One of the oldest standing houses in Alabama is still thriving, thanks in part to preservation efforts by its current owner.
This article by Elizabeth Manning appears in the current edition of LOOKOUT Alabama, and is reprinted here with permission.
Northeast Alabama is home to a rich cultural history, and much of it lies within the city limits of Fort Payne. The Andrew Ross Home, currently owned and inhabited by Dr. Steve and Lynn Brewer, is one such historical gem.
“Fort Payne is a goldmine of Cherokee heritage, and the Andrew Ross Home lies along one of the Trail of Tears roundup routes,” says Olivia Cox, a board member of the Landmarks of DeKalb County historical organization. The front of the house faces the Cherokee trading route, which can still be seen on parts of the property. The road also was walked by Cherokee who were rounded up by federal troops in 1838 and placed in a removal encampment in Fort Payne, where they waited before being forced west.
In the 1830s, the home, sometimes referred to as Cherokee Plantation, belonged to Andrew Ross and his wife, Susannah. Ross was the brother of Cherokee Principal Chief John Ross, and Susannah was the daughter of Assistant Principal Chief George Lowery.Andrew also was a judge on the Cherokee Supreme Court. As a member of the Ridge Party – the group that lobbied to cede all Cherokee lands east of the Mississippi River and voluntarily emigrate to the Western Territory, Andrew was in direct opposition to his brother John’s anti-removal stance.
Additions and renovations over the years changed the Ross home from a log cabin comprised of the current dining room and an upstairs bedroom into the large, white-columned structure that graces the property today. “The way I imagine the original house was like a two-story cabin with a dog trot,” Steve Brewer says.
Oral history has long held the home was built by Daniel Ross, John and Andrew’s father, in 1790. Research in the past five years by Landmarks and the Alabama Trail of Tears Association located a document in which Susannah Ross stated she and Andrew constructed the house in 1821.
The document was a claim Susannah filed to collect money from the U.S. government based on an appraisal of the Ross property. Cox says the federal government offered to pay Cherokee for property improvements if they left the area voluntarily.
According to the National Park Service, which administers the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail, an 1834 valuation of the Ross property describes a two-story dwelling constructed of hewn logs with a shingled roof, plank floors, a brick chimney with two fireplaces and a two-story, banistered piazza extending across the front.
Other structures included a 24-foot-by- 12-foot framed addition to the house, a separate 16-foot-by-16-foot log kitchen, a large double stable, two smaller stables, a smoke house, hen house, milk house, corn cribs, spring house and multiple smaller cabins. The several-hundred acre property also contained fields, orchards, pasture and woodland.
“It was just a showcase from the way they described it in the appraisal,” Cox says.
Brewer filed paperwork for the house to be entered into the National Register of Historic Places in the mid-1980s. At the time, he was in the midst of a major renovation of the home.
“I was adding on to the kitchen, and I found old logs from the original homestead,” he says.
An architectural historian from the Smithsonian Institute evaluated the house after Brewer found the logs. The construction of the original house and surrounding buildings, including the kitchen, were post and beam.
Based on the type of construction, the Smithsonian historian dated the home to 1790. When Brewer cut a door through the old logs, he saved the pieces he cut out and plans to have them dated by a tree specialist. The home’s den was built in 1890, and it’s thought the kitchen was attached to the rest of the house around the same time.
The Brewers both had visited the home prior to living in it, Lynn for a June Jam party and Steve through family friends.
“Ever since I was small, I have always loved this type of house,” Steve Brewer says.
The Christopher family owned the house when Brewer was young, and he spent days playing at the house with one of the family’s sons. He visited the home again upon returning to Fort Payne after finishing dental school. Landmarks was hosting a tour of the old home, owned at the time by the Kershaws, a family in the railroad-construction business. The Kershaws made a lot of renovations to the home, spending more than $100,000 in décor alone in 1966.
The Kershaw family owned the home as a holiday retreat, and after patriarch Royce Kershaw died, the family’s visits to the home grew even less frequent. The house went up for sale, and Brewer decided he wanted it.
“I had begun reading history of the area when I moved back,” Brewer says. “I wanted the house, but couldn’t afford the price it was worth.” Brewer and Mrs. Kershaw negotiated prices for two years. In 1974, Brewer says Kershaw offered him the house at a price he could afford, and he took it.
“The den had shag carpeting and burnt-orange drapery,” Brewer says. “The décor wasn’t age-appropriate to the house at all, but I didn’t have any money to change it.” Maintaining, repairing and renovating the house has become a lifelong work of Brewer’s. As the décor wore out, he replaced furnishings with antiques he had collected or been given. The home has become a treasured possession for Brewer, and Lynn, who married Steve in 2012, can back up the point.
“I can’t touch it…I redid the outdoor porch this summer, but that was only because he walked out there and I was already painting it,” Lynn laughs.
“He told me I could do anything I wanted as long as it was upstairs.” Lynn plans to begin work on the front bedroom in the near future, renovating it for visits from her grandchild. The collection of items in the Brewer home tell the rich history of Fort Payne itself, and the Brewers’ place in it. All the artwork in the den is original and local. A painting of the old W.B. Davis Hosiery Mill, widely reproduced in prints, hangs over the fireplace. The frame surrounding the painting features original wood flooring from the downtown Fort Payne mill, which the Brewers own and operate as the Big Mill Artisans & Antiques Mall and the Vintage 1889 restaurant.
Since buying the home, Brewer has made it a hobby to “collect” historical sites. He currently owns 12 national registry buildings, including his dental office. The home is furnished with pieces in keeping with the colonial style of the architecture. “I just kind of searched for furniture I thought fit the house; I got good stuff that would keep me,” Brewer says.
A square grand piano, built in 1852, holds court in the living room. A dental cabinet from 1892 sits in one corner of the den. A collection of radiator caps lines the top of a sideboard in another corner of the room. Along with indoor projects, the Brewers keep a greenhouse located on the now-15-acre property full of plants throughout the year. Gardening is a way for the couple to spend time together, cultivating both flowers and summer and winter vegetables. The porch Lynn painted holds tropical plants during warm months. All the outdoor brick was handmade, and Brewer made by hand the spindles that hold up the wall bordering the pool.
Andrew and Susannah Ross and their children left the house for the Western Territory in 1836, before area Cherokee were rounded up in Fort Payne. Andrew, along with other prominent Cherokee, had signed the Treaty of New Echota, which gave tribal lands east of the Mississippi River to the U.S. government in exchange for $5 million.
Those who signed the treaty thought they were doing what was best for their people, but they had no authority to speak for the Cherokee Nation, Cox says. When word of the treaty spread among the Cherokee, the signers headed west. Under Cherokee law, it is a capital offense to sell or give away the nation’s holdings without a vote, Cox says, and Ross was the only prominent signer of treaty who was not later assassinated.
While the Andrew Ross home has been through multiple renovations, original attributes of the site remain. Logs from the original cabin can be seen in an upstairs closet, and rediscovered parts of the Cherokee trading route are popular with visitors to the area.
“Cherokee describe this area as the last of the old nation,” Cox says.
Olivia Cox is available for tours of Trail of Tears historic sites in Fort Payne, Ala. For more information, including directions for a self-guided Trail of Tears drive in Fort Payne, visit landmarksdekalbal.org/articles/TrailOfTearsDrive.html or call 256-845-6888.