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The Austin family’s little piece of heaven

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a part of an ongoing series focusing on
historic homes and buildings throughout Jonesborough and the surrounding area.

Jim and Betsy Austin have taken a house that is a patchwork of history from the last two centuries and made it into a home.
They relocated to Telford from New York City in 1996 to rebuild an old farmhouse that rests on 25 acres of land, a pastoral patch of heaven with a creek, springhouse and gently rolling hills.
“We switched from cab horns to cow horns when we came down here,” Jim said.
The couple lived in a camper on their property for six months while Betsy’s grandfather, Edward Sudderth, helped them to restore, rewire and rebuild parts of the house to ready it for habitation.
“My grandparents came back and forth from North Carolina and helped us work on the house,” Betsy said. “My grandfather knew what he was doing, and he gave us the instruction, and then we did the work.”
The couple was completely inexperienced in reconstruction, so they leaned heavily on Sudderth’s experience, patience and extensive expertise.
“He was the man that made it happen, (and) I learned a lot from him,” Jim said.
The heart of the Austin’s home is the kitchen and dining areas, which straddle the 19th and 20th centuries in architecture and materials. Some of the walls, floors and ceilings are constructed from materials that date part of the structure as pre-Civil War, though the exact date of construction is not known.
The master bedroom and the upstairs bedrooms belonging to their children – son Harper, 12, and daughter Wren, 6 — are also part of the oldest section of the structure.
“The hand hewn logs seem to suggest construction prior to the Civil War,” Jim explained. “Post war, this would have been impossible, because they wouldn’t have had the craftsmen around.”
The house might have even been built with materials from a homestead dating a bit further back.
“In the rafters there were pieces of wood that have pieces of wallpaper (attached) that seemed burned,” Jim said. “So there may have been a building that burned, and then this was constructed after that. Given the creek situation and the higher ground, this could have been a site for a cabin.”
The front wall of the kitchen area and its windows, which face the front porch, were built in the 20th century, the style of the windows being a dead giveaway, Jim said.
When the couple began work on the house, the kitchen was separated by a large wall. A covered porch, similar to the front porch, looked out over the back of the structure, and an open bathroom awkwardly faced into what is now a dining room.
It took a lot of hard work to reverse that ungainly architecture.
“We knew eventually that this would be a dining room, and this would be a bathroom, so we wanted to move the opening around,” Betsy explained. We had to work this a little differently than what (originally) had (been) done.”
The temperature in the house is often an intense change for overnight guests who are not used to cooling and heating a home the old fashioned way.
“We’ve not added any central heating and air. So we’re still using the cross ventilation,” Betsy said. “Harper’s friends all come from homes that are climate controlled, so, it’s always a little bit of an adjustment.”
Living in an old home that is constantly in need of upkeep or small improvements does present challenges for the Austin family. Jim and Betsy laugh when they talk about finally getting plumbing for a third bathroom installed upstairs for their children.
“You could hardly navigate through the bathroom. We went back not too long ago and fixed that,” Jim said. “It’s really nice to have running water and a toilet upstairs so the kids have access to that.”
The Austins have kept all but a few of the original windows in their home. But their restoration is still taking place with the goal of making the house a comfortable and welcoming place to live, rather than transforming it into a historically accurate showpiece.
“We always knew that this was just a nice old farm house, so I don’t think we ever felt like we had to restore it to a certain look,” Betsy said. “We want the kids to feel comfortable here, and (to feel like they) can bring their friends. We have tried to achieve a very livable situation.”