Chris Dempsey is preparing for a skirmish. On May 5-6, Chris, wife Heather, and daughters, Ada and Ruby, will welcome more than1,800 guests to their home for the Civil War Re-enactment and Living History events.
Dempsey spoke to the Jacksonville Exchange Club Thursday and described how his home in Jacksonville, named Fiddler’s Green, has become a venue during the past 15 years for the annual Skirmish in the Valley, an event that will include the firing of cannons and the burning of a house. In addition to the skirmish, Fiddler’s Green has become a venue for weddings and parties, holiday events, and tours. The estate is located at 3105 Roy Webb Road and has been recently used for filming movies. The New York School of Film is shooting a documentary, and a film company from Los Angeles has shot scenes for two movies. A fourth movie, “Union,” filmed at Fiddler’s Green, is scheduled for release within the year by an independent film company. Also, the Dempseys have assisted with projects at Longleaf Studios, a film studio started by Jacksonville State University’s Pete Conroy.
Chris and Heather teach English at Pleasant Valley High, and Chris also teaches American literature. Their motivation for involving the community and his students in Fiddlers Green is to educate them about local history and what life was like during the 1860s.
Dempsey described how he and Heather decided to re-create a Victorian-era house.
“Heather and I were considering moving an old house,” said Dempsey, “but one Sunday we saw the old Lockett-Gidley House built in 1855. It was deteriorated, but we wanted the two sets of 8-foot doors that were on that house.”
The Dempseys are Jacksonville natives, and they inquired about buying the doors. As fortune would have it, they were able to obtain the doors and a spiral staircase, mantels, and crown-molding from the house. In addition, while they were planning and building Fiddler’s Green, they found wood and other features from the historic Ide House, Greenleaf House, Calvert House, and historic Jacksonville-area churches, all that were in the stages of decay.
Dempsey described how not only did they plan their house, but also they researched the former owners, particularly Col. Samuel Lockett, a Marion County native who graduated from West Point in 1859. Lockett turned Vicksburg, Miss., into a fortress during the Battle of Big Black River; and, while there, he befriended Gen. John H. Forney of Jacksonville. Forney influenced Lockett’s decision to move to Jacksonville in 1873 where he became the president of a school that was the forerunner of Jacksonville State University. Eventually, in addition to becoming a professor of engineering at Louisiana State University and the University of Tennessee, he became a talented writer and artist. Dempsey said many residents in Jacksonville may not know that Lockett also designed the base of the Statue of Liberty.
Dempsey gave credit for much of the building of Fiddler’s Green to his father, Gary, a master builder. His mother, Pat, sewed many of the curtains for the house and helped install wallpaper and plaster. Heather’s mother is Peggy McCalister. She stripped multiple layers of paint from old wood features. Heather’s father, Sidney McFall, helped rewire period light fixtures. He encouraged Exchange Club members to attend this year’s Reenactment, an event that includes a ladies’ tea, dance lessons that culminate in a ball, a display of craftsmen and artisans from throughout the United States, and memorable food items.
Fiddler’s Green will also feature the Dempseys’ Emmy-winning band, UnReconstructed, which performs authentic music from the Civil War, as well as Irish, Scottish, and 19th-Century music. The band performs on the porch of a restored family cabin. Special worship services will take place in the most recent addition at Fiddler’s Green, a chapel. The estate also has a re-created a mercantile store that sells period costumes and personal items. Also, the Dempseys created a Victorian garden that features heirloom plants.
“It’s all been a labor of love,” Dempsey said. “The wedding business is growing. We have 14 weddings booked for this year.”
The next Exchange Club meeting will be on Feb. 22.
Email Sherry at email@example.com.