A Grand Home Reborn

March 1, 2011 | By More

Take a drive down South Arkansas Avenue through Russellville. South of the historic downtown district sits block after block of commercial property, cinder block buildings and mini-strip malls. Not much to look at, but examine closely. Progress has taken a heavy toll on most historically significant homesteads on these blocks, but beneath the urban dullness, remnants of Russellville’s pioneer past are hidden.

 Did you know Arkansas Avenue was once a rutted dirt road named Oak Street that dead-ended in a field north of the Arkansas River? Or that some of the most influential people in the early history of Russellville homesteaded along this busy and congested stretch of four-lane highway?

Long before the Safeway grocery store was built in Russellville on the 500 block of Arkansas in the 1950’s (and later split into separate businesses), this property was owned by the widow of William Brooks Sr., a prominent businessman, Confederate soldier and coal mine owner who came to Pope County around 1838 as a 15 year old from North Carolina. Brooks later became related by marriage to Dr. Thomas Russell.

In case the importance of this connection is unclear, Russellville is named after Dr. Russell, an English physician who married a sister of Brooks’ first wife, Sarah Jane Graham. Graham died in 1860 at the age of 38, leaving Brooks a widower with six children.

Three years later Brooks married second wife, Rebecca Malinda Cooper Brooks, a young woman 18 years his junior, who had migrated with her father from Stanly County to Pope County. This couple added six additional children to the Brooks clan; four daughters and two sons. Brooks Sr. died in 1883.

Rebecca must have been a resilient Arkansas pioneer woman as single parent of 12 children. It was said she was determined that her children attend good Russellville schools. She purchased this property in the 1890’s and lived in the two-story house with three of her daughters.

A second Brooks family home still stands directly across the street at 503 South Arkansas Ave. on the southeast corner of Fifth Street (then called Franklin Street) and Arkansas Avenue (Oak Street). This home was purchased by Rebecca’s youngest daughter, Selma Brooks Baker in 1919, after her marriage to J.H.A. Baker, a local attorney and mayor of Russellville, ended in divorce. The couple had one daughter, Rebecca Jane, who would be raised in both this home and the two-story home across the street when Selma moved back in with her mother and sisters to rent out the 503 property.

Selma’s 503 residence would continue to be rented until the 1950’s when the family’s first home was purchased by Safeway. Selma and her sisters, Lucy and Alta (a school teacher who never married) began remodeling the 503 South Arkansas residence by adding three bedrooms; one for each sister. Sister Lucy died before the project was finished and when Selma returned to Russellville, the two remaining sisters occupied the house until Selma’s death in 1968. Sister, Dora Alta died in 1959.

Robert Autry Brooks, Selma’s nephew and Brooks family historian, remembers asking Selma why she painted the house red. She told him she never liked white houses. He has fond memories of visiting both homes and thought of Rebecca Jane as a sister. Living just a block away, he visited as often as his mother would allow.

Rebecca Jane eventually moved away from home and married Willis Lloyd Stowers, who was a chaplain in the US Air Force. The Stowers would spend many years in Europe and Japan, where they raised their three children, Lyn, Janie and Bill. Rebecca Stowers’ mother, Selma, lived in Japan during this project to help care for her grandchildren. Rebecca helped her mother with the plans for the renovations.

The house remained empty until Rebecca Jane and her husband returned in 1973 after Col. Stowers’ retirement from the USAF. They painted the house yellow and made some additional renovations. Back in the family home, they found themselves surrounded by ancestral treasures and collections the couple gathered while living overseas. Col. Stowers died in 2003.

Rebecca Stowers eventually donated many valuable family heirlooms to the Pottsville historical site. An old book found in trunk belonging to Brooks Sr promoted the River Valley as “The Garden Land of Arkansas”. Vintage petticoats owned by her mother and aunts were even used to make curtains in the reconstructed bedroom at Potts Inn.

After Rebecca’s death in 2009, the contents of the home were sold in a month long estate sale. The ten- room home had been jam-packed with thousands of valuable antiques and curiosities from around the world, many acquired by the Stowers during sojourns in Europe and Japan.

Arkansas historian for the Pope County Historical Society, David Vance, who was acquainted with the Stowers family and visitedthehome,attendedthefamily’sestate sale. Not surprisingly, he said the event took in more money than any other sale in the history of Russellville estate sales.

The home was then put on the market by the Stowers’ three children, Dr. Lyn Johnson of Russellville, Janie Raddin in Texas, and Bill Stowers of Little Rock. Soon after Russellville business owner and real estate broker Boyd Osborne bought the residence and immediately began the process of converting the historic home into a real estate office.

“We want our clients to experience the charm and ambiance of this historic structure which has graced Russellville for so long, while at the same time, provide all the modern amenities and conveniences people expect today,” said Osborne.

Osborne kept the structure as authentic as possible, including the original hanging kerosene light fixtures which are now electrified. The only changes needed were to sheetrock over the walls in the original structure which had been done in beautiful vintage wallpaper for many years. Removing the carpet revealed beautiful hardwood floors. “The agents joining me elected to leave the rooms now being used as offices in their original design, preferring the open and inviting atmosphere of the home,” said Osborne.

The newly-refurbished home, now painted green, is still a showplace for antiques. Heirlooms from the Brooks/Baker/Stowers family are gone, but Osborne and wife, Debbie, have tastefully refurnished the home with a tremendous eye for period and detail. Paintings by Osborne, a skilled artist, grace each room along with antiques from their personal collection. Osborne himself occupies the grand parlor at the front of the newly repainted and landscaped property. The conference room holds a collection of the Brooks/Baker /Stowers family photos furnished by Dr. Lyn Johnson, Rebecca’s daughter.

Dr. Johnson told Osborne that her ancestors would have been proud to see how their home looks today and that her mother, who served on the Pope County Historical Board with Mr. Osborne, would be happy to know he now owns the property.

Some things, like pride of ownership, never change.

THIS OLD HOUSE

Thinking about buying or remodeling an older home? Boyd and Debby Osborne have rehabilitated more homes than they can count on both hands.

“If you are a person who loves old houses like I am, and you have never found your “old house”, these tips might help you in your search and decision making,” said Boyd.

Here are tips:
1. Get acquainted with the house.

Look for its strengths and weaknesses. Strengths may include floor plan, architectural style, details in the character or setting. Weaknesses usually include at least some parts of the infrastructure, ie. Wiring, plumbing, or foundation. If the cost of updating these issues brings the price of the house above the market value, you might consider looking for another house.

2. Address weaknesses first, especially any settling issues, wiring and plumbing. Decide how each room will function and address any negatives, like too many doors or walls. Bump out walls into less functional rooms to gain space for larger kitchens, baths and closets. These areas are generally the culprits in the resale of an old house. Rooms can be repurposed to create a better floor plan.

3. Keep the style of the house correct. Victorian trim should not be added to a Craftsman Bungalow. If windows must be replaced use sizes as close to the originals as possible and keep the style correct.

4. Continuity of materials is important to the overall appearance. The least amount of changes in flooring creates a better visual flow.

5. Keep the basic color scheme simple. Added color in décor will pop if the color scheme is muted. A few striking pieces of furniture or architectural details become the jewelry for the home or the icing on the cake. If you are drawn to drama and bright color, remember a little goes a long way.

Every home speaks volumes about the owner. Let your old house tell your unique story with hints of the past but brought up to the present.

“Happy house hunting and happy rehabbing.”

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