Secrets of a childhood home
Curious footnote in history leads book fest founder on circuitous route to debut novel.
When I was a child, my family moved into an ancient half-converted barn in the hamlet of Town Line, a place that claimed to be the last bastion of the Confederate States of America. Even the local fire department sported shoulder patches emblazoned with the Confederate battle flag and the motto “Last of the Rebels.”
The barn was a 5-year-old’s dream house. There was a basketball court in the attic and an indoor swimming pool just inside the front door. A favorite pastime for my brothers and me was to run through the house with brooms chasing the stray bats that invaded almost nightly. My mother’s office was in the hayloft.
We also owned the antebellum farmhouse that stood in front of the barn, and the schoolteachers who rented it from us often reported seeing ghosts on the staircase. On the roof there was a belfry with a massive brass bell we were told had been used to call in the slaves. We’d stop and ring it on our way down into the house’s root cellar where a tunnel had been dug six feet into the dirt wall. A spooky chill seemed to emanate from that space. Even when my older brothers were in their teens, they would not go into it. We’d been told it had been part of the Underground Railroad, and a Channel 7 news crew even came out and did a story about it.
We were excited to be on the news, but it was small potatoes compared to Town Line’s big day, just 25 years earlier.
In January 1946, after 85 years as rebels, the residents of Town Line finally voted to rejoin the Union by a margin of 90 to 23. Press from all over the country descended on the crossroads, and The New York Times ran a photo of the Confederate flag coming down as the crowd watched. They’re all in heavy winter coats, and you can see the snow piled up in the background, typical for a town that far north — 15 miles outside of Buffalo, New York.
The legal basis for the secession had always been sketchy. Town Line is a small clutch of buildings around the red-light intersection of Town Line Road, a surveyor-straight delineation between Alden to the east and Lancaster to the west, and Route 20, known on that stretch as Broadway. It has no legal boundaries, no mayor, no city council. There’s the fire hall, a take-out pizzeria, and occasionally someone tries to reopen the often-abandoned convenience store. Blair’s Hardware, claiming on its Facebook page to be “The Last Rebel Business Still Taking A Stand,” is the hamlet’s most important business, and in a corner of that store is a small museum devoted to the lore of the secession.
But in December 1861, a year after South Carolina led the Southern states into secession, 125 farmers gathered in the one-room schoolhouse and voted 85 to 40 to secede from the United States of America. The decree, signed by the 85 secessionists, is lost.
2. Southern bound
I left Town Line in the early ‘80s. I went away to college, then came South, first to Atlanta and then Decatur. Despite growing up in the last bastion of the Confederacy, I felt like a perpetual outsider in the South. I found sweet tea undrinkable. The phrase “black-eyed peas” sounded more like the punchline to a joke, not something people would actually eat. And I’d always leave the grits on my plate whenever I ate breakfast at the counter at the Majestic Diner. The great Southern writer Flannery O’Connor once wrote of the region in terms of “mystery and manners,” but for a Yankee who had grown up in a barn, those two things were the same to me.
There is a cohesiveness, a sense of pride in Western New York that you don’t find in a city like Atlanta. Part of that is simply a practical one. Atlanta’s success has drawn millions of people to the city, and those newcomers are often less attached to the city and their neighbors than people who were born and raised here.
The population of Western New York, on the other hand, shrank during most of the 20th century, and very few people moved there, leaving only residents with strong connections to the place. And something else runs through the heart of long-time Buffalonians. Bob Dylan once sang that people who suffer together have stronger connections than people who are most content, and Buffalo certainly proves that true. As so many like me fled the double-digit unemployment of the Rustbelt, the faithful stayed home, enduring the news-making blizzards, the endless jokes on “Saturday Night Live,” and the wide right Super Bowl field goal.
It wasn’t easy to make a home in the South, but I found a place in its books and writers. I haunted the aisles at the long-lamented Oxford Books in Buckhead and read the Southern canon. Earnest Gaines. William Faulkner. Larry Brown. Alice Walker. James Dickey. Barry Hannah. Reynolds Price. Pat Conroy. And of course, Flannery O’Connor.
My first public radio series, “Porches: The South and Her Writers,” aired in 1999 and allowed me to spend two years driving through the South, meeting authors in their homes.
I sat in James Dickey’s book-cluttered living room and listened as he read his masterful poem “The Sheep Child” to me in a quivering voice. He inscribed a book, “To Daren, at the beginning, James Dickey,” just weeks before he died.
I sipped scotch in Reynolds Price’s living room as he drew comparisons between Eudora Welty and Shakespeare.
I had Charles Frazier explain how he took a snippet of family history and turned it into the epic of “Cold Mountain.”
I sat in the back office of the legendary Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, and listened as Larry Brown talked about his job injecting poison into trees to help clear land for pulpwood, and how he burned a stack of manuscripts of failed novels the day he sold his first book.
I asked them all what made a writer Southern, and each one had a different answer.
Then, inevitably, they would ask me where I was from.
And after I told them about the Northern town that seceded from the Union, they would always ask the same question — Why?
I never could give them an answer.
The issue of slavery was a distant one for Civil War-era farmers of Town Line. The story about the bell in the belfry at home being used to call in slaves had certainly been some kind of wives’ tale. New York had outlawed slavery in the 18th century, and it couldn’t have existed in Town Line. There was surely a dark vein of racism running though the hamlet, though.
More than a century later, as the only minority student in the entire school system, I was called “chink” by my classmates much more often than I was called Daren. The situation was exacerbated by my family’s Chinese restaurant in downtown Buffalo. Almost nobody from Town Line came in to eat at the restaurant, but my classmates would often talk of us serving cat and dog to the customers.
I had friends in Town Line, kids that stuck up for me. It is a nasty trick that those kindnesses tend to fade from memory, while the helplessness of being pinned to the ground while punches and epithets rain down remains sharp decades later.
As much as I loved that old house, I came to hate the little hamlet. The racism was hard, but as I grew into my teens, the sense of being in the middle of nowhere was perhaps worse.
Even though I’m a Yankee from New York state, my childhood had more in common with William Faulkner’s “Light in August” than F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.” I think one of the reasons I found solace in Southern literature was its deep roots in the rural landscape.
I continued to work with writers, helping launch Valerie Jackson’s “Between the Lines” author-talk series on WABE, and another of my own, “The Spoken Word.” After recording some authors at the South Carolina Book Festival in 2005, I gathered with a group of friends and we started discussing putting on a book festival in Decatur. And in that act, I found the home I had long sought.
The AJC Decatur Book Festival introduced me to the best that the city has to offer — people willing to put their time, effort and money toward an idea of community. The writing and book community in Atlanta rallied to it, as did so many of the writers I had met over the years working in public radio. Daily, I found myself working with people I admired, living in a place that welcomed me. I was, at last, home.
3. History of place
Decatur has little in common with Town Line, but still, my mind would wander back to that place. On a lark one day, I typed my old address into Google and found an oral history for a family named “Willis.” Among other stories, it told of Nathan Willis, who left Vermont to help settle the Holland Land Purchase in 1811; his son Leander, who had fought in the Civil War; and his college-graduate daughter Mary, who ran an Underground Railroad station in the family barn. And there, in the middle of the document, was a picture of the house Nathan Willis built, the place in which I had grown up. I had lived in this family’s barn for more than a decade but had never heard their names.
With that piece of the story, I fell down the same rabbit hole that has pulled so many Southern writers into their own Wonderland. I had to know the history of the place that made me.
When people talk about the differences between the North and the South, they talk of Southern hospitality, and they talk of race, and they talk of the hurried pace of the North. Having nearly split my life in two across both regions, I haven’t found much truth in those stereotypes. But what does feel distinctive to me is how the regions think about their history. The North tends to let its past age, whereas the South seems to relive it at every opportunity. And in that way, at least, I had become Southern.
I started to go back to Buffalo more often, taking that Southern sensibility with me. I spent long days in the history museum there. I found Mary Willis mentioned in local history books and in scholarly papers in the library at the University of Buffalo. I found her grave in nearby Lancaster. I talked with her descendants, was given pictures of her sitting in front of the old house and of her many children. One of Nathan’s descendants gave me a copy of a handwritten story about a runaway slave tapping on a window while Mary Willis darned socks by candlelight. I found more details of Leander’s story in the newsletter of a local historical society.
In the Holland Land Purchase Museum, I found a schedule for Abraham Lincoln’s funeral train with a stop in Town Line on a rail line that ran through the original Willis fields. The curator told me that in Western New York, the funeral train had taken the exact same route as the inaugural train.
It took me a few minutes for that to sink in.
Abraham Lincoln had passed twice through the farm on which I grew up. Once living, once dead.
I was surprised at how mundane the history seemed to so many up North. One visit coincided with the monthly meeting at the Lancaster Historical Society, a local house museum just three miles from the Willis House. Over wine, I told one of the members that I was researching the secession of Town Line and the Underground Railroad station that operated in the midst of it, and he looked at me, stunned.
“You came all the way up from Atlanta for that?” he said.
Even as I learned so much about the area, the story of Town Line’s secession continued to be murky. I looked for some hint of the cause in museum records and newspaper archives, but found nothing from that era.
There had, however, been a lot of press coverage when the hamlet rejoined the Union in 1946. Reading those stories from 70 years ago, I can’t help but hear echoes of our current political landscape.
Two Buffalo newspapers ran competing coverage, one claiming Town Line had aligned with the Confederate States of America and that as many as seven sons of Town Line rode south and joined the Confederate army.
The other tracks down descendants of the hamlet’s original settlers and local historians who talk about the secession as a source of shame because it was rooted in nothing more than draft dodging.
Other ideas were floated — tying the secession to mistreatment of the Union prison camp at Elmira, even though the camp was 120 miles distant and would not house prisoners until nearly three years after the secession. One article tried to justify the secession with the ever-present fear of black-on-white violence when, without evidence, it implied it had been sparked by “ill treatment” of Mary Willis by an escaping slave.
Other stories surfaced as I searched. In the 1920s, the local paper acquired the directory listing of the Ku Klux Klan, and there were more than a dozen names with addresses in the small rural town of Alden.
I interviewed several of Mary Willis’ descendants. One remembered a cross burning in Town Line. Another remembered that growing up in Town Line, all the farmers used horses to plow their fields, because “only (expletive) used mules.”
I often think of my parents bringing their young family to that place. I asked my father what made him chose such a place to live, and he told me how he dreamed of owning a grand country estate.
An unsuspecting family with idyllic dreams moves into their dream home, ignorant of its sinister past. That’s the set up for a lot of horror movies. Central casting outdid itself though with my pretty, talkative, red-headed mother, my three trouble-making brothers and my Chinese father, his accent still thick after a decade in the United States. Even our dogs, pedigreed collies, were too showy for the farmers that lived in Town Line, and our neighbors called the police on them regularly, claiming the 12-year-old female we’d rescued was attacking the German shepherds he was training for police work.
4. Telling the story
After three years of working on the Decatur Book Festival during the day, and letting my imagination roam around Town Line in the evening, I finally admitted to myself that I was going to attempt to write a novel.
One might think that the founding executive director of DBF would be someone who aspired to write all his life. But the fact of the matter is, that up until my agent called me and told me that St. Martins Press would publish my book, I had really never been willing to call myself a writer. The task always felt too grand, too ambitious. More than once during those years of research, I suggested to some writer that I had the perfect set up for their next novel and detailed the story of Town Line to them.
I wrote many drafts of “The Hidden Light of Northern Fires,” and in the process I worked out the anger I had come to feel for that place. I named characters after kids that had pummeled me on the playground, then I had them die in spectacular ways. I made the farmers mean and cruel, and I made them pay for that cruelty. And I made my hero, Mary Willis, a saintly thing.
There is a therapy to that type of writing. It can help you work through anger and pain, but seldom does it lead to good writing. And those early drafts are not good.
A tolerant friend and reader told me to dig deeper, to think about what really would drive a place to secede.
Again, I was back to the same question.
Looking back now, over 150 years after the secession, it’s easy to see the story of Town Line as a quirky little footnote in the grand, sweeping history of the country. There were no legal consequences. Residents of Town Line served in the Civil War, World War I and World War II. They paid their taxes, and celebrated the Fourth of July.
But when Town Line claimed they were leaving the Union, the nation was at war with itself, its continued existence was at stake, and soldiers’ bodies were passing through on their way to be buried.
I have a map of Town Line from that era, with each family’s name noted along the roads. Even though it’s more than 150 years old, I recognize many of those names — Weber, Zurbrick, Keifer, Wilhelm, Snyder — from when their descendants were my neighbors.
The preponderance of German names made me wonder why so many had immigrated during the first half of the 19th century.
And that’s where I found the story of the 1848ers, the wave of immigrants who had fled revolution and counter-revolution in Germany in 1848. The stories of that time are horrific: Men hanged from bridges, women raped in their homes, schoolboys dragged from the streets and conscripted as child soldiers. If the dateline on those stories were different, I would have thought they’d been written about the victims of ISIS or Boko Haram.
It was easy for me to picture these farmers as refugees, not so different from those who flood into Europe today from the Middle East and Africa. They would have come here for the chance to live a simple, quiet life in a place with cheap land to till. The dark, rich soil of Town Line would have been heaven to them. And I can picture them voting to leave behind a country in the process of tearing itself apart. Many of us struggling through the current political climate would find sympathy in that.
That, to me, felt like a truth.
5. How times change
When I finally finished writing my book, the fictional Town Line was a much different place than the one I started with. I didn’t excuse the racism that I knew to exist there, but I knew that to be as true as I could, I had to consider the other things that would drive an isolated little crossroads to enter itself into the history books in such a way.
I went back to Town Line after I finished. After all this time, there were no old friends there, no familiar doors I could knock on.
It was a late fall morning, and thinking of Abraham Lincoln’s passage, I walked along the railroad track, feeling a new reverence for this hamlet’s history in the world. I stopped and stared across the muddy, harvested cornfield at the house that had grown so large in my imagination. It was smaller than I remembered, and I thought it could use a new coat of paint. I walked to the crossroads at the heart of town, and, with nothing more to do, stopped in the little convenience store.
There was a gray-haired man in a trucker’s hat sharing a hearty laugh with the clerk. It didn’t surprise me that they both stopped as soon as they saw a stranger open the door, but it did surprise me to see the woman behind the counter was Asian.
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” she said to the man as he hefted his six-pack and made for the door. He nodded and smiled.
They looked like friends.
There’s a Chinese restaurant in nearby Alden now. It wasn’t open on the morning I was wandering through, but I looked it up online the other day, and found this review:
“While eating here seemingly alone after a long shift at the Tops [Grocery] right next door, I ordered the Sesame Chicken and Wonton Soup, and it came quickly, and was very tasty. As I ate I realized that the family who owned the place was sitting down to eat dinner alongside me. A grandfather from the kitchen, a grandmother at the register, a son visiting from out of town, and his beautiful wife and child. Hearing them chat about their lives and the coos of their baby boy, and hearing them talk about their happiness made the meal here worth more than just the flavor and sustenance. A beautiful place.
My family left that place more than 30 years ago, but if other choices had been made, that could have been us.
The reviewer gave the place five stars. I wish I’d been there when he had been, to have a bowl of wonton soup and listen to that family talk of their happiness.
ABOUT THE STORY
When the founder of a popular book festival who claims to have never entertained aspirations of being an author ends up writing a novel that gets picked up by a major publisher, it’s worth noting. While many first novels tend toward autobiography, “The Hidden Light of Northern Fires” is historical fiction, but it has roots in Daren’s Wang’s childhood. His Personal Journey about how he got here is an intriguing story about what can happen when you follow a rabbit down a hole.
Suzanne Van Atten
Personal Journeys editor
ABOUT THE WRITER AND PHOTOGRAPHER
Daren Wang is the founding executive director of AJC Decatur Book Festival, now in its 12th year. As a public radio producer, he produced and/or hosted several series, including The Spoken Word, Porches: The South and Her Writers, Between the Lines and ArtVoice. His writing has appeared in Paste Magazine, Five Points Magazine and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “The Hidden Light of Northern Fires” is his first novel.
Bita Honarvar is an Atlanta-based photographer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Guardian US, Chicago Tribune and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she was a staff photojournalist and photo editor for 16 years.
Read more of our Personal Journeys at myAJC.com/personaljourneys.