Roger & The House
By Irene Bowman Landis '36
Reprinted from the Summer 2007 issue of FYC Bulletin
Who would ever want to buy an old ramshackle farm house cluttered with 10-12 miscellaneous farm buildings around it? Certainly not Anne Taylor, who made it clear from the beginning that she had absolutely no interest in it. Who, then? Roger Taylor, that's who!
Maybe it was because he spent the first 10 years of his life there. You see, when he was a baby, his father was killed in an automobile accident. His mother packed him up, and they went back to live in her parent's house. Or maybe it was because it had been in his family for 100 years. Maybe it was because he had so many precious memories of his childhood there. Or maybe it was because he already owned the farm land where it stood. For whatever reason, Roger wanted it, and he bought it. He planned to fix it up and, eventually, live there part-time after his retirement.
There is a unique little tale connected with that old house. At Anne's suggestion in 1996, Roger wrote a letter to it (the house), putting down in black and white what he wanted to do. The letter clarified his feelings and helped his wife understand how, in so many ways, it was so important to him. I was privileged to read that letter and found it so interesting and so intriguing that I wanted to share some of the contents. I asked Roger for permission to write a little story about it and maybe get it into one of the Knox publications. So here goes, with a few embellishments by the author.
In the letter, Roger wrote a lot about his years spent on the farm, and I was absolutely amazed at all the similarities in our childhood experiences. Since he was a farm boy, and I was a city girl (pop. 350), we both watched hogs butchered and the chitlins fried, which we ate while they were still hot. We both remember when our uncles came home from the World Wars, mine from WWI and his from WWII. His uncle gave him candy, and mine gave me gum. We had a Jersey cow and so did his family. We both churned cream to make butter. When he was old enough, he became the water boy for the threshers, and I drove a horse and buggy with water for the threshing crew at the edge of our town.
Roger got Scarlet Fever and his grandparents had to move out of their home until he was cured. I was diagnosed with Scarlet Fever, so my Dad couldn't go to work at the coal mine. He gave me his long yellow lead pencil, which he always kept in his bib overall's pocket. After three days, the doctor decided I had a severe case of tonsillitis, so down came the Scarlet Fever sign, my Dad went back to work, and happily I got to keep the pencil.
Sunday dinners were always a big deal with both families. We always had chicken. Roger's grandmother stepped on the chicken's head and cut it off with a butcher knife. My mother stepped on the head then pulled with all her might until the head separated from the chicken's body. Who could ever forget seeing those headless chickens flopping around the back yard? Not me! When the flopping was over, the chicken was immersed in a pail of boiling water, and we pulled off all the feathers that we could. Then our mothers took over.
Roger wanted to live part-time in the old house when he retired, and he knew how happy this would make his mother, aunt, and stepfather (as well as other relatives) to see the place in good shape once again. He remembered his grandfather saying that he hoped some family members would always live in the house. He knew it would have to be totally renovated. It would need to be comfortably warm in the winter and comfortably cool in the summer. He knew he would have to be fairly conservative so that neighbors wouldn't think he was "putting on the dog." Yet, he wanted spacious comfort for future guests, with lots of storage space and lots of light for avid readers, inside plumbing, and lots and lots and lots of book shelves for their monumental book collection.
At this time, Roger was busy practicing law in Chicago. It was vital to find a fine architect to see the house and give him a speculative bid for renovation. He found a good one and made an appointment to meet the architect at the farm for a ‘look-see." At the designated time on the designated day, the architect drove into the farm yard. He walked around the house, got back in his car and was never heard from again. So Roger found another architect and set up an appointment with him. On the designated day at the designated time, this architect drove to the farm, didn't get out of his car, took one good look and high-tailed it back to Chicago. Alas and alack!
But then came manna from Heaven. Roger contacted Galesburg's own pride and joy -- Merle Banks. Merle agreed to look over the premises, formulate some plans, and come up with an approximate cost figure. What Merle found was just unbelievable.
The whole place was literally falling apart. Roger gave Merle a key, which he didn't need because there were four or five places he could walk right into the house. In the barn yard were 10-12 miscellaneous dilapidated buildings, all in shambles. They were all full of trash and junk, including 150-200 old tires. It would require truck-load after truck-load to haul away all the stuff. Out of all these buildings, Merle thought he could salvage one barn and two sheds and rebuild them. Roger wanted things as close to the original as possible, which would mean removing a four-holer (with a slant of 40˚) and then building a new one just like it. Merle planned a two-car garage to be attached to the house for an extra little convenience.
The first time Merle went into the house, a deer jumped out of the basement and trotted away. Then two chipmunks came down from the upstairs, and off they ran. There was a decrepit small back porch with an old refrigerator on it -- food was still in it. Apparently the former tenants suddenly decided to move to Florida, so they got up from the dinner table and walked out! The table was still set with dirty dishes and bowls of deteriorated food. The kitchen refrigerator was still full of old food with a horrible stench. It was a real mess if there ever was one. Merle could walk from room to room through the walls. He certainly got his eyes full.
The sandstone foundation was crumbling. This meant the house would have to be moved off of its foundation (miraculously, the old house held together). A new cement foundation would have to be built, and it would have to be faced with sandstone. The sandstones had been retrieved from the Spoon River bottom and they weighed about 350-400 lbs. each. They would have to be moved with a block and tackle. With the sandstones piled in the front yard, passers-by would help themselves, so a fence would have to be built around them.
When all the sandstone blocks were out of the way, a large basement area would have to be dug out, and a lot of bookshelves would be built. A new furnace and a new air-conditioner would be put in to preserve the books. But in that rural area, there were frequent power outages, which would necessitate a generator for just such emergencies and for book protection.
The exterior of the house was sided with cedar and that meant special cedar wood milling to match the original if the house were to look the way it once did. The front porch could be rebuilt, and a porch swing could be put in place. The small back porch could be rebuilt, screened in, and could make an ideal and very pleasant place for the happy hour at sundown.
In the interior, the wood work would be specially milled to match the old staircase. All the pine doors and windows and floors would have to be replaced. The only difference in appearance would be the addition of a fireplace in the living room. It would be a six room house with living, dining, and kitchen on the ground floor, and three bedrooms and a bath on the second floor. All were to be exact copies of the original.
Merle took his plans and estimated cost to Roger's office in Chicago. He discussed them with Roger and Anne. Roger thought and thought and finally asked Anne what she thought. Anne said she had things to do, and if he wanted it, buy it! And Roger decided to have his dreams come true. Hooray! Merle found it was not easy to get anyone to drive 35-40 miles out in the country to work. One day a junk collector stopped by and asked if he could have the old refrigerator from the back porch. This would save the cost of having it hauled away. In the course of the conversation, the man said he was available and willing to work there, and he became the first full-time employee. He turned out to be a real treasure. With total interior decorating on the agenda, Merle's wife and daughters pitched in to get the job done.
So what about all of this?
Well, the project lasted 17 months. The architect drove 14,000 miles The workers combined put 36,000 miles on their cars. The ultimate cost -- $ $ $ $ $ $ $ $ $ $. The result -- a very happy Anne Taylor, who had gradually changed her mind full circle, and an ecstatic Roger Taylor.
Way to go, Roger!
A good friend of the Taylors, Irene Bowman Landis '36 passed away in December 2009. She was a past president of the FYC, a class correspondent, and a recipient of the Knox Service Award.