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Water Valley Family Risks All To Preserve 150-Year-Old McLarty House


The Thompsons lived off peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, confined to one room of their first home as they rebuilt the crumbling old house around them.

The McLarty House in Water Valley, originally built in the 1870s, looked like the real life setting for a Stephen King novel when Steve and Theresa Thompson bought it in 1993. Its floorboards had splintered. Cracked windows rested loosely in their warped frames. A thick layer of black soot coated every surface of the upstairs bedrooms that were once heated by a coal furnace.

The house was condemned after sitting empty for eight years when it came on the market at the unbelievable price of $50,000. At the time, Steve, Theresa and their baby, Grant, occupied the tiny basement under Steve’s parents’ house in Water Valley.

The young couple was just able to make ends meet when Steve decided it was time for a change. He and a partner made up their minds to start a new business venture and launch their own wellness group called Pro Health. That same year, Steve and Theresa fell in love with the old McLarty place.

Today their son Grant, 23, maintains the house which now stands fully restored to its former glory, and then some.

img_2275The huge white house, with its front porch complete with rocking chairs and ferns, looks almost identical to its original design but with the addition of 23 years’ worth of new memories.

When they first bought the house, the three Thompsons crowded into the front parlor room right off the front entrance, and there they lived together for the better part of a year as, room by room, they restored the library, bathroom, kitchen and so on.

“There were probably seven or eight layers of wallpaper on the walls from over the years,” Steve said. “We didn’t know much about lead paint back then, but we still kept Grant in that one room as much as we could while we worked. You can imagine that was not easy.”

Together, Steve and Theresa spent many tireless hours scraping away at the walls, repairing boards and fixtures, all while trying their best to preserve the history of the house. According to Steve, the restoration of the original house took around six years to complete, though he said there is still quite a lot he would like to do with it.

“It was extremely romantic for about a year,” Steve said. “Then it got hard.”

Just four years after the Thompsons’ first recognized the potential of the antique house, Steve’s partner convinced him to sell his company to a larger corporation. Pro Health had become more than just a business for Steve and the community, however.

The wellness group was, for Steve, a way to pay the bills with enough left over to secretly help out those in need. Steve used the extra profits from his business to buy a tank of gas or pay an electric bill or buy groceries for his neighbors who needed the help. He knew the feeling of having to scrape by and wanted to help others in the same position.

However, in 1997, the company that bought Pro Health demanded that Steve put an end to his side charity in the interest of bigger, better business. Just four years into the major restoration project and with a young child at home to support, Steve faced a monumental decision: do what’s right or keep his job.

“It was what I call one of those life changing choices,” Steve said.

Steve became anxious about his future and said he even began to feel physically ill at the thought of giving up all he’d worked to build. So he and Theresa did all they knew to do. They prayed.

It wasn’t long before they felt they had an answer. Steve went to his new supervisor and informed him that he would not stop doing the charity work alongside his business. They would just have to fire him. So they did.

The Thompsons went back to eating peanut butter and jelly as the restoration of their home slowed to a near stop. Steve and Theresa relied on the free help offered by their friends and, slowly, continued to build toward their future their way.

It was that year that Steve decided to start over with a new business. Using the money he’d gotten from selling Pro Health, he purchased an old tractor factory just down the hill from his house.

img_2271Steve said he began to see God work when the entire community came together to help him ready the building for its new life as a gym and rehabilitation center.

Steve said he began to see God work when the entire community came together to help him ready the building for its new life as a gym and rehabilitation center.

“The entire building had to be power washed; there was so much oil everywhere,” Grant said, “…on the walls and floors and ceilings. It was crazy.”

During this time, Steve found a new partner in Jennifer McGavock, a local physical therapist, who had vowed never to work for the big company that had bought out Pro Health. Together they named their new wellness center Cornerstone, inspired by Psalm 118:22 which says, “The stone that the builders rejected has now become the cornerstone.”

The business soared, and Steve and Theresa were finally able to afford to hire workers to help finish the restoration of their home. A year later, the renovation of the original home was complete, and the Thompsons began to envision an addition that would allow them to make it their own.

Along with their dream home and a thriving business, the Thompsons were later blessed with their two daughters, Briana and Elina. All three children grew up in the house and can recall a lifetime of memories from within its walls.

Grant and Briana described the house as a sanctuary, a place where, on more than one occasion, their family opened the doors to others in need for days, weeks and even months on end.

“Everyone who has ever come in has always felt at home,” Grant said. “Anyone who stayed here, it was home for them, too.”

“It’s never been just our house,” Briana added, turning to her brother. “All your friends and my friends would always come to our house to hang out. It’s not like we ever decided whose house we would go to. Ours was just that place.”

Despite the long history of the house, the creaks and moans of settling wood and the eerie way sound effortlessly travels throughout, Grant said there has never been any feeling of unease. In fact, quite the opposite has been true of what Water Valley residents describe as a house of love.

img_2273“I wanted my house to be a house of refuge for my kids,” Steve said. “There’s this welcoming peace to the place that you can feel when you walk in the door.”

His son felt that he achieved his goal.

“Our doors are so open that we actually get uneasy and a little anxious when someone actually knocks on the door,” Grant said. “We’re just so used to people just walking in.”

Since its original construction, the McLarty house has seen the birth of babies. It’s been a place of care for the sick or injured and a starting place for young families. It even held one of its residents as she peacefully passed away surrounded by the familiarity of her childhood home. Steve described it as a “house of life,” always filled with music, weddings, holidays and warmth.

Grant and Steve share a love of history and have invested in learning and preserving the past connected with the house, both through its appearance and through its stories.

Together, they’ve reached out to relatives of previous residents of the house and now have a fullly written record of each resident and his/her life story since the very beginning when the McLarty’s built the house on 110 Dupuy Street nearly 150 years ago.

“We have physical footprints,” Steve said. “I’ve often wondered if we have spiritual footprints as well. If our lives leave an impression on places, not like ghosts necessarily, just footprints.”

Steve said that he felt the house had been given to him to use, to borrow until someone else needs it.

Though Steve, Theresa and Elina have now moved to Senatobia, and Briana has gone off to college in Alabama, Grant sits tight, keeping up the maintenance and repairs of his family’s first home. He works as a firefighter in Batesville and makes a daily 30-minute commute each way.

The Thompsons have not yet decided what will become of the house should Grant decide to leave in the future. They have discussed turning it into a bed and breakfast which would require quite a bit more money and work to go into the house. They’ve considered renting it out, selling, and some other options, though their wish is to keep it in the family if possible.

Whatever they decide, Steve said it would be a family decision.

“There are some things I don’t care what my kids think,” Steve said. “I’ve just got to do what I think is best. This is not one of those things.”

IMG_2011 Mary Cloud Taylor is a senior print journalism major at The Meek School of Journalism and New Media and an intern for HottyToddy.com. She can be reached at mctaylo1@go.olemiss.edu.

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