menagerie, and we had a wonderful cat called Fluffy….I dug a foxhole in the backyard and sat in it during most of the war.” One day, “the worst thing that had ever happened to me at that point,” occurred. Her mother filled in the foxhole.
The conversation not only cast a spotlight on Millhouse’s digging, both for foxholes and archives, but also on her respected interviewer. Millhouse tipped her hat to Gillespie for her scholarship on the subject of Katharine Reynolds. (Gillespie’s book, “Partners of Fortune: Katharine and R.J. Reynolds,” is under contract with the University of Georgia Press and to be published in fall 2012.) For her research Gillespie brought back from Baltimore love letters between Katharine and J. Edward Johnston, Katharine’s second husband. Johnston’s son gave them to Gillespie before he died. “What she did to get those love letters, I don’t know,” Millhouse told a delighted audience.
Gillespie was quick to explain: “He was absolutely charming and just spoke so highly of the Reynolds family,” she said of J. Edward Johnston Jr. “And he said, ‘I have these letters. They should really be with the family.’ I said, ‘Well, I’ll take them back!'”
For those of us who love history and Reynolda House, we can enjoy Millhouse’s book and look forward to another book sure to reveal even more historical details. Here’s to the next conversation about our local oasis.