You Can Go Home Again
A family farmhouse in Winston-Salem is restored to its original glory
By Billy Ingram
Photographs by Mina von Feilitzsch
Last time I caught a glimpse of Sides Mill Farmhouse, it was in the rearview mirror of a ’72 Dodge Dart Swinger. The year was 1978. I was moving out of state, but I wanted to say goodbye to my Aunt Johnnie, who resided there. Her husband, Berk Ingram Sr., had passed away years earlier and, sadly, she would follow not long after my visit.
That afternoon, Aunt Johnnie and I sat around a table on the screened porch where a light breeze and the chirping birds accompanied our talk, one that I knew would be our last. I told her how much their Fourth of July family reunions meant to me growing up, held on the bucolic grounds surrounding her tidy three-bedroom country home. Those yearly gatherings certainly drew a crowd. You see, both Johnnie and her sister “Peach,” my grandmother, married Ingrams.
On that very porch, at one of those reunions, I sat perched like a fly on the wall as Peach, Johnnie, and aunts Jukka and Billie held court, keeping everyone within earshot in stitches. These were prim and proper ladies right down to their white gloves and sensible shoes, but one story I never forgot was about how Aunt Billie, in her 80s and apparently opposed to wearing undergarments, got upended by a whirlwind and deposited on her backside just as church was letting out.
Growing older, it becomes painfully clear that any opportunities to revisit familial places steeped in half-century-old memories can only come in the form of snapshots and weathered recollections. And yet today I find myself pulling up to the driveway of Sides Mill Farmhouse with my cousin Berkley Ingram von Feilitzsch, gazing up once again at that magnificent home, fully restored to her former glory. Even the majestic magnolias, azaleas, boxwoods, dogwoods and prickly mahonia remain flowering just where I remember them being.
This stately two-story, three-bay homestead with gabled roof was erected in 1870 for Levi and Nancy Sides atop a south-facing hill above the family’s Salem Flour Mill, situated along the eastern bank of Muddy Creek, where today Winston-Salem and Clemmons rub elbows. Levi himself molded and fired the 1-inch x 1-inch bricks from sand and clay dug from adjacent creek beds for his home. It’s one of the few surviving structures from what was the Hope Church region of the Wachovia Tract when Moravians first put down roots in the 1750s.
The rooms are somewhat large for a household of this era the floors are warm-hued heart pine planks while signature Moravian arches greet you entering the living and dining rooms. In the 1940s, the structure was expanded to include a downstairs bedroom, indoor kitchen and plumbing, along with a side porch, in what may have been a William Roy Wallace remodeling. Wallace arrived in Winston as a teenager to help construct Reynolda House and Village and went on to design many notable local architectural treasures like R.J. Reynolds Senior High and Reynolds Auditorium.
Berk Ingram Sr. and his wife, Virginia (Johnnie to her friends and family), purchased this home in 1954. The Ingrams had three children — Berk Jr., Stebbins and Virginia, all very successful in their chosen fields. Cousin Berkley’s father, WWII veteran Berk Ingram Jr., was living with his own family in Winston when “Big Berk” bought the former miller’s house. Besides his varied local business ventures, Berk Jr. served as president of Old Town Country Club for a term and was responsible for getting Jim Leighton his position as the Demon Deacons’ tennis coach from 1962–84, the winningest coach in program history.
Local art enthusiasts may remember Virginia Ingram as one of the five Winston-Salem printmakers whose works are on permanent display at Salem College. In a distinctive Asian-inspired style, she illustrated books for John F. Blair Publishing, most notably those unforgettably necromantic woodcut images for two legendary compendiums of North Carolina’s most famous restless spirits — Ghost Tales of the Uwharries, published in 1968 (reissued in 2007) and The Flaming Ship of Ocracoke and Other Tales of the Outer Banks in 1971. In 2004, Virginia was honored as Sawtooth Center’s Artist of the Year.
When I visited this home in the 1960s and ’70s, a row of sunflowers delineated the edge of Aunt Johnnie’s enormous garden, where she harvested just about every vegetable you can imagine. What I recall most was the horseradish she cultivated and prepared; every summer we would get a jar. Fresh, mealy, hot as wasabi, even a small bit would induce that pleasing stinging sensation up into your nostrils.
Everything Johnnie and Berk grew was hearty, Berkley tells me as we tour the grounds. “My grandparents were one of the first here to utilize the Rodale’s method of organic gardening.” Her canning room below the kitchen serves as a laundry room today, but the shelving is still in place where jars of Jerusalem artichokes, watermelon pickle, dilly beans and, of course, homegrown tomatoes (pronounced toe-mät-toes) awaited company calling.
The lawn behind the home that her grandparents maintained has been allowed to grow wild again. “These woods are where Virginia took me when I was a little girl,” Berkley recalls. “She would show me lady slippers and Jack-in-the-pulpits, little teeny plants. You can easily miss them but they’re an amazingly beautiful native species. I think that’s what really started my appreciation of nature, because she had such an appreciation of it.”
A row of rocking chairs line an open-air brick patio in the back, offering an unobstructed view of what is rumored to be the oldest walnut tree in Forsyth County. The wooded area behind that tree was farmland in the 1800s, today serving as a wildlife preserve where deer, rabbits and wild turkeys roam freely. “We’re trying to maintain native species,” Berkley says. “A self-sustaining, seven-layer garden where you have everything working together; nature works that way anyway. Native plants will feed hundreds of species, all the way from the roots to the tops of the leaves.”
Scattered about are remnants of a long ago agrarian past. Ruins of a springhouse lie in the northeast corner of the property. Concrete pilings from the old mill and the dam that 150 years ago generated energy to run the operation lie strewn alongside the banks of Muddy Creek at the western edge of the property.
A dilapidated structure built off a free-standing tool shed was Virginia Ingram’s first art studio, one that Berkley hopes to reimagine with a modern twist. “This would be a really nice retreat for a writer or artist, for one or two people,” she muses. We’ll probably do a lot of glass at the back so it looks like you’re out in the middle of the woods.”
Nearby, a bamboo forest, planted in the 1950s, rises up from the ground with stalks thicker than any I’ve ever encountered, thriving alongside the Ingrams’ now covered-over fish pond, one they framed out of the foundation for the mill’s chicken house. Seeing it again reminds me of one of those family gatherings when Dad called out to us, “What are you kids makin’ such a racket about?” I yelled back that our sister had fallen into the pond. “That’s all right then,” Dad answered nonchalantly before returning to his conversation.
Her family relocated to Springfield in 1971 when her father, Berk Jr., accepted an executive position at Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company. “I remember coming here for Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter and in the summer,” Berkley says. “Winston was always home for us.” After retirement, her father returned to his hometown in 1983.
After Berk Sr. and Johnnie passed away, Sides Mill Farmhouse was rented out to individuals with less than favorable results. The house was between tenants when Berkley and her husband, Heribert von Feilitzsch, drove down from their farm in Rappahannock County, Virginia, to check on it. Heribert had never toured the home before. “He’s walking around and said, ‘This place is cute as a button. Let’s buy it from your cousins and renovate it.’”
They began that laborious process in 2017, modernizing the infrastructure — new appliances, bathrooms, central air, Wi-Fi — without disturbing the integrity of this historic abode. “I didn’t want to change any major aspect of the house,” Berkley says. “I like the story the wood tells.”
Relocating to this area wasn’t at all a part of their plan. “We built our house in Virginia and we love the farm. But we came down and stayed here during the renovation and realized that Winston had blossomed into this super cool city.” During the reconstruction process, Brookberry, the former residence of Bowman Gray Jr. in nearby Lewisville, caught their eye. “I recognized it,” Berkley says. “And Heribert said, ‘Let’s go look at it.’” Brookberry is now their home and current restoration project.
As for deciding to list Sides Mill Farmhouse as a short stay destination via Airbnb, “Our experience with some of the long-term renters wasn’t particularly positive,” Berkley notes. “You lose control of the place.” When this 5 1/2-acre wonderland was out in the country, in the middle of nowhere, the only sounds you’d hear would be the rushing of Muddy Creek after a big rainstorm or the occasional car passing by. Now it’s fronted by a busy, four-lane South Stratford Road. As such, the only significant change, other than additional closet space, was installing sound-rated windows manufactured in Germany (the couple’s primary business), made necessary by increased noise from the street. “They have a super high energy rating,” Berkley explains. “It’s actually bullet-resistant glass with a sound rating of 42. Typical sound ratings are 34.” Indeed, the interior and the screen porch, now glassed in, are whisper quiet.
In that regard, “It’s a different place than it was 50 years ago,” Berkley notes. “But it’s close enough to Winston and Clemmons for people that just want ‘home’ when visiting their relatives or coming here for a sports event or the hospital. They love it.”
The walls of Sides Mill Farmhouse (sidesmillfarmhouse.com) serve as a gallery for the woodcuts and watercolors of Virginia Ingram, although she passed away in 2015. Included are her earliest and final works. Given her artistic contribution to those editions of Southern fried ghost stories, it would be entirely fitting if this place were haunted. Instead, it’s imbued with a not-at-all malevolent but nonetheless ethereal presence. “Everyone I had ever loved in my family, who’s now deceased, was at one time in this house,” Berkley points out. “And a lot of times they were all together. Sometimes when I walk through these rooms I still feel the spirits of the past.” h
A former Hollywood movie poster designer and internet pioneer, Billy Ingram is the author of five books, including Hamburger², a collection of stories (mostly) about Greensboro’s colorful past.