Wednesday, January 19, 2011

This old house


The old Miller house in English Township, now in its 112th year. This series of photographs was taken during the fall of 1999. The house looks much the same --- just older.

This is the house I think of when I hear Stuart Hamblen’s classic “The Old House.” But with some trepidation --- there are those out there who will remind me quite rightly that this particular old house is still loved and occupied, far from forgotten, and that most of the lyrics don't apply at all.

Hamblen’s lyrics also suggest that his old house is afraid of thunder, that his old house is afraid of storms. But this old house, which has pretty much seen everything and done it all, isn’t afraid of much I’d guess.

If I’m figuring this right, the old Miller house is now in its 112th year out there in English Township, still looking down its nose a little suspiciously at passersby on the road to Zion --- and Olmitz, Tipperary, Centennial and Frog Pond --- plus a lot of other former places it has long outlived.

My great-grandparents, Joseph Cyrus and Mary Elizabeth (Clair) Miller, purchased the 240 acres on which this old house stands for $5,000 from William F. Carson on June 2, 1888. The purchase was in effect a trade, since on the 15h of October 1888, Cyrus and Mary sold to Carson for $4,500 the smaller farm in nearby Pleasant Township where they had lived since 1879.

Cyrus had never liked the other farm in large part because it was entirely prairie --- not a tree to be found on it although plenty were in sight. This new farm offered the best of all worlds thought necessary at that time: fine prairie stretching west to the horizon, woods to the north and east.

It was also a little closer to home, only a mile from the big house his parents, Jeremiah and Elizabeth (McMulin) Miller, had built in the late 1860s after moving to Lucas County from Monroe County, just to the east. And to Sunnyside School, which all of the Millers always had attended.

There was a smaller, older and somewhat rickety house on the new farm for the Millers to move into. It was located to the north, farther from the road, just east of the long driveway to old barn.

The last of the Millers’ nine children were born in that old house --- Easter, Jeremiah and the infant named in death after his father. That infant’s tragic passing in August 1895 remains hopelessly entangled with the equally tragic death of Cyrus during November of the same year.

Left with eight children ranging in age from age 3 to 18 and a mortgage, someone less determined than Mary might have looked for an easier way --- but she just carried on with considerable assistance from her elder children, most notably my grandfather, William Ambrose, and his sister, Lizzie, upon whom a good deal of the burden fell.

With their help, she had paid off the $1,200 mortage and $930 in debts against Cyrus’s estate by 1898.

During the fall of 1899, because the “house upon the farm became so old and out of repair that it was unfit to live in, and not worth repairing,” Mary and her family built this house for $1,385 --- and remortgaged the farm for $1,200 to do it.

The house may have been ready for the family to move into during November or December of that year. Granddad wrote checks on Oct. 9 to J.E. Payne for brick, to H.M. Tuttle on Oct. 19 for mixing mortar, and to C.W. Peterson on Oct. 28 for lathing, plastering, chimneys and the cellar floor.

I think of this as the quintessential Iowa farmhouse of its time, but it incorporates a number of grace features that were not exactly necessary to basic farm life and I wonder how much influence Mary had in ensuring their presence --- delicate fretwork in the gable ends and elsewhere, the fish-scale shingles also in the gable ends as well as the square windows surrounded by colored lights in the attic, the beveled and leaded glass that sparkles above the big dining room window.


The Miller house from the northwest. Note the arched tile cap on the kitchen chimney, designed to deflect water and contain sparks.

One of my favorite elements, however, is more practical --- the arched tile covering of the kitchen chimney, intended both to keep out water and to prevent rising sparks from setting the roof alight.

This old house worked hard for a living and for much of its life was always full, often to overflowing. When my grandparents married in 1905, they moved in with Mary and those of her children who remained at home. They were joined later by my grandmother’s mother and niece, Chloe and Verna Brown, and my oldest uncles, Joe and Owen, were born in this house.

The old house may have breathed a sigh of relief when the Will Miller family moved into the first phase of the other house on the Miller farm after its completion during 1909.

Later on, at Mary’s request, her youngest son and his family --- Uncle Jerry and Aunt Fern and their eventual four children (Velma, Ernest, Warren and Elizabeth) --- moved in when he took over farming operations.


The Miller house from the northeast with Cousin Warren's shop/garage in the foreground.

According to my mother, deeply attached as all the grandchildren were to Mary, she reserved the big front room kind of informally for herself as well as the bedroom above it, and the young Miller family occupied the rest --- sharing of course kitchen and dining room privileges. I’m not exactly sure about this, but there are those who can fill me in.

Mary Elizabeth and Aunt Fern both died during 1933 --- Mary after a long life in October and Fern, sadly young, of breast cancer during December.

Uncle Jerry raised his family single-handedly here and for many years shared the house with his younger son, Warren, who also died before his time (or so it seemed to us). It remained Uncle Jerry’s home until his death during 1986, just two months shy of his 94th birthday. And I have to confess I sometimes wonder if Uncle Jerry ever listened to Hamblen's old song --- and identified with it.

Whatever the case, this house still is in his family and still standing strong, continuity that is increasingly rare.

1 comment:

deb said...

Please contact me regarding Mary Ellen Miller, whose grandfather was William Miller. djblume@mchsi.com