Former U.S. Navy Spy Finds Message Hidden Inside Historic Dresden Home


Joe Atnip (left), who is first cousin twice removed to Herschel Jennings Priestley (H.J.), a prior owner and resident of the home; Tony Winstead (center), current owner of the historic home; and Keith Priestley (right), great nephew to H.J. Priestley, stand in front of a 170-year-old house in Dresden. Winstead displays an old grape juice bottle found hidden inside the floor of the historic residence. The bottle contains a message from Priestley containing information about the history of the home.


DRESDEN (November 18) — Very few people may be aware that a retired U.S. Navy aviator, who served as mission commander on a high-altitude spy plane in the 1960s, now lives a peaceful life in a quiet, residential neighborhood in the City of Dresden.

Tony Winstead, now 76 years old, flew on numerous Top Secret missions for the United States government. Many of those missions involved flying the P-3 Orion spy plane, which is a much more technologically-advanced aircraft than the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) U-2 spy plane flown by U.S. pilot Gary Powers, who was shot down while flying a reconnaissance mission in Soviet Union airspace in 1960.

The P-3 Winstead flew is a four-engine turbo prop and carried more surveillance equipment than a U-2. The P-3, which was developed for the U.S. Navy, was introduced in the 1960s and has been used for aerial surveillance and drug interdiction by U.S Customs and Border Protection. Winstead’s aircraft was an intelligence collection platform.

His plane was staffed by a crew of 25 airmen. As mission commander, Winstead coordinated all the activities of the mission.

“I served in the Pacific the entire time and worked on intelligence collection,” Winstead said.

Winstead’s military career began when he joined the Tennessee Army National Guard while still in high school. He served for 11 years (1962 until 1973). While a member of the National Guard, he served with several local units, including: Dresden, Union City, Paris, Camden and Waverly. During this time, he worked for the Soil Conservation Service.

Winstead joined the U.S. Navy in 1973 and served for 21 years. He retired from the Navy in 1994 and moved back to Dresden, where the 32-year veteran purchased an older, but stately-looking house, built in 1907. “It seemed like a reasonably priced house at the time, but I found out it’s a real money pit,” Winstead said.

In 1997, he decided to buy the house and lot next door, located at 240 Linden St.

“I thought it was just an old, dilapidated house and we’d fix it up and rent it for a while. But it got to the point I didn’t like the looks of it. So, I started tearing it down and discovered a hand-hewn, timber-frame structure was hidden underneath the exterior façade, which was applied at a later date,” Winstead shared. He states timber-framing is a very strong method of construction and was utilized in building the more expensive homes of the 1800s.

Additional research indicates the original two-story building, which had a large room in the middle and two side-rooms, plus one room upstairs, was constructed around 1859 or earlier.

There were two chimneys and four fireplaces to heat the home – two upstairs and two downstairs.

“It’s had several additions built onto it over the years,” Winstead said. “I had some indications a room built on the back was added in the 1890s.”

Winstead describes the craftsmanship and types of wood used in the construction of the house. The red gum framing timbers were held together with wooden pegs, and the plank walls and flooring, which were made of Poplar, were held fast with square nails. The type of nails used were last manufactured in 1850.

He notes the corner-framing in the walls are hewn from a single piece of material using an axe, which is a technique used during the 1800s.

The floorboards are hand-planed on one side and rough on the other. The tongue-in-groove edges were made using a special hand-plane tool. The structure also has diagonal corner braces.

“The house would probably stand up better than a modern home would during an earthquake or tornado,” Winstead said.

For durability, the three-inch by 10-inch floor joists are made of red gum. The floorboards are heartwood yellow poplar.

He pointed out there was a small amount of termite damage to some of the wood in certain areas, but the termites didn’t eat the yellow poplar. “Back in those days, they didn’t have Servall or Terminix, so they built houses from insect-resistant woods as much as they could,” Winstead said.

He stated it appears the builders of the original timber-frame house constructed a single room with plastered walls made of a mixture of cement and what appears to be horsehair fiber. The original occupants apparently lived in it until they finished the rest of the house. The walls in the other original rooms were covered with cheese cloth-backed wallpaper held in place with antique square tacks. The wallpaper was applied to keep out drafts.

“Building a house in the 1800s was very labor-intensive, because the builders didn’t have the tools we have today,” he said.

Additions were built onto the original house over the years, and with a modern lap-siding exterior covering the entire structure, it was impossible to tell there was an older building hidden underneath. Eventually, people who saw the home, as it originally stood, died and others, who were familiar with its history, forgot about it over time.

The remodeled and enlarged residence was eventually made into a duplex.

Because of its historical significance, Winstead is dismantling the building piece-by-piece, instead of wrecking it. He plans to reassemble the structure on his farm in the Latham area, using as much of the original material as he can salvage.

However, Winstead is working against the clock. He notes the Dresden Condemnation Board voted to condemn his property, even though he is already tearing it down. He hopes to disassemble the historic home in time to save it from being demolished, which would make reconstructing it impossible, and an important landmark would be lost forever.

An old building behind the residence, constructed of hand-hewn timbers, is believed to have been a smokehouse at one time. Winstead says he plans on restoring the structure and using it as a garden house at its present location.

Herschel Jennings Priestley (H.J.), who once owned and resided in the home with his wife, La Nelle Priestley, enclosed the breezeway between a detached kitchen behind the home and the main house. Priestley also added a room on the south side of the building.

“The casing of the original well is still there, but someone filled it up,” he said.

Message In A Bottle

Winstead said he was in the process of dismantling the house, when he made a discovery that got his attention. He found messages rolled up inside sealed bottles hidden in the walls and beneath the flooring of the old house.

One of the messages was found inside a sealed Welch’s grape juice bottle placed underneath the floor planks of the home as a type of time capsule for someone to find in the future. The message, dated July 14, 1952, was signed by Herschel Jennings Priestley (H.J.).

In the message, H.J., who was principal of Jeffersontown High School in Jeffersontown, Kentucky, described the house, as well as former owners and occupants, and historical events of the day.

H.J. wrote, “There stood by this house a giant chimney, which was probably built by 1861 or before. It was constructed, showing good workmanship and knowledge of the brick mason’s art, but the bricks were so soft that some would dissolve into red dirt when exposed to rain. Others could be powdered between one’s fingers. How the chimney stood so long is a wonder. It was plastered on the outside. A great crack opened in its upper half, so it had to be razed.”

H.J. states he and Willie Reavis worked during the morning for seven days to tear the fireplace down to hearth level. When a new chimney was built, the fireplace in the upstairs room was not replaced.

“Construction is to be done by Macel Henderson of Palmersville, and Mr. Vincent of Gleason. Mr. Tootsie Nailing is to make the mortar. Brick layers get $2.75 per hour for their work.”

This was one of the jobs done while H.J. and La Nelle Priestley were at home for the summer from teaching in Jefferson County, near Louisville, Kentucky.

Mr. Priestley wrote, “Jeffersontown H.S. has been consolidated with Anchorage H.S. to form Eastern High School.” This resulted in H.J. serving as dean of Boys at Valley H.S. in Valley Station, Kentucky, located on the Dixie Highway (U.S. Highway 60) just south of Louisville. He notes La Nelle teaches at Southern H.S. on Preston Street Road, which is east of Valley Station.

According to the letter, the Priestleys made numerous improvements to the residence including: foundation repair, adding a bathroom and sewage line to the street, a porch on the north side of the rear wing, enclosing the back hall, and constructing a new garage. Additionally, a cedar shingle roof was covered with new asphalt shingles, and another shingle roof around 1960. A large chimney made of soft brick, and a closet west of the chimney, were removed to make room for the new construction.

Actually, the 1952 letter was the second secret message to be discovered inside the old residence. But, since it was the first letter written by Mr. Priestley, it is included in Part I of the story about the old historic home.

(See Part II in next week’s Dresden Enterprise, to discover the message found inside a second hidden bottle and the famous residents who lived at the historic home, including a future Tennessee governor.)