By Errol Castens/NEMS Daily Journal Oxford Bureau
PONTOTOC – Just as surely as the bad twister of Feb. 24, 2001, swept away lives, livelihoods and landscapes, it also swept into oblivion pieces of history.
One historic casualty of the tornado was Lochinvar.
The hilltop mansion had sat majestically just southwest of Pontotoc for 165 years, surviving the elements, the Civil War, a reputed haunting and various indignities of neglect and abuse before being restored, in structure and prominence, by modern-era owners.
In the aftermath of the tornado, published reports counted Lochinvar among the many homes destroyed, and photos from the days afterward give no reason to doubt the label.
The dedication of its owners and the skill and endurance of a local craftsman, however, meant a resurrection only marginally less astounding than that of Lazarus.
After the Chickasaw
Built by land speculator Robert Gordon in 1836, the two-story mansion with its distinctive cupola was Pontotoc County’s oldest and most historic home.
It reflected the history of the area’s early white settlement: Pontotoc came into existence as a land office to handle transactions from the Chickasaw Cession, and Robert Gordon was one of those who amassed thousands of acres of holdings.
During the Civil War, Gordon’s son, James, was a Confederate colonel whose kindness toward a captured Union general and the Yankee soldiers under him was repaid with the general’s sword and a letter of commendation.
James Gordon sent both home to his wife for safekeeping. Within weeks, a Union raiding party rode through on its way to try to cut off supplies to the fortress city of Vicksburg, and Mrs. Gordon’s showing of both mementos to the lead officer kept Lochinvar from being raided and burned.
Col. Gordon returned to Lochinvar after the war, but in the depression of 1890 he lost the plantation to tax liens, and the house was used as a bootleg saloon and dance hall.
Sometime around the turn of the century, a Pontotoc attorney – a Mr. Fontaine – and his wife bought the house, raised their family and grew old there.
Enter Dr. Forrest Tutor, a neurosurgeon and student of history who grew up in nearby Randolph. While a professor at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, he frequented the state archives and developed a fascination for Lochinvar’s history.
He began sharing his findings with the Fontaines and over the years became a close friend. Eventually, after Mr. Fontaine had died and Mrs. Fontaine found it harder to keep up the house, Tutor bought the home and some of its lands, moving his practice from Jackson to Tupelo to accommodate living at Lochinvar.
Tutor spent years overseeing the home’s restoration and subtle modernization before marrying Dr. Janis Burns, a plastic surgeon who shared his passion for the home and its history, in 1984.
Together they became parents to sons Travis and Gordon and were actively sharing their historic home through tours for schoolchildren, civic groups and occasional dignitaries. Finally, the house’s future seemed secured for many decades to come.
But then came the tornado.
That horrible night
“I saw this lightning that was like no lightning that I’d ever seen,” Tutor recounted of that night. While son Gordon was away at a friend’s house in Tupelo, Travis had gone to bed in his upstairs room, and Burns was reading in the couple’s bed downstairs.
Tutor stepped outside, didn’t like what he heard and decided to herd the family to the basement.
Before he could speak, it hit.
“The noise was just horrible, and all of a sudden, all the dust that had settled in these walls over 170 years was in the air,” he said. “You could hardly breathe in the room.”
Tutor yelled for his wife to get downstairs and went upstairs to check on their son. Travis’ door was jammed, but with a timber Tutor found – a casualty from the disintegrated roof, probably – he pried one corner open and pulled the uninjured boy through, feet-first.
“As much as I love this old house and all the history in back of it, really all that mattered at that point was that we were all alive,” Tutor said, remembering the deaths of a half-dozen people a mile away in Pontotoc that they would only learn of later.
After spending the rest of the night at Dr. Charles Harrison’s largely undamaged house next door, the couple hiked back at first daylight through downed timber to see what was left of their home. The roof and several walls were gone.
The handmade spiral staircase provided one of the most remarkable ironies.
“While the house was destroyed around it, the top of that staircase was sticking up in the air,” Tutor said. The stair rail was anchored by a threaded steel rod to a 14-inch timber under the floor. Fresh crumbs from the brick wall on which the timber rested showed the floor had lifted, but the timber had provided just enough anchor to pull it back out of the twister’s grip.
“I’m convinced if it hadn’t been for that rod in that timber, the house would have been swept clean,” Tutor said. “And we’d have been dead in the woods a quarter-mile away.”
The same serendipity – or destiny – that had saved Lochinvar from Union troops reappeared when the Tutors were pondering whether any part of the storm-ravaged house could be saved.
A mutual friend introduced Tutor to Cherry Creek resident Terry Walton, who had never met a construction challenge too big to handle, and soon the homeowners’ hopes were taking root.
“We were walking around in the yard out there. Ol’ Terry said, ‘I can build it back,’ Tutor recalled. “I didn’t think it was possible, but I said, ‘OK, buddy, you back up your words.’”
Walton did just that. He secured the structure – first against rain, then against overcurious visitors who’d come looking for souvenirs or encounters with the house’s reputed ghost guard, Uncle Ebenezer.
Guided by little more than his instincts and some of the remaining original construction, Walton and an assistant began building walls, windows, doors and ceilings back where they belonged.
He also replumbed and rewired the house and restored every piece of broken furniture, earning the Tutor family’s undying admiration and affection.
“He and his assistant worked on this house for four years,” Tutor said. “I worked with them all I could; I got a ruptured disc from all the heavy lifting and had to have surgery. But it was really heartwarming to see that we were finally making some headway.”
Burns took a hiatus from her practice to help with the initial recovery phase.
“It took so long to decide what we were going to do. We sat here for six months just feeling sorry for ourselves,” she said. “It was getting started working on it that made us feel hopeful.”
But even that was no magic pill.
“The worst, for me, was when we were trying to live right in the middle of the restoration, even with the destruction all around,” Burns said. “We had to walk past our boxed-up belongings every day, and I went back to work to keep my sanity, because I just couldn’t stay in the middle of it all the time.”
Gradually more and more of the house became habitable. Burns felt it was becoming a real home when she could begin the interior painting, and a redesigned roofline that sacrificed the cupola offered instead a leakproof surface – something the former flat-sectioned roof had never provided.
Throughout the process, both Tutor and Burns had the advantage of realizing that no matter what happened to the house, they could take comfort in what they had done, as surgeons, to restore people.
One of Burns’ specialties has long been taking children born with cleft palates from being seen almost as monsters to looking, eating and peaking normally – something she has done as a volunteer in many poor countries.
“I was in the first group of Americans that they let into Vietnam after the war, in ’89. I’ve been to Venezuela twice, Honduras, India, Colombia and Paraguay. I’m getting ready to go to Kenya,” she said. “It’s really, really a powerful feeling. It restores me to go off and do that.”
Part of its history
As the house gradually came to its “new normal,” Tutor has found time to reflect on his family’s close brush with death and the grueling effort to restore the home.
One aspect was frequent outpourings of gratitude for preserving what many locals – some of them who’d toured the home as schoolchildren – felt to be their shared heritage.
“My heart has been warmed by how the people of the community, so many of them, told me, ‘Oh, thank you for trying to save it.’ I didn’t realize how many people had feeling for the place,” Tutor said. “It’s turned out to be a very rewarding thing for me.”
Many magnificent trees on the place had been owned by the storm. Much was salvaged through conventional commercial channels, but Tutor kept in reserve some of the most outstanding lumber.
Master chairmaker Greg Harkins of Vaughn, for instance, made four chairs from the state champion bois d’arc (bodock) that had succumbed to the F4 tornado; the rest was made into an abstract monument of sorts.
But Tutor wanted one thing more, and Walton accommodated him with a custom coffin – grown and built at Lochinvar, and someday to transport Tutor’s body into its ground. Looking at his own mortality gives Tutor, now 84, a perspective on his connection to Lochinvar.
“I’ll never forget some of those dark days when we were first trying to bring it back,” he reflected. “My partner in neurosurgery for many years, Dr. Thomas McDonald, said, ‘Forrest, just keep working it, and someday all the bad experiences with Lochinvar will just become part of the history of it.’”
Sitting at his family’s dining table, looking around at the restored house that would likely have been bulldozed without him, Tutor reflects, “I thought at the time it would never happen, but it has – it’s become part of its history.”
Contact Errol Castens at (662) 281-1069