Tom Eblen: Restored Airy Castle stirs powerful memories for longtime housekeeper

teblen@herald-leader.comNovember 2, 2013 

PARIS — I recently wrote about Airy Castle, whose new owners restored the 1870s Victorian mansion and opened it for a tour to benefit the preservation group Historic Paris-Bourbon County.

That tour two Sundays ago drew a large crowd, but the elegantly restored mansion wasn't the only treat. A friend who attended said an interesting thing happened when an elderly black lady in a dark pants suit walked through the door.

As Cozene Hawkins slowly made her way down the hall, she was stopped several times by older white women wanting to shake her hand. They asked if she remembered them and raved about her cooking, especially her beaten biscuits. They treated her like a star.

"That's the way I felt!" said Hawkins, 79, who worked 35 years as cook and housekeeper for the mansion's previous owner.

"It made me feel good after all those years that people remembered," Hawkins said when I visited her in her own small home. "To be back in that house and see what the new owners have done; it's remarkable! They restored so much. It brought back so many memories."

Historic preservation is more than saving unique architecture and bygone craftsmanship. It is about preserving our collective memory. Old buildings are powerful links to the past, helping us realize how much society has changed. They also help us remember the valuable contributions of people like Cozene Hawkins.

Hawkins first saw Airy Castle in 1961. The oldest of 10 children, she was a young wife and mother working part-time as a domestic for a prominent Bourbon County family. She needed more work.

Hawkins was recommended to Corrilla English, whose grandparents bought Airy Castle in 1888 and renamed it Wyndhurst. English lived there with her grown son, Woodson. Hawkins was soon working full time for the Englishes.

"I never learned to drive," she said. "Every morning Mrs. English picked me up at 8:30 and she brought me home at 2:30. And after she began to age, the men who worked on the farm would come in and get me."

Hawkins spent much of her time cleaning the huge house and polishing an extensive collection of sterling silver. She also prepared a big noon meal each day. English was an excellent cook, and she taught Hawkins.

"As the years went, I learned so much," she said. "Mrs. English loved to entertain with lunches for just women. That's when she taught me to cook the finer dishes. We had to get out the fine china and the sterling silver and the crystal.

"She taught me to make a fabulous corn pudding; we made a lot of cheese souffles and her chicken salad," she said. "And the famous dessert was egg kisses — meringues — and we always served those with sliced, fresh strawberries and homemade whipped cream, because they had their own cows."

English also taught Hawkins to make beaten biscuits, a Southern delicacy that required dough to be beaten on a marble slab and run through rollers over and over for a half-hour until it popped. The hard, bite-size biscuits were served as country ham sandwiches.

"It never bothered me that whenever Mrs. English entertained I had to wear a white uniform," Hawkins said. "And I could never wear pants out there. No woman in pants. No!"

Hawkins said the mansion was a pleasant place to work.

"Not a cross word was ever said to me from Mrs. English," she said. "I was able to cook and please her, keep house and please her. She never had to tell me to do anything; I just knew."

The only thing that bothered Hawkins was her low wages. It wasn't as if English couldn't see twice a day that she and her eight children — seven sons and a daughter — lived in a public housing project, which has since been demolished.

Corrilla English died in 1996 at age 96. Woodson English moved to an assisted-living facility and died in 2004.

"They were good days; I regret none of it," Hawkins said. "It has a lot to do with the way you're treated. I was always treated with respect. I learned so much, too."

Hawkins now lives with a son, Darrell. Most of her other children are in Central Kentucky, too. She has lost count of all her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

"She did a good job raising us; taught us all to cook," son Steve said. "We all turned out well."

Hawkins still likes to cook at church. "They're trying to make me sit down," she said, "but I refuse!"

Physicians Jack and Sonja Brock bought Airy Castle in 2003 and began an extensive restoration that is almost finished. They plan to retire there and open a bed-and-breakfast inn.

"It was awesome to go into each room and see what the Brocks have done," Hawkins said. "The only thing that threw me off was my kitchen. Oh mercy! That new kitchen is so nice. I wouldn't have had to roll beaten biscuits; they probably would have had an electrical roller."

Tom Eblen: (859) 231-1415. Email: teblen@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @tomeblen. Blog: tomeblen.bloginky.com

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