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Restoring historic house keeps local man busy

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By John Barnhart

After retiring as the president of an executive search firm, Dick Mendel was looking for a place to spend his retirement.

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    He wanted an area with four seasons. His executive recruitment firm was based in Texas, but he is a Catskill Mountain boy, so he was looking for a green location. Mendel settled on Virginia, after some research and rented a house in Roanoke while he conducted a search.
    He settled on a house in Body Camp that needs a lot of work, but it’s a historic house.
    Mendel has done research and learned that the house was built on what was a large plantation that the Leftwich family had received as a royal land grant from King George II in the middle of the 18th century. It was a large landholding and the family raised tobacco. At one point, 300 slaves labored on the plantation.
    The house started out as a log cabin and was rebuilt multiple times, each time on a larger scale. Mendel said the last rebuild was done in 1857.
    This version has a partial basement, with field stone walls, that conforms to the 20 foot by 30 foot footprint of the original log cabin. Each rebuild included the original basement. The basement’s ceiling consists of rough cedar logs, 12 inches in diameter. The house has two rooms downstairs and two upstairs with a central stairway and four fireplaces.
    The house is at the intersection of Chestnut Fork Road and Headens Bridge Road. According to Mendel, Chestnut Fork got its name because the two roads, originally just two horse trails, came together in a fork where there was a stand of chestnut trees. He said that, back in 1861, Company G of the 26th Virginia Infantry mustered at this house and drilled in a field across the road.
    The house still has its original hand-dug  well, and there is water in it. The  well won’t be his water supply, however. He is using a modern well. The historic well was used in recent times. There is a place where pipes from an electric pump pierce the field stone sides of the well and go into its depths. Mendel said these were added after 1962 because the house didn’t have electricity until that point.
    The house, as it existed after the 1857 rebuild, had an external cook house. Later, the house was extended by building out toward the cook house and connecting it to the main house. The cook house’s original chimney is still there, hidden behind a wall. The top of the chimney had been cut off when the addition was built.
    Mendel plans to renovate the house one room at a time, restoring it to its original condition as much as possible. His plan calls for refinishing the floors and staircase, which consist of the original 19th century wood. He will cover them with a protective coat so that the nice wood will be visible.
    He won’t use the fireplaces for fires. The interior of the chimneys is just too old — he said the mortar in one has turned to sand — and building a fire in them would be too dangerous without having extensive work done. Mendel will cap the chimneys so they don’t become routes for Virginia wildlife to pay him a visit.
    This house suits Mendel.
    “I grew up in the back of a country store in a little village of 200 people,” he said.
    Mendel moved on to other places after his rural Upstate New York eden, including a tour of duty as an artillery officer in the Army. At the time of the Berlin Wall crisis, in 1961, he was assigned to the command tasked with the air defense of Western Europe.