Sometimes you have to look back… at scary pictures

JZ511All over the internet are quotes about NOT looking back.

My company even carries a necklace that instructs: DON’T LOOK BACK THAT’S NOT WHERE YOU’RE GOING. But today that is exactly what I am going to do.

I am going to look back.

House before we bought it Shown here is our house circa 1988, a few months before we bought it. At this point the nicest thing about the whole spread was the asphalt driveway, which was in surprisingly good shape. Except for the trench that the tenant farmers had cut across it in an effort to keep folks from driving in. People had figured out that it was a good place to dump their trash; everything from used diapers, tires, construction debris. No one had lived here for at least ten years.

Before that it was rented to a group of teenagers with a rock band – as a place to practice their music that wouldn’t disturb the neighbors. Had I not been the one who had to help clean it all up, I would have found the amount of beer bottles and cans truly impressive. I was impressed, however, that someone had carefully peeled the labels off hundreds of bottles, and stuck them onto the plaster walls surrounding the windows in the room that was to become my office.

The west-facing windows were broken and the plywood boards covering had been knocked out; rain and snow had been blowing in for years. Someone stole the garage door, and the big sliding door from the barn behind; the tenant farmer had stopped using it for storage after his equipment was stolen, too. Frustrated with the dumping, theft and vandalism, the farmer was in the process of tearing the place down – a building at a time – as he found time to do it. There’s a pile of timber next to the grain bin on the right in the picture above; that USED to be a perfectly good livestock barn – but they tore it down.

Depending on how you want to frame the story, it was either a blessing, or a curse, that we were able to buy the place before they got to the house with the backhoe.

House & Ed after we bought it
When we started work on the place it was the best adventure ever for our dogs. There were no doors – so they could run in and out at will. The house was full of a myriad of varmints, which they promptly dispatched. Including a skunk. Most people don’t buy houses that may have skunks in them. But we did.

We don’t know much about the history of the house – it had been a rental in the years before it was abandoned. Previously, it was owned during the 1960’s by a man named Dale Prough. He was superintendent of Madison County Indiana Schools, his twin sons were star basketball players. They’ve all since moved away. We think the Proughs were responsible for numerous updates to the house – adding the Federal style porch, hardwood floors throughout, knotty pine paneling in kitchen / living room, red brick fireplace and the nice paved driveway.

This 1881 was scribed into a plaster patch in the basement. We don't know if that is the date the house was built. The basement walls are whitewashed brick, but the foundation of the rest of the house is limestone block.
This 1881 was scribed into a plaster patch in the basement. We don’t know if that is the date the house was built. The basement walls are whitewashed brick, but the foundation of the rest of the house is limestone block.

What in the world made us seek out a scary abandoned farmhouse with a trench in the driveway – and BUY IT? We were newlyweds, Rob was a farrier and I was a graphic designer. Life was ripe with possibilities; except banks didn’t see it that way. More than one eyebrow was raised when they asked for Rob’s pay stubs as income verification. Most didn’t even know what a farrier was. Interest rates were high and we didn’t have much saved for a down payment, so the price range for feasible properties was small.

At the time, we lived in a little house with a few acres and a barn on county line road. Because it was the county line, neither county saw fit to tend to the road so it was often impassable in winter. But in summer, the road was a virtual raceway. Cars and truck careened by at highway speed. We lost kitties from being hit by cars. And could never leave the dogs loose unsupervised for fear of the same.

My arena was next to the road, literally feet from those zooming vehicles. Back then I wasn’t so self-conscious about my riding form, but the yelled commentary from people as they drove by grew old fast. Sometimes they’d toss out their trash for good measure. We began looking for a new place with more land, but the main criteria was that it be back away from the road. As you can see from the photos, this one fit that spec quite nicely. Except it was not for sale. The absentee landowner owned many farms in this area of the county; one by one the old farmhouses were being razed; as long as they were rented they were safe, but as soon as renters flaked out and caused repairs to be needed, the houses were boarded up and sat empty.

House before we bought - front
Even in it’s neglected, derelict state, the house stood tall and proud – waiting for someone to rescue it?

Meanwhile, Rob and I looked at house after house – the ones we liked were WAY out of our price range. The ones in our price range were crappy. Perhaps you can imagine how crappy – as you look at what we did end up buying. This was in the days before the internet – so to look at houses for sale you actually had to DRIVE THERE to see. We looked at “horse barns” that were two portable hog farrowing houses pulled together – sitting on the flooded, muddy ground with no foundation. We looked at “houses” that were actually trailers with roofs built on top. We dealt with pushy realtors who knew nothing about horses wasting our time showing us places that could have NEVER been made to work.

Even though we’d been told curtly by the tenant farmer that the white house on the hill was NOT FOR SALE, I couldn’t get it out of my mind. I wanted to hear from the actual owner that they would not sell it. Again, this was before the internet, so getting contact info for the owner, who was alleged to be in Detroit, required some effort on my part. Plat books said WCF Corporation, which ended up being Webster Cold Forge. The Websters had originally settled here in Madison County, and a beautiful Italianate brick house on a farm just a half mile north of here had been their home place. As only a hopeful woman in her early 20’s can do – I naively composed what I thought was a compelling letter and mailed it off to the Websters. Because Rob is sensible and doesn’t waste time pursuing things that are obviously unattainable, he had told me to forget about the house on the hill; we’d been told multiple times it was not for sale. I didn’t tell him that I’d located the owners and sent off a letter.

Of course, weeks passed and there was no reply.

Sometimes I don’t even listen to my own decrees. I had told mySELF that if I didn’t hear back from the Websters, I’d stop thinking about the stately white house with the columns in the front, and be more open to alternate housing arrangements. We looked at an empty hog facility that had decent acreage, an okay house, good outbuildings, and a price we could maybe work with. BUT it was right on a major highway, I’d be right back to burying my cats and worrying about the dogs. We were both sick of looking, so were giving that property serious consideration in spite of this major downfall of being close to the road.

So… I went BACK to the contact info that I had for the old white house’s owners. This time I took a different route. I saw the attorney that had filed the deed paperwork was local, so I called him up and told my story. Oh. My. Goodness. Everything about what I did and said is totally cringe-worthy when I look back on it now. But God must have intended for this to work out – as the attorney ended up being an old friend of the owners. Why he thought that it was appropriate to work to facilitate this transaction is beyond me. But he did. It was not much money – remember, the Websters owned thousands of acres in this area – and selling the house and 20 acres effectively chopped a corner off of a bigger farm. But 26 years ago, the 23rd of May, we signed the papers and the little farm became ours.

Miraculously, we were able to sell our other house. For not as much as we hoped, but it worked out. Except the part where we had to give possession to the new owners in 30 days. Yes. In 30 days we had to be OUT of our perfectly comfortable house with actual doors and windows, running water and no vermin living in – and INTO this one that didn’t even have functioning electricity. I still don’t know how we did it.

Wallpaper scan
This is a scan of the wallpaper border that we found behind some wood paneling that we tore out in the kitchen. It was crumbling even as I touched it, but I kept it anyway. I wasn’t sure why – this was the era before computers and scanners, so I never could have imagined that 26 years later it would end up a beautiful background in a picture in a thing called a “blog”.

When we started our work on the old white house, it became an unexpected neighborhood spectacle. People would drive by, craning their necks to see what was going on back so far off the road. Some were bolder, they’d stop at the end of the driveway, sit and watch. One guy on a Harley Davidson motorcycle used to bring his lunch and eat while watching us – he was so scary looking that we didn’t dare confront him – heck, we didn’t even have doors and windows yet so it would have been easy enough for anyone to come back when we were not there working and wreck the place, even worse than it already was.

More than one person drove up and angrily questioned us about just exactly how WE were able to manage to acquire the place – as THEY had tried to buy it and had failed.

And then there were the ones who said it was haunted. That it was used for satanic rituals. I guess we should have been concerned, as we heard that same story over and over. But we weren’t – we had so much work to do to make it habitable in just 30 days that we were too tired to worry about anything paranormal. But I think about that now, from a different viewpoint. I think about the woman who hung this wallpaper back in the 1880’s. Did she pick it out from a catalog or buy it from a local store in Alexandria? Did her husband help her hang it? Did they love how it looked with it was up? Did she choose this stylish Art Nouveau pattern specifically, or is that all that was available at the time? What did their furniture look like?

wallpaper with flowersDid the same family also hang this green floral paper? Or was that the family who painted the kitchen ceiling GREEN? (pictures of that to come later) Evidence revealed that the roof of the house was once green, as was the trim around the windows. Somebody really liked green. Do these previous residents approve of what we’ve done to it now? I often think of the movie Beetlejuice where those big city people moved in and remodeled that lovely old house in the most terrible way imaginable…

We found horseshoes all over the place in the dirt, in fact, we still do from time to time. A daughter of a previous resident told us her dad loved horses and always kept good ones that he was very proud of. Are we finding so many shoes because they kept a LOT of horses over the years? Did they neglect the feet, or did they have a bad farrier? Maybe the spirits of previous residents decided not to haunt with us living here because they don’t want to answer all my questions…

Want to see what happens next?

More Scary Pictures are here

Fun on the Farm Part 1 is here

The Epic Mess of Fixing the Fireplace is here

Tearing Down an Old Barn to Repurpose the Timbers in the house is here

The adventure of utilizing the first few timbers as a Fireplace Mantle is here

Utilizing more timbers in a big room upstairs – Of Trials and Strong Backs is here

No One Will Ever See It – an Adventure In Remodeling is here

We are still not finished, but you can see “The Aftermath” of one barn beam project here


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