Saving Piffington Manor

Piffington Manor was the grandest old house in Swamp Gas Corners. Illustration: Cliff Shelby

Piffington Manor, the grand old house on Main Street, is a landmark in Swamp Gas Corners. It was built in 1810 by Eustis Q. Piffington, one of the original founders of our fair city. Its most famous occupant was Eustis Piffington's eldest son, Angus, a highly decorated colonel in the Confederate army. A long succession of Piffingtons continued to occupy the house until 2005, when the last of their line, Clarence, vacated the premises at age 93 to move into the Shady Acres Retirement Home. Now, according to the local paper, a proud chapter in Swamp Gas Corners' history is about to come to a most inglorious end.

"What?!? " Harry fumed, nearly swallowing his chewin' tobakky. "Sez here the city is gonna demolish Piffington Manor!"

"Why, they can't do that!" I sputtered. "That ol' house still belongs to Clarence Piffington! It's been in his family for 200 years!" Mr. Piffington was a fine old feller we'd knowed for years. He used to own a li'l ol' farm south of town, and he'd let me 'n' Harry fish his pond anytime we wanted to — the mark of a true Southern gentleman!

"This here article goes on to quote Mayor Fonebone as saying there's back taxes due on the Piffington property," Harry read. "And get this — the mayor wants to knock down the house so's they can put up a parking deck! Now what in blazes do we need a parking deck for? It's not like Swamp Gas Corners is a major tourist destination!"

"You're forgetting that Mayor Fonebone's brother is in the construction bidness," I reminded Harry. "I smell a major kickback here! I wonder if ol' Clarence knows about this! I think we need to pay him a visit at the retirement home. If it's just a matter of a few hundred bucks in back taxes, maybe we can talk the bass club into kickin' in some dough to help preserve the old place!"

"Even if it's as much as a thousand bucks, we might could organize a benefit bass tournament to pay off the debt!" Harry suggested. "We gotta do somethin', that's for sure! Swamp Gas Corners without Piffington Manor just wouldn't be Swamp Gas Corners!"

Time was of the essence, so we high-tailed it over to Shady Acres. There in the lobby we found old Mr. Piffington, snoozin' in an easy chair. "Mr. Piffington!" I whispered in his ear. "Wake up!"

"Huh? Whazzat?" he mumbled.

"It's me, Charlie! And I got my bassin' buddy Harry here with me! You remember us, don't ya? We used to fish in your farm pond!"

Ol' man Piffington's eyes opened and a glimmer of recognition lit up his face. "Harry 'n' Charlie? Well, I'll be dad-gummed! Sure I remember you two! I may be old as dirt, but I ain't senile! Heh-heh, you two scallywags never could catch anything bigger than a 3-pound bass outa that pond, even with all them fancy lures! But trust me, there was some great ol' big 'uns in there! Why, did I ever tell you about the time … "

"Excuse us, Mr. Piffington, but we might oughta wait another day to hear that fish story!" Harry interrupted. "There's somethin' real important we need to talk to ya about!"

"You better read this," I said gravely, handin' him the newspaper. The old gent put on his glasses and commenced to absorbing the bad news about Piffington Manor.

"Why, that Mayor Fonebone's nothin' but a dad-blame horse thief!" Clarence croaked. "I oughta take my great-granpappy's Confederate battle sword and run him through!" Then his anger turned to sad resignation. "Boys, truth be told, there ain't nothin' I can do about it! I hated to leave the old house, but I was livin' there all alone and finally just got too feeble to keep it up! So I sold the farm to get enough money to move into this here retirement home, but unfortunately I didn't have enough left over to pay them darn property taxes! I reckon it'll break my heart to see that fine old house bulldozed down — after all, I was born 'n' raised there, and I was hopin' to spend my last days on earth sittin' on that big ol' front porch!"

"Exactly how much back taxes does you owe?" I wondered.

"I'm afraid to ask," the ol' man sighed sadly.

"Well, don't you worry none, Clarence!" I consoled him. "Me 'n' Harry's fixin' to get to the bottom of this and see if we can't save the place! Heck, it just wouldn't be Swamp Gas Corners without Piffington Manor!"

We bid our goodbyes and hurried out to the truck. "How much spare cash has you got layin' around?" I asked Harry.

"Two hundred forty bucks," he allowed. "I've been savin' up for a new rod 'n' reel, but I'd druther it went to savin' Piffington Manor!"

"That's the spirit!" I replied. "I've got 300 clams squirreled away in my sock drawer. If we can get the other bass clubbers to pitch it, maybe we can pay off Clarence's tax bill! Let's head over to the courthouse to see 'zactly how much he owes."

We zipped to the courthouse and walked into the tax assessor's office. I told the clerk, "Clarence Piffington's a friend of ours, and he owes some back taxes on Piffington Manor. We'd like to find out what it would take to pay 'em off so's we can save the house from turnin' into a dad-blame parkin' deck!"

"Clarence Piffington, eh?" the clerk replied dryly, pulling a huge, dusty volume marked "P" off the shelf. "Let's see … Parker … Pfeffermonger … Pickering … ah yes, here we are: Piffington! It appears that Mr. Clarence Piffington, currently residing at Shady Acres Retirement Home, owes a grand total of $8,798.93 in back taxes on the property. Mayor Fonebone has informed us that if this amount isn't paid in full by noon tomorrow, demolition will commence immediately!"

"Where the heck is we gonna come up with that much money by noon tomorrow?!" Harry wondered. "That don't give us time to hold a benefit bass tournament!"

"C'mon, let's go plead our case to the mayor," I suggested. "That's all I know to do at this point!"

The mayor's office had been recently paneled in genuine Honduran mahogany — at taxpayer expense, of course. "May I help you gentlemen?" asked the receptionist.

"We'd like to have a word with the mayor," I replied. "We're from the Swamp Gas Corners Historical Appreciation Society, and I must say we're absolutely appalled by his plans to demolish Piffington Manor!"

"Mayor Fonebone is in a meeting," she replied curtly. "He could see you next Monday at 10:45 a.m."

"But next Monday's too late!" Harry seethed. "We're friends of Clarence Piffington, and we need a few more days to raise the back tax money so your scumbag boss don't knock down his house!"

"Mayor Fonebone will be in a meeting with a contractor until noon tomorrow," the receptionist said firmly. "Then he has to attend the demolition ceremony!"

"Gee, I wonder who that contractor is?" I said sarcastically as we stormed out. "Tell Mr. Mayor he'll hear from us and the rest of the concerned citizenry of Swamp Gas Corners next November — on election day, to be exact!"

We went back to the retirement home to tell poor Clarence the bad news. "Reckon you boys could take me by the old place one last time?" he begged with tremblin' lips. "I'd like to say goodbye to her!" So we loaded Clarence into the Lunker Express and headed down Main Street to Piffington Manor.

Clarence handed me the key and I unlocked the door. The house, sealed up tight as a drum, looked none the worse for wear after being vacant for several years. "That's the biggest fireplace I ever saw!" Harry gasped. "And check out that sword over the mantel!"

"That's Colonel Angus Piffington's sword!" Clarence allowed. "It was awarded to him by Jefferson Davis after he commanded his troops to victory at the Battle of Lynchburg! Get 'er down for me, will ya, son? Ain't no way I'm gonna let that bulldozer flatten this precious heirloom!"

"Uh — Mr. Piffington, how much would you reckon that old sword is worth?" I wondered.

"Why, a wealthy collector from New Orleans once offered me $100,000 for it!" he replied. "Lemme see — I think I've still got his card in my wallet —"

* * *

"Well, that sure worked out sweet!" Harry allowed as we downed celebratory brewskis the next afternoon at Zonker's Tavern. "Ol' man Piffington phoned up that rich Civil War collector and he was here at 10 o'clock this morning, cash in hand! Then we carried the ole boy to the tax assessor's office and he paid his back taxes before the mayor could have the house demolished! So Piffington Manor is Piffington property once again, free 'n' clear!"

"And the best part is, the ole boy's got more than enough money left over so he can move back into the house and pay a babe-alicious Swedish nurse to move in and take care of him 24/7!" I laughed.

"Y'know, I've been thinkin' of retirin' myself," Harry allowed. "Wonder if ol' Clarence would rent me a room?"