The Memories Within These Walls

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The Howell Family House | Mitchell County, NC | c. 1880s

This old house in the mountains of North Carolina hasn’t always looked this way, like so many other homes of the era, having been adapted and expanded over the years. And while her years are showing, underneath a tattered facade is the story of the Howell family who raised generations on this land.

James Calvin Howell (1832-1911).

James C. Howell & Sarah Anne Brinkley

James Calvin Howell was born in 1832 in Yancey County (later Mitchell County), North Carolina. His father Thomas Howell was a farmer and James worked the land from childhood until age 29 when he left home in 1861, to enlist in the Civil War. He was admitted into Company E of NC’s 6th infantry and fought with Capt. John Gudger. In 1862, James was wounded during the Battle of Sharpsburg Maryland, and soon after, returned to North Carolina. In 1863, he married a local woman named Sarah Anne Brinkley.

The Howell House

The young couple moved into a modest, one-story saddlebag house (two cabins on either side of a central chimney) and one year after they married, Sarah gave birth to their first child, Charles Pender Howell in 1864. He was the first of nine children born to James and Sarah and according to family history, each child was born here inside the Howell house.

As they added more children, they needed more space, so their one-story home was enlarged to a two-story, side-gable frame house with a two-tier front porch. The enlarged version of this home retained the original design with the central chimney which was extended when the second floor was added.

James, Sarah, and their children farmed the land here but James was also listed in the 1880 Census as a merchant. There was no death date recorded for Sarah but James passed away in 1911. Both of them are buried in the family cemetery on the hill behind this home, along with two of their children, Charles Howell (1864-1890) and Augustus Howell (1872-1890), who preceded them in death. James Calvin Howell has a verterans gravemarker that reads: “C.S.A. veteran James C. Howell of the N.C. 29th Reg., Inf Co C.”

The Next Howell Generation

After James’ death in 1911, the Howell Family home was passed down to his son, William Howell who would spend the rest of his life living here. William Howell Passed away in 1958 and the home has been empty ever since. However, the property and home are still owned by descendants of the Howell Family who farm the surrounding land and care deeply about the history of this home.

William ‘Will’ Alphonse Howell was born in the Howell house in 1877 and lived here until his death in 1958. He and his wife Ida are buried in the Snow Hill Church cemetery.
Ida Hensley Howell (1885-1957 ) married Will Howell in 1907 and lived her married life with him here.

A local shared his memory of when Will and Ida Howell lived here:

“I went there many times with my mom when I was a young lad. I always loved to go there. It always seemed really dark in that house. I think the man and woman that lived there were Will and Ida Howell. Mom always called him Uncle Will, so I assume he was her uncle. There was a huge weeping willow tree in the yard back then. I was always curious about his missing leg. There was a Spring across the road where Ida kept milk and butter.”

~Danny T.

Uncle Sam’s Beard

As I researched this home, I found quite a few stories and interesting people who had connections here. One of the more fascinating characters who spent time here was “Uncle Sam” Brinkley who was uniquely famous during his time. brother of Sarah Brinkley Howell. Sam was the brother of Sarah Brinkley Howell and he and his sister Sarah were close. Uncle Sam lived in the area and would frequently visit the Howells at this home. Sam, who was a teacher and farmer, came to be famous because of his beard. At one point, holding the record for the longest beard in the world.

Uncle Sam Brinkley poses for a portrait c. 1870s-80s. Standing six feet two with a beard of five feet four inches, Sam Brinkley became known for one of the world’s longest beards in the early 20th century. When Sam Brinkley’s 5-foot-4-inch beard wasn’t on display, he would tuck it into a silk pouch that his wife made.

A Howell Family descendant shared a story about Uncle Sam’s visit to this home:

Uncle Sam visited his sister (my great grandma, Sarah Brinkley Howell) often at this house. My mom remembers Uncle Sam very well; when she was little, she watched him dry his freshly-washed beard as he tossed it in the sunshine. He would dry it in the breeze on the Howell Family porch! I see that in my mind’s eye. Uncle Sam’s beard was so infamous that he left teaching and farming to travel with the circus for a while!

~Merinda V.
1961 newspaper article about Uncle Sam’s beard from the High Point Enterprise publication.

The story of his famous beard goes like this…Until he was 21, Sam Brinkley Brinkley had no beard to shave but by 23, his beard was growing so quickly that it was full in just a week. He had to shave twice a day to keep his face presentable and by the time he was 26, he had grown so tired of shaving that he vowed to never shave again.

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Untamed, his beard grew like kudzu, eventually reaching 64 inches long at its peak. By then, Brinkley realized that his bodacious beard could be a business opportunity so rather than displaying it for all to admire, he rolled it up and stored it in a pouch his wife made, only unfurling it for those curious enough to pay him a dime or quarter to see it, making thousands of dollars doing so. Later, Brinkley traveled with the Barnum & Bailey Circus, where he was billed as having the longest beard in the world.

Memories of the Howell Home

In recent years, the Howell House has become somewhat of an icon amongst locals who have fond memories of it and I came across many comments online from people sharing about this home. I gathered a few of their reminiscings that help paint a fascinating picture of the people and history here.

“This was the home of my great-grandparents, James Calvin Howell and Sarah Brinkley Howell. It was a fine home in its day! As a child, I played dress up with cousin Sarah upstairs, trying on old floor-length silk dresses belonging to my Granny Minnie Howell and her sisters. I wish we had photos from those days!”

~Merinda V.

“I played there once or twice with a little girl who lived there with her mother and aunt. She had a lovely bedroom upstairs with a toy piano and other wonders.”

~Amelia L.

“My grandmother lived across the road from this home and up in the ‘holler’. One day, she took Mom and me to this house to visit an elderly man with snow-white hair and a beard who had a missing leg. He was lying in a bed near a window and I remember the sun shining through the window and he looked almost angelic lying against his pillows. I was only about 5 or 6 but I’ll never forget that memory. This was in the 1950s.

~Shelley M.

“My grandfather has told me stories about when he would stay all night there and sleep upstairs on a feather bed and wake up cold in the morning and go down to the big fireplace to get warm!” 

~Nathan S.

“My great Aunt Effie Howell was preparing for a trip and went to the hat tree in the hall when she found a black snake coiled in her hat! After that, I always avoided that hat tree!”

~Merinda V.

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