Thursday, June 25, 2015

Preserving History

Original farm house
Writing history and restoring an old house have a lot in common.  Both require you to consider seriously whether what you are preserving is worth saving.  Both require a great deal of research and reflection to determine what should be included in the final version.  Both require severe editing and acceptance that what appeals to you may not appeal to others.

My husband and I have been restoring my ancestral home at the same time I have been editing and tightening my manuscript about Isaac B. Werner.  The picture at right shows the original house as it was built in the late 1890s, then doubled in size in 1907, and modified by my parents with enclosed porches in 1944 and the 1950s.  My husband and I rescued the house after years of vacancy in 2001 and are currently making some further modifications.  My love of history is apparent in the rescue of the old house, for it is rich in memories.  I thought you might enjoy seeing one of the projects I did to preserve the trim used in the original 1890s construction.

Original corner block & trim
Reproduction corner block
The front door of the 1890s original structure, with 2-rooms downstairs, 2-rooms upstairs and a kitchen separated from the rest of the house for safety from fires, had a staircase directly inside the front door, with the parlor to the right as you entered.  My Grandfather paid for the expense of 'fancy' wood trim for the parlor and the hall at the top of the stairs which could be seen when guests entered the front door.  As for the rest of the rooms used by the family, there was only simple trim around windows and doors.

I used one of the corner blocks from the original parlor to make a mold, from which I produced 88 plaster reproductions for the rest of the house.  I also designed two styles of smaller corner blocks for the narrower trim around several other doors and windows.  Our current construction has required me to make even more.

Latex mold for small block
Here is the process I used:  1.  I applied liquid latex with a brush to cover the top and sides of the wooden corner block.  It needed to be applied at about the time the previous coat was tacky but not completely dry in order to make the layers of latex adhere to one another.  I applied about 25 coats, setting the alarm during the night to continue the process.  2.  I made a plaster form to hold the latex mold so that it would maintain its shape when plaster of Paris was poured into the mold.  3.  Once the plaster of Paris was set, the latex mold was peeled away from the reproduction plaster corner block.

Small "bee" design blocks
The plaster of Paris does not take too long to set, so several blocks can be made in a few hours.  The two different designs I made for the narrow trim around windows and doors were first sculpted in molding clay.  The plaster form I made to hold the latex molds  allowed me to pour two blocks at once--a bee design and a bull's-eye design.  The image above left shows both latex molds, with plaster of Paris hardening in the bee design and the bull's eye design ready to have plaster of Paris poured into it.  The image above right shows a group of bee design blocks ready to be used.

Although my grandparents did not have corner blocks on all of their windows and doors, my reproductions and new designs now decorate the entire house.  Unlike the necessity to adhere strictly to documented events and descriptions when writing history, I can exercise some creative license in restoring the old Victorian house.  Although Isaac Werner knew both of my grandparents and their parents, he did not visit the house we are restoring, having died a few years before its construction.  However, he did visit their earlier homes.

I hope Great-grandmother Susan, my grandparents Royal and Lillian, and my parents would like what we have done!  I'm sure they would love the fact that another generation is enjoying the old house.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Classic Midwestern Barns

Photo credit:  Lyn Fenwick
By now my husband knows to start slowing the car in anticipation of making a stop for photographs if a barn appears on the horizon.  As we returned from Red Cloud, NE after attending the Willa Cather Conference, we spotted this classic Midwestern barn surrounded by an ocean of still-green wheat.  My husband pulled off the road and got out his cell phone to begin checking message, for he knew my 'photo shoot' was likely to take a while!

Photo credit:  Lyn Fenwick

There are many styles of barns across the American landscape, all sharing the common need to accommodate the weather and available materials of their locale.  Farmers built their barns to shelter livestock and whatever crops were grown in that area.  Sometimes the region of the world from which the farmers in the community had immigrated influenced the architectural style, and local custom also tended to develop within a community.

Photo credit:  Lyn Fenwick

Preservationists and barn hobbyists often use general categories to describes the variations in barn styles:  Bank Barns, Round or Polygonal Barns, Tobacco Barns, English Barns, Dutch Barns, Crib Barns, and Prairie or Western Barns.  

I'm not sure exactly why this Prairie Barn stole my heart.  Perhaps it was its isolation, the farm stead that had almost certainly once been there long since replaced by crop land.  Or, it may have been the vulnerability of its opened doorways that bared its interior to the eyes of anyone who paused to look.  Somehow the clouds almost seemed to be an artists' contrivance to draw the viewer's eye to the abandoned barn.  

I know that many of you who visit my blog regularly have a special fondness for old barns, so I thought you would enjoy this one.

Photo credit:  Lyn Fenwick
These old barns are disappearing rapidly, and several that I photographed for this blog no longer exist.  Near cities they are disappearing to urban sprawl, but in central Kansas other reasons are more likely.  (See "Disappearing Old Barns," 1-15-2015 in the blog archives.)  Near our farm, the increasing size of farming operations has eliminated many former homesteads, and the barns were burned or allowed to deteriorate.  Few farmers keep horses, and fewer still keep a milk cow for the family.  Where there are dairy farms the changed sanitation regulations often make the use of old barns obsolete.  As farm equipment has increased in size, using old barns as storage sheds is often impossible, their doors too narrow to allow the passage of modern tractors and equipment.  Hay mows are of no purpose for the large 'round bales' that are generally stored outside and are too large to get into the old-fashioned hay mows if the farmer preferred to store them under a roof.  Grain bins in barns and wooden granaries have been replaced by metal storage.  (See "What Do I Do with My Grain, (Storing Grain), Parts I & II, blog archives 1/2/2014 and 1/9/2014.) 

Isaac B. Werner never kept cattle,  He built sheds for his horses, and sometimes he built a "self-feeding horse shed" from bundles of hay.  Probably the largest barn in his community belonged to his neighbor in Clear Creek Township, John Garvin, who held a Christmas party in his barn in 1888 attended by about 250 neighbors, including Isaac.

To read interesting articles about efforts to save old barns you may visit titled Preserving the Midwestern Barn by Hemalata C. Dandekar and Eric Allen MacDonald, and also 

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Impossible Things

I only want impossible things.
The others don't matter.
--Willa Cather

Willa Cather
Mildred R. Bennett was not born in Red Cloud, Nebraska, and perhaps it took the awareness of an outsider to recognize what long-time residents had come to take for granted.  Whatever the explanation, it was Mildred who became the driving force behind the foundation established to keep the heritage of being the home town of Willa Cather alive, a legacy enhanced by Cather's practice of using citizens and locations from her hometown in her writing.  Cather died in 1947, and in 1955 Mildred Bennett had collected enough other residents to establish the Cather foundation.

Sometimes it is amazing what small towns can do, and the growth of the foundation's mission over the 60 years of its existence is an amazing success story.

My husband and I visited Red Cloud not long after the Opera House had been restored.  Built in 1885 and restored in 2003 after having been closed in 1920, the Opera House is the heart of the collection of buildings in Red Cloud that were important to Cather's life and her writing.

Christine Lesiak, Andrew Jewell & Janis Stout
It is no secret that Cather is one of my favorite authors and that O! Pioneers is my favorite of her novels.  (See "What If Isaac Had Met Alexandra Bergston?" in the blog archives at 5-2-2013.)  I have shared the importance of opera houses in many early communities on the prairie.  (See "St. John (KS) Convention Hall & Opera House," 6-26-2014; "Stafford (KS) Opera House," 8-7-2014; and "Saving the Old Opera Houses of the Prairie," 12-11-2014)  However, saving Red Cloud's magnificent opera house and returning it to life with ongoing performances and exhibitions must have seemed one of those "impossible things" that most people would never have attempted.

The current exhibit in the Opera House is Regional Works of Grant Reynard, a Nebraska artist who met Willa Cather at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire.  He was a familiar illustrator to those who read The Saturday Evening Post, Redbook, Ladies' Home Journal, Harper's Bazaar, McCall's, and Scribner's Magazine.

This blogger somewhere among the crowd
The annual gathering in Red Cloud has been something my husband and I have come to enjoy, but this year we were only able to attend one day.  Because it was the 60th anniversary and especially because it was the dedication of yet another "impossible thing" that the foundation has achieved, we felt we had to attend!  It was a day filled with the usual excellent sessions and great conversations with other attendees.

We arrived in time to hear high school senior scholarship recipients reading their winning essays.  That was followed by a wonderful panel discussion, "Awakening Young Artists:  Arts Education Then and Now."  The Cather Conference always attracts outstanding scholars, but this panel was exceptional.  The informal conversations among attendees are also an interesting part of every conference and seminar.  After lunch we enjoyed an excellent lecture by Kenneth Be, art conservator, on the subject of restoring damaged art, with an example of a restored oil painting mentioned in one of Cather's novels on display.

Co-Chair Jay Yost & new Cather Center
Next was the informal presentation at the Miner House (known as the Harling House in My Antonia) by filmmaker Christine Lesiak and editors of Selected Letters of Willa Cather, Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout.  That was followed by the premiere of NET Television documentary at the Opera House of Lesiak's Yours, Willa Cather based on Cather's letters.  The opportunity to hear the filmmaker and the two editors discussing their extensive research and their personal feelings after working with the letters, and then to see the documentary was worth the trip!  The documentary was followed by the address of keynote speaker, Richard Norton Smith, an author and historian widely known by viewers of PBS NewsHour and C-Span.

Next came another one of those "impossible things"...worth doing!--the dedication of the nearly complete Cather Center.  We had the privilege of walking through the building with Jay Yost and his sister at a previous conference when the construction project was just beginning.  It certainly seemed like a monumental, if not impossible, undertaking.  Yet, with the support of 463 individuals, businesses, foundations, and public grantors the Willa Cather Foundation raised $6,390,060 to establish the National Willa Cather Center in the restored Moon Block Building.  Jay's co-chair is Ruth H. Keene, and the Honorary National Chair is Ken Burns, whose television programs have done so much to bring history to life.

Toasting the Cather Center!
A celebratory dinner followed the dedication, and we had the great fortune of sharing our table with Steven B. Shively, a member of the Cather Center Campaign Steering Committee; Andrew Jewel, co-editor of Selected Letters; Christine Lesiak, filmmaker; fellow Cather fans Deanna and Michael; and my special friend with whom I share book titles, Becky.

As wonderful as the programs and exhibits at the Cather Conference and Seminars we have attended are, the thing that draws us back year after year is meeting such wonderful people.  If you love Cather and you attend once, you will want to attend every year.  You will be welcomed into a large circle of interesting and accomplished people, and as my husband said as we drove home, "The Cather gatherings have become like an annual family reunion!"

You may learn more by visiting and you may keep up with current happenings at The Willa Cather Foundation on face book.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Shared stories of Bison

Photo credit:  Larry D. Fenwick
I never know what the comments and mail will bring in response to my blog postings, and last week's post about the American Bison brought some great surprises.  My husband shared this photograph taken at the Pratt, Kansas airport of Ted Turner's airplane with the image of a bison on the tail.  According to Turner's website, he has approximately two million acres of personal and ranch land, part of which lies south of Pratt in the vicinity of land Isaac B. Werner traveled on his potato trips to Sun City.  (See "The Trip to Sun City," 2-20-2014 in the blog archives.)  Reputedly the second largest individual landholder in North America, Turner advocates for progressive environmental projects and practices, which he practices on his own lands.  With George McKerrow, Jr. (founder of Longhorn Steakhouse), Turner established Ted's Montana Grill in 2002, with 46 restaurants in 16 states today.  On the menu, described as "American Classics," are a variety of bison entrees.

When our niece and her husband visited after having read last week's blog, they mentioned their own use of bison, preferring it over beef.  A quick check on the internet showed me that bison compares favorably in fat, calories, cholesterol and protein ratings, but cattlemen and steak lovers in Isaac's old community and elsewhere are unlikely to switch!  My husband and I were curious, however, and enjoyed a delicious bison burger, using meat purchased at our local grocery store.

I was very excited to hear from a follower in Idaho who shared the story of a buffalo removal project in which her son-in-law, Clint Sampson, participated.  A group of Biologists and Wildlife Officers flying in a fixed-wing aircraft located a group of buffalo in the Henry Mountains of southern Utah and called in a 4-person helicopter.  The helicopter herded the buffalo enough to tire them and then dropped a net to cover one of the bison.  Two men, so-called "muggers," then tipped the netted buffalo and hobbled its front and back legs together, putting the buffalo in a canvas 'bag' securely to allow it to be lifted by the helicopter for transport to a corral.  From the corral the bison was put into a horse trailer, where it was ear tagged and a veterinarian drew blood to check for brucellosis.  

Photo credit:  Clint Sampson
Photo credit:  Clint Sampson
 We have Clint to thank for this first-hand account of the project involving 35 bison the first year and 40 the second year he participated in the removal project.  The bison were transported to Antelope Island, and the two photographs Clint shared were taken recently at Book Cliffs.  His mother-in-law, Celinda Winters, was particularly interested because of the place to which the buffalo were relocated, for her great-great grandfathers, Lot Smith and Judson Lyman Stoddard worked with cattle there decades ago.  Once the buffalo reach Antelope Island they are held for about 30 days for further testing.  Clint has continued to check on the buffalo and reports that they are doing well.

You may have read the comment left by another follower at the end of last week's blog, which included the suggestion that I visit the face book page of his Canadian friend, Gord Vaadeland.  Gord works on Sturgeon River Ranch at Big River, Saskatchewan.  You may want to visit to get a taste of Gord's skills and the beautiful region in which he lives and works.  The photograph at the close of this blog was 'borrowed' from Gord's face book page.