The call of a childhood home is something Southerners know well. For some, families move on and home is merely a memory of a time and place. For others, like the Pryors, home is still a part of their everyday lives—a place that recalls not just their own childhoods, but also five generations of family before them.
At Flower Hill Farm in Athens, Alabama, stories run as deep and long as the nearby Tennessee river that enriches its fertile soil. Settled by planter Schuyler Harris (born in 1823), the Virginia native built Flower Hill in 1858, raising cotton, wheat, and corn. Today, the Greek Revival home is shared by five siblings—Lila, Luke, Patty, Schuyler, and Richard—each with their own memories and families to share it with.
Over the years, the home has been witness to the American Civil War and The Great Depression, yet it remained in the family through prosperity and despair. Luke Pryor, the family historian, shares history stored in an antique secretary. When family visits, he regularly pulls out photos and documentation of greats, great-greats, and even greaters, clarifying who is related to who and how. Through these doors have come pioneers, soldiers, planters, and teachers, all with their own stories to leave behind.
Lila, the designer in the family, is the keeper of the home’s interiors and entertaining traditions. “Most of the pieces are original to the house, ” she says, pointing out the styles ranging from Second Empire to Victorian to simple handmade pieces. “Fashions changed over the years, and new pieces were introduced to update the house along the way.” The timeline is a veritable museum of the last 156 years in the decorative arts (minus the postmodern period).
On this particular Saturday, the family, along with Birmingham cousins the Fennell-Humphrey clan, gathers to honor five women from their side of the family with a tombstone dedication in the family cemetery. Cedar trees and an iron fence mark the old plot with graves dating back to the early 1800s on a hillside in the middle of a wheat field. When these five women passed in the 1920s and 1930s, these families were struggling financially and there was no money for things like grave markers in the midst of The Great Depression. “Many people today have no idea of just how hard the 1930s were, ” explains cousin Rich Humphrey. “Had it not been for the Pryor side of our family, my grandmother and her aunts would have likely been buried in a pauper cemetary. Over 75 years later, our cousin Mary Fennell-Williams’s desire to honor their memory led the charge to place this family gravestone in their honor.”
After the dedication, family members from both sides of the clan exchange greetings around tables set for a reception. Roses and flowers cut from the property grace sterling and crystal vases. Southern recipes are served on silver and china handed down through generations. And as the family reconnects and pays tribute to those who have passed, it’s easy to see why Flower Hill holds such deep sentiment for everyone.
“I remember riding ponies between the boxwoods in front of our house, ” Lila says. “Now they are overgrown—but you can still make out the paths.”
“We may never know just what other directions our lives might have taken without the active care and involvement of those who have gone before us. We owe them a great deal and we have a wonderful legacy to remember and preserve for generations to come.” — Rich Humphrey
Handpainted “wallpaper” runs the length of the stairwell. The piano, once a gathering spot for home concerts, is more often set as a buffet these days. Portraits of the five Pryor children, heirs to Flower Hill, hang on the stairwell wall.
“I believe it is very important that we strive to recall and understand the times of those who have gone before us. It is because of them and their lives that we have been shaped into who we are today.” — Rich Humphrey
text by Cathy Still McGowin • photography by Jean Allsopp