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College of Liberal Arts

University of Mississippi

Rowan Oak Curators Keep Faulkner History Alive

There’s no place like home. At least for the curators— past and present — of Rowan Oak.

At the kickoff for the 38th annual Faulkner & Yoknapatawpha Conference, past curators Howard Bahr, Keith Fudge and Cynthia Shearer joined current curator Bill Griffith to share their stories of Faulkner’s famous home, Rowan Oak, from the perspective of keeping its history alive.

During a panel discussion Sunday, the group swapped stories about much-needed renovation, visits by the famous and the unusual, as well as ghost stories.

When the home, built in 1848, was bought by Faulkner in 1930 for $6,000, it was in bad shape. It had neither electricity nor plumbing. Over the years, Faulkner added these more modern conveniences, and he purchased parcels of land surrounding the home, which came to be known as Bailey’s Woods.

The first two curators for the home were James Webb and George Street. Bahr began as a student in 1973 and became an assistant curator in 1982 before becoming curator in 1984. He remained there until 1993. Fudge served as his assistant curator from 1991 to 1993 when Shearer took over until 1999. It was then that Griffith took the position.

While Rowan Oak was a beloved project of the University of Mississippi English Department for years, it was in the mid-’90s that the changing tide of museum laws forced major rehabilitation of the home. No longer able to use it as a living home where writers could hang out, Shearer fought for funding for a climate-control system to begin to truly preserve the contents of the house.

A restoration was done in 1980, which included rebuilding the barn and kitchen, but the largest renovation project was in 2001-03 when the home was shut down for a year and a half while the climate-control system was installed.

The university had an informal agreement with Jill Faulkner, William Faulkner’s only child, to oversee Rowan Oak. The university continues to struggle with this agreement today, following the death of Jill Faulkner in 2008.

The estate issues are still being worked on with Jill Faulkner’s family, but the university may be able to reach an agreement to purchase the contents of the home for the University Museum in November.

“Jill gave us a gift of $50,000 and we will likely use the money Jill gave us to buy the furniture, which has a little irony to it,” Griffith said.

Still the home has come a long way from the earliest days of visitors to the current museum standard. Griffith noted the other major change during his tenure was the $5 admission charge which has helped to keep the museum afloat.

“Faulkner made it there (financially), but only barely,” Griffith said. “We weren’t making it. Now, we are doing pretty good.”

The curators also shared their most memorable moments with visitors, which ranged from musicians, such as Tom Waits or Jimmy Buffett, to Supreme Court justices, such as Sandra Day O’Connor or Antonin Scalia. They also got to spend time with members of the Faulkner family, such as Jill Faulkner, or William Faulkner’s nephews, Jimmy and Murry “Chookie” Faulkner.

But one of the most memorable aspects about curating Rowan Oak was “just being there,” Fudge said.

“It is only after not being there that you realize what you were part of,” Fudge said. “You don’t realize the enormity of it all.”

from by Melanie Addington