A month and a half ago, Jackie Oehler lost her husband – and her backyard.
Construction to finish of the Interstate 485 loop – a 5.7 mile stretch – is trailblazing through Mallard Creek, and Oehler’s backyard is in its path.
“I know it’s been hard for her, being here most of her life on this property and seeing it, for a lack of better words, demolished,” said Jason Oehler, 37, who is one of her grandsons.
But as bulldozers and dump trucks dig 20 feet below where her cows used to graze, Oehler refuses to give up her home.
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For her, home is on Jimmy Oehler Road in a house where she and her husband, Jay Mack, moved in 1949 and raised their family. Home is the family’s 26 acres of land there and the 18 relatives who also live on her street.
“I’ve lived here so long now, I wouldn’t leave it,” Oehler, 83, said. “It’s home to me. It’s home.”
The Oehlers’ land in Mallard Creek has been linked with their livelihood and identity for more than a century. Oehler said her husband’s ancestor, Johannes, came from Germany in the 1800s and bought a lot of land in Mallard Creek. Oehlers have been born, and have been living and dying on the land ever since.
“There’s a lot of history,” Oehler said.
Her husband, Jay Mack Oehler, was diagnosed with colon cancer this fall. The cancer quickly spread, and he died – in the house he’d called home for more than 60 years – on Nov. 4.
About that time, construction to complete the Interstate 485 loop was already under way just 35 feet behind the Oehler’s house. This segment of highway will connect Interstates 77 and 85 at the north end of the outerbelt.
The project is scheduled to be complete in two years.
Oehler said she worries the new stretch of highway might bring unexpected danger to her doorstep.
“I worry somewhat about wrecks,” she said. “I worry about people who are out thumbing. Right now, I keep my doors locked all the time.”
Oehler said her husband never made peace with the highway project.
“It just tore him up for years,” she said. “He never saw the construction in the backyard, and I’m glad of that.”
For weeks, crews worked at night to dig up the land. “They put on these real bright lights,” Oehler said. She said the noise wasn’t too bothersome, except now, loud work goes on during the day.
“It makes some noise,” she said with a laugh. “I call it the rat-a-tat-tat.”
The state took the land behind the Oehlers’ home through eminent domain, and Oehler said she is currently in mediation for two parcels of land, as well as a request to erect a wall between their house and the highway.
Gary Eudy, the project manager with the N.C. Department of Transportation, said the state will build three sound walls along the 5.7-mile stretch, but none of the walls will cover the Oehlers’ land.
The closest wall, he said, will be about 1,800 feet west of Creek Breeze Road, which is about a half-mile from Oehler’s house.
Eudy said noise walls are being built in front of neighborhoods where hundreds of people live. It’s not economically feasible to build a wall, which costs millions of dollars, in front of just a few houses.
But, Eudy said, the N.C. DOT has built a lengthy service road for the Oehlers that will be parallel to I-485 and will have pathways to make different parts of their land more accessible.
The state has bought 30 homes in the path of the project, but Jackie Oehler’s home isn’t one of them.
She said she has no plans on leaving the land where she’s built her life.
“My thinking is as long as I live, I’ll still be here and our children won’t leave, I’m sure,” she said. “But there’s probably going to come a day when they’ll leave. What they thought was so wonderful has been destroyed. It’s not wonderful like it used to be.”
Her grandson, Jason, agreed.
“It’s just really a change of life for us out here,” he said. He lives near his grandmother on Jimmy Oehler Road.
“I’ve got two small children, one 8 and one 4, and they told me the other day that they didn’t want this, they wanted it back like it used to be,” he said. “They want their trees back and a place to play.”
Jason Oehler said he distinctly remembers a conversation he had with his grandfather, Jay Mack, a few years ago.
“We were standing out in the yard and he told me, ‘I’ll never sell it because this is something money can’t buy. I’ve got you and great-grandchildren I can see anytime, and my kids live here,’ ” he recalls. “He said, ‘That’s priceless. Money can’t buy what happiness I have here,’ and that always stuck with me.”