ON A CHILLY November morning, the sun comes up, and what was once Cane Hill, or part of it, appears through the east-facing window. The land and the house are buffeted with morning light breaking over the silhouetted pastureland. A line of mature pecan trees and one stump follow the rise of the country road, stretching above a gazebo with four whitewashed bodark branches, thick and twisting, supporting its roof.
On the other side of the window pane, inside the warm backroom of the farmhouse, there are three more windows, but they don’t look out onto the yard. Their narrow lancet frames have been mounted on the wall, dividing the newly mounted Sheetrock into neat compartments. To the left of the mounted frames, resting on a shelf alongside a crawling pothos plant, there’s a vintage black-and-white photograph in a black frame, a postcard that shows a church. This image shows the three windows as they once were: set in the north-facing wall of the United Presbyterian Church, where they let in light.
A quarter mile up the road, the church still stands, along with what remains of the once bustling town. When the church was built in 1891, the community of Cane Hill was still very much alive, home to the state’s first public school and first college to admit women. When the railroads and major thoroughfares bypassed the town, however, as was the case with so many rural communities, Cane Hill declined and was never quite the same—that is, until around six years ago when well-to-do descendants of those early settlers took it upon themselves to save the place, injecting millions of dollars to preserve the community and its 16 structures on the National Register of Historic Places.
This farmhouse, though, where the church windows now hang, wasn’t part of that larger effort. Although comparably seasoned at 154 years, it had been changed too much, its residents minor figures in the overall scope of the communal history. For many years, the house had been on the brink of collapse—however, two years ago, things changed when a local family, with roots going back to the town’s founders, decided to buy the house, renovate it and operate it as an Airbnb. That’s when its future changed.
“THIS HOUSE REALLY didn’t have a lot of good things going for it,” Caylan Hudgens says, as she leads us on a tour of the farmhouse’s second floor. “Even Historic Cane Hill wouldn’t touch this house because it didn’t have enough significance, or enough pretty things left in it. At one point, it had been a chicken house—there were chickens that lived in the house.”
Although it had been renovated and lived in in the post-chicken era, the old farmhouse hadn’t seen a lot of love. Shrubs had burrowed deep and torn into the foundation. The layout had been boxy, closed off, presumably to conserve heat due to the lack of insulation. Vinyl siding sheathed the exterior walls. Shag carpet abounded. As Caylan says, “all of the ‘pretty stuff’—the ceiling, the brick, the floors—had been covered up by cardboard or wallpaper.”
As Caylan and her mom, Wanda Biggs, reminisce about what it had been like, their tone is one of quasi-exasperation, as if they’d already spent so long with the dilapidated house that returning to it, even in retrospect, is nothing short of exhausting.
After all, this house had never been part of the plan. This was a house that was on the property which Wanda and her husband, Carl, had picked up many years before. This was a house where they’d taken the kids trick-or-treating but had never considered owning themselves. It would have taken too much work, too many resources, wouldn’t have been worth it. Hearing them describe the shape the house been in, one can understand why.
As Caylan and Wanda discuss the challenges the house posed, the question arises: If there was so much work to be done, why take it on?
After a pause, Wanda asks herself, “Why did we do this?”
Not surprisingly, this gets a good laugh. After Caylan notes that her parents had been forced to tear off the downstairs bathroom (the foundation was really, really bad), Wanda says, “We’d already spent too much at one point to turn back, so we had to keep going. We could’ve tore it down and built something new for less.”
But again, to see the final product, you’re grateful they didn’t.
What resulted was something dramatically different from what they started with. Where before the rooms had been sectioned off, light now fills the entire farmhouse. A bathroom once thickly coated in lilac paint now looks straight from the pages of an Anthropologie catalog, with a claw-footed tub and another window frame from the old church. It’s difficult to understate just how gorgeous the place is—and our photographer, Arshia, perhaps sums up the sentiment best when she says, practically breathless and without any punctuation: “This place is a dream I would like to live here forever.”
It wasn’t an easy process. That much can be certain. But it’s important to note that the house, though two years in renovation, was in the works far longer than you might think.
“SHE’S BEEN COLLECTING things for 35 years,” Carl says when he and Wanda swing by with breakfast—several trips worth of aluminum-foil-covered platters—the morning after Caylan and Wanda gave us the tour. “And she’s finally got a place where she can use it.”
Over the course of those years, Wanda had accumulated, among many, many other things: a newel post at the foot of the stairs, found 20 years before. A table in the backroom, picked up shortly after she and Carl had gotten married decades before. Even the bench in the warm backroom, and the long live-edge dining table stretching the length of the kitchen, had come to them 10 years ago, when one of the pecan trees beside the road had fallen and they’d slabbed the wood, not knowing when they’d have occasion to use it.
And of course, there are many, many more stories. You could level a finger at most anything in the house, and you’d hear about how, say, much of the furniture and rugs in the living room are all 150 years old, once the belongings of a friend’s grandmother. Or how Caylan’s brother had built the sinks and shelving with wood reclaimed during the renovation, or how that beam above the living room was once part of the foundation.
Perhaps it’s for this reason that it’s not especially surprising to learn that, during the course of construction, the family had realized they had ties to the house themselves: When they were redoing the floors in one of the second-floor bedrooms, they’d discovered, among other miscellany, three books. Along with breakfast, Wanda has brought these over for us to look at—but there’s one in particular she wants us to see: a Bible in a small glass case, the cover and first several pages shorn away, with a name written on the back: Ruby Reed, one of Wanda’s not-so-distant relations.
After Carl and Wanda walk out the door, they pack up their car and they drive back to their own home just across the field north of the farmhouse, passing the rise in the road, the pecan trees, the stump, the gazebo. It’s true they didn’t build the house from the ground up, but it seems to have been destined for the family, waited for them. Looking at the lancet windows, it’s clear this house and home is of this community, of this land, of this family. Everything in it was supposed to be where it’s at, and couldn’t be anywhere else.
Take a Canebreak
Get off the beaten path without going off the grid
Historic Cane Hill Museum
Although you’ll find plenty of history in this restored farmhouse, history buffs looking for a more in-depth lesson should seek out the town’s dedicated museum just up the road. Housed in a former 1940s-era grocery store, the museum boasts a number of permanent exhibits devoted to various facets of community life. (historiccanehill.wixsite.com)
American Drive-in, Lincoln
You might be wondering, isn’t it a little cold for milkshakes? And the answer is, well, maybe. But we’d scarf down that butterscotch shake ($2.95-$3.55) at this old-school dairy bar, no matter what the mercury happens to read. (On second thought: Best pair that with a chili dog). (Search “American Drive In” on Facebook)
Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park
Often described as one of the nation’s best preserved Civil War sites, the Prairie Grove Battlefield features a 5-mile driving tour with 14 stops throughout the Prairie Grove community. For those wanting a closer look, however, the Hindman Hall Museum showcases items recovered from the battle. (arkansasstateparks.com)
Although Horseshoe Canyon Ranch and Sam’s Throne often get the lion’s share of rock-climbing attention (and rightly so), the 50-plus routes at Lake Lincoln are not to be overlooked. Plus, for the nonclimbing set, opportunities for hiking, biking and paddling abound. (lincolnarkansas.com)