One day at a time Hoxie twins dig in to restoring rare schoolhouse

Published 12:00 am Sunday, November 6, 2011

They were born in Vicksburg 61 years ago on Christmas Day, 5 minutes apart, went to local schools, then to Hinds and Memphis State, but for the past 15 years the Hoxie boys, David and Danny, haven’t gotten past the eighth grade — in a manner of speaking.

That’s how long they’ve been working on a one-room schoolhouse where their ancestors were educated. It housed grades one through eight. It’s one of only 13 such structures left in the state.

The Stevens School, in the woods off Fisher’s Ferry Road not far from Antioch Cemetery, was built in the 1890s so the children of Sam and Levi Stevens, who were brothers with neighboring farms, could get an education. The Hoxies’ great-grandfather Stevens made a deal with the county: he donated an acre of land and built the school and the county provided the teacher. The children were too young to walk the long distance to another school.

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“Miss Annie Head from Yokena was the only teacher the school ever had,” David said.

The building had two rooms, “and she lived in the back one. Her dad would bring her in a buggy with enough food and fresh clothes for the week, and on

Fridays her brothers would ride horseback with an extra horse for her to ride home on. She’d take her dirty clothes home, and then her father would bring her back in the buggy. That’s the way it worked.”

Some improvements were made, for on the second year the county paid Stevens $25 to dig a cistern. By the time Jefferson Davis Academy opened in 1916, not many miles away, the school was closed and reverted to the Stevens family.

For years various families lived in the school. In the 1930s a tenant, using beaded pine, put up a partition creating a third room. Later Willie and Mary Stevens lived there, until 1949 when, David said, “They bought another shotgun house over on Fisher’s Ferry that had electricity — this one didn’t.”

The school was papered with newspaper — “The poor man’s wallpaper” — which cut the drafts in the winter. Two stoves — one for cooking — warmed the structure. After the last tenants left, the building was used for storing hay.

“Now it’s ours — or what’s left of it,” Danny said.

Both agree there wouldn’t be anything left if it hadn’t been for a tin roof with extended eaves. The foundation was about gone and powder post beetles had just about destroyed the sills “which were just like dust.” Most of the windows had rotted or been broken out, and some of the siding was missing. The two-holer outhouse leans but still stands.

They used 20-ton jacks to lift the structure and replace the sills with railroad switch ties. They’ve put in some new windows and siding on the porch. They get the material wherever they can, so the work isn’t a restoration — they’re reclaiming the building, “being as practical as we can,” David said. “We’re being as green as we can be, but this place was pretty far gone.”

The original windows were six over six lights, but some of the replacements don’t fit that description. They found some windows on the street in Memphis, removed from a house that was being remodeled, “so we grabbed them,” Danny said. “Windows are windows.”

Their plans are to bring the schoolhouse up to 20th century standards and be able to live in it, “maybe for a short time, maybe for a long one, depending on what this world is going to be doing. It’s a place to hang my hat,” David said. And then he might build a home over on the hill where the old dogtrot house stood where his great-grandmother, Sultana Luckett Stevens, lived.

It’s only natural that they’re working on this project together for, as identical twins, much of their lives have been spent on joint projects. They’re not only identical twins, but they mirror one another, for one is left handed, the other right. The prints on one’s left hand, for example, are mirrored on his brother’s right hand. Danny’s left foot is a half size larger than his right, and David’s is just the opposite, which is why “we’d buy pairs of identical shoes, one a half-size larger, then swap.”

As children, their father couldn’t tell them apart but their mother could. They would sometimes swap names and even classes in school and really rattle the teachers. “We used to drive baby-sitters to tears,” one of them said.

They usually studied together and once “came on strong” in history, destroyed the bell curve which flunked the rest of the class.

They usually went to Shiloh Primitive Baptist Church with their grandfather, Jack Warnock, who attended if it wasn’t hunting season because, “if it had fins, fur, or feathers, he was after it,” Danny said. At church, the twins’ job was “to keep the guy in front of us awake.”

They agree that being twins has “no minuses, always been pluses,” but one of them said that his grandmother Mary Warnock “scared hell out of my wife when she started telling her how many generations of twins were in the family and how many twins had twins and so on.”

Their great-grandfather Burrough had a twin who died, so the parents gave him the names for both boys — Richard Madison Green Gustavus Adolphus Burrough.

David and Danny were 5 when they saw a dead person for the first time. It was their great uncle, who was called Toad. It was a home funeral, from an old house in Yazoo County, one with the dogtrot down the middle and the kitchen in a separate building connected by a walkway. The body was in a pine box that sat on some sawhorses in the front room.

Uncle Toad was dressed in bib overalls and a red and white checkered shirt and was holding a Red Man chewing tobacco hat on his chest. The boys were very curious, so much so that Aunt Chet decided they were taking undue interest and headed them out to the kitchen.

“We opened the door— you know how a screen door creaks,” Danny said. “Well there was a man sitting there with his back to us, but when he heard the noise, he turned around and looked at us and it like to have scared us half to death.” The man was wearing clothing identical to the way Uncle Toad was dressed. That’s when they found out the men were identical twins.

Family heritage is special to David and Danny, and their love of history probably came from their grandmother Molly Stevens Hoxie. Their great-great-great-grandfather John Brown Stevens acquired the land where the old school stands in 1833. For a time it belonged to the Hullums and then came back into the Stevens family through their great-great-grandmother Sultana, who married William Barnabas Stevens. He gave his life for the Southern Cause on June 26, 1862, at Beaver Dam Creek in Virginia, and his body never was identified.

When David and Danny put up stones for William B. and Sultana at Antioch Cemetery several years ago, more than 100 relatives came to the ceremony and, “We didn’t know many of them.”

That’s when they heard the story of Sam and Levi Stevens, brothers who had adjoining farms, who had a falling out and didn’t speak for years. They had a common line but “wouldn’t even mend the fence together,” David said. Each put up his own strands of barbed wire. When their mother, who was at Sam’s house, was on her deathbed, Levi went over to say his goodbyes and he and Sam talked for half an hour like nothing was ever wrong, but then the feud resumed. They’re buried at Antioch about 20 feet apart.

Though the Hoxies live in Memphis, they grew up here and in Rolling Fork and both look forward to the day when they can really enjoy their Warren County roots. There’s no time limit on restoring the schoolhouse and they get to work on it only a week or two each year. Danny still works and, though David is retired, he says he has time but no money, “and that’s the rub.”

They haven’t hunted when they’re here because “time is a premium.” Their wives have been down to the site. Danny said he likes the peace and quiet and wants to get out of Memphis. David’s wife, because it is a glacial process, “has about given up hope.”

To the Hoxie twins, the old Stevens School reclamation is R-and-R, a place and time of peace and tranquility, a time to get away from it all.

“You can’t go to the woods in Memphis,” one said, and the other agreed.

Gordon Cotton is an author and historian who lives in Vicksburg.