The Bledsoe County Historical and Genealogical Society was blindsided last month when a local commissioner suggested the historic Ross House should be sold or torn down. But now he and other local leaders have had a change of heart, and instead the county is rallying to support preservation efforts.
The issue first came up at a Jan. 22 meeting with the newly formed county commission committee assembled to study the feasibility of continuing to maintain the site on Frazier Street in Pikeville as a county property.
Bledsoe County Commissioner Johnny Mack Swafford had been looking at all county spending and wasteful costs. He had discussed the Ross House with County Mayor Gregg Ridley and believed it might be unnecessarily costing taxpayers money, The Bledsonian-Banner reported. Sell the house for money to use in developing other county property or tear it down for courthouse parking space, he suggested.
Then when the Ross House committee met this month, a contingent from the historical society was on hand breathing fire and extolling the virtues and value of the old home, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1999. After the meeting, Swafford and other committee members toured and inspected the Ross House.
Now they are some of building's newest fans.
The sudden attention has resulted in a new focus on preservation instead of selling or tearing it down.
"I told the ladies [with the historical society], they learned me a lot," Swafford said a few days after the meeting. "The Ross House is a quaint little old house. There were folks there at the meeting that were born in that old house and lived in that old house."
Committee members spotted some flaking paint on a ceiling, some problem with flashing around a chimney, some water damage to a front wall and some needed window work, he said, but nothing alarming.
"It needs to look right," he said, noting that officials will watch costs.
The Dr. James A. Ross House — built in 1872 for its original namesake — was the home of a physician who served in the Confederate army during the Civil War and decided two years afterward to make his home in Pikeville.
Ross had a separate office where he saw patients, which still stands on the property. He "often took corn, chickens, and other miscellaneous items as payment," according to historical accounts available through the National Register of Historic Places.
He and his wife, Jennie Brown Ross, raised three children in the house and the 1900 U.S. Census showed Ross was still practicing medicine at age 74.
After his wife died in 1920, and around the same time the house got electricity, the property became a private residence for the Blackburn and Little families.
Around 1940, it was converted into a hospital for the community, staffed by two doctors who made a few changes to the interior to make it more useful as a hospital until 1949, when the Pikeville Clinic opened. Then the house was the county's health department from 1950-1953. After that, it became a private residence again until its last owner died in 1996. The county acquired the property in 1997.
"I don't see no great big costs. It would just be labor," Swafford said of needed updates. "The ladies [from the historical society] is fired up about keeping it open and coming up with some ways to raise some money to take some pressure off the taxpayers."
Swafford said the next idea was to seek a partner in the city of Pikeville, which in a meeting this week committed to helping the county maintain the Ross House and help with some of its basic needs.
Swafford said maintenance costs average around $6,000 a year, but there's also a needed project or two.
"We're willing to work — and want to work — wholeheartedly, hand-in-hand with the county every way we can," Pikeville Mayor Phil "Winky" Cagle said. "All it takes is effort on both parts."
Cagle and Swafford said the Ross House's worst problem is its septic tank. The house was never connected to the city's sewer system, having been built almost 150 years ago.
"We didn't even know it wasn't on the sewer system," Cagle said.
The city of Pikeville is going to perform the work to link up the old house with city sewer lines, he said, and remarked that the city and county might team up on other work, too.
"It's in good shape now as far as all the feelings about it," Cagle said. "We're going to help with it. We're going to work with the county with anything that benefits our entire county. We're all Bledsoe Countians."
Carolyn Knight, president of the historical society, said the uproar created by the threat of sale or demolition actually rallied support for the Ross House.
"We don't mind a little shakeup," Knight said with a laugh, noting the society has a lease until 2022.
For the historical society, the Ross House is its home and, along with its long, storied history, represents the place where many Bledsoe County folks were born in the 1940s when it was a hospital.
"Oddly enough, I was born there," Knight said. "According to my information, right under the window there on the front, right."
Knight said she was heartened about the future of the Ross House.
"We do love it and we think it's an asset to downtown," she said.
With his recently updated perspective, Swafford said he's looking forward to the next committee meeting in April.
"I'm open-minded because I'm new at this," he said. "You've got to be open-minded to everything, because there's more than just one way of doing things."