The Little House with the White Picket Fence

My Grandmother Shafer, Harriet Josephine Doud, called “Hattie,” lived in Thayer, Indiana, from 1928 to 1958. It was the place where my grandfather’s life ended in 1931 and where she remained until about 1958, when she moved to the Home for Presbyterian Ministers and their Wives in Newburgh, Indiana. About 1925, Grandfather Shafer, Rollin Grant Shafer, 1868-1931, who was enduring failing health, became the pastor of the Presbyterian Church near Lowell, in Lake County, Indiana. It was about ten miles from a little town named Belshaw, where the family lived and my father and his sister Helen attended school. Since Grandfather’s family was from Pike County, perhaps this place was chosen because it was nearer to Grandmother’s family in Grundy County, Illinois. His previous churches had been in Southern Indiana and Illinois: Grayville, Illinois; Oakland City and Evansville, Indiana.

In the summer of 1928, the family moved to Thayer, Indiana, in Newton County, where Grandfather became the “supply” preacher of the Thayer Presbyterian Church, a small white-frame church, built in the frame & steeple style so familiar to the Midwest. He was also the mail carrier, a job which required him, morning and evening, to put the outgoing mail in a sack and attach it to the “pickoff frame” to be snatched into the Monon train as it sped by. He carried the sacks of mail thrown off the train to the post office, a room in someone’s home. It was early in the Depression and times were harsh.

The little house in Thayer was purchased for about $1500. This is my father’s description:

“I recall one of our trips to Thayer. The road crossed the Kankakee River about three miles north of Thayer. Going into town from the north, our house was the first one on the right. It was a cute little house with five rooms, a front and rear porch, and a white picket fence. There were five maple trees in the front yard lined up behind the picket fence. In the side yard and back yard there were a cherry tree, a gooseberry bush, a peach tree, and a small patch of raspberries. Off to the side and next to a small garage was the outdoor toilet, the first and last we ever had [ he means they had never lived in homes without indoor plumbing]. For water we had a small pump at the sink in the kitchen. It was after I left for college that a neighbor friend of mine put in an electric pump.” [unpublished memoirs of the Reverend Floyd Doud Shafer].

As I read my father’s recollections of the little house, I was saddened again to read of the decline in family fortunes. Both of my grandparents were well-educated for their time. My grandfather was a graduate of Oakland City College and McCormick Seminary in Chicago; my grandmother, a former teacher, graduated from Bloomington Normal School, now the Illinois State University. My grandfather had successful pastorates at several fairly large churches. Oil had been discovered on his family’s land in Pike and Gibson counties; that lead to speculation, land deals, and who knows what. When the dust settled, he had lost everything, telling my father, who was a small boy, “I’m ruined.” My father was born when Grandfather was 48, so this was probably about 1921-22. To support his family, Grandfather took a position as a circuit minister, traveling to preach at numerous small churches. It was during this time in the early 1920’s that his leg was injured. Then he moved his family to northern Indiana, Lake County, where he had the small church near Lowell and then the small church near Thayer. Clearly, they barely eked out a living. The little white house was not nearly as large or grand as pictures of their previous homes, nor of the homes of their parents—all large two-three story gothic design houses common to the Midwest in the late 1800’s.

My memories of the little white house are fragmented, but vivid. We visited when I was a child—a long drive from Louisville, Kentucky to Northern Indiana on the old highways. The visit when I was 8 -10, around 1952-54, is my clearest recollection. The little house sat near the road in the manner common to horse and buggy days. The living room was on the right as one entered. It seemed dark, full of heavy old furniture. An oil stove, the heat system for the entire house, dominated the living room. The wallpaper was a grayish flower design; the room had a definite Victorian feel—bric-a-brack, lace pieces. There must have been some electricity, but I remember oil lamps in use, too.Two pieces from that room, the Edison phonograph and the oak library table now reside in my sunporch, having journeyed to Louisville, Kentucky; Knoxville, Tennessee; Salem, Indiana; Yale, Michigan; Columbus, Ohio; and finally back to Salem. Everything was neat and organized efficiently.

The bedroom was behind the living room and included the staircase to the two small bedrooms upstairs under the eves. The upstairs bedrooms had slanted walls, linoleum floors, and white iron bedsteads—simple, clean, and neat. The kitchen I remember as light-filled with a number of windows. I was fascinated by the kitchen pump at the large sink, which Grandmother showed me how to use. There was also a pump in the back yard. As my father noted, the house had no indoor plumbing. Chamber pots were used in the bedrooms at night and in cold weather. Grandmother showed me how to use one and then carefully cover the pot, sliding it back under the bed. These had to be carried to the outhouse to be emptied, a trip which required walking down the path in the garden. That visit was in the summer, because I remember the spiders in the outhouse—quite inhibiting. Corn cobs and the Sears catalog were the “toilet” paper. For a city child like me, this cleaning apparatus was indeed a shock, though any child growing up in the Midwest in the mid-20th Century was familiar with outhouses, which were used in parks and rural areas, even today. When I started teaching in Salem in 1977, the view from my classroom windows was east across the football field to the back of a city street, the one I live on, called Water Street. I could see the old outhouses in the backs of the yards from my classroom.

Grandmother, like Grandfather, was a skillful gardener. She showed me her compost. I was astonished that one gathered coffee grounds, egg shells, food scraps, and buried them in the garden. The yard was lush, full of flowers, bushes, and trees, and the large vegetable garden. I do not remember neighboring houses, just fields at the edge of the yard.

I thought the house and yard absolutely delightful. In my mind, it is the ideal, a house where I would want to end my days—a simple white house, surrounded by trees and flowers—warm, cozy, old-fashioned. Of course, I would prefer indoor plumbing and air conditioning. Grandmother lived in Thayer, on and off, for thirty years. After she moved to the Presbyterian Home, the house was sold. Sadly, it burned a few years later.

The New Kitchen

Whatever possessed me to purchase a cooktop stove?? There is no hope that I will ever keep this thing clean, though I understand a special razor scraper can be purchased to scrape off the black markings which develop. However, the worst aspect is all the food I have burned. I have ruined two pots of bean soup in two days. Max finally suggested that I should make bean soup in the crock pot; I think he is tired of buying new bags of beans and the smell reminds him of a cooking disaster when he was in college. The burners on my old electric stove only half-worked, half the time. Thus, I could start cooking and wander off with no harm. The new stove works–consistently. I wander off—and dinner is burned.

The stove is part of the kitchen remodeling project, an adventure in mess/exhaustion/confusion/disruption/disorder which took up our entire fall. Scheduled to begin in late September, the project finally got underway the Monday after Thanksgiving and was completed on December 12. The old 1920’s kitchen, original to the house, was completely gutted and new wiring, lights, cabinets, floor, and plumbing were installed. Of course, this necessitated packing up the old kitchen and storing the boxes in the living room and wherever they could be squeezed. Then, we camped out for two months, rummaging in boxes to find necessary items, while waiting for the contractor to begin. Once started, the project moved right along and we only did without water one weekend. The big task turned out to be washing everything—dishes, pans, silverware, food stuffs—before restocking the cupboards. Sadly, a number of boxes remain unpacked. 

I am a lackluster housekeeper, well….shiftless might be more accurate, but even I was appalled at the evidence of mouse parties which appeared when the old cabinets were pulled out. Those little mice had been having frolics in my kitchen. We knew they were there; we could hear them and occasionally one left evidence in a drawer, which then required washing everything in the drawer. This fall, I found a dead mouse one day when I opened the cabinet under the sink. He was inches away from the package of mice poison, having obviously gorged himself and then keeled over dead. Even worse was the little mouse who was caught in the trap in the cabinet under the sink and cried for a while before he died. I was so distraught that I left the house until Max could take him away. It would have been kinder to have killed him, but I could not do that either.

Worse than the mice, which have long had nests in this old house, were the rats. When we first moved in, back in 1984, the boys and I heard scuffling under the refrigerator. LOUD scuffling. We suspected a rat and put out rat poison. This idea was hard for me to grasp, as, well—I had never encountered rats before, not even when I lived in the slums of Lafayette my first year at Purdue or later in cockroach city, aka Married Student Housing. Our house is on the edge of town in a nice older neighborhood—not a place I expected to find rats. On a few occasions, there was evidence, such as a chewed leather button, that the rat was loose in the house. One day, we had been gone for a while and when we returned, the rat made a dash for it, running from under the refrigerator towards the living room. Dan, who was about 13, had the presence of mind to grab the fireplace tongs and smite the rat dead, right there in the living room. Dan—-a good man in a crisis.

The new kitchen is sealed tight and all the old mouse holes have been plugged, covered, or removed. No more mouse parties. The new cabinets, counter-top, and floor are beautiful, way too nice for the likes of us. Max was shocked, though. He stood in the middle of the kitchen, a galley type in which three is a crowd, and exclaimed, “It’s the same size as before.” Too, too, true.

My Sunporch Room

The summer of 2006 was a disaster. Max’s left hip prosthesis came apart on June 6. After a trip to the ER and minor surgery to push the ball back into the socket, he was fitted for a brace and spent the next six weeks on crutches. No sooner had he healed than on July 23 he pivoted at the car wash and the hip popped out again. Another trip to the ER, surgery, and back to the brace and crutches. On August 9, the ball and socket were replaced successfully; after six weeks of healing he was off of crutches and back in the swirl of life again.

When Max and I were married in 1987, and he moved into my house, he claimed the sunporch as his room. Here his recliner, TV, and piles of stuff “lived” for 18 years. But, the large new TV never fit well in the room and it was too crowded when visitors came. He certainly does not intend to receive visitors from anyplace but his recliner. Thus, as he struggled with the hip issues last summer, one day he suggested we flip the rooms, meaning he and his recliner/TV would move into the much larger living room, while my computer and I would move out to the sunporch. I had to let go of one of my mother’s rules, “no recliners in the living room,” but we do not keep a formal household, so I let it go.

Well…what a mess. We hired some former students to help and they whirled around moving things faster than we could point to where to place them. It took me several days to sort things out, but once we were settled, we were very pleased. I dragged up the French Doors, original to this 1920ish house, from the basement, covered with dust and mold. After washing them in the front yard, I managed to hang them—they are quite heavy. Before I bought this house in 1984, the previous owners had pasted bamboo on the glass and used the room as a bedroom. Half the bamboo had fallen off and the glue had crystallized to a deep golden color. However, the glue chipped right off with a razor blade. I got enough off to allow light to pass, though the job needs a final finish and several panes must be replaced. The doors block the noise of the TV and the scent of visitors—giving me a safe place from the headachy perfume and laundry detergent scent visiting people wear.

As we sorted out the furniture, I decided to put my particular treasures in this room—the sunporch. The tall oak bookcase that stood in the kitchen of the Fair Acres house where I raised my children now stands along the inner wall, along with a temporary metal bookcase—until I can dig the oak bookcases out of the storage unit. Along the same wall is my china cabinet, filled with my treasures, none of which would gain any $$$ on Antiques Road Show. The Edison record player is centered along the east wall, as I don’t mind partially blocking the view of the street. Next to it are small bookcases from my children’s grandparent’s home, also loaded with pictures and treasures. Other particular treasures are an antique oak washstand that belonged to friends of my parents, Bill and Jane Thompson; my grandparents’ library table, which I use as a desk; and a small bookcase my father made for me when I was in college. A couple more book cases, my apricot colored recliner, Aunt Francie’s apricot velvet chairs, plus my glass desk and computer fill up the room. The three walls of windows, eleven in total, keep the room from feeling too crowded. Obviously, I prefer things to be “visually stimulating”….i.e. cluttered.

Right now, it is past midnight. The half moon is shining through the branches of the largest silver maple tree, out the window to my left. I would never see such a lovely sight or see the glorious pink and gold sunset I saw today or watch Friend squirrel if I were still in a corner of the living room. It was a mutually beneficial move.