The little log house and the search for Edmund Cabell (2024)

This spring, the Historic Staunton Foundation began preserving a home with a rich and storied past – much of which is just now being unearthed. WMRA's Randi B. Hagi brings us this first installment of a two-part feature.

[birdsong, light breeze]

Let's do a bit of time traveling.

There's a log house on East Beverley Street in Staunton with walls made of hewn timbers under a corrugated tin roof, overlooking a hillside dotted with daffodils, winter aconite, and rivercane. Today, it's the site of archaeological research and historic restoration.

But in the late '60s, the Tate and Cabell families gathered there for holidays.

LORI TATE: … the coziest little cabin you ever wanted to imagine.

Lori Tate remembers visiting the house as a little girl.

TATE: I can remember, as young as six years old, going over there and spending Christmas, you know, with the sisters and everything. They always liked to make homemade stuff. They would make fruitcakes, and boy, they would drench it with the bourbon and the brandy!

The sisters – Ma Mary and Mama Emma, as the family called them, were twins, and the third generation of Cabells to live in the house that their grandfather Edmund built shortly after the Civil War. With no biological children of their own, they took Lori Tate's mother, Jean, and her sister under their wings as goddaughters.

TATE: We all went to Augusta Street Church together. The sisters were active in the church, as far as the Eastern Star and … they sang on the choir, they ushered, they did things like that.

The little log house and the search for Edmund Cabell (1)

Randi B. Hagi

To get to know this little log house, we have to step back further in time – on a journey through courthouse and genealogy records, and plantations grown over with honeysuckle and pine, to find a family with roots in Amherst and Augusta counties, children born on the Middle River, and a plot of land that a Black farmer purchased with 10 gold pieces in his hand.

[spring peepers]

Edmund Cabell was born sometime around 1821 in Amherst County, according to records from the Freedmen's Bureau and the U.S. Census.

Despite extensive searches of 19th century birth, death, and property records in two counties, I could not definitively find where Edmund came from. There was a large, wealthy, white Cabell family living in Amherst and neighboring Nelson County that enslaved more than 600 people, according to descendant and researcher Kathy Cabell Terlesky. When one of these men, Landon Cabell, died in 1834, the courts recorded 51 people he enslaved – including a man named Edmund, his wife Mary, and their small daughter, Maria.

[breeze through the grass, birdsong]

Terlesky directed me to the location of Landon and Judith Cabell's property, close to the Nelson-Amherst line. The land where Edmund, Mary, and Maria may have lived is now covered in pine forests dotted with redbud trees and wisteria, sloping down to the James River.

If this is the same Edmund as the Staunton house-builder, he may have been a handful of years older than was later recorded – people's ages do vary somewhat from one document to another – and it's possible that he was forcibly separated from his first wife. This Edmund, Mary, and Maria were sold to an enslaver named Solomon Day who fell into financial trouble near the end of his life, leaving no mention of the young family's whereabouts.

[Middle River running]

What we do know is that by 1850, an Edmund Cabell and Eveline Boyers (or maybe Evalina – spellings are not consistent) had their first surviving child, George L. A. Cabell, somewhere along the Middle River in Augusta County. The couple would go on to have nine children in all, according to various records. At least one, Rose or Rosa, died in childhood of unknown causes.

The little log house and the search for Edmund Cabell (3)

Randi B. Hagi

In 1866, just a year after the Civil War ended and slavery was abolished in Virginia, Edmund bought a piece of land from Alexander and Sarah Taylor for $50 – "ten dollars of which have this day been paid in gold," according to the deed. The Taylors don't appear to have been enslavers, although Sarah's father, Armistead Mosby, was.

Four years later, census records show Edmund and Eveline living in the house he built with their four youngest children, their oldest son George, and his first wife. Eveline died at age 52 of what was called "paralysis." But the fates of Edmund and several of their children are elusive – Virginia law did not require localities to record deaths from 1896 to 1912.

The little log house and the search for Edmund Cabell (4)

Staunton News Leader


George went on to become a respected merchant in town who was widowed and remarried. He had two sons – Walter, who lost a hand and a leg in a train accident in 1908 and appears to have died young – and John, whose family lived in Staunton through the 1940s.

The house was inherited by Edmund and Eveline's sixth child, Washington, a.k.a. Wash. The oldest known photograph of the house, from about 1897, shows Wash standing out front with a puppy in his arms and five hound dogs lying nearby. He married Emma Jackson, and the couple had two boys, then twin girls. Emma died at just 39 years old, followed a few years after by her son Edmund E. when he was 16. Wash and Emma's oldest son, Harold, served in the army during World War I.

Wash worked as a janitor at the Augusta County Courthouse for 27 years, raising his young twin daughters – Emma and Mary Evalina – on his own, in Jim Crow's Virginia. The girls regularly made the honor roll, and Emma graduated early, at age 16. Later that year, in 1920, a fire damaged much of the house – leaving char marks in the kitchen that are visible to this day. A Staunton News Leader writeup of the accident notes that Wash's many friends, both white and Black, extended their sympathies.

[footsteps, dog trotting by]

Tomorrow, in the second part of this story, we'll follow those charred beams back to the present day.

Thank you to the following researchers for their assistance –

  • Kathy Cabell Terlesky, The Cabell Family Society, Inc.
  • Donna Huffer, Augusta County Historical Society
  • Whitney Rhodes, Augusta County Courthouse
  • Octavia Starbuck, Amherst County Museum & Historical Society
The little log house and the search for Edmund Cabell (2024)
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