Going, going: Hamner home place on the block

The town of Schuyler and the family called Hamner were immortalized in a television show called The Waltons.

But an era is about to draw to a close. The last living member of the family that inspired the series will soon leave Schuyler, and the house where the real life "John-Boy" and "Jim Bob" grew up during the Depression heads for the auction block December 6.

"I've gotten too old, and my health doesn't allow me to do the work that needs to be done," says Jim "Jim Bob" Hamner. "All I need is a small apartment in Charlottesville."

Bill Bryant is thrilled to be handling the sale for Counts Auction. "It's real exciting for us because we've been fans of The Waltons for so many years," he says.

Why auction the house, rather than selling it as a more conventional real estate listing? "There's really no way of determining the nostalgic value," answers Bryant. "The value is what someone is willing to pay."

Bryant won't hazard a guess about how high the price could go. The sale is an "absolute auction," which means there's no minimum– the house will sell to the highest bidder.

Nelson County assesses the 1,469-square-foot house on a third of an acre at $56,900. But Bryant hopes the nostalgic value will far exceed the assessment. "I don't want Jim Bob coming after me," he says.

The decision to auction the Hamner home place caught many by surprise. But Waltons creator Earl Hamner says the family is at peace with his little brother's decision.

"We all support his decision," says Hamner in a phone interview from California. "It was a good decision, nostalgia aside."

A year ago, the prolific television writer– who also wrote episodes of Falcon Crest and The Twilight Zone– toyed with the idea of buying the house. "I did consider it," Hamner says. "It was a sentimental decision. Then reality set in."

Hamner, who's spent most of his adult life in California, says he and his wife, Jane, got a wake-up call recently when some friends moved into an assisted living facility. "Jane and I said, 'What are we going to do when we get old?'– overlooking the fact that I'm 80 and she's 72."

Earl Hamner would like to see a buyer who respects the values associated with the house. "At the same time, I recognize it has commercial possibilities– a gift shop, bed and breakfast, or for tours," he says. "That's okay, too. The tradition will go on."

Across the street from the house is the school the Hamners attended. Now it's the Walton's Mountain Museum, site of a bitter falling out between the museum and the Hamners last year when Jim was forced off the board of directors.

"That little triangle made up of the Schuyler School, the Hamner house, and the Baptist Church could have become a center celebrating the values I wrote about in my books and television series," says Earl Hamner.

"It could have been a benefit to the community. Instead, because of the limited vision and the vindictive personalities of those who have taken over the little museum, it has poisoned that opportunity and become a place where my work and my life and my family have been cannibalized and demeaned," he says. "We deserved better."

Schuyler resident Isis Ringrose, a Hamner family friend, was unaware of Jim Hamner's decision to sell, but she understands his reasoning. "The house absolutely needs fixing, no question about it," she says.

She's philosophical about the sale. "Sooner or later, no matter how prominent a family is– look at Monticello– it's going to go into other hands."

Any chance the Walton's Mountain Museum will be bidding on the property? "I can't speak for the board of directors," says museum director Leona Roberts. "I'm sure it would be nice, but you've got to have money to do that."

"It's very sad," says Carolyn Grinnell, president of the Waltons International Fan Club, "but life goes on, and we have the memories."

Grinnell has been in the house many times, and she recalls sitting on the front steps relaxing with cast members from the show. "It has a very special place in my heart," she says.

She'd like to see it restored as a period home of the 1930s, with a woodstove and upright piano, and she feels certain it would attract fans who want to peek inside.

Nelson County promises to continue as a mecca for Waltons' fans. Woody Greenberg, who came up with the idea of the Waltons Museum in the first place, is working on another museum: the Nelson County Museum of Rural History. And it's looking for a home.

Might the new museum want to buy the Hamner home place? "I don't know," says Greenberg, who's dean of communication and the arts at Lynchburg College. "It's news to me."

And while the Nelson County museum won't focus solely on the television show, any attraction that has a Waltons hook is likely to draw fans.

More than 30 years after the show first aired, Earl Hamner admits, "I get weary of being known as Mr. Walton." And then he'll hear from a fan, like one last week in Calcutta.

Hamner describes his writing as "folkish" and "entertaining." But he's come to a realization. "I've never regarded my writing as literature," he says. "I never thought of it as lasting. But it seems it is."

And that's why the house where he grew up will never sink into obscurity. As Earl points out, "No matter who owns or possesses it, it will always be known as the Hamner house."

The Hamner house: Who will buy it?


[see cover 6/27/02, issue #21]