Everything and the kitchen sink

The Dalton kitchen’s original floorboards are as good as a written record. They are worn out; some have holes. But their well-trodden paths tell a story – the tale of almost every day of the Daltons’ cooks’ work.

The outline of the original cooking stove is clearly visible beneath the stovepipe hole. The soil here is fresh and untouched. The most worn area was in front of the sink, noticeable by the holes for the old plumbing. Water splashed on the floor and hours of washing dishes took its toll.

The kitchen is at the back of the Dalton house. (Hoptown Chronicle photo by Jennifer P. Brown)

A bumpy start

Early in our time at Dalton House, the kitchen was one of the top three rooms I was a little afraid of. A strange smell emanated from it and sticky insect traps and expired food scraps seemed to be lurking in every corner.

Most of the house still had its original plaster and molding, but the kitchen was relatively new, covered in sheetrock and smooth linoleum. The windows were replaced and all trim removed. Annoyingly, the floor was also only a few centimeters higher than the adjacent dining room – enough difference to always trip over.

Shortly after we bought the Dalton house, my father paid a work visit. He asked where to start and I immediately asked him to start demolishing the kitchen. I later found him sitting on a chair in the middle of the intact room, looking at the room. To my dismay, he announced that he liked it. Aesthetics aside, he thought the space was functional. So he moved upstairs and took down plywood cabinets and drop ceilings instead.

A Brief History of Cuisine

The kitchen is the heart of the home, but that wasn’t always the case. No room in the house has undergone a comparable character renovation. The revolution began in the late 19th century and was triggered by changes in cooking stoves.

In the South, the kitchen joined the main house after the Civil War. Once a completely separate building, the conversion was gradual. At first it crept up from the yard and appeared like a cubit attached to the back of the house. (In architecture a ell is a wing built at right angles to the main body of a building.)

Hopkinsville’s Edgar Cayce, the clairvoyant known as the “Sleeping Prophet,” helped move the freestanding kitchen in the Salter house on Seventh Street around 1905, according to Cayce biographer Thomas Sugrue in his book “There is a River.” They placed the structure on logs and rolled it close to the house to create this type of cubit configuration.

By the 1920s, the kitchen had invaded the house and was mostly located indoors. In middle- and upper-class American households, it was the first era in which the lady of the house was also the cook.

Who knew there was so much social history hidden beneath your counters and cabinets?

Exterior view of the kitchen and cooking areaThe extension at the back of the house housed the kitchen upstairs and living quarters for cooks downstairs. (Hoptown Chronicle photo by Jennifer P. Brown)

The kitchen of the Dalton house is shaped like an ell. Unlike the kitchen in Edgar Cayce’s story, it was built this way. Our apartment is on the top floor of a two-room building attached to the back of the house. The lower room was the cook’s quarters, a combination traditionally found in pre-war freestanding kitchens.

Here, the cook’s basement apartment is enclosed and has one window, a stovepipe hole, and only one door leading outside. Before dawn the cook left her small room and climbed an outside brick staircase to the back porch, where she entered the kitchen through a door on the left. In the evening she reversed the journey. Of all the bedrooms in the house, this is the only one where we know exactly who lived in it.

The cooks

Frances Sugg, chef.

Mary Sugg, maid.

These were the first women working at the Dalton House that I encountered. They were listed below the Dalton family and their boarders in the 1910 census. Frances and Mary Sugg were both black and widowed, which was common for domestic workers in the South in 1910. At 65, Frances likely learned to cook while in slavery.

Kitchen renovationThis room below the kitchen originally served as quarters for two cooks who worked for the Dalton family. It had an entrance separate from the main house. (Hoptown Chronicle photo by Jennifer P. Brown)

Curious to see who else worked here, I checked the Hopkinsville city directories, which were published about every two years. In addition to Frances and Mary Sugg, I found Mary Allensworth (1910), Ella Torian (1912) and Bettie Garnett (1920). America Henry worked as a maid in 1922.

Who were these women? How was her life? All were single or widowed and black, ranging from middle-aged to older. Nobody stayed here for long and most of them pursued various domestic jobs from year to year. This included laundry, sewing and cooking. In a time when middle and upper class women were discouraged from having jobs, all of these women worked to survive.

It is difficult to find out much more from historical documents. But the Dalton House can give us a glimpse into their daily lives while they worked here.

Archaeological excavation

I was convinced that the kitchen had to go. We stripped the room down to the original materials, which were hidden beneath the surface except for the missing trim. With each layer we peeled away, the room came into its own.

We soon discovered the reason for the difference in the height of the ground. Beneath the modern linoleum were not one, but two wooden floors. We discussed removing the newer flooring. What if it had been installed to cover holes in the original floor? Finally, curiosity got the better of us. The original pine boards emerged, somewhat battered but mostly intact. We also found linoleum that probably dates back to the Dalton period. It came entirely from the Nairn Linoleum Company in Kirkcaldy, Scotland. Thank you to the lazy workers of years past!

Dalton House FloorsThe original wood floor in front of the kitchen sink is waiting to be sanded and refinished, one of dozens of tasks for the new owners of the Dalton home. (Photo by Grace Abernethy)

As the sheetrock peeled away from the walls and revealed the plaster and beadboard, it felt like the room came back to life. I took paint samples and discovered that the room was originally painted a glossy lime green, which is definitely factoring into our future plans!

I began to see firsthand the wisdom of using freestanding kitchens. Innovations such as the cast iron stove reduced the risk of fire. But fires still happened, and one of them clearly started in the Dalton kitchen.

The Hopkinsville Fire Department’s historical records date back to the late 19th century and are preserved at the museum. I spent an afternoon reading through them. The closest evidence I could find was an entry referring to the “Dalton Fire” on July 22, 1914. This could have been our house or one of the other Dalton houses. But since there is a lot of soot underneath the oldest linoleum we found, this date seems plausible.

After the original kitchen floor and plaster walls were uncovered, the smells of food preparation reawakened for generations. This was another reason for freestanding kitchens. I’m not talking about the aroma of fried chicken or apple pie. The good smells of food seem to disappear quickly.

These smells are the unpleasant byproducts of cooking, grease in the air and food particles that have worked their way into the plaster and floorboards and gone into hibernation. In 1907, ice boxes and early refrigerators kept food lasting longer. The sanitation facilities flushed away cooking waste. But hoods were still unusual and food smells permeated the wood and plaster. After we freed them, the ghosts of past meals emerged, very much alive and inclined to linger.

A day in the life

Outside of the 1910 census and city directory, I could find no reference to Frances or Mary Sugg. Before Ella Torian came to cook for the Daltons, she lived in her brother Bob McCombs’ household on West Second Street and worked as a laundress.

Bettie Garnett also worked as a laundress in 1916 and rose to the profession of cook at the Dalton House in 1920. As far as I could find out, she was the last cook employed here. The wives of the First Methodist ministers appear to have cooked for themselves after the Dalton house became a rectory in 1923.

That’s about all I could find in the written records about the women who cooked for the Daltons. However, the Dalton house itself provides meaningful context for their lives.

We can see Frances in her small apartment, in her brief moments of leisure, early in the morning and late in the evening. We can follow Ella up the back stairs into the kitchen. When we cook, we trace their steps across the room, from the stove to the sink and back to the stove. We can see the plaster walls that formed the backdrop for most lessons in Mary’s time.

And at least for now, we can still smell remnants of the meals Bettie prepared.



Hoptown Chronicle

Grace Abernethy is a preservationist and artist who specializes in the care and restoration of historic architectural surfaces. She earned her Master of Science in Historic Preservation from Clemson University in 2011 and has worked on historic buildings throughout the Eastern United States. Abernethy received the 2014 South Carolina Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation Award and won second place in the 2011 Charles E. Peterson Prize for the Historic American Buildings Survey. She and her husband Brendan moved to Hopkinsville from Nashville in 2020. She works as an independent contractor and is a board member of the Hopkinsville History Foundation.

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