Historical Reminiscing with Robert B. Hitchings

A Special House in Larchmont

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Growing up in Edgewater, you never knew where I was might be a visitor. There is one home that stands out vividly in my mind and that is the old Knox family home at 1308 Westmoreland Avenue, a beautiful half brick house with a nice large basement. Around the front were thick azalea bushes. I remember the bay window of the dining room overlooking the driveway and letting in the light. I also remember the glassware Mrs. Knox had in her cabinets. During the 1950’s Mrs. Knox rented her upstairs to college students to bring in extra money.

I was a visitor at this house for many years as a teenager. My Great Aunt Martha Purcell Hitchings (1888-1982) lived there for many years as a companion and close friend to Mrs. Jennie Knox (1879-1965).

Sundays my Dad and I would stop over to see Aunt Sis. She was a small little lady about 5 foot in size with her gray hair combed in a bun in the back. She was very Victorian in her dress, as she always wore a high-collar blouse and was very fastidious of her appearance. She always boasted, “Whiskey never touched my lips.” Aunt Martha was a teetotaler. Sometimes I would stop by without my Dad and that is when Mrs. Jennie Knox would open up and tell me about her childhood growing up in Columbus, Mississippi. A tall stately lady of the South, she had lots of stories to tell about the Yankees around Columbus and how Nathan Bedford Forrest stopped the Yankees from burning the town down. She was Jennie Stephenson by birth and her parents were Daniel Duff Stephenson and Anna Shinn Stephenson. Her father was a farmer and she lost her mother at a very young age.

I remembered one story she told me about burying her dead sister and years later the coffin was exhumed to be placed in the family plot. She said to me, “Robert, when they opened up my sister’s coffin, her hair had been growing in that coffin box.”

When asked about her Norfolk house, she said, “Walter and I bought the lot when it was Norfolk County. It was out in the country then with lots of strawberry farms around. We raised our two children here.”

Then came the story of her Scottish born husband Walter Knox (1869-1955) who was a native of Glasgow, Scotland, with a heavy Scottish accent. She told me how he was knighted by King Christian of Denmark for being a former Danish Consul (1924-1953). The year of knighthood was 1933. She said, “He would laugh over being the Danish consul here in Norfolk, for he did not speak that language.” She said, “Most of the seafaring men on ships to Norfolk all spoke perfect English.” He had been an elder at Knox Presbyterian Church and I asked if her husband was a descendant of John Knox, the famous Presbyterian minister. Miss Jennie replied, "Yes, of course.” Her husband had very poor eye sight all his life, but I remember the nice library books he had near the fireplace. One complete set of books was of World War I. And in the hallway she had a Columbia hand-cranked record player called a Victrola. Inside this cabinet were records of the old south and a few records of Harry Lauder, the famous Scottish singer and comedian.

One Sunday Miss Jennie was talking about her family when Aunt Martha abruptly spoke up and said, “Miss Jennie, my Papa owned half of Norfolk and was a very successful grocer and ship-chandler in Atlantic City, Norfolk.” The conversation stopped and another subject started. When I asked Grandmother Hitching about this, she said, “Yes, your Aunt Martha was right.”

Aunt Martha and Miss Jennie were delightful individuals. But when Miss Jennie had a slight fall, she was apparently diagnosed with dementia and eventually moved to a nursing home for proper care. She passed away in October 1965. Aunt Martha would later go into the Ballentine Home for the Aged.

As a house guest, I was treated like a prince. Aunt Martha always had fresh pie on the table and chit-chat of past would always take place.

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Robert B. Hitchings is a seventh generation Norfolk resident, graduating with an Associate's Degree in Biology from Old Dominion University and BA in history from Virginia Wesleyan University. During his studies he was awarded a scholarship at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, England, and he was an exchange student at Brooks-Westminster College, Oxford, England. From 1999-2014 he worked as head of the Sargeant Memorial History Room at Norfolk Public Library, and since then has headed the Wallace History Room at Chesapeake Public Library. He is also the President of the Norfolk County Historical Society, and for six years was a columnist for The Virginian-Pilot. Robert may be reached at nchs.wallaceroom@gmail.com