Thursday, February 28, 2008


The Story of My New House, as Told to Me by You

Originally published in the New York Mills Herald on 12/24/07 and credited to my alternate identity, Elisa Korentayer.

One of the most surprising things to me about living in a small town is just how many people know my business, sometimes better than I do myself. For example, recently I’ve learned more about the house I just bought from random, everyday conversations than I imagine most people in the suburbs can learn about the history their houses through formal research. Almost every time I describe my house to a local, I am interrupted halfway through my description with the conversationalist declaring knowingly, “Oh… the Brooks house. You bought the Brooks house.”

From each new conversation I have about the former Brooks house, I pick up bits and pieces of information. I’ve been sewing these scraps together to form an oral-history quilt of the story of my new house. As these scraps of information have come to me from a variety of sources—none of them official—I cannot vouch for the factual veracity of any part of the story I’m about to tell. As lawyers would allege, it’s all hearsay. But, as a storyteller, I know that it’s the truth behind the story that matters, rather than the facts themselves. And I quite like the story that’s emerging organically, conversation by conversation, about my new house. In fact, this house’s oral history has more truth to it than any documents would. So, let me tell you the story of my new home as I am coming to know it.

In 1995 Dana Brooks commissioned Dick Lausten to build a Southern-plantation-style house on a piece of farmland. He wanted this house built of wood and designed to have two floor-length verandas, one atop the other, held together by four grand two-story columns. The house was sided in cedar and furnished with oak appointments. Fireplaces grace the two main gathering rooms on the first floor. One of the most unexpected parts of this house is the elevator that was installed to allow Dana’s handicapped son to move freely among the basement, main floor, and second floor, as needed.

Dana’s son died at the age of 13 and is now buried at the foot of the driveway along with Dana’s mother, on a small piece of property still owned and cared for by Dana. Two blunt stone tombstones face the gravel drive and are attended by a small wooden arbor, an artfully rusting remnant of a metal buggy, and an old RV that seems to have been there long enough to become part of the landscape. The small piece of land sits on the road and is separated from what is now my property by a stone wall. You can’t see the graves well from the road, but I see them each time I drive up or down my driveway. When I first saw the graves on my initial visit to the house, I was tempted to hold my breath as I was instructed to do as a child when driving past cemeteries. Now, my inclination to pull away has shifted to curiosity. I look forward to learning more about the people whose memorials I will pass daily.

I ran into the builder Dick Lausten at the Lick the other night. When asked by Pam Robinson whether there was any dirty money, illicit treasure, or mob secrets hidden in the walls of my new house, Dick said there had almost been a dead body. When installing the elevator, the technician, who had had his doubts about the instructions included with the elevator, put two wires together while standing atop the elevator. Immediately the elevator shot two stories up into the air and broke two of the rafters. The technician would have been crushed, but luck and his reflexes allowed him to jump off in the instant the elevator exploded upward. A bit the worse for wear, the technician managed to escape with his life intact.

Over its short twelve-year lifespan, the house has had five owners. The house was first sold a couple of years after it was built to Wegscheid the oil man from Bluffton. Wegscheid delivered fuel oil to the hard-to-heat home, and must have been there often as the house requires one barrel of oil every three weeks to heat. (Needless to say, with the price of oil, we’re considering alternate options for heating now). The oil man redecorated the house and spruced it up to his taste. If he lived in it, it wasn’t for long. Soon after he bought it, he sold it to the Boyims, who lived in the house for a couple of years. My information about the Boyims came from another unexpected source, a furniture salesman at Country Furniture in Lake Park whom we met while doing surveillance on the cost of furniture to fill our new house. (Moving from a postage-stamp sized apartment in Brooklyn and then living in a small house in Mills leaves one with a furniture deficit when moving to a larger house.) Tony, the salesman, was in the process of taking us on a personal tour of the many expensive furniture options available when we described our new house. Upon hearing our description, he told us that he knew the house well and had been there. The previous owners, the Boyims, were friends of his. Apparently, his friends had loved the house and their only complaint was the exorbitant cost of heating. When the Boyims left, they sold the house to the Balbachs, who lived there for a couple of years and then sold it to us this fall.

There is another connection to this house that adds a pleasant bit of providence to our purchase of it. Chris’ father, Ken Klein, a native New York Millsian, had visited this house some years back when the Klein Insurance agency starting insuring it. When he saw the house, he thought to himself, “I wish one of my kids could live here. Too bad none of them was ready to buy a house when this one was on the market.” He didn’t expect the house to become available again in a timeframe that might work for his son. This summer, when Chris and I were talking to Ken about our house hunting process, Ken told us about the plantation house, one of the most beautiful houses he had seen in the area. Too bad it wasn’t likely to be on the market for a while, we agreed. A couple of months later, our real estate agent, the lovely Terry Weiser from Lakes Area Realty in West Ottertail, called me with excitement. “There’s a house that I appraised some years back that’s just come on the market. It’s not on a lake, but you have to see it. I think this may be the house for you.” It was only once she showed us the picture of the house that we realized it was the house that Ken had seen and wished for his son a couple of years back.

I’ve started adding my own elements to the story of the house. I’m working on turning one of the bedrooms into my music studio and office. As I paint and clean and struggle with wallpaper and baseboard removal, I feel like I am starting to make my own mark on the house and contribute my own part of the story. I wonder what you all might say some years hence when describing this house to someone else. Will it still be the Brooks house? Or might it, by then, have become the Korentayer-Klein house. Or perhaps the KorenKlein house. Then again, it might be nice if the house could have its own name by then. I’ve been playing with ideas, but haven’t found the right name yet. But, hey, being that I’m living in a small town, maybe you can help. I’m learning to appreciate the contributions of my neighbors. If you have any ideas for a good name for my new house, pass them along. Your suggestions are welcome.

"Marvin Gardens"
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