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 [unpublished memoirs of the Reverend Floyd Doud Shafer].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.

One response to “The Little House with the White Picket Fence

  1. Floyd Shafer

    I remember that trip to Thayer, but I’m unsure how old I was then.
    I remember finding a squirrel’s nest somewhere in the front of the house in a tree. I believe we had an old, light blue car at the time. I don’t remember our youngest sister Becky (she would have been a baby) being along on the trip so perhaps it was 1952. Mother would have been well along on her pregnancy with Becky in the summer of 1953 and I don’t remember that.
    However, for there to be a squirrels nest with baby squirrels, perhaps it was May or June of 1952. I suppose it could have been May or June 1953. Becky was born in mid October. If the trip was in late spring 1952 I would have been a month or two past my 4th birthday.
    I remember a little of the house. I seem to remember the ceiling being lower than what I was used to at home. I remember a narrow, steep staircase that went to the attic or the 2nd floor. The house seemed very small to me even though I would have been 4 or 5. Our house in Louisville had 4 bedrooms, 1st and 2nd floors plus a full size basement so it seemed huge to me.

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