This week on #52 Ancestors, the prompt is Family Photo. Last week I wrote about Thomas Thomas and Freelove Cole, my 4th great-grandparents, and Abijah Thomas is their youngest son. That would make him my great-uncle, four times removed I cannot find a picture of Thomas Thomas, my great-grandfather, but finding a picture of one of his sons was pretty special. Perhaps Abijah looked a bit like his father Thomas. I found Abijah’s story to be quite interesting and touching as he started with little and became a wealthy antebellum entrepreneur who eventually went bankrupt and died penniless because of the Civil War. It is a sort of “rags to riches and back to rags” story. One of the interesting things about him was the famous Octagon House he built that still stands today! But first let me get into Abijah’s story!
Abijah was born on May 21, 1914 on the South Fork of the Holston River, Smyth County, Virginia and was named after his father’s brother, Abijah. He married Priscilla Cavinette Scott on June 2, 1836 and they had twelve children together. He acquired a plantation of 400 acres and slowly began to accumulate numerous other land holdings in the thousands of acres. He was a slave holder also as was the norm for huge plantation owners of the south.
Abijah is written up in Smyth County History (p. 180) as ” a man of rare vision and enterprise, (he) was the foremost industrialist of Smyth County before the Civil War. His developments of the iron industry in mines, furnaces, and foundries along the South Fork and on Staley’s Creek, made him a wealthy man for his day, and if the Civil War had not destroyed these properties and involved him heavily he would in all probability have amassed one of the great fortunes of the state, and have set his county fifty years ahead in industrial development.”
Abijah established the Holston Woolen Mills on the Holston River that was all water powered. A town of Holston Mills grew up around it with saw mills, a shirt factory, stores, boarding houses, post office, schools and many homes.
Other industries that Abijah established included a pig iron furnace, a tannery and a cotton mill. All four industries spurred the growth of the county and state of Virginia.
Abijah wanted a unique home – something representative of his progressive ideas, wealth and his social status. He met Mr. Orson Fowler who wrote a book “The Octagon House: A Home for All” in 1848. Mr. Fowler claimed an Octagon House would be inexpensive, give excellent views from all sides and allowed for good ventilation. Abijah was sold and had a beautiful Octagon House built of 17 rooms, 10 closets and a storage room. The exterior walls were made of brick which were made by the slaves on the property. The interior featured rare painted ashlar upon plaster wall, marbleizing and stenciling.
The house was completed in 1857 for Abijah on his property of 400 acres and was assessed at being worth $5,000 in 1857. Here are pictures of the original floor plans.
Unfortunately, this is what the grand old house looks like today. The Thomas Family lost its fortune during the Civil War and the mansion was sold. The last time it was lived in was the 1940’s and it has been neglected and has badly deteriorated over the years.
Here’s the good news – Abijah’s Octagon House, which is on Thomas Bridge Road, Marion, Smyth County, Virginia, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980 and the Virginia Landmarks Register. The Octagon House Foundation, which has a Facebook page in case you wish to learn more or donate, plans to restore the historic home of Abijah. Their vision of a completed restoration is as below.
In coming years, the Octagon House will be restored to its former grandeur and give visitors insight into the life of the Thomas family with tours and presentations.
Mack Howard Sturgill wrote a book “Abijah Thomas and his Octagonal House, which tells the story of the Thomas Family including John Thomas, Thomas Thomas, Freelove Cole and, of course, Abijah Thomas. Copies of the book are rare and may be found in Historical Societies. I am still trying to borrow a copy.
Abijah Thomas and Priscilla’s children were: Charles Benton Thomas, born 1837; Virginia Ann Thomas (1839-1917); Eliza Hamilton Thomas (1841-1865); Thomas Jefferson Thomas (1843-1906); Missouri Freelove Thomas born 1846; Asenath Wilder Thomas born 1848; Mitchell Wood Thomas born 1850; Martha Elizabeth Thomas born 1852; Mary Ellen Thomas (1854-1891); Abijah Preston Thomas born 1857; Montgomery Thomas (1860-1862); Priscilla Cavinette Thomas born 1864.
Abijah Thomas died December 1, 1876 and Priscilla, his wife, died in December of 1885. They were buried on a hill above their beloved Octagon House and elaborate tombstones were erected to mark their graves. Rest in Peace Abijah and Priscilla!
Ancestry.com. Smyth County, history and traditions [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2005. (pages: 180,321-322) Original Data: Wilson, Goodridge, Kingsport, TN: Kingsport Press, 1932.
Washington County, Virginia Probate Record Book, 10. Pages 37 to 39.
Google Images related to Abijah Thomas and the Octagon House.
Southwest Virginia Today: https://www.swvatoday.com/image.
Sturgill, Mack Howard (1990); Abijah Thomas & His Octagonal House, Published by M. H. Sturgill.
Wikipedia: Abijah Thomas House.