Valdosta Daily Times

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January 27, 2011

Roberts House at the heart of Valdosta’s origins

VALDOSTA — To better understand the historic significance of Wednesday’s fiery loss of the Roberts House, think of the place this way: It was the house that made Valdosta possible.

It wasn’t just that the Roberts House, also known as the Wisenbaker-Wells-Roberts House, was the oldest house in Valdosta. It pre-dated Valdosta’s 150-year history. It housed the man who made early Valdosta a reality.

In 1840, 20 years before there would be a Valdosta, a man named William E. Wisenbaker settled on a large tract of land in Lowndes County. In 1845, the Wisenbakers built their house.

When the house was built, Troupville was the Lowndes County seat. By the late 1850s, a railroad was being built from Savannah to Montgomery. Tracks would pass through Lowndes County but not through Troupville. Instead, the railroad would be four miles east of Troupville.  Lowndes County wished to move its county seat closer to the railroad. In 1859, Wisenbaker sold 125 acres of his property to the Lowndes County Commission. These 125 acres became Valdosta, which was incorporated Dec. 7, 1860.

“This may be the most important event in Lowndes history,” according to the Valdosta Heritage Foundation, the organization that has spent years in work and dollars to restore the historic Roberts House.

In 1863, Wisenbaker sold the house to J.W. Wells, a businessman and Valdosta mayor, for whom Wells Street is named.

In 1891, Wells sold the land to John Taylor Roberts. He “was a successful businessman and political leader serving in city government as councilman and mayor from 1892-1914, a prosperous period in the history of Valdosta,” according to the Heritage Foundation.

It was during this period that Valdosta was the world’s largest producer of inland Sea Island cotton, as well as a regular host for the Georgia state fairs. This was the same period when Valdosta established its permanence as Lowndes County’s political and commercial hub. Landmarks such as the Lowndes County Courthouse, The Crescent, and numerous downtown churches were built during this era.

An old story claims that J.T. Roberts would step onto the house’s second-story porch to survey the growing city of Valdosta just east of his home. Reportedly, he claimed to have a “pretty fair view” of the town. At least that’s an old legend connected to the history of the Roberts House and its Fairview Historic District neighborhood.

“Roberts and his descendants lived there for over 100 years — reason enough to call the house ‘The Roberts House,’” according to the Heritage Foundation. Catherine Redles and Bootsie Smotherman, both Roberts granddaughters, donated the house at 206 Wells St. and five acres of land to the Valdosta Heritage Foundation.

In 1999, the Valdosta Heritage Foundation began restoration work on the Roberts House. Through the years, the Heritage Foundation had restored the roof, chimney and exterior.

The foundation restored the gingerbread house ornamentation along the porch. The exterior color-scheme became a subtle but elegant combination of grays, creams, and federal blue.

Phase II involved interior restoration, concentrating on the first floor. This phase required new wiring, the combination of period light fixtures with the contrasting modernity of running lights along the ceiling, as well as the installation of new plumbing and a central-heat-and-air-conditioning system, and a security-alarm system. Walls and ceilings were restored, plastered, painted. Wooden door frames and glass transoms are being cleaned and polished.

The second phase was completed three years ago.

Work continued on the upper floor and the grounds. Fire has now destroyed the Roberts House.

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