Anyone driving down rural roads or walking in a forested area has probably seen an old chimney standing alone in a field or tucked away in a wooded thicket. These chimneys are not connected to a structure of any kind and many times there may be a cluster of flowers growing near the chimney, indicating that a house once stood on the spot. Whenever I come across one, I wonder who built it and who might have lived in the homeplace where the chimney stands. The thought evokes a scene of a family sitting in front of a fireplace, quietly enjoying each other’s company. Fires have always been thought of as the heart of the home and human beings subconsciously feel drawn to the comfort and warmth of a hearth.
These chimneys may have been constructed of brick, if available, but most in the mountains were built from rock found on the property. They may have been daubed with mud or clay mortar or simply dry laid with nothing but stone shims between the rocks.
There are several reasons for freestanding chimneys. Sometimes the house attached to it was damaged, burned, or simply fell down after the inhabitants left. Sometimes the abandoned structures were taken down and the materials were used to build something else. Boards were easier to take down than rocks, and often the chimneys were just left standing as a marker.
In our own family, a separate kitchen was attached by a dogtrot to the original chestnut log cabin where my husband was born. Built by his great-grandfather around 1850, the cabin’s chimney as well as the kitchen chimney stood more than 150 years before both become unstable and were taken down when we restored the cabin in 2011.
During and after the Civil War, some of the chimneys were historically significant. When General Sherman marched through Georgia and burned nearly everything to the ground, there were so many dotting the landscape that they came to be called “Sherman’s Toothpicks.” Freestanding chimneys remind us that there was once a family with a history who lived there.
Over the years I’ve taken many photos of freestanding chimneys whenever I see them, but a good friend brought one to my attention that I had never noticed even though it was almost in my own backyard. The chimney at the Powell farm near Stuarts Draft is a beautiful specimen of 18th century rockwork, and they added some early history I found fascinating. The original owners of the property were of German descent and built their home right over top of a bold spring. When asked why they did this, I was told it was so the family would have access to water in case of an Indian raid, which I thought was pretty ingenious! The Powell’s added a shallow pond that now surrounds the old chimney, adding to its unique beauty. A portion of a rock wall surrounding the chimney was part of the original homeplace.
If you should see one of these silent sentinels as you wander the backroads, pause for a moment and reflect on its craftsmanship and the people who lived in the home it was attached to.
In one of the early issues of the Backroads newspaper, a man by the name of Richard Relham sent a poem I really liked about these early chimneys and I’d like to include it as part of this article.
By Richard Relham
While hiking up this mountain
I happened on this glade,
encroached upon by undergrowth,
where filtered light through
circling trees revealed foundation
stones, displaced, askew;
A rock chimney, clay mortared,
stood still erect, while a few charred
timbers lay close by.
A forsythia’s gold glowed bright against
the bole of a gnarled old apple tree in bud.
Here once was love and life;
A mother bent over the washboard’s
rippled zinc; close by her children played
beneath the apple tree.
Father comes in from work; the youngster’s
welcome squeals and the loving glance
that sped from mate to mate like electric
sparks that crackle pole to pole,
give evidence of warm relationships.
Now all is gone except a chimney that
show a human family once lived here.