Michelle Bowers can’t resist stopping for empty buildings: the chipped-paint mansions with their windows wide open, the half-collapsed barns devoured by creeper vines, the boarded-up textile mills where spiders do the only spinning.
When she sees them, she pulls the car over and tromps through knee-high weeds to snap a picture of a house where nobody lives, a barn where nobody grows anything or a schoolhouse that became a chapter in its own history book.
“It just makes you wonder what happened,” said Bowers, 44.
For some, the sight of an abandoned, falling-down building screams, “Stay away.” For Bowers, it cries out, “Come on in.” She’s featured them in more than 1,000 pictures so far, she guesses – mostly around her home in Franklin County, where time and kudzu tend to swallow things.
So in March, Bowers started posting her portraits of forgotten wrecks on Facebook, where they’ve gained more than 1,300 “likes.” It turns out plenty of people appreciate the sight of an old hulk too remote for the wrecking ball or a vacant home of a long-dead family whose garden hose still connects to a now-dry spigot.
When Bowers posted a shot of a lonesome-looking white stone building and its red tile roof, no less an authority than the mayor of Franklinton offered online commentary.
“It was the original Franklinton Public School, then known as Franklin Male Academy,” wrote Elic Senter. “It’s gorgeous inside, and it’s been converted to a residence. Sold last year for $72K. Still has auditorium.”
About twice a week in the evenings, Bowers loads her 7- and 14-year-old kids into the car, rolls down the sunroof and goes hunting for ruins. When they get to an intersection, the kids choose left or right. When they spot something that looks forsaken, they stop. If there’s no sign saying, “Keep Out” or “No Trespassing,” they investigate.
At one place in Youngsville, Bowers peeked in the window and saw a wheelchair sitting in the living room.
“That told you somebody died there,” she said.
When she inquired, locals told her, “That was Miss Mamie.”
At another in Kittrell, she learned that one old place had so persistently foiled attempts to refurbish it that a string of owners had died trying.
“The last guy, they found out front, dead of a heart attack,” she said.
It may surprise some of you to know that I enjoy exploring broken-down houses myself. At age 2, I even briefly lived inside of one: the hulking wooden monster my Norwegian immigrant great-grandfather helped build outside Valier, Pa., a town that lies just east of East Footlick.
It stood unoccupied for most of my life before finally burning down. And for years, family recreation consisted of rooting through it with a flashlight, climbing to the third floor via the stairs that had only a rope for a banister, and brushing away inch-thick dust in rooms that get less sunlight than the bottom of the sea. I still have an empty can of Cavalier pipe tobacco and a mostly empty bottle of cheap bourbon salvaged from that house, both relics left behind by my Great Uncle Pooler.
So I followed Bowers on an excursion outside Youngsville last week, where we inspected a vacant house with three chimneys, one of them at least 125 years old. The place still had an azalea blooming near the front porch, bright and pink. We found a giant teddy bear on top of a vintage Budweiser can. We found a VHS tape offering instructions on how to customize your helicopter. We found the Styrofoam packing that once surrounded a rifle.
“What happened to these people?” asked Bowers.
It’s safe to guess that in its time, this house saw birth, marriage, birthdays, Christmas dinner and death. It kept somebody warm in winter, and it watched somebody pace the floors at night, anxious over worries nobody can remember.
But in a half-hour on the property, nobody noticed us or cared, and we left no trace behind. We only snapped a few pictures of the house – just to show, in case anybody ever asks, that it existed.