Old Pocahontas County house a special place for Pearl Buck

by James E. Casto

Huntington Herald Dispatch
October 27, 1991

When famed author Pearl S. Buck died in 1973, her obituary, as reported by The Associated Press, gave a brief account of her death, then launched into a capsule biography: "She was born in China June 26, 1892 . . . "

Not so. The date and year were correct, but Pearl Comfort Sydenstricker-Buck was the name of her first husband-wasn't born in China.

The error was perhaps understandable. Pearl Buck spent much of her life in China, a land she came to know so well and write about with such skill in "The Good Earth" (1931) and other books that her writing earned her both the Nobel and Pulitzer prizes, the only woman ever to capture both honors.

However, Pearl Buck was born not in China, but in West Virginia-100 years ago next year.

Her parents, Absalom Sydenstricker and Caroline Stutling Sydenstricker, were Presbyterian missionaries. The Sydenstrickers had been stationed in China for 12 years, during which three of their four children had died in infancy of tropical diseases. It happened that their new daughter was born while they were home on furlough-in West Virginia, at the Hillsboro farmhouse that was the home of Pearl Buck's maternal grandparents, the Stutlings. When she was less than 4 months old, her parents returned to their mission station, taking their infant daughter with them.

But though her birth in West Virginia had been more or less a matter of chance and though she was to return only for brief visits in future years, Pearl Buck came to have a special feeling for her native state. In China, on the long nights, with her father often away on journeys to remote parts of the country, she listened to her mother tell her of her own childhood in West Virginia.

"In spite of our living in China," she was to write later, "our Mother always taught us to call America home." And, in a very real sense, "home" for Pearl Buck was always Hillsboro.

"Had I been given the choice of place for my birth, I would have chosen exactly where I was born: my grandfather's large white house," she once said in an interview. "I should say West Virginia affected me very much. I have a strong sense that there are my beginnings."

Today, the handsome farmhouse where she was born is the Pearl S. Buck Birthplace Museum, acquired and restored in a drive spearheaded by the West Virginia Federation of Women's Clubs and Jim Comstock, editor of The West Virginia Hillbilly. Right now the museum is getting ready to close for the winter. Since its opening in 1974, the 12-room frame house, originally built sometime in the 1850s, has attracted thousands of visitors to its picturesque setting in rural Pocahontas County. But the steep and winding 26 miles of two-lane blacktop that lead here from the Lewisburg exit of Interstate 64 are unlikely to be braved by many tourists during the winter months. So the restored farmhouse closes from the end of October through May 1 every year.

Touring the museum on an autumn weekend before the CLOSED sign goes up for the season, a visitor almost senses the presence of the young writer.

Remembering a summer she spent at Hillsboro when she was 9 years old, Pearl Buck recalled sitting on the front upstairs porch, eating grapes from the vines that wound up the columns, and reading Charles Dickens. So when the house was being restored, a grape vine was planted where she remembered it and today it all but covers one side of the porch.

The biggest help toward putting the exterior of the house back to where it was in the 1890s came from a photograph made outside the home in 1900, showing some of the family, including the writer's grandfather, Hermanns Stutling.

Many of the furnishings in the house are originals from the Stutling home. Others are period pieces, similar to those that would have been used. In the parlor are Chinese shoes, small swatches of embroidered silk, banners with Chinese inscriptions and an Oriental fan.

The Stultings, who emigrated to this country from Holland, were fine craftsmen in wood. All the wood in the house, except the traditional wide pine board flooring, is walnut, painstakingly worked by the men of the family. The spindles on the railings of the stairway in the front hall, were done by hand. When the house was being restored, the front stairs still were the original ones. A newer stairway had been installed in the back hall but when workers explored the attic they found the original stored away and were able reinstall it.

Along with the usual problems of restoring a home, a few unexpected ones came along. The floor in old Hermanus Stutling's bedroom, for example, was covered with nine layers of linoleum and plywood. Eventually, the workers reached the original floor.

The walls and ceilings throughout the house are horsehair plaster-the original with some patching up-and the wall colors in each room are said to be the very colors that were there in 1892, the result of some intricate detective work that involves chipping away tiny pieces of the plaster and going down through the various coats of paint to the first one.

At one point, a section of ceiling has been stripped of the plaster to reveal its wonderful construction. The beams were mortised in-no nails were used.

The original family organ reposes in the library-music room, as it did in the days when the musical Stutlings devoted one night each week to playing and singing. It's said that Hermanus Stutling would rise early each morning, dress, go to the music room and play six hymns. When the sixth hymn was finished, he expected his breakfast to be ready and on the table.

Before it reopens next spring, the house will get a fresh coat of paint and undergo a general sprucing up in anticipation of what promises to be a busy year.

The 1992 centenary of Pearl Buck's birth is expected to attract a record crowd of visitors. Events scheduled for the anniversary include a play, "Between Two Worlds: The Pearl Buck Story" by West Virginia playwright Jean Battlo, which will performed on the museum grounds on June 26. Plans also are in the works for the play to be presented in Huntington.

Sources on Pearl S. Buck