Remember that old house on the north side of town? The house was big, with the chimney going right up the middle of it. All the floors leaned toward the chimney. It was painted a dark brown and had four doors that opened to the outside. One door opened into a stairway where the house was divided to make a duplex out of it. Once inside the door you could go to the right or the left or upstairs, where each side held two bedrooms. The toilet stood out in the backyard along with a small shed. This big house wasn’t even in the village of Downing. It wasn’t even in the same county. A road divided the two counties, yet here it was on the edge of town that was very much a town block with houses on both sides of the road.
It had its jokes too. If there was a storm in St. Croix County, the folks just went across the road to Dunn County.
When I first saw that house, I thought it was beautiful. It had this wonderful porch around two sides. Wouldn’t it be fun to be a kid and live there? You could run on the porch and roller skate, even do headstands if you wanted to.
I never dreamed I would own that house someday. It was pretty old and had been made into a duplex for more rent money. My English teacher lived there and a nice old couple lived on the back side. I was in it a few times. It seemed comfortable enough.
If my memory is still with me, it was 1957 when my husband came in after a trip to Downing, and you would have thought he had just won a ticket to the World’s Fair. He told me with a twinkle in his eye and satisfaction on his face that he had bought a house. Surprised I said, “You bought a house? Where?”
We had been wandering all over Wisconsin and Minnesota with my husband’s job. We had three children and I really wanted a home for them. He had just returned from a visit to my old hometown.
“Do you remember that big brown house on the edge of town? Well, I bought it for $3,000 and the payments will take less than a week of work.”
Well, yes, I was pretty happy. Then on the other hand, I said, “You know that old house is over 100 years old?” That didn’t slow us down much. I’d finally have a home of my own, and the children would have a school nearby. Best of all, the children would get to know their grandparents.
We had a lot of work to make the old house a home, and it took years, but we loved it, and after a very cold winter it was time to improve our home. You maybe can guess that the first thing my husband did was take off that wonderful porch. Well, I guess it had to go, and after all, we did have our own home. Someday it would be replaced by a double garage.
We lived in that house for 30 years, and every year it took a little work here and more work somewhere else. The first winter we lived in two rooms just to keep warm. When the warm days of spring arrived, the chimney and floors were replaced.
Reconstruction doesn’t just happen in a big family — you also have little feet in the way and that day our younger son managed to get his foot stuck somehow between the floor boards. He couldn’t get it out. We tried everything. We took off his shoe, but that didn’t help, so we finally had to call the fire department. It was a long day.
We needed a big house, so the duplex walls came down and a big, beautiful kitchen and a small bathroom were added. That did not happen easily either. While helping hold a big kitchen window, I fell and broke my ankle. That was in April. I didn’t get that cast off until September. Yes, it was a pretty long summer.
Remember the stairway? Now it opened right into the kitchen. At one time it must have been a beautiful stairway, but now it was dingy and worn. I went after that with a sander and varnish remover and lots of sandpaper and then new varnish until it became the really nice stairway it was meant to be.
We have a lot of stories about the stairway. Near the top step, it always creaked when stepped on. That always let me know when the teenagers had arrived home, until they discovered how I always knew the time they had come home. Then of course they would just miss that step.
Two of the children came home on the same bus from school. They always would try to outrun each other and get in the house first. I would hear them coming and go out the back door, walk around the house and come in the front door. By then the noise and fighting over the doorknob would be over and a sort of peace had taken over as I usually had fresh-baked cookies waiting on the table.
The most useful thing we built was a table for eight. Even though we did have a nice dining room, the kitchen seemed to be the place where everyone wanted to be.
We did get a nice porch. By the time that was built, the children were grown and it became a nice place for the neighbors to have morning coffee.
The yard changed through the years. For a long while it held a big garden, a sandbox, swings and a slide, and also a tree swing that contained an old tire, and you don’t have boys without a tree house. Yes, the boys built a tree house and it kept them busy until one day the 2-year-old thought I wasn’t looking and decided to climb the makeshift ladder. That was a fast trip to the doctor and a broken arm.
Many things lived there besides us. The oldest son always came home with any stray dog. He even paid for the dog food out of his own money. One dog I remember had a collar on, so I called the number. When a man came for the dog, he was very mad and gave my son heck for taking the dog home. He said the dog would have found its own way. He didn’t even think to thank the boy.
We always had a cat, and there were chickens and rabbits, pigeons and a pig we named after the czar of Russia (so the children would not make a pet out of him). We had a cow and lots of stories about the horse.
That horse liked to listen to the radio, and he would stand by the fence to hear it. The baby could crawl under him and all around him, and he never moved. He would let the kids jump on his back from any angle.
Time moved on and the children moved out. The grandchildren were becoming teenagers, and my husband had retired. Before the house sold, we had all the grandchildren in for an overnight slumber party. It’s always hard to sell something that you have put your whole heart into. Once we were out, it was all good and the years spent there became our life story.
When I drive by, the old house looks pretty good. It should be good for another 100 years. I heard a rumor that they took the kitchen table out. Oh well, who needs a table nowadays in that big old house on the edge of town?