Steeped in history
By Jennifer L. Williams
Photos by Jodi Hyde
Preserving and living in a nearly 180-year-old home likely sounds romantic to some and nightmarish to others. David and Anne Burleson say it’s been both at times, but they wouldn’t dream of leaving.
The Burlesons live in Westview, the home Jonathan Burleson – David’s great-great–grandfather – built in 1841, atop what is known as Burleson Mountain on Indian Hills Road. The home is unique in that it is the only antebellum house in Morgan County that has remained in the same family since it was built.
The Burlesons restored the home in 1987-88 after David worked out a deal with his brother – “my home and 40 acres for the homeplace and 40 acres,” he said. The home was in desperate need of a complete renovation. “It basically had not been updated since my father renovated it 50 years earlier in 1937–38. It is difficult to renovate a historic home,” he added – especially one in which the owner also plans to live. “You want to preserve the historic integrity of the home while making it suitable for modern living.” No easy feat.
The Burlesons decided the best way to accomplish their goals was to add a 1,500-square foot addition to the back of the original home. The addition contains two bedrooms, 2.5 bathrooms, a kitchen, a dining area and a den. “That way we avoided, for the most part, cutting into the historic fabric of the home,” explained David. “The addition is set up on separate heating and cooling systems so we can keep the old part of the house shut off when not in use.”
In restoring a home, “you want to preserve all the historic elements you can, including room layout, wainscoting, fireplace mantles, windows and overall appearance,” David said. The only original element the Burlesons lost was the last of the four chimneys, the other three having been lost years before. “The chimney was in poor condition, so we decided to take it down, but we measured it before removing it and used the dimensions to reconstruct the four chimneys so the house would appear as it did in the 1840s,” David said.
The house is on the National Register of Historic Places, but “the listing is honorary only,” David said. “There are no requirements to adhere to any special restoration guidelines; however, we used the Department of the Interior’s guidelines for historic restoration, for the most part.”
David said he feels a great connection with his ancestors by living in the house that has seen six generations of Burlesons. His son Forest recently married at the house and runs a small farm on the property with his new wife, Erin.
“My favorite thing about the home is the family history the house represents,” David said. “Being able to walk through doors your great-great–grandparents walked through and peer out the same glass panes in the sidelights around the front door that they would have done when they had visitors is special for me – but then again, I am a history buff.”
David is well known in Hartselle for his interest in history, even named as the official city historian. He has written books on his family history as well as the history of Hartselle and is a long–time volunteer with the Hartselle Historical Society. He said he comes by his passion honestly: His father, F. E. Burleson – for whom the Burleson Center and F.E. Burleson Elementary School are named – was a history teacher, “and he had an abundance of knowledge about the history of the home and our family, and I guess it just carried over to me,” said David. “I cannot remember a time when I was not interested in history – especially family history and local and state history.”
He said he recalls a time in his early 20s when his job with Auburn University took him to Mobile and he toured Oakleigh, a historic antebellum home there, during some free time. “While on the tour, someone in the tour group asked me why I was there. She was shocked that someone my age was interested enough in history to go on a historic home tour. I had thought nothing of it, but when I looked around at the 20 or so people on the tour, I was at least 30 years younger than anyone else. I guess I was just old before my time!”
An Eye to the Future
While the Burlesons said they hope the home and property can stay in the family for generations to come, they are mindful not to put too much pressure on their children to keep and maintain it.
“We have two sons, and they both love and appreciate the old homeplace,” said David,” “however, we are not foolish enough to think circumstances will not change for people during their lives, and it is not always possible to live and work in the area you might want to. Also, the house is a responsibility, and if you are not interested in the work involved and giving a lot of your time and money to maintain the place, then it is not for you.
“I have told both my sons the same thing my father told me and my brother,” he said. “Don’t keep the old place just because the family wants you to; do what is necessary to live your lives the way that is best for you. If that involves selling the homeplace, so be it; all things of this earth change eventually.”