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I-55 icon: The house with a heritage

“The house should be forever, not just for us.” — Natalie Herndon

As any commuter worth his coffee knows, the drive south from Jackson has its own particular landmarks to help define distance, important ones like the old peach stand at Terry, the old Stuckey’s at Gallman, the rainbowed barn — now gone missing — at Wesson.

And of course, there’s the white house at Exit 42. For Brookhaven residents, the sight of it means home is near, just as sure as a GPS announcing, “You have arrived.”

Yellowed newspaper clippings refer to this landmark as the old Dennet House or the Luther Jackson Place, but state documents identify the Greek Revival-style plantation home as the Henry Strong House, named in honor of the dwelling’s original owner, who is believed to have built it sometime around 1858.

Though the home was unscathed during the Civil War, its owners, ardent secessionists, chose to emigrate to Brazil after the South’s defeat. They apparently left behind not only their home, but a young lovesick Mississippian named Tom Atkins as well. Correspondence between Atkins and Henry Strong’s daughter was uncovered in a Florida attic in 1998, and Maria Elisa Byington, a descendant, brought the Brookhaven home’s long-forgotten occupants back to life on the pages of her book, “Letters from a Confederate Soldier to Miss Sally Strong.”

A testament to antebellum craftsmanship, the home still boasts hand-planed plank floors and enormous 12-inch-by-16-inch sills that bear the adze marks of manual laborers. Its chimneys and fireplaces are formed of bricks assumed to have been produced by slaves on the farm. Many of the original window panes remain in place.

Today, with 18-wheelers rolling just yards away, it’s hard to imagine what the view from the Strongs’ front porch must have been like when the home and its 3,000 acres were first inhabited. Or when a saw mill operated on the premises. Or when the home served as a schoolhouse. Though change has come, the exterior of the home remains grandly symmetrical, from the evenly-spaced windows spanning the lengths of two stories, to the cedars flanking its sides.  The trees themselves symbolize yet another name the property claims — Cedar Hills Farm.

The late Natalie Herndon told me she chose the title while she and her husband were seeking historic landmark designation for the property, a quest that succeeded in 2006. When the couple bought the land in the 1980s for our quarter horse business, she said “the house just came along as lagniappe,  but we recognized the house should be forever, and not just for us.”  The Mississippi Department of Archives and History agreed.

The MDAH works with property owners to insure history is preserved for both present and future generations. Because of its designation, the Henry Strong House is now protected by a perpetual preservation easement, which means that any proposed changes to the property must be reviewed and approved before they’re made.

It’s also a recognition that enabled the home to receive a grant funding repairs necessary after Hurricane Katrina.

According to Ron Miller, director of the MDAH Gulf Coast office that oversaw the restoration efforts, work was done on the home’s roof, siding, plastered walls, and foundation.

“We rehabilitated the house all over as best we could with the allocated funds,” he recalls. “Not only is it a remarkable survivor of rural heritage, but it’s also an excellent work of architecture, too.”

When I interviewed Miller, he explained that the form of the house is striking: “It’s what’s known as an I-house, because houses similar to it are found mostly in the “I” states — Illinois, Indiana, Iowa. You don’t see them in Natchez, but they were popular in Copiah and Lincoln counties.” I-houses are two-storied, have side gables, and are at least two rooms long and one room deep. In the South, they usually feature wide front porches, as does the Strong House.     

And, in a reference to the commuter miles, Miller points out what he thinks truly sets the property apart from Mississippi’s other historical landmarks — you can see it from the interstate.

Kim Henderson is a freelance writer. Contact her at kimhenderson319@gmail.com.