By Ginna Parsons/NEMS Daily Journal
RATLIFF – Jimmy and Jane Johnson have lived in the Ratliff community south of Mantachie almost all of their lives. So when two old houses near their longtime home started falling apart, they took it personally.
One of the homes, called the old Cummings home or the Joe Elliff place, is where the Johnsons live today. The other one about a mile down the road, called the Miss Willie Wilemon home, is where Jimmy was born.
The Johnsons bought the Cummings home in 2001.
“It was sitting up here all growed up right in the middle of the community,” said Jimmy, 73. “To tell you how bad it was, when we first got it, I’d get out here with the Bush Hog and you couldn’t even see the Bush Hog.”
First off, Jimmy had to level the whole house because one end of it had sunk 18 inches. He tore out walls and three old chimneys and removed false ceilings that were uneven heights.
“I was always one to take a hand saw and piddle at something,” Jimmy said. “I’d get old nails out of the fire pile and hammer them straight, not knowing they weren’t worth nothing. My granddaddy would go to the hardware store sometimes and get me a sack of brand new nails for a dime. That was a lot of nails.”
Once Jimmy got insulation in the house and new plumbing and wiring and central heat and air, it really started to look like something.
“It was going to be rental property,” said Jane, 72. “We were going to stay in the brick house down the road where we’d been almost 50 years. Then Jimmy told me how pretty it could be. He had promised me a new house after 50 years. I just didn’t think it would be this one.”
The whole house is brand new, except for one special room upstairs.
“They were running the Ratliff Telephone Exchange out of that room,” Jane said. “We’re not sure exactly when this house was built, but I know for a fact it was before 1911.”
The room – with original beadboard on the walls – has barely been touched, except for some new windows.
“We wanted it to be original and it was the only part of the house that was savable,” Jimmy said.
The Johnsons bought the Wilemon home, thought to be more than 100 years old, in 1989. Miss Wilemon owned Twenty-Mile Bottom, and Jimmy’s sharecropper-father rented the home from her. Jimmy was born in the home in 1939.
“A friend of mine was buying up land and he bought part of Twenty-Mile Bottom,” Jimmy said. “The house was on the land and he didn’t want it, so he sold us the house and two acres of land. It was my old homeplace and I jumped at the chance to buy it back.”
Jimmy started work on it almost immediately, doing a little bit at a time. He bricked around the bottom of the house and floated a concrete porch. Inside, you can still see wisps of the original wallpaper in two of the rooms.
“The posts around the house are all original and the beaded ceiling on the porch is original and some of the siding is, too,” he said.
The house has been rewired and it’s ready for insulation, plumbing and Sheetrock. Then it will be ready to live in.
“This one looked so bad,” Jimmy said .”We could have tore it all out and put new in, but we wanted to keep as much original as we could. It’s one of those deals where you spend a lot more money than you get out of it, but that’s what happens sometimes when you care about something.”
The Johnsons aren’t sure what they’re going to do with the house when it’s finished later this year. Jane said Jimmy had already tried to convince her to leave the Cummings home and move to the Wilemon home, but she’s not having any of that.
“I call it his playhouse,” she said. “And I told him he can do anything he wants to do with it – it’s his money – as long as I’m full and warm and comfortable. And I do like a diamond every once in a while.”