James Montgomery “Monty” Powell wasn’t born in Childersburg, but he’s a descendant of Minor J. Cliett, who was born in 1813 and moved from Georgia to Childersburg in about 1853 and started farming and operating a general store. He bought the land where the house now stands from the railroad in 1854, and the Cliett name has been notable in commerce and farming in the city since that time.
The house, nestled on 12 acres between Fourth Avenue Northeast and the railroad, just north of the trestle in downtown Childersburg, was at first a simple two-room farmhouse, but it was enlarged in the 1890s when the Victorian style was popular. The ornate front of the house faces downhill toward Alabama 76, with a spacious porch providing a serene view of the grassy yard where Powell’s dogs – cocker spaniel Winnie and Maltese-shih tzu Millie – play in the afternoon sun.
Powell is not sure exactly when the house was built, but its rough-hewn floor joists, detached kitchen and brick carriage house are testament to an era long gone by.
Powell points to the back bedroom in the house and says it’s where his mother, Mildred Montgomery Cliett Powell, was born 100 years ago. His parents were married under the magnolia tree in the side yard.
Powell was born in Nashville and raised in Franklin, Tenn. He attended David Lipscomb College and earned his law degree from the University of Tennessee, then practiced law in Atlanta and Nashville and taught at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif.
He picked out a retirement home on a golf course in Florida, but the allure of the old family home kept calling to him.
“I’ve been coming here since the 1950s, and I have some great memories of this place,” he said.
His aunt, Agnes Cliett, taught school in Birmingham for some 50 years, and spent every summer at the house. It was boarded up and unoccupied the rest of the year, and it had been vacant for a couple of decades when Powell and his wife, Rebecca, started the renovation project.
“In the ’90s we got a letter. The city sent a notice saying we needed to do some things, so we came in and cleaned up the yard, replaced the roof and painted outside,” he said. But the house remained vacant.
Powell’s mother died a couple of years ago, and they sold her house in Nashville in May. In June, he began working on the old family home.
“Some of the early work is less visible. We’ve been shoring up underneath and tearing out bad wood,” he said.
Today, some windows remain boarded up and the floor is torn out of the kitchen. There was some wood damage where the kitchen had been attached to the house, so there’s temporarily a breezeway between the main part of the house and the kitchen. A claw-foot bathtub and kitchen appliances from the 1950s stand in the side yard, and there’s a good bit of work left to do to make the house a home once again.
“It’s fun, but you can’t let the frustrations get to you,” said Rebecca Powell, who’s retired from the Tennessee Department of Human Services. “You have to expect problems. It’s a strange way to spend your retirement years, but it’s fun planning and changing the plans.”
The Powells live in a small house out back that was one of two his grandmother built on the premises in the 1940s when the World War II ammunition plant was coming up in Childersburg. The other is long gone.
The little house had been gutted by renters, and Powell said it took two years of staying in motels nearby to make it livable. Now he and his wife stay and oversee the renovation work, occasionally going back to Nashville where they still have their home. They plan to sell that home once they’re able to move full-time into the larger house.
The renovation plan also calls for the addition of a master suite, a library for his extensive book collection, a game room and a garage. The addition will be behind the house, and create a courtyard.
As for the old part of the house, “Our plan is to keep it as close as possible to the original,” Powell said.
He looks forward to furnishing the house with period-appropriate antiques he and his wife have collected through the years.
Powell’s cousin, Mary Frances Hudson, said she’s excited about the work Powell is doing. “I’m thankful that he’s going to be back around. That’s more family members we will have here. I’m glad he has decided to move back to where his family roots came from,” she said.
Hudson said she hasn’t been to see the house yet, but she “absolutely” plans to see it when the work is finished.
Powell isn’t sure when that will be. “We’re waiting for the architectural plans for the addition, and we will have to do it in stages,” he said.
Electrical wiring was replaced this summer, and plumbing and heating and air conditioning are yet to be done.
“The nice thing is, we don’t have any pressure of moving at a certain time,” Rebecca Powell said.
Powell added that many people in the community have stopped by to compliment the progress that has been made, and to inquire about the old appliances in the yard. And, “We’re on a first-name basis with the people at Home Depot,” he laughed.
Powell proudly says his aunt had a millinery shop in town, his uncle had a hardware store, and his great-grandfather had Childersburg’s first John Deere dealership. When the house is finished and the Powells get settled in, he said he would like to continue the Cliett family tradition by opening a store in downtown Childersburg, dealing in antiques, art and framing.
Contact Bill Kimber at email@example.com.