HOLMBERG: Mystery, history, ghosts and now fire haunt historic Hanover home

Posted at 1:10 AM, Jan 16, 2014
and last updated 2014-01-16 01:10:08-05

HANOVER, Va. (WTVR)--Mystery has surrounded the historic Mills home on Scotchtown Road for decades, including tales of ghosts in the front room and in the kitchen.

Reportedly, it was the overseer’s home for Patrick Henry’s vast Scotchtown estate just down the road.

Almost two weeks ago, a “Beaverdam Residents” Facebook conversation began exploring some of the 200-plus year history and mystery surrounding the old frame home off Route 54 in western Hanover county.

And then, just after midnight Tuesday morning, it nearly burned to the ground.

Hanover firefighters were called the tree-shrouded home at 12:33 a.m. Tuesday, Battalion Chief Jason Williams told me. The two story frame house was fully involved. It took firefighters roughly four hours to bring the blaze under control, mainly because water had to be trucked into the hydrant-less rural area once known as Negrofoot.

Firefighters were called back to the residence at 3:25 p.m. Wednesday when a passerby spotted smoke coming out of the burned-out hulk. Some stubborn embers had rekindled, Williams explained.

The house will have to be razed, I’m told.

The sprawling two-story home with a straight metal roof had been empty for a quarter century, ever since bachelor farmer Buster Mills died after a stroke in 1989. He was born right there and wanted to die right there, although his attentive niece Betty Kniesche took him to St. Mary’s Hospital in the hopes he could recover his health.

Some relatives and longtime area residents say Buster, who was quite a talker and was known to examine the contents of a whiskey bottle while puffing on Lucky Strikes, would chill them with tales of a ghost in the front room – a room he reportedly refused to enter because of “haints.”

“That’s poppycock,” said Betty Kniesche, who grew up in that house. “He wasn’t afraid.”

There were no ghost in that house?

“It might be,” she said. “I never saw one.”

She added, “That’s a good story,” but Buster never told her about any ghost.

But the house has a chilling and fascinating history.

Reportedly, the core of it was built around 1790, but Kniesche said she has no evidence of that.

Her grandfather, Richmond L. Mills, bought the 126-acre property, which included the house, a country store and a perhaps a few animals for a little more than $1,100 in a sheriff’s sale in the first years of the 1900s.

“He had the general store, the country store running, and he was crossing (the road )  in 1922 -  the house to the store – and a T-Model (Ford) hit him and killed him in the road.

“Then my grandmother kept the store going for a few years and then she closed it because it was getting away from her.”

A few years before he died, - somewhere around 1915 to 1917 -  Richmond Mills raised the roof of the house by a whole floor and expanded the interior. Kniesche has an old photo of the original house, which also can be found in a book about the historic homes of Hanover.

Back then, as it did throughout the century, the home stood like a beacon in the countryside. Travelers and salesman would could stay the night there and have breakfast or dinner for $2, Kniesche recalled.

In the late 1920s, Route 54 was built, splitting up the farm.

Many older Hanover residents will remember the old firewatch tower that stood on that farmland corner across from the house for about a half-century, before it was taken down and moved to another county.

It was 1935 or so when it was built.  Kniesche said the government “gave my grandmother $35 for a 99-year-lease on the land to put the fire tower up.”

Richmond Mills’ son, Buster would be the last one to live in the old house.

It has sat empty all these years, Kniesche said, because it took her the better part of a decade to settle the estate. She said they also doubted the old house was salvageable, although many  nearby Hanover residents dreamed of buying it an returning it to its former glory. The home is owned by a grandson in New Kent County, she said.

Inside you can see old graffiti and other evidence of unauthorized visits to the house. Nearby resident Matt Mohr said he explored the house one winter and said he felt chill well beyond the temperature at the time.

He said he saw an older women dressed in a nightgown from yesteryear standing in the doorway of the kitchen.

“She was there for like five seconds and she disappeared,” Matt said. “She was just standing in this, like, little doorway, like towards the outside of the kitchen.” He said he felt a frigid blast. “I kind of stood still and watched her and she just went away.”

Others have shared the story of the woman in the kitchen on Facebook, which gave Matt chills all over again.

Some have even speculated that it was the ghost who  set the fire.

Hanover fire investigators are still working on the cause of the fire, said Chief Jason Williams. He said they haven’t

Betty Knieshe tells me she has heard from those responsible for the fire. They were people who meant no harm and were exploring the house when the fire accidentally started, she said. They were very apologetic, she said, and she wished them no ill will, she told me.

She’s a delightful woman who, at age 81, has learned to smile when the world takes an unusual turn.

It appears to me, plenty of people have explored that old house before. I had stopped there many times in the dead of winter on my way home on my motorcycle to warm my hands on my engine and consider the silent, stately old house that stood so apart from everything else in that part of the county.

Haunted or not, many of us Hanover County residents will long remember this lonely old house that seemed to have a life of its own. Long after it is torn down, I suspect I’ll still see it standing there.