A Charming Second Chance

A revitalized 19th-century homestead offers the unexpected

Story Jan Swoope | Photographs Blake McCollum

The decider was the fish scale shingles, the ones on the front gables. The circa 1870s house at the far western reach of Lowndes County had been battered by time and elements. Rivulets of rain trickled down bare walls inside, where nothing had lived for years, except occasional small creatures. But still … the fish scale shingles, the lines, generous porch and big, sheltering trees were more than Dawn and John Herring could walk away from in 1984.

“It was unlivable,” Dawn admits. “Dad thought we were kind of crazy. But I grew up in an old house, and it had that architecture I love.” 

The Mississippi State University graduates took on the bulk of rehabilitation themselves, investing do-it-yourself skill and their landscape architecture and horticulture backgrounds in reclaiming the homestead. It’s been an effort of love over 30 years, they say. That shows in the house and grounds that became an extension of their sensibilities, and the place they raised their two children, Faeh and Nathan.

High ceilings, wood floors and a palette of earthtones provide the backdrop for an eclectic mingling of repurposed finds, antique pieces and original art by area and regional artists. Sculpture by Dylan Karges, pottery by Robert Long and Bonnie Renfroe, a mobile from Keith Aden and reverse paintings by JJ Foley are among artworks on shelves and walls. Dawn and John are enthusiastic supporters of the creative community. It carries through to their business, Boardtown Gardens & More in Starkville where they formerly hosted Starving Artists Union gatherings. Today they display local artists and antiques there in addition to plants and landscaping materials.

“We feel like it’s all organic and connected,” explains Dawn.    

At home, the artistry spills outdoors, in a garden getaway or winding brick path. It’s in features like a multi-level playground constructed by John when the children were small. Long ago dubbed Rapunzel’s Palace, it incorporates everything from an old water heater to a hen house.

The deep north porch the Herrings were drawn to early on boasts ample room for al fresco dining under one-of-a-kind light fixtures Dawn made using chicken feeders and rabbit cages.

On a side deck, unusual finds like side-by-side claw-foot bathtubs or the bench fashioned from the front of a cattle trailer invite comment.

Dawn and John infused their own style into the rejuvenated property, all while preserving its character — which delighted descendants of its original family visiting Mississippi for a reunion a few years ago. With a sepia-toned 1895 photograph of the house, they drove through the area, hoping to find something left of it. They not only located the structure, they lucked upon the Herrings and received a tour.

The old house enjoying new life is now a favorite gathering place for family and friends. The reason, Dawn believes, is because it’s comfortable, inside and out. The Herrings’ children even call it their “happy place.”

“I’ve thought about how much easier it would be to live in town in a smaller house,” Dawn says, “but I really want my grandchildren to think of this as their ‘happy place,’ too.”