As a child living in Evansville, Indiana, Retha Emmick Newell and her family occasionally made the 70-mile journey to Hancock County, Kentucky, to visit relatives at the old Emmick Plantation House. In spite of its history and its dramatic view of the Ohio River, Newell can’t say she was particularly fond of the Federal-style house built by her great-grandfather around 1850.
“It was just a big old house,” she says.
If anyone had told her then that she would spend her senior years giving tours of the place, she probably would have laughed. But Newell has been making an annual pilgrimage from California to her old Kentucky home every September since 1993, when restoration began on the house.
Newell is a masterful storyteller and relishes taking Emmick Plantation House visitors back to the Civil War era with her tales of American Indians, riverboat robbers, and plundering Yankees, stories that have been in her family for generations.
Newell has lived in California most of her life and owns a successful antiques business in Los Angeles, so when she had the opportunity to buy the ultimate antique, a family home, from an Emmick cousin, she couldn’t resist. The fact that the once grand house was in a terrible state of disrepair didn’t deter her at all.
“I flew in from San Francisco, and I thought, ‘This is a beautiful house that needs some tender loving care,’” says Newell. “I didn’t want my family home to go down in ruins. I was saving my money for a Bentley, but I decided I would rather have the house.”
After all, cars come and go, but how many people can say Abraham Lincoln was marched across their front lawn after being arrested for illegally operating a ferry across the Ohio River?
In 1827, the future president found himself in trouble after he agreed to take a couple of salesmen to the middle of the river so they could catch another boat. He was tried at the Squire Samuel Pate House, which is still standing just a short distance from the Emmick Plantation House.
“He was arrested for not having a license to operate a ferry,” says Newell. “The ferry operators said he was infringing on their right to take people across the river. He pleaded his case at Squire Pate’s, and he was exonerated because he said that a ferry by definition took people from shore to shore, and he didn’t take them all the way across the river, just part of the way.”
Renovating the Emmick Plantation House turned out to be the antique restoration project of Newell’s life, a project she never dreamed would take 13 years to complete.
“I thought I would do it in a couple of years, but every year something would happen,” Newell says. “Every year I would think of something else to do.”
While restoring the house, Newell encountered a number of unpleasant little surprises, like being bitten by a brown recluse spider in the barn, having the ceiling in the upstairs bedroom all but cave in after eight layers of wallpaper were removed, and discovering beehives under the floor.
But perhaps the most unpleasant surprise was the day the president of the historical society showed up at the house, very upset that Newell had cut down a tree in the front yard.
It turns out the tree had an interesting, if somewhat grisly, history, explains Newell. Her great-grandfather helped apprehend some local criminals, and they were unceremoniously hanged from that tree. In George Emmick’s day, the Ohio River was a busy thoroughfare teeming with barges, ferries, and steamboats, which sometimes fell prey to marauders.
Newell tells the story this way:
“Robbers swam out…and murdered the family and the children on this little flat-bottom boat. They swam back to the Emmick Plantation area. George Emmick and some other men from the area hanged them in the tree in the yard of my house.”
But for every unpleasant surprise Newell encountered during the restoration, there was a pleasant one, like finding most of the house’s original furniture out in the barn.
“The Emmicks were very frugal,” says Newell. “They were German, and they never threw anything away.”
One day she came across a real treasure. “We found an old bed in the barn. It’s kind of Gothic in design, and I was told it was made by Abraham Lincoln’s father, Thomas Lincoln. He made furniture for the Emmick Plantation.”
She was missing some of the dining room furniture, though, and was wondering what to do about it when it miraculously found its way home.
As if answering a prayer, a man drove up to the house, said he had the original dining table, and asked Newell if she would like to buy it.
“He said his grandmother bought it from one of the Emmicks, and it had been in his barn for 25 years. It was covered in wasp nests and dirt. It was a mess,” Newell says. But it matched the other Empire pieces found in the barn, and the man sold it to her for $200 and a matching sideboard for $150.
“My favorite part of the house is the dining room,” says Newell. “It has a chandelier from Liberace’s estate that just looks perfect in there.”
In fact, several of the rooms have light fixtures that once belonged to the flamboyant pianist, a fact that would no doubt surprise many visitors. When Newell bought the house, all the light fixtures were mysteriously missing, and she was wondering how she was ever going to find appropriate replacements. Fortunately, a solution presented itself.
“I was invited to Liberace’s estate sale at the convention center in Los Angeles because of my antiques store,” Newell says.
Newell came away from the sale with a truckload of light fixtures, and incredibly, they all seem to belong at the Emmick Plantation House. One light fixture original to the house—a hanging, oil-burning lamp—has since been returned to the house and hangs in an upstairs bedroom.
There are many items in the house Newell is proud of, but she especially likes to show visitors the convex mirror in the library, because it is credited with saving her great-grandfather’s life.
“An Indian was coming in the library door and was about to strike him. He (the Indian) had some kind of an ax. He saw the Indian in the mirror and he disarmed him,” explains Newell.
Newell’s grandfather, George Emmick Jr., told her that story when she was young. “I didn’t believe him as a child,” Newell chuckles. “I couldn’t imagine Indians any place because I lived in Evansville, Indiana.”
Most people who visit the Emmick Plantation House simply want to admire a beautiful, historic home, but for one African-American man, a professor at the University of Kentucky, the trip was much more personal.
“He was a descendent of the Emmick slaves, and he said he came to see the house his ancestors had built,” says Newell. Unfortunately, since Newell was giving tours at the time of his arrival, she didn’t get to meet him and was told about the man by an employee.
“When they built the house, they had 20 slaves that made the bricks from the clay in the pond behind the house,” says Newell. “I can only imagine how many bricks it took to build that big house.”
Newell’s grandchildren, Natasha and Eames Kolar, sometimes help with the tours and seem good-natured about sporting Civil War-era costumes. Natasha looks like a blonde Scarlett O’Hara as she bustles around in a huge hoop skirt giving tours of the outbuildings, replicas of the ones that once stood on the Emmick Plantation.
Newell also built a one-room schoolhouse on the property in memory of her mother, Grace Winkler Emmick, who was a schoolteacher in Hancock County. Posted on the schoolhouse walls is a list of rules that teachers in 1915 were expected to abide by. They usually get a chuckle from visitors.
1. You may not wear bright colors.
2. You may, under no circumstances, dye your hair.
3. You may not ride in a carriage or automobile with a man that is not your brother or father.
When Newell sees visitors’ reactions to the Emmick Plantation House, she knows it was worth the time, energy, and money she invested in its restoration. She says she has no regrets.
“I’m very happy I saved the house, but it was a monumental undertaking. I sometimes don’t know how I did it.”
VISITING THE EMMICK PLANTATION
The Emmick Plantation House is located in the Troy Bend area of Hancock County between Lewisport and Hawesville. It’s just off 334 on Emmick Landing Road.
The house is open for guided tours during September only and is not open for tours the rest of the year. Tours this year will be September 6–October 1, Wednesday through Sunday, 1-5 p.m., closed on rainy days. Admission is charged. $8. For tour reservations, call (270) 295-6750 and leave a message. For more information, contact the Hancock County Chamber of Commerce at (270) 927-8223.
Those who tour the Emmick Plantation House may also wish to visit the Squire Samuel Pate House located nearby.