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The Embree House: Still Standing Strong

Staff Writer
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If you have any doubts about the place of Washington County in American history, the story of the Embree House, which continues to stand strong to this day, should put them to rest.
In 1791, Thomas Embree [1755 – 1833] a descendant of French Huguenot immigrants who came to America in the 1600s, engaged architect and builder Seth Smith to construct a ‘rock house,’ just a mile west of Telford on Little Limestone Creek.
The resulting two-story home, one of at least five houses built by Smith in the area, was constructed of gray limestone quarried on the property. At its base, the walls are 36 inches wide, but they narrow to 18 inches at the top floor.
A compatible addition to what is now the rear of the house is hidden by clever construction of the drive and landscaping.
The overall affect of the home is one of endurance, and deep secrets held close within those thick rock walls.
After hundreds of years of occupation, the Embree House stood empty for two years before John Nash purchased it in 1985. Nash began the work of restoration during his stewardship of the house, and also wrote Elihu Embree – a Forerunner, which was published in The Beacon in 1995.
The old house is said to have been part of the Underground Railroad, which stands to reason since the Embree family was made up of Quakers. The eldest son of Thomas, Elihu, was an ardent abolitionist who in 1819 published the influential Manumission Intelligencer, which became the Emancipator the following year.
Dr. Patrick Stern and his wife Patricia bought the house in 1999, continuing the restoration begun by Nash that is now largely complete.
When the Sterns moved to East Tennessee, Patricia went on a ramble, looking for a house. She loves old stone houses but when she saw the Embree House, it wasn’t for sale. Later, they picked up a real estate sales magazine in Asheville, saw a stone house for sale and going by, discovered it to be the one she had seen earlier. The next day, the couple purchased the home.
The work of restoring an historic property “has to be a love-labor to do it, sort of like raising kids,” said Patrick Stern. “There’s a joy to it and an occasional mystery.”
The artful craftsmanship of stonemason Seth Smith is evident from the cellar up to the second floor bedrooms now that most of the modern ‘improvements’ have been removed. Following closely the original work and techniques of the late 1700s, the Sterns made period-appropriate replacements when necessary, and removed a bathroom inserted into an alcove next to one of the three fireplaces on the ground floor.
All three fireplaces are constructed of stone; two on one side of the room and one on the other, and prior to John Nash’s ownership, these were completely walled over. Although the room is not large, there was a wall added at some point and then removed, and the Sterns have chosen to honor the original intent of the room’s dimensions and have left the room open.
With the contemporary drywall removed in the front room, the stonework and hewn wood is exposed, allowing the interested eye to revel in Smith’s craftsmanship and the materials he had to work with. Upstairs, the added wall divisions remain, but it is to floors the eye is drawn – their sturdy wide planks are unfinished with the square nail heads still visible.
Prior to the present addition with its wide stairs, the only way up to the second story or down to the cellar/basement, was a closely drawn stairway of a winding sort built into a corner of the house, much like those found in medieval castles. Narrow with a low ceiling, one prays no former residents cracked their heads trying to hurry up or down those stairs.
Down that narrow winding staircase one enters the basement cellar where slaves once lived and others passed through to freedom, and it is here that one finds unexplained mysteries. There is no pretense of refinement here, but the work is strong and largely undiminished by the ravages of time. Just to the left of the low entry is a depression that the Sterns excavated with the greatest care.
Pat Stern read a history of the Underground Railway tunnel, which alluded to a connection with the Embree House in a newspaper article written in the 1930’s, and he determined to search for it, beginning with a depression just to the left of the entry to the cellar.
“The only soft dirt down there was in that area (of the depression,) and I thought I had found the tunnel, and started going down into it,” said Stern of his excavation effort. “The soft dirt ended with a hole that was 3 x 3 x 6. It looks like a grave, due in part to its dimensions.”
There has been some speculation that this may have been the temporary grave of General John Sevier’s (who later became governor,) first wife, Sarah Hawkins. According to the Sterns, she was David Crockett’s aunt, and she lived with the Embree family for some time. It is documented that she died in Washington County, and she is said to be buried on the property.
What Stern did find was the detritus of a family – perhaps 500 to a thousand artifacts which have been carefully preserved for further research.
“There was no other soft dirt in the stone floor of the cellar,” said Stern of the site, “and it wouldn’t surprise me that they might have dug the site to protect her body (or some other,) and later used the depression for other reasons. I found a coin from a presidential election, old shoes, bottles, bricks, dishes, and cow-sized or human bones which haven’t been evaluated yet. Those things were purposefully put there – each scoop of dirt revealed more artifacts. The dig revealed other stories that began to be told, rather than a tunnel.”
Embree House undoubtedly still has secrets to tell – secrets in those stone walls, secrets of why there are so many fireplaces on the ground floor, secrets from the Underground Railway . . . and is that 3 x 3 x 6 depression a grave? And if so, whose body did it protect?