It’s 1859. Your name is Benjamin Haile, and you’ve just written your name and date on the upstairs wall of your new home. Eventually, your eleven brothers and two sisters will add their handiwork to the walls. The only one of fifteen children who does not write on the wall is baby Ellen, who died before this house was built. So does Mama send you out for a switch and tear up some rear ends? No, actually, she’s too busy writing on the walls.
In the 1840’s, after the removal of the Indians, the area near present day Gainesville was a popular destination for South Carolina planters. Thomas Evans Haile and Serena Chesnut Haile moved to north Florida from near Camden, South Carolina, in 1854. They purchased 1500 acres for a homestead they named “Kanapaha” where they built a cotton plantation with at least eighteen small one-room frame houses for the slaves.
The 1860 census indicates the Hailes owned sixty-six slaves, a number of whom built the main house, but it was common to borrow workers of particular specialty such as roofing or masonry. One of those borrowed tradesmen is said to be the one who embedded the flat iron and stand in the floor of the nursery fireplace for good luck. The remarkable condition of the home when the restoration was undertaken 150 years later attests to the skill of the builders. They felled and hewed 100-foot-long beams for the foundation that rests atop four-foot-tall piers of mortared limerock. The house is a story and a half high, with the roof extending over and beyond the front porch and resting on six limestone pillars.
The house, built primarily of heart pine with cypress siding, is a massive 6200 square feet with twelve-foot ceilings and ten rooms coming off two center halls. The fourteen children shared two dormitory style rooms upstairs; two girls on one side, twelve boys on the other, but most likely no more than ten boys at one time. There is no kitchen and no bathroom. Fourteen kids and no bathroom? This recipe written on the parlor wall may come in handy—it’s a cure for dysentery.
15 drops turpentine
10 to 15 drops laudanum
1 teaspoonful paregoric
In one glass water
Repeat every 3 hours if necessary
(Transcription courtesy of Karen Kirkman at Haile Homestead)
There are four brick chimneys and eight fireplaces on the first floor. Those fireplaces must have been in constant use the winter of 1886, as Serena writes on her bedroom wall:
Bitter cold—Thick Ice lasting from Friday 7th until Thursday 14th
Oranges all frozen—ground frozen from 8th to13th
The longest & most severe spell of cold, since we came here in 1854
For 4 days! Ther not over 36
(Ther is Serena’s shorthand for thermometer. Transcription courtesy of Karen Kirkman at Haile Homestead.)
The walls are one-inch-thick horsehair plaster over lath, painted white—the perfect background for writing with a pencil. So exactly what do you write on the walls of a house? Anything and everything. Names, dates, dining room inventory, 35 pieces wash, yellow flannel, addresses, recipes, grocery lists—ham, sweet potatoes—weather reports, business transactions, poetry—original, or quotes from your favorite poet (Lord Byron, John Milton)—jokes, puns, party guest lists. A tally of rats killed. All in all, more than 12, 500 words.
And now, the big question: Why? Many have speculated that it may have been due to a shortage of paper; Serena’s diaries were written on various bits of papers. This writer speculates that Mrs. Haile originally thought the condition was temporary, that perhaps it would all be covered when the new wallpaper was installed. After all, these were affluent people. Serena was related by marriage to the famous Mary Boykin Chesnut, whose A Diary from Dixie assured that she, like old times there, would not be forgotten. Certainly Serena had anticipated wallpapering at least some of her beautiful new home before that unpleasantness with those Yankees broke out a mere two years later.
The Hailes originally found cotton farming to be so lucrative that more family members moved to the area, but after the War Between the States ended, the downturn of fortune caused Thomas Haile to declare bankruptcy in 1868. His brother Edward was able to purchase the plantation to keep it in the family, and in 1870 he sold the house and 110 acres back to Serena who maintained and oversaw the property. She died in 1895 at the age of sixty-eight, and Thomas died the next year.
Evans Haile, the fourteenth child, eventually became the owner of the land but lived in town, and after 1900 the home sat vacant for decades. Evans used the home as a gathering place for family, hunting parties that included a much-noted Fox Hunt in 1905, and soirees. The guests most likely enjoyed small talk as people do at parties, but at Haile house they signed names and scribbled small talk all over the walls. The living room and parlor walls are covered with names, dates, cartoonish figures, and general doodling. One can suppose the doodling became more imaginative as the evenings wore on.
Evans Haile died in 1934. Although he left heirs, the house was abandoned, boarded up, and left to weather. Fortunately, forty years later, two things happened that brought attention back to the house, by then hidden away in deep woods. In 1976 Marjorie Kinnan Rawling’s story “Gal Young ‘Un” was to be made into a movie, and the producer chose Haile Homestead for the location. The yard was cleaned out, some stabilization was done to the home, and electricity was added. In 1977, a group of architecture students from the University of Florida chose to study and document the home, and it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1986. Historic Haile Homestead, a non-profit now owned jointly by the Haile Family Trust and the Alachua Conservation Trust, exists on forty of the original acres and is open for tours on weekends.
Although hotly debated, no one will ever know the reason for the Talking Walls. The answer to that question is written in the sands of time, but everything else is written right there on the walls.
See a Whole Lot More Photos of Haile Homestead’s Whispering Walls Here