By William G. Lord © 2015
Online: March, 2015
How often, as you travel the busy interstates, would you welcome the respite of a quiet country highway; just a restive hour or two among the gentle roll of farms and timbered hills, a place to stop and eat in tooth-picking leisure. And all the better if there is some storied bit of folklore to visit before moving back into the efficient monotony of the super highways.
Carroll County, Virginia, bisected by I-77, is such a place. It offers the friendly town of Hillsville, amid the Blue Ridge Mountains, and the storied home of Sidna and Bette Allen.
Seen from Rt. 52, seven miles south of Hillsville, the great white house rests quietly and impressively, like a solitaire crowning a broad hilltop above the highway. It's the kind of place local folks go out of their way to show visiting friends. "Sidna was one of the Allens who shot up the Hillsville Court House way back in 1912."
The architecture is Queen Anne, a turn of the 20th century style that appealed to the affluent of America's rising middle class. This queen is a two story white frame, adorned with an imaginative combination of gables, dormers and turret, fronted by a wrap-around porch.
No two queens are alike but all have a delightful asymmetry and variety that reflect the taste and aspiration of a man and wife who made their mark in the world and want the world to know it.
Such a man and wife were Sidna and Bette Allen. They married in 1901 and shortly thereafter purchased the farm in Fancy Gap, Carroll County, where they would build their great house, "the culmination of our dreams."
Sidna and Bette were well matched, hard working partners and Sidna was a shrewd business man. In addition to farming, he built a thriving general store from scratch. He started, before he was married, with "a few groceries, a few spools of thread, a quantity of needles and pins, and a little snuff and tobacco." By the time the Allens commenced building their home, he dealt in a full line of general merchandise, "wagons, buggies, farming implements, dry goods, and groceries. It was a rare thing for anyone to call for something I did not have"
The house, "took shape slowly," commencing about 1905. He cut much of the timber from his farm and sawed it into lumber at a nearby sawmill he owned with his brother, Garland. The cut timber was hauled down the Blue Ridge to Mount Airy, North Carolina, to be kiln dried and dressed and then hauled back.
"The inside of the house was constructed according to her ideas, the outside according to mine. The home had to be just as we dreamed it. All work was done exactly as we wished it or else done over." Here the Allens intended to raise their two daughters, Margaret and Pauline, and "spend the remainder of our years."
The house was completed sufficiently to move into by 1911. They enjoyed this "most beautiful home in Carroll County" for barely a year. Then came tragedy and the loss of home and fortune and the despair of separation and prison.
The tragedy began with tinder-box suddenness on a gloomy morning, March 14, 1912, in the Hillsville courthouse. Floyd Allen, an older brother of Sidna, was declared guilty by jury wherein he was accused of freeing his nephews, Wesley and Sidna Edwards, from the charge of deputies transporting them to jail. The episode occurred on the road by Sidna Allen's home and store.
Now, as the sheriff in obeyance to the judge's order, came forward to take Floyd into custody, Floyd rose and with barely heard words of desperation said, "Gentlemen, I ain't a-goin'."
There is no agreement as to who fired the first shot, but in a long and savage moment the small, crowded courtroom blazed and smoked from the rapid and often wild gunfire of seven court officers and five members of the Allen clan. People fled in panic. The judge, the Commonwealth attorney and the sheriff died in the courthouse and a juror and a court witness were mortally wounded. Dexter Goad, the county clerk, concentrating on Floyd Allen in the centrally located bar, was shot in the cheek, "the bullet coming out the back of my neck and tearing away the rear collar button of my shirt."
Firing continued outside the courthouse and then abruptly stopped. Five members of the Allen clan left town without pursuit by the dazed officials of the court. A sorely wounded Floyd remained overnight in a local hotel cared for by Victor, the oldest of his two sons, who witnessed but did not participate in the conflict.
Floyd surrendered to a newly arrived posse the following morning without a struggle and all suspects except Sidna Allen and his nephew, Wesley Edwards, were captured before the end of March. The captives included Floyd's youngest son, Claude, who was to share his father's fate and die in the electric chair. Sidna and Wesley, "took to the brush" in the hills of Carroll County; evading the attempts of armed posses on foot and horseback. They laid low during daylight, but frequently stayed with friends and relatives at night. No one betrayed them except a "Sugar" Smith who reported them coming to his store after dark to buy food. The posse, now reinforced by two bloodhounds, came close but the fugitives eluded them; on one occasion by erasing their scent passing through a recently burned woodlands and at other times by simply "staying put."
But nerves began to fray and Sidna and Wesley decided to leave. "Tearing ourselves from the embraces of those we loved, we found our way to the road, and with eyes blinded by tears, stumbled away into the night."
At first they traveled mostly by night and by foot and finally chanced it to buy rail passage westward from Salisbury, North Carolina. Their pictures were posted at the depot but Sidna was gratified to see that his was a poor likeness. When detectives came to his wife for photos she, "hid all the good ones." As for Wesley's photo, Sidna remarked, "Even I wouldn't have recognized him." A current event that may have diminished public awareness was the sinking of the Titanic.
They felt reasonably secure but took the precaution of traveling in short trips. When they reached Des Moines, Iowa, they were nearly out of funds, so that is where they stayed. Each found work and lived a quiet existence in a rooming house. Wesley, however, longed to see his sweetheart in Carroll and returned and arranged to have her come to Des Moines and be married. She came, but with "tipped off" detectives and the search was over.
Sidna and Wesley were brought to Roanoke, Virginia, and placed in jail to be tried for the crimes committed in the Hillsville courthouse. Meanwhile, Floyd and his son, Claude, had been convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to die in the electric chair. During the course of one trial for Floyd and three for Claude, the State won verdicts finding them guilty of first degree murder by way of conspiracy.
Sidna's six months as a fugitive probably saved his life, providing his defense time to counter the prosecution's claim of a conspiracy, on the part of the Allens, to shoot up the court in the event Floyd was convicted. One preeminent reason was Sidna's cherished Queen Anne, now locked and empty and in possession of the court. Why, his attorney's argued, would Sidna enter into a conspiracy and risk losing his family, his considerable wealth, and the home he and his wife built with so much heart and purpose?
The Allens also claimed that the court officials fired and aimed the first shots at Floyd and they retaliated to protect Floyd. In this matter they failed to convince the juries. In his two trials, charged with first degree murder, Sidna was convicted in the first of second degree murder and in the second with third degree. At this point the prosecution "threw in the towel," and Sidna accepted a total sentence of 35 years in the penitentiary and no further prosecution.
The lesser verdict encouraged supporters of Floyd and Claude to petition Virginia
Governor Mann for a new trial. He issued three stays of execution but the final deadline came on March 27, 1913. Both men "went to their deaths, silent and unafraid."
Sidna, on being sent to prison, resolved to make the best of it. In all regards he was a model prisoner. He eagerly accepted opportunities to build rooms and structures within the prison and ultimately was given time to work on his own. By the time of his pardon in 1926, 21 years short of his sentence, he had constructed a remarkable display, twenty pieces in all, of furniture and ornaments from bits and pieces of wood. One table, his masterpiece, contained 75,000 separate pieces. His tools consisted of a hammer, saw, plane, and a pocket knife. Following his pardon, Sidna settled with his family in Leaksville, North Carolina. For several years he made a profitable showing of his art work at fairs and exhibitions.
Following the courthouse tragedy, Sidna and Bette's Queen Anne and possessions were sold by the court for the benefit of victims and survivors. Sidna, in his memoirs, never mentions the times he and his wife must have passed by their grand home during the remainder of their lives. It would always be their home, but never again their residence.
Through the years the home has had several owners and occupants; unfortunately, it has been easier to look at than to live in. The huge interior has been costly to modernize with plumbing, furnaces and electricity. In consequence, it has been vacant much of its later years.