In Ashland, a new house, an old watch and a mystery solved

ASHLAND, Va. (AP) — As work was getting underway at a new home site in Ashland, Hanover and King William Habitat for Humanity construction manager Jeff Ell thought to himself he ought to go over the property with his metal detector.

Ell, who has been with Habitat for two years, does not always use his metal detector on job sites, but the urge was strong on this one.

“Just curiosity — buried treasure, Viking gold or something,” he said with a laugh. “You just never know what you’ll find.”

That is for sure.

On that day, Ell found a couple of run-of-the-mill coins and “some other junk,” and then, “Bing! Bing! Bing!” as he put it, “in the front of the house was this watch.”

Buried a few inches in the soil was a small pendant watch, about the size of a quarter. No necklace was found, and the glass covering and the hands were long gone, but the engraved initials on the back were clear as day: “WWB TO JLW.”

A mystery awaited unraveling — who were WWB and JLW, and what was the story of the watch?

Ell did a little online sleuthing about the manufacturer of the watch and determined it must have been made around the 1920s. He contacted John Hodges, a regular Habitat volunteer and the vice mayor of Ashland, who got in touch with Rosanne Shalf, who helped establish the Ashland Museum and enjoys historical research.

Shalf scoured real estate records to determine chain-of-title of the property, which led to census records and other sources.

“It’s really fun to find this stuff,” she said. “It’s like a huge puzzle.” She was able to make a connection between the initials on the watch and longtime residents at the address on Wesley Street where the new house was being constructed.

Wesley William Brannan and his wife, Joseph “Josie” Louis White Brannan, were married in December 1925 and, by the 1940 census, were living on Wesley Street and eventually acquired the property in 1947.

“I was shocked,” said Scott Brannan, Wesley and Josie Brannan’s grandson, referencing the moment Ell showed up at his workplace with news of the watch. “I was in my office, and the receptionist called and said ‘there’s a man down here who says they found your grandmother’s watch.’”

Brannan’s initial reaction: What in the world is he talking about?

Soon enough, Ell walked in with a photo of the watch on his phone.

“I was just floored when he showed it to me,” said Brannan, who believes the watch had been a gift before they were married. “I was definitely taken aback that it was in such good shape. The engraving was still readable after all of those years.”

And it has been a lot of years.

Joseph “Josie” Louis White Brannan and Wesley William Brannan were married in December 1925 and lived for many years on Wesley Street in Ashland, where a construction crew building a home for Hanover and King William Habitat for Humanity recently found an old pendant watch bearing their initials buried in the soil.

Courtesy of the Brannan family

His grandfather died in 1958, and his grandmother lived in the house until her death in 1983. The family sold the property to the neighbor, First Baptist Church Ashland. Over the years, the house was used for the church’s caretaker before it eventually fell into disrepair and was torn down. Last year, the church sold the property at a discount to Habitat as part of the church’s “mission to support affordable housing needs in the community,” said Habitat executive director Renee Robinson.

Habitat began construction earlier this year.

Scott Brannan, 60, well remembers his grandmother and the house. Though his grandfather died before he was born, his grandmother would host Sunday dinners after church, Christmases and birthdays. He recalls hunting for Easter eggs in that very yard with his cousins, playing “Red Light, Green Light” and chasing lightning bugs.

“We’ve got great memories of all of those things happening there,” he said.

The backyard always had a big garden, as well as pigs and ponies.

“There was always fun stuff to do there as a kid,” he said.

His grandmother worked in the garden and the yard, mowing her own grass. Brannan wonders if she might have lost the watch then.

But he does not know that or how long it has been missing. He does know his grandmother was “pretty diligent” about time.

“Lunch was at 12 o’clock, dinner was at 5 o’clock, certain TV shows were at 6 o’clock and 7 o’clock, and she went to bed at 8 o’clock,” he said.

She used to love to sit on the swing on her front porch, waiting for someone to pick her up to go to church (she never drove) or looking for the school bus to come by. She was not necessarily waiting for any children, in particular, Brannan said. “She would just worry if it was late.”

“Whenever you came by and if it was mealtime, you could not leave until you ate, and she would literally unload everything from the refrigerator and put it on the table,” Brannan said with a laugh. “You didn’t go away hungry, that was for sure.”

Wesley and Josie Brannan had five children — all gone now — 15 grandchildren and many great-grandchildren. Because they are such a large family, Brannan said it would be impossible to pick someone to receive the watch, so the family has decided to donate it and some family photos to the Ashland Museum.

“Let it stay there as a historical piece,” he said.

Habitat’s Robinson expects the new owners to move in soon.

“While we are busy building a home for future stories there, we get to also acknowledge the past stories, too,” Robinson said.

Copyright © 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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