In Odessa, a vibrant, breathing time capsule for American architecture, the house Carol and David Sheats live in is a textbook example of Colonial construction with its balanced facade, artful brickwork and curbstone steps.
But the house is a relative newcomer, built by Franklin and Alice Biggs in 1986 as a faithful reproduction of the Travis House, a long frame house with a distinctive gambrel roof constructed in Williamsburg, Va., in about 1765.
Authentic elements include heartwood pine floors, nine-over-nine windows, four fireplaces and plaster-coated interior walls. The chandeliers in the dining and sitting rooms are illuminated by candles. The builder used flat-head nails, just as the Early Americans did.
“We love that the house is so true to the original,” Carol Sheats says. “We also appreciate that it has central air conditioning.”
Known locally as the Williamsburg House, the home was an ideal fit for recent empty nesters, who had raised their family on a farm outside Odessa.
“We wanted to downsize a bit,” Sheats recalls. “And we also wanted to move into town to be near my dad, who was getting up in years.”
The original owners had added a family room to the back of the house. The Sheatses made a few changes, too. First, they decided to repurpose the large living room as a formal dining room. The original dining room, which adjoins the kitchen, became a cozy and casual parlor.
“Flopping the rooms so that the main living area was off the kitchen made sense to us,” Carol says. “It also expands the kitchen, which is small.”
They have decorated their home in classic Early American style, upholding a tradition of preserving pieces through multiple generations. Framed antique maps of the First State were taken from the Pomeroy & Beers Atlas of 1868. The tiny child’s chair in the foyer is at least 100 years old, although no one is certain of its precise age.
“We only know that it was made in Delaware,” Sheats says.
The couple bought the circa 1890 corner cupboard in the dining room at a farm auction in 1982. It included a handwritten note on the cupboard’s history, which Carol copied on a typewriter and tucked inside a Blue Willow canister, part of a collection started by her mother.
“I am glad I did because the handwriting faded to the point that it is difficult to read,” she says.
Carol has crafted a number of future heirlooms with her own hands, starting with the quilt made from colorful triangles that is displayed in the foyer. Carol sewed it as a teenager, piecing it together with neat, tiny stitches.
“I look at the prints on the fabrics and I remember dresses my mom wore,” she says.
As a young mother, she braided rag rugs by hand, weaving circles and ovals from scraps of fabric. “Whatever we needed for the house, I would think of ways I could make it myself,” she says.
Clockwise from top left: Carol Sheats’ father made the hope chest in the master bedroom.;
Her father, Walter Kabis, was an educator who taught industrial arts before ending his career as principal of the Charles W. Bush School in Wilmington. Kabis also enjoyed making his own furniture and restoring his home, the historic Corbit-Kabis House, built on Odessa’s Main Street in the 1700s. He made a hope chest for each of his four daughters, including the chest at the foot of the four-poster bed in the Sheats home.
Carol was a teenager when she went into her dad’s wood shop, turned on the power saw, and begin experimenting. The buzz of the saw alerted her father, who came in to investigate.
“He reviewed safety with me—and then let me go at it,” she recalls.
Over the years, she crafted a number of pieces. Many started with the remnants of discarded furniture, old farm equipment and architectural elements.
The display cabinet in the foyer was repurposed from an old kitchen cupboard discovered in an abandoned house. A hanging cupboard in the sitting room was adapted from a church lectern that was stored in the attic of a farmhouse in Leipsic, still holding a church bulletin dated 1899.
Carol salvaged the wooden sides on a wagon driven by David’s father on the Sheats family farm and put them together with old shutters to make a cabinet to display her husband’s extensive collection of duck decoys, a flock that includes goldeneye drakes, pintails and a decorative swan carved by local artisan Paul Loder. The oldest decoy, a pristine Canada goose, was made by George Warin in 1879 and migrated east from the St. Clair Flats Shooting Club in Michigan.
She incorporated other pieces from the wagon into a cabinet for the TV.
“We don’t like to waste anything,”she says.
The hutch began life as an apothecary cabinet in a drug store that later became the Van Dyke House, a historic home on Main Street where David’s mother lived as a girl.
Over time, the top and bottom of the cabinet were separated. The top wound up in the basement of David’s family home, where it was used to store the tomatoes his mother canned. The bottom went to a farm equipment shed, where it served as a work bench and a place to stow old paint.
“They didn’t look like much,” David Sheats recalls. “But when we put them together and replaced the missing drawers it became a nice piece of furniture again.”
David was cutting firewood outside the farm when he discovered a massive fallen cherry tree. The couple hitched the trunk to a tractor and hauled it to a flatbed truck, then transported it to their barn, where the wood was cured for five years.
The cherry tree was milled into planks at an Amish saw mill near Dover. For design inspiration, Carol listened to the tree, determining the width and length of the table by taking the three largest planks and positioning them side by side.
There’s no joinery involved, no tongue-in-groove detailing. She left a hair’s breadth between each plank to accommodate expansion and contraction. A rectangular skirt beneath the table top adds stability. The legs are lean and tapered.
“I like simple lines, Shaker lines,”
With her artistic vision in place, the table came together quickly. The couple commissioned Amish furniture makers to craft Windsor chairs.
“Our goal was to eat Thanksgiving dinner at the table—and we did,” she recalls.
Most nights, the couple dines at a beautifully worn wooden table in the sitting room, the same table David’s family gathered around when he was a boy.
The collection of glass medicine bottles displayed on window sills was buried treasure, dug up during walks outside town. Carol’s most prized find is a clear glass bottle with raised print that reads: Wm Faire’s Druggist, Odessa, Del.
“We’ve come up with more than 50 bottles over the years,” she says. “Walking in the woods looking for bottles is one of my favorite things.”
The Sheats children are maintaining the family tradition of preserving the past and crafting pieces for future generations. A son is now raising his family in the Corbit-Kabis House. He made a table just like his mother’s, except he chose walnut.
“I am thinking about investing in a new power saw for the kids,” Carol Sheats says.
The last time the couple visited Colonial Williamsburg, they stopped by to visit the original Travis House, which is now being used as offices.
“It was like walking into our own home,” David Sheats says. “The staircase and the foyer were exactly the same.”