The House Remembers
by Steve Lutz
The first thing you learn when attempting to understand an old house you are fixing up, is that age is relative, relative to the framing, the plumbing, the electrical system, relative to the times and people who lived there. Things are added and things are taken away. My old house was built in 1905 but some parts are significantly younger. Each change that someone made, affected more than might have been intended. As I work, I watch for signs of how it has changed and I wonder about the people who did that work.
Restoring an old house requires careful study. It needs to be treated in part as an archaeological site. Measurements and photographs should be taken, sketches drawn, artifacts carefully removed, layers of wallpaper and flooring peeled back, spirits preserved. These are all things I’ve done as I attempt to restore my hundred-year-old house in the redrock country of Wayne County, Utah, in the town of Teasdale.
An original settler, town founder and carpenter named Isaac Goodwin built my house. He built it in a vernacular style for this area. The form of the house is a cross gable arrangement: a simple design, attractive and practical. Four rooms downstairs, four rooms up. Downstairs there was a parlor with its own porch entrance, as was the style then. It has been converted to a bedroom with a dropped ceiling which absolutely has to go. Its 1980s feel is totally wrong. The dining room, bedroom and kitchen had their own separate entrance from the porch. Upstairs there was one finished bedroom and two others, roughly framed and another with wide rough-sawn planks nailed to the wall and ceiling over old newspapers.
Isaac didn’t need much in the way of plans. He usually built from pictures in his head, transforming those visions with wood and stone, glass and hand-made adobe bricks into solid, lovely houses that would last generations. The wood came from the mountain south of town and was cut into boards at the steam-powered sawmill in Boulder Canyon. But Isaac was no structural engineer. A few structural members have failed over the years making some walls and floors permanently tilted or sagged. That any part of this house is square, plumb or level is not an assumption I can make. All of my carpentry is compensatory; I try to split the difference between true and the facts of hundred year old framing. I try to fool the eye so that something such as the new, square, level window in the north side trapezoidal wall looks right. I jack things up and reinforce them and if I do my work right you won’t notice a thing.
Isaac built the house for William Heaps and his family, to replace the log cabin they had lived in since moving over from Escalante in the late 1890s. William was probably not much help building, as he had only one arm. The other was lost to “blood poisoning.” Most likely this was a simple infection from a cut or even a scratch that would be easily cured today with antibiotics. He was lucky back then; it didn’t kill him.
Teasdale didn’t get electricity until 1938. Before that, my house was lit by candles, coal oil lamps and acetylene lights. The acetylene gas was generated in a heavy steel pressure chamber, about the size of two stacked coffee cans, installed on the back porch. Inside the chamber, water was dripped on to calcium carbide, thereby chemically producing acetylene, the most explosive of all gasses. It has an explosive range of 2 percent to 98 percent in air and ran through my house in tiny copper tubing about the thickness of the ink tube in a ballpoint pen. More than one old house exploded and burned due to malfunctioning acetylene generators or lights. This is the same technology that lit the headlamps of miners and lit the road for Henry Ford’s first cars.
When electricity came, it was thanks to the nearly forgotten work of Samuel Insul. Insul was an associate of Thomas Edison. He had the democratic vision that electricity should power the masses not just the engines of industry and the homes of the rich. He designed and convinced General Electric to build the first large scale generators. He promoted a power grid whose basic configuration remains unchanged today. His strategy included providing very cheap power to homes supported by high prices to business and industry. He gave away electric irons to families to ensure their consumption of electricity. He aggressively pushed his agenda, at great expense, into the depression. Angry Wall Street firms and investors blamed him for many of their losses. He was driven out of the industry and died brokenhearted in Paris.
His vision did not die. It was carried on by the Rural Electrification Administration brought forth during Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal to promote economic development throughout the country. The REA worked, providing jobs for installers and operators and creating markets for electrical equipment in homes, on farms, for business and industry. Initially, the specific market opportunities for electrical equipment in my house appeared to be the following: a fuse box (the kind where you could bypass the fuse with a copper penny); about 200 feet of cloth-covered 12 gauge copper wire; nine single-light-bulb, pull- chain operated, hanging fixtures (one for each room, one for the porch); six outlets; eventually a refrigerator with a round compressor on the top and probably a big cabinet radio from the Sears and Roebuck catalogue.
The Sears Catalogue was a metropolitan phone-book-sized wonderment of pictures and descriptions of anything you could buy for the home or farm. It was a catalogue of dreams for a modernizing America. The offerings included everything from union suit underwear to entire house kits that would take up a whole railroad car to transport in the age of the steam engine. When a family bought everything they could afford or when a new one came in the mail, the catalogue would be downgraded into primitive insulation (I found some in my walls) or taken to the outhouse as reading material and sometimes even used as a rough toilet paper
That brings us to plumbing. In 1912, the hand-dug water ditch was made obsolete by a pressurized water system feeding a single spigot installed just outside the back door. The Heaps family continued to haul the water inside in buckets and heated it on the wood fueled cookstove that still graces my kitchen with its warm radiant glow. Then the water was poured into basins for washing and into a galvanized steel tub for baths. That tub doubled as a hand-powered clothes washer. Some 20 years later a small addition was added to the east side of the house with an inside toilet, a sink and a claw footed bathtub. Then a heavy cast iron kitchen sink replaced the copper dry sink in the kitchen. A dry sink is just a watertight trough with no attached water source, mounted into a cabinet.
I have a 1915 photograph of the house. The family is standing in the shade of that porch. They look stiff and formal. I’m told they were not usually like that. One of the girls in the picture, May Heaps, inherited the house in the 1940s and lived in it until her death in 1980. This information and the picture itself came from William’s great nephew who still lives in town, along with many other descendants of its pioneer settlers. Lell Heaps is seventy-something years old and in failing health, but his memory, voice and his guitar playing are still strong. We have become friends since I bought his family’s old home place. He invited me to his fiftieth wedding anniversary. Some old lady guests convinced themselves that I was a relative, probably Cousin Hattie’s long lost son, Robert. I told them that I wasn’t related, I had just bought their Aunt May’s house and was fixing it up. They hugged me and said it was great that the old home was back in the family. My further protests were met with cake and punch. I smiled and thanked them. I guess I’m related to the house now, too.
As I write this, the fire in the cookstove crackles and the teapot gently groans as it boils. The Majestic cookstove was the major heat source when we moved in. That night in February, 2001, it was below zero and the wind whistled through the uninsulated walls, as if they were a screen door. There was a Stoker-Matic coal heater in the dining room but it took me a few days, some cursing, and some neighborly advice to get it working. A small coal stove upstairs kept the bedrooms just barely warm enough to not freeze a glass of water. During those first few days, we mostly shivered and huddled next to the Majestic, venturing away just long enough to haul more wood or coal. My highest priorities quickly became installing a propane furnace, lots of insulation and new, but historically correct, insulated windows. Everything is toasty now.
When we bought the house it didn’t much look like it did in 1915. Some time in the 1950s, an itinerant window and siding salesman came to town. He convinced May and her husband, Sam Adams, to replace the original tall, narrow, double hung windows with short, wide aluminum sliders. Then he covered the unpainted Douglas fir siding with pink asbestos hardboard shingles. Some of the windows and doors were taken out completely and merely sided over. Apparently, he was a hell of a salesman. His handiwork is still evident on half a dozen other houses within a few blocks of here.
A local mother told me tonight that her daughter always loved this house. Loved it more before I stripped off the pink asbestos. Always believed it to be haunted. Somewhat disappointed that it is inhabited by more or less normal people.
The breezeway and the attached barn shown in the picture are gone, replaced by the bathroom addition and a lean-to storeroom on the north side. The old log cabin nearer to the road with its root cellar basement is gone too, but its prior existence is indicated by a depression in the lawn.
Inside, the plumbing and wiring projects caused the original lathe and plaster walls to be ripped out and replaced by thick cardboard-like sheets of Celotex, covered with multiple layers of floral wallpaper. The wall between the dining room and bedroom had a big archway cut out to create the current living room. Upstairs, in one room, the walls and ceiling were covered by hundreds of tiny pieces of salvaged drywall creating a bizarre mosaic. The other two rooms up there had no finish at all and were open to the rafters and studs and the nearly ceaseless wind.
May’s husband, Sam Adams, was not as handy as Isaac Goodwin. Sam built the bathroom addition that tilts crazily on the east side. He dug a cesspool right next to the foundation on the north side causing that corner of the house to sink about four inches. Later, he had the cesspool pumped out and put a septic tank in the same hole and then built the storeroom on top of it. His wiring consisted of one main wire running though the whole upstairs floor with short sections stripped bare, twisted together with other wires for branch circuits and then wrapped with cloth tape. I found these wires when I tore out the floor, and I am still amazed they hadn’t caused the place to burn down. If that wasn’t enough, the notches he cut to accommodate the wiring in the undersized floor joists weakened them to the point that you could see the movement of a person walking upstairs in the downstairs ceiling. Sam’s work was not up to Isaac’s standards; his talents lay elsewhere.
Sam was a fine horseman and a notable cowboy. When he was a teenager at the beginning of the twentieth century, he was the outlaw Butch Cassidy’s wrangler and ran a string of horses for the Hole in the Rock gang down by Caineville, sixty miles from Teasdale. Sam is quoted as saying, “ I never met a finer man than Butch Cassidy.” This is borne out in the oral traditions hereabouts. It is told and retold how Butch gave an old couple $500 to save their house from foreclosure and then robbed the money back from the banker before he made it back to his vault.
Sam never learned to drive an automobile and traveled only by horse or donkey wagon until his death in 1970. The local kids would always clamor for a ride with him.
Shortly after we moved in, Dwight Taylor introduced himself. He grew up across the street in a house that his ninety year-old mother still lives in. He told us that Sam was a master leather worker. He said that the sway-backed shed on our property had been Sam’s tannery and more. It was a place where boys and old men swapped skills and stories. Sam taught the boys how to skin a deer and to turn the carefully scraped hide into the softest of leather. Sam told them about Butch and Sundance and Spanish treasure he had found in a lost cave and then was never able to find again. They learned less exotic but more useful things: how to find water in the Red Desert; how to deliver a backwards calf; how to make bridles and tool saddles. He said Sam always had a plug of chew in his mouth. His beard was stained by tobacco juice below the corners of his mouth. Every story was interrupted time and again by Sam spitting at an old bucket that he rarely hit. The place reeked of tanning chemicals and bleaching ammonia but the beauty of Sam’s creations made up for it, and it was a pleasure to see and touch his masterfully crafted workmanship.
On this cold, bright Halloween night, I wish to visit with Sam and May’s ghosts. I have questions that will never be answered without them. What were all the other people in the dog-eared photograph like? I know one of them was William, one was May. Others were William’s wife Cynthia Jane, May’s sisters Marion and Susanna and brother Lawrence. Was Butch Cassidy as nice a man as people around here still attest? Did he really leave a hundred dollars under a dinner plate after dropping in on a local family with the gang for an unplanned supper? Were there transom windows into the parlor, as the framing seems to suggest? Was there a piano here and what tunes made it ring?
Sam and May’s gravestone in the cemetery that I can see from here, says, “Loving Parents To Many.” They were cousins so having children would have been inadvisable but that didn’t stop them from taking in a young nephew, Lorenzo, my neighbor Lell’s brother, when their mother died. He is said to have been a shy boy, more likely to come out of the house at night to walk the dirt streets alone. Some locals thought him odd. Lorenzo went to Europe and was taken ill during WWII and never really recovered. Eventually dying from hepatitis, he rests now in the family plot.
When in an old place you may have heard someone say,” If these walls could only talk. . .” The walls of my old house do talk. I have found newspapers, magazines, ancient and well-repaired shoes, toys and letters, shopping lists, bills, clothing and school lessons. Each artifact says something to me about the people who lived here, what they cared about, what they wore, some of what they wished for. I hope they would approve of my craftsmanship or at least of my intentions towards their home. I know that the second family to live here approves. They’ve been back to look around and comment. According to them, I haven’t screwed it up too badly, yet.
Not that I haven’t made mistakes, I’ve fallen through the ceiling twice when I had the floor open while sistering the joists (placing a new one alongside an old one to strengthen the floor). I’ve shocked myself on circuits I thought I had turned off. I framed a window opening six inches off center and had to tear it all out and start again. Of course I am not doing all of this difficult work for those who lived here before. I do it to fulfill my own vision. I do it to have something to show for my efforts. Working on this house contrasts with my job, which at the end of a week, leaves me wondering just what I’ve accomplished. Here I can see the results. If I build a wall this week, it will still be here in a month, a year, maybe in a hundred years.
But truth be told, I do care about what the ghosts think of what I am doing to their house. They are my consultants, my advisers, the inspectors of my craft. I definitely do not want to get a stop-work order from beyond the grave. So for them, for me, for those who will live here a hundred years from now, I try to do things right. The insulation, the heating ducts, the carpentry, and the wiring especially, I try to do them as if the whole family were watching.
Thanks to my sources:
Rainbow Views: A History of Wayne County (1977)
A History of Wayne County (1999)
America’s Electric Story
The Sears Catalogue (1919)
The Farm Journal (Feb. 1946)
The Improvement Era (Nov. 1916)
The walls of 97 East Main St.