09/01/04 — What's that house doing up there?

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What's that house doing up there?

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on September 1, 2004 2:00 PM

The number one question posed by tour groups at Cherry Hospital is about the mystery silos with the house on top.

"What's that? How'd the house get up there?" is heard often by Tanya Rollins, director of special services. The structure is across the field from her office.

Don Edwards, buildings manager at Cherry, said the question has been raised so many times, he decided to make sure the story was preserved for future reference. Three years ago, anticipating the building might one day be demolished, he decided to videotape an interview with one of the original crew members.

"I wanted to capture a little bit of history while I can," he said.

Edwards also had a personal reason for preserving the story. His father was farm manager in the early days, and Edwards grew up on the grounds of the hospital.

"This was my playground," he said. "A lot of this means a lot to me."

He said that during that era, the hospital was like its own little town. It produced its own power, he said, the farm generated food, livestock and eggs. The patients worked on the farm for therapy.

At that time, employees were also required to live on the grounds.

"From management on down, there were a couple hundred houses out here," he said.

The hospital later stopped using the farm as its sole source of food and therapy for patients. Many of the buildings on the property from that era are no longer standing.

To tell the story behind the building that has become a conversation piece, Edwards sought the help of Ralph Jinnette, now 82 years old and retired.

In 1940, Jinnette, a 20-year-old college student at Mars Hill College, needed a summer job. He found work with a contractor and was one of two young men sent over to help build a grain elevator at Cherry Hospital.

"We dug the hole by hand, poured the foundation and built the floor by house jacks," he recalls.

He said it was a 24-hour-a-day job, seven days a week, working 12-hour shifts until it was finished. Jinnette said he was assigned to work from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m. Another man covered the 7 p.m. until 7 a.m. shift. Between 30 and 40 people helped with the project.

He said the concrete was mixed on one side of the field and brought over in wheelbarrows. It ran like clockwork and fortunately the weather cooperated, because there was no way the process could be stopped.

"Everything was going up together," he said. "You couldn't have a cold joint in that concrete. We worked on it for several weeks."

The concrete had to be poured into a form and had to be "jacked" repeatedly because the cement was fast-setting.

"You had to keep vibrating it to be sure it didn't 'honeycomb,'" Jinnette said, preventing it from later buckling when it dried.

All these years later, he says, "You still don't see any honeycombs in the concrete."

Used for grain and storage, the completed building had four circular silos surrounding a square one in the middle. A spiral staircase winds around the outside and leads to the structure on top that served as a work room for equipment to operate the silos.

The curious structure appears to have had a house dropped on top of it.

"People always think this is a house," Edwards said. "This is not a house. No one lives in it and never has."

He called it a mechanical room, housing a seed cleaner that separated the grain. It had four doors in the floor, one for each silo.

"I used to climb up when I was a kid and look down through those doors," he said. "There was a ladder to climb and we'd jump down into the grain, depending on the height it was in the silo."

The building was in use until around 1990. The North Carolina State University Department of Agriculture is now considered its owner.

Edwards said despite the passage of time, the structure was well-constructed and has remained virtually unchanged.

"Now they've got metal grain bins that are more modern than this," he said. "But it served its purpose for 50-plus years."

(Photo by Dennis Hill)