Christmas in the Country

A Columbus family heads to the woods to warm up and chill out

Story Jan Swoope | Photographs Luisa Porter

“When you see the little red caboose, you know you’re there,” laughs Janice Hollis. Janice and Clyde Hollis — JisJis and Pepe to their five grandkids — refer to a replica caboose that sits near the entrance of their weekend retreat, a rural Shangri-La just across the state line into Alabama. The land, almost 80 acres, was acquired by the couple in late 1988 for the deer, squirrel, turkey and dove hunting. It has since evolved into a go-to getaway for Janice, Clyde, their three grown children — Brent, Shannon and Brittney — and their families. “The country,” Clyde calls it, a place to share holidays, build a fire, clear a trail, race wooden boats, prop your feet up and tuck away memories for a lifetime.

It didn’t happen overnight.

Photographed by Luisa Porter.

Photographed by Luisa Porter.

“It took us several years of weekends to get it presentable. It had gotten a little wild,” says Clyde. Enlisting help, especially from son Brent, the Columbus family set about rehabilitating the landscape. A small ’50s-style house on the property received attention, too. Updates to what is now called the camphouse include the addition of a spacious den as well as an outdoor room with fireplace, a favorite gathering spot for family and guests alike.

“We use that space year-round,” says Janice, explaining that if weather dictates two sides can be “closed in” with sturdy drop-down partitions Brent designed and installed. “And if Clyde’s there, there will be a fire in that fireplace, no matter what the outside temperature.”

“Well, I like the smell and the smoke any time of year, whether it’s 90 degrees or 50,” Clyde says, making no apologies.

Near the camphouse is a rustic cabin. To the grandkids’ delight, it now serves as a playhouse. It once was a quaint antique shop, operated by the former property owner.

The caboose? It has its own story. Clyde’s father was a lifelong railroad man, as was Clyde’s cousin, Bob Gray. Gray built the small-scale caboose that originally stood in front of the train-themed McDonald’s in east Columbus, across from the preserved train displayed in Propst Park. After the restaurant closed, the little caboose was moved to a children’s playground. When it was in need of a new home yet again, Clyde was “in the right place at the right time.”

Photographed by Luisa Porter.

Photographed by Luisa Porter.

With autumn comes hunting, an all-ages activity for the Hollises.

“I like to hunt and spend time with my family out there,” says granddaughter Lucy Willcutt, 11. She is the daughter of Shannon and Jason Willcutt, and is a veteran of the woods. “I probably started hunting when I was around 5 or 6.”

A creek running along the edge of the property provides another of the grandkids’ favored pursuits — this one a Thanksgiving tradition.

“We race little boats,” Lucy begins, explaining that grandpa Pepe fashions small boats from wood. Each is about 2 inches wide by 4 or 5 inches long.

“If we have guests down there, we make them a boat, too,” Janice adds. Everybody gets to decorate their own vessel, which is labeled with its skipper’s name. The colorful, wee fleet is launched with fanfare and the great race is on.

“We just enjoy being outdoors,” says Clyde, “doing some of the things we used to do as kids.”

The grandchildren may be unaware as yet, but there is an osmosis taking place, a passing down of love for the land and an awareness that it needs good stewards.

“They’re learning to take care of it,” their grandfather says. “We’re teaching them to care, instilling a work ethic so that they will want to take care of it all some day.”

In the short term, though, there are holidays to celebrate in the country — Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Logs will crackle in the outdoor fireplace, milk jug targets will bite the dust. Boats will be cheered on, fireworks set off and big dinners exclaimed over.

It’s family time at Pepe’s Place.