Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Big Muddy - basement!.

One big concern about the house was the moisture in the basement.  There was mold about 3" deep on a couple of areas and all the sheetrock ceiling had to be removed.  Moisture is fairly easy to detect, but the source takes a bit more study.  We checked the sump pump, walls, and drainage around the house.  The sump was at the west end of the basement and it was determined that a more central location would help.  There is a long, narrow room in the center of the basement that parrallels the upstairs halls as they are the central support walls of a very heavy house.  Moisture in this area could enhance (in addition to mold), so we took action, more action, and really tough action.  The unused room (like most damp areas) had become a storage room filled with cans of paint, lumber, benches, insulation, and all on a floor of plastic and indoor/outdoor carpet.  There was one bare light bulb, so it was tough to see well in the long narrow room.  Your shadow would grow and project onto the walls.  Any movement by a person or object was broadcast on two or three walls.  This was tough, since everyone I had met asked about tunnels, slaves, and ghosts.  Get real!  You spend time in a dark basement of an old home after having read most of Steven Kings's books and I bet that you have apprehensions too.   I carried out everything and was so pumped by listening for noises and watching shadows move that I could go all the way to daylight with a very heavy load.  Man,  it was nice when that room was cleared and we could get DCF electric to add lighting the length of the room. 
     With light, I could see much better and the walls were very stable.  The floor; however, was a mess of wet clay type soil.  It was difficult to tell where the source of water started.  Our first idea was to dig a trench down the middle of the room and have Snyider plumbing install a sump pumb to get the water out of the house.  The pump worked fine, but the clay soil would not pass water from the edges to the center of the room, so the drain tile did not carry enough water to the pump.  Next, I talked with Kieth Baker.   The Spurgeon brothers came to help me excavate the long room by hand to detect the inflow of water.  What a mess.  Each shovelfull of dirt stuck to the shovel like one of those swifter commercials.  You had to bang the blade of the shovel on a board to get 80% of the mud off and just accept the 20% that weighed down the shovel for the next load.  This 28 foot long room had no windows, so we had to carry the mud into the large wonderful room that Bob Crist and Paul Todd had so loved.  Load after load of the sticky stuff went onto the cement floor of their meeting room.  A wheelbarrow of mud on a slick floor is a tough job.  Darren and Aron are strong as well as good natured.  We stumble all over the place in boots that kept getting stuck, but no one fell into the muck.  Finally, about 18" of mud floor was evacuated.  Water flowed from the east wall and out from under the cement floors to the north and south.  The benefit of the clay was that we could scrape a trough toward the sump and the water dutifully flowed that direction.  The room began to dry and the source of the water flows was identified for further action. 
     The mud in the meeting room was another adventure.  Once again, Kieth and the Spurgeon brothers found a solution.  They manufactured a small elevator much like might be used on a farm to take hay to the second floor of a barn.  We stuck it out a window and plugged in the motor.  Zoom, it took off at a high rate of speed throwing mud and rocks out the window and against the inside wall.  We scooped'm up and threw them back on the rolling belt for another shot at the open window.  Since we let the mud dry a bit on the concrete floor, it was not as sticky this time.  If you read the next episode (blog), I will tell you some of the discoveries that we unearthed.

How do you move a bath tub?????

It sounds simple enough, but I must confess to my lack of skill in this area.  We were working on restoring the east bath upstairs and Dennis of Snyder Plumbing was helping.  In fact, I was helping and Dennis was the brains of the operation.  You must understand that we found many water lines that had broken due to freeze up during some previous winter.  Dennis found all the breaks that we could possibly see and did a great job of repair.  It came to "test time" and he turned on the water to the house and watched on the first floor while I watched the second floor.  All went well until I heard running water and someone yelled on the first floor.  Water was pouring out of the chandelier in the parlor and the chandelier in the main entrance hall.  It takes considerable time for water pressure to relax and all we could do was watch and hope until the flow stopped.  We looked at each other and went upstairs to search out the break.  Well, the breaks were well hidden under the flooring and under a bathroom vanity built in the 1950's.  The first break we found by looking in an old electrical access panel over the parlor chandelier.  The second was found by eliminating all the other possibilities and taking a guess, which was confirmed when we tore out the bathroom vanity.  Bingo, spit copper tubing was found and repaired.  Since we had started the bathroom restoration, I asked
Dennis how to remove the tub.  My suggestion was to use a saw's all.  The tub was blue and I assumed that it was made of fiberglass.  Dennis is a very understated person and he sounded like the actor Jimmy Stewart.  "Well, if it were me, I would close this bathroom door, see? "  I nodded.  "Then, I would put on some safety classes."  He paused to see if I grasp the concept, and I nodded.  He asked if I had a big hammer and, like a bobble head, I just kept nodding.  Then with a sly, but gentle smile he said, "hit that bathtub with the hammer until she breaks into a lot of little pieces"!  I told him that it would be almost a sin to destroy a tub in such good condition.  Couldn't we just remove it and slide it out the door to the porch and give it away?  Dennis went back into his Jimmy Stewart, "Well, yes we could, but that tub probably weighs over 400lbs"!  A vision of it chasing me down the stairs and crashing through a wall lead me to accepting the advise of Dennis.  So, I called Kyler (Big Hammer) Rash and we did some sinnin' on that tub and threw 400+ lbs of cast iron out the window, and over the porch roof to the ground.  Man, Kyler can swing a hammer!!!!

Betty Lou Crist visits the mansion for first time in 16 years!

We have all watched children grow up overnight.  Time seems to crawl during certain moments, but the years can fly.  Betty Lou Crist recently visited the mansion for the first time in 16 years.  Can you imagine the questions she had as she watched other people adjust the building that she had called home with her husband, Robert, for 35 years.  It must have been similar to hearing a sound upstairs when you are home alone.  Should I look or stay where I safely stand?  It was also a question for Marilyn and I, as we have always hoped that our taste and ideas meet with the approval of the Christ family.  Things seemed to be going in the right direction when Robert made his weekly inspection and Betty Lou related the story of her mother's first visit.  Mother walked through the doors for the first time and said, "Betty Lou, this house needs color!".  That story made us feel a little better, because color and lighting were our main goal for the house.  Well, Mrs LaGrand and Betty Lou, we have color!  It was great to see Betty Lou and Robert, along with Robin, Dan, and Camron Buckman walk up the front porch stairs and into the house.  From room to room we roamed the house up and down discussing the design, colors, and furnishings. 
       It was pleasant to finish the tour in the parlor and relax on the Victorian furniture.  Betty Lou enjoyed the fainting couch while she related stories of her adventures in the house.  Robin's sister Camilla called just as we entered the bedroom that she and Robin had shared so many years ago.  It was a psychic experience to hear her voice and Robin laughed as she described the room to her sister.  They were both very happy that the closets now had lighting!  They had moved into the house as very young girls and the other kids had often told them ghost stories about the house.  For years Robin and Camilla had a ritual of checking under the bed each night and in the closets to insure that there were no extra forms of energy lurking in the dark areas.  Whooooooooooooooooooooooo!

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Found under the Mansion!

Just as in life, what you expect is not always what happens.  As the Spurgeon brothers and myself were digging up the floor under the center of the house, I made them an offer.  I would let them keep all the ghosts we disturbed if they let me keep the "Gold".  As luck would have it, there were no ghosts or gold.  Also, I expected to find lost tools, bottles (whiskey), or a coin or two.  Maybe, just maybe, the old bones of a hidden body, but the only bones looked a lot like a couple of chicken bones from some worker's lunch.  Finally, in all that mud, I spotted something with a shine.  I bent down and felt around the object.  As I cleaned it off, my heart began to race with recognition of a jewel that someone had lost long ago.  It was exciting to find the shining diamond shaped stone and I will admit to thinking of the money before the historical significance.  Then, I realized that the stone must belong to the longtime owner, Betty Lou Crist.  How, you may ask, did I know so quickly?  Betty Lou has many remarkable characteristics, but one trait above all others, told me that it was hers.  You see, Betty Lou loves the feminine color "Pink" and this cut stone was "pink".  There was no choice but to return it to the rightful owner, and she enjoys the diamond even now.  I think that her husband is having a solid gold mount designed for the diamond with matching 18 Ct gold necklace.  What a guy?

Just an update on the stone.  Though it matches Betty Lou's taste perfectly and it wasn't actually found t in the basement, but still is was during the excavation of the basement.  It was actually discovered in a big box store in Quincy.  Marilyn wondered what I was doing when she saw the diamond in my shopping basket.  The gold  mount and chain you ask?  Well, Robert is about as likely to spring for that much gold as the Cubs are to win the World Series!

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Old experience saves Old Art

My first "regular job" was washing dishes for 65 cents an hour at a local restaurant when I was 14 years old.  There were many experiences on the job that were "firsts" in my young, sheltered life.  Things such as eating my first shrimp, working until the job was done, and saving a dropped dish by quickly putting my foot under the item just before it landed on the tile floor.  Several times I caught or redirected a falling glass, cup, or dish and saved an embarrassing situation.  Throughout the years this old habit proved helpful, but never more so than at the Shelbina Mansion. 
The restoration required moving everything in the house from room to room while working in the various areas.  The fact that many items are 140 years old, and so precious to the entire community, raised the risk factor with each move.  When moving Mr & Mrs Benjamin's bed (not to mention Carmichael's, Crist's, Long's, & Shepherd) from one room to another, we carefully supported the tall and elaborate head board when removing the side boards.  Then I held one side while a friend held the other.  As we approached the doorway, the headboard needed to be tilted to clear the top of the door.  At this moment the walnut carving of Lady Columbia that adorned the top of the headboard broke free and fell toward the floor.  In that moment, the technique that I learned 50 years ago came to the rescue and I was able to put my foot under the falling artifact.  It landed on the inside of my ankle and foot which changed the direction from vertical to the oak flooring to a gentle slide across the floor.  Yes, my ankle really hurt, but Lady Columbia was saved!  Recently I was able to disassemble the headboard and repair the old crack that had not been properly repaired sometime in the past.  The old crack had been glued, but was not clamped at that time; therefore, the gap was too large for the glue to hold.  This time we  cleaned off the old glue, clamped the two parts tightly together and allowed several days for the glue to cure.  A couple of discretely located screws completed the repair.  It was interesting to see that someone from the past had placed the pieces on an old Shelbina Democrat when trying to make the glue repair.  If there were a date, it could tell us when the repair was tried.

The bed once again adorns Shelbina's Mansion.  It once left the house for many years , but returned home during the Crist's tenure thanks to Helen Nicely (Carmichael).  Friends of the Mansion aided in return of the bed and matching dresser as they have in many ways throughout the years.  We never met Helen Nicely, but we will never forget her either.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Tornado brings new friends

Like everyone in Shelbina, the fallen trees and damage disrupted our lives.  Late one day I climbed into my car to go home and rest (in airconditioning).  As I pulled forward in the drive, I saw two young guys carrying a large metal object that looked somewhat familier.  I stopped and got out to talk to them.  It was the chimney cap from a fallen chimney on the roof and I had not even missed it with all the other damage.  They told me that they had found it down near the grade school where they were living.  Wow, that is a fairly long trip and the metal was still in good shape.  They had seen it on the ground and thought that it matched the colors of the mansion.  To make it more interesting, they were twins named Dillon and Dustin Herman.  It was great to get the cap back and even more so to meet two nice young men.  Later they and their family returned to tour the house as our guests.  Really great folks if you ever get to meet them.  Dillion and Dustin are 11, so you can see how large the cap is.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Positive Attitudes!

Kathleen Wilham dropped by for a visit at a time when I was having trouble with birds building nests in the brackets located under the roof overhang.  A nest that looked large enough to host a couple of bald eagles was particularly irritating to me.  Kathleen suggested that I use a long pole to pull the nesting material out of the nich.  My response was that the nest must be 38 feet above the ground and there were no poles available that would reach that high.  I have long fishing rods, but the very longest is 18' and that would leave me about 20' short of my goal.  Kathleen said that she had some poles that could be tied or taped together.  With my best "Man-atude" I replied that there was no way, like it was a rule of physics.  Kathleen, ever positive, said maybe.  She left, but returned in a few minutes with poles of metal, wood, and pvc.  Her positive attitude spurred me to get a roll of tape even if I did not believe that we would reach the nest.  Some pieces screwed together while others slid into the hollow pvc and needed the tape to keep it extended.  Finally, the poles were all connected and I was sure that it would not hold together or that it would bend to the breaking point.  Still, Kathleen and Marilyn were looking, so I gave it a try.  Carefully I raised the pole and reached up by resting the tip against the wall of the house.  Then I reached even higher by extending my arms.  We did it!!!!  Carefully I pryed the nest from its perch 38' above the ground with a pole of misfit pieces and a friend's positive attitude.  If Kathleen ever tells you that she has a rooster that can pull a freight train, then go get the log chain. 

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Former residents return!

I heard voices outside and wondered about the source.  A couple came to the back porch and the husband said that he had lived in the house from 1956 to 1960 and asked if they might tour the house.  I was quite excited to meet Mr & Mrs Paul (Chuck) Todd and welcomed them into the restoration.  Chuck had moved away from the house at age 13, but had great memories of the home.  One great mystery that he solved, was," when did the ceiling fall in the southwest bedroom upstairs".  It has been the boys room for many years and had been such for Chuck and his brother Mike during their years.  Chuck told of the day that he went into the room and lay down on his bed.  After a few minutes, he got back up and left the room.  Moments later the ceiling and plaster medallion fell.  The weight would have been tremendous and injury would have certainly resulted had he stayed on his bed.  Chuck's father had the ceiling rebuilt with sheetrock and lowered to the top of the window trim.  This was the giveaway that the ceiling had fallen and a search through a hole revealed the missing plaster and cornice.  It required a lot of work from professionals, but the ceiling, cornice, and walls have returned to 12' height.    Chuck also told of the fun they had on a wheelchair ramp built onto the west side of the house by Mr and Mrs Long when they had plans for senior housing in the mansion. 
     We walked upstairs and through rooms of his past.  It was funny as he said "oh, that was the girls room", much as a 13 year old might have dismissed his sisters.  The same room hosted the Crist "girls" for a number of years.  At the kitchen, he related how he once squirmed through the passthrough window to unlock a door and let his parents into the house when a key had been forgotten.  "I would never make it today", brought laughter from all of us.  Even an old soda cap removal tool brought back memories to Chuck.  Colors were discussed to the best of a 13 year old's memory and he told of his father having the basement fireplace built along with other work by Mr Ratliff and how much they enjoyed the large room for meetings.  His father worked for State Farm Insurance and had an office at the back of the house just where Judge Christ  presided for so many years.  It was Paul Todd's work that led to the famous home swap between the Crists and Todds as Paul Sr was promoted and the family moved to Texas.  Today this is a more common event and even expected, but in 1960 it was tramatic for the family.  Mrs Todd was working on a needlepoint of the Benjamin House in her last year and it was finished by Chuck's sister.  The Benjamin House has a way of growing on a person.  When I have spoken with Eddie Jo Johns, Chuck, Mike Todd, or the Crists, it is clear that the home has stayed an important part of their life.  Marilyn and I have feelings for the home that have grown from admiration for architecture to a sense of being a part of something important to the area.  It is so great to hear from others who care and have experience with the home.  Just this week Mike Rash related a story to me of how he helped paint on the curly steel lentils above the windows of the house when he was about 19.  Being up a long ladder on a windy day spurred him to climb down and suggest a different job on that day! 

 For the Benjamin House to survive, the home will always need community support and interest.

Mother Nature and the Mansion

Mother Nature is around us so much, that sometimes we take it for granted.  Sure, this year it rained a ton this spring and disrupted outdoor work, but the flowers loved it.  Crocus came first, then daffodils brighten the yard.  Normal enough, but then the honey bees moved into the window lintels again.  We have caulked, used expanding foam, and even provided two bee hives courtesy of a nice keeper named Clayton Armstrong from near Paris (MO).  He has been more than helpful and very informative.  Alas, the bees have ignored the hives and multiplied in the  windows.  Clayton even used his best phernom attractant to no avail.  It appears they are able to eat through the caulk to get back to their stored honey in the lentils.  The cast metal lentels are hollow, so they creat a storage area that they like.  Sometimes, when the weather is in the 90's, the bees move outside the lentil to cool off and the swarm can be seen in a cluster fanning their wings to creat a cooling breeze.  We like them, but for over 60 years the bees have been making honey in the house and it has even seeped into the wallpaper on occasion.  While steaming off the wallpaper in the receiving room, the oder of the ancient honey was evident.  Previous owners from the 50's and 60's had warned me of the bee's  persistance.

The next outdoor adventure started when I was looking out a second story window.  A large oak tree on the south side of the house seemed to have light, tan colored spots on it.  Upon finishing my chore, I went down to take a look.  Cicadas, were making the trip up the tree.  They would climb in their crusty body armor until it stiffened, then with a great push, they split the back of the armor and begin to climb out.  It was interesting to see the cream colored insect arch backward out of the shell.  The wide set red eyes give me the creaps, but the internet says that they do not bite.  Still, they look like they could!  While sending a text and photo to my daughter in Texas, one of the cicadas landed on my hand and the text message finished up %btze.  The next day one had unknowingly landed on my back.  Since their instinct is to climb, this one reached my neck later (while I was in the house).  It had to be funny watching me jump and try to brush off my attacker.   The trees were full of the climbers and the ground full of pencil sized holes.  Fortunetly, I hear that it will be 13 years before the event recurs.  Unfortunately, I probably cannot remember anything for 13 more years.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Just what every good renovation needs....

During June of 2011, there were a lot of "Severe Storm Warnings".   Occasionally a bit of hail arrived or hard rains, flooding and lightning.  The end of the month was no different... the warnings continued but this time the storms looked like they would all drop north of Quincy.  As people and storms often do... this one changed it's mind and plowed right on through.  As they hit Quincy, IL the local news stations talked it up - Quincy, Quincy, Quincy!  With radio on and keeping the storms in mind I left Hannibal for the usual smooth trip to Shelbina.  What I would soon discover was that there had been two tornados hit the town!  The first clue hit when I realized both the Caseys and Ayerco were closed.  Then I noticed a few limbs down at the library, but thought... no big deal.   Turning west off Center Street twice and finding both streets closed, it dawned on me that there was a problem.  I managed to find an opening on College Street by going the wrong way through the bus dropoff road at the grade school.  Finally, at the corner of College and Shelby, I could see the Benjamin House!
From a distance the house looked intact, but the yard itself was a war zone of broken trees and hanging limbs.  One 50' tall sycamore tree had been transformed into a telephone pole with a few sprigs at the very top.  The driveway was blocked by several fallen limbs and the power line was down with limbs toppled over it.  The back yard mirrored the mahem.

The house itself had battled bravely, marred by three exploded windows in the belvedere, a toppled chimney, and broken ceiling joists (that the fallen chimney had taken with it).  In most homes a chimney repair would be pretty straight forward.  With the added challenge that it is 40' from the ground and 2' from the edge of the roof.... not as easy.  That said, the roof and I have spent some quality time together over the last couple years so I dutifully called the insurance agent in the hopes that I could quickly help the house recover.

When the agent arrived he dutifully climbed up several flights of narrow staircases and proceeded to take a picture of the fallen chimney from the confines of the belvedere.  When I suggested climbing out a window onto the roof to get a better picture, the agent quickly declined and started down the stairs with a pace that rivaled Mr. Benjamin's abrupt appearance in Shelbina.   Something akin to "get estimates" floated over his shoulder as he left the house and I was left with a little extra remodeling in my already busy house plans.

The clean up was hard, but made easier by help from C.W. Wood's crew from the lumber yard and a couple of South Shelby's baseball pitchers - Chase Gaines and Wyett Proper.  There were two interesting moments along the way though....

The first came when I tied a log chain to a big limb hanging from the south-side Oak tree.  The theory was to pull out at the bottom and the top (heavy end) would topple backwards toward the tree.  Good theory, but when I began to pull, I could see the guys looking quizzically at the huge limb then at the chain-pulling blazer.  I played a lot of baseball and basketball, so my team instinct quickly told me that something was falling toward someone on the ground... much as a fly ball or a rebound might.  Unfortunately that someone was ME and I did not want to "catch a tree".  Like a participant in the Indy 500 my foot hit the gas pedal in the Blazer.  As I pulled away, a thud sounded right behind me. Whew, it had missed the truck by only 3 feet!

The second moment that stands out involved the replacement of the chain on the chainsaw.  Given the near miss car/tree incident and knowing my limitations I left this task to the professionals.  Chase being mechanically inclined quickly had the chainsaw apart to replace the chain.  While he fed the chain around the drive sprocket, Wyett guided the chain onto the groove in the bar.  Watching this take place I felt as though I needed to provide my own talents to the mix so, in my loudest and best imitation, I spewed a BBRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR.  Their youthful reaction time had them both recoiled back like the saw had come to life in their hands before the third "R" rolled out of my mouth.  Needless to say, they gave me "the look" when I started to "LOL".   Old "1" - Young "0".

There isn't a day that goes by that I don't learn something from this project... some days it's how to plaster this or repair that... but most often it's bigger than that.  This week perhaps my lesson is that life often throws you an unexpected mess - cleanup may be hard but along the way it reveals your talents in a new way and makes memories that you are not likely to forget.

Thanks to all who helped us through this unexpected mess!

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Little things have their place

The parlor in the benjamin is large at 450 square feet, but has never been anything but a seldom used parlor.  It is admired and spacious, but only for special occasions.  I was working in a smaller room this week and realized that it had performed many functions through its role in the house.  In the beginning, it was the maid's quarters, then was reportedly an auxiliary kitchen.  It now has two closets, bathroom, and a ladies lounge.  Although smaller, this room has had more roles, people and variety of decorations than the large parlor.  Many things and people could appreciate small roles in life.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Children and the Big House!

Warren brought his son Cole to see the house one morning before school.  Can you imagine how big 12' ceilings look at 6 years old?  I was working upstairs and came stomping down to see who had arrived.  Thump, thump, thump - ever closer until I see them and shout hello.  Cole moved in behind his dad's leg and peeked out at me.  They went on tour and I could hear them upstairs talking about the house.  As they started back down, I stayed in a back room and started to make a low moaning sound.  Ooohh, ooooohhh punctuated by a measured stomp on the floor.  Ooooh, ooooooohhhh to thump, thump and Warren said to Cole that there was no need to worry as the sound was only Mansion Mike.  Still, Cole became disoriented and started for the butler pantry instead of the rear exit.  Warren called to him and said that the way out was on the other side of the room!   Ooooohhhh, ooooohhhhh, stomp, stomp and Cole was gaining speed as he headed across the room  for the back door.  He is a handsome young boy and his eyes were large as saucers by the time he hit the back porch.  Can you imagind the stories that he told that day when he reached his 1st grade class.  It reminds me of the trick or treat kids who would not enter the house. 

April has its moments!

When you work on a project for two years, a lot of good and unfortunate things happen.  At the beginning of April, I was working on the plaster in the recieving room when I heard an object hit the floor in the dining room and bounce a couple of time.  Warren was painting in there and my first thought was that the paint bucket had fallen from the ladder or scaffolding.  It had happened before and the results were terrible.  From that height, paint not only gets on the floor, but also on the walls, windows, and doors.  I grabbed a roll of paper towels and rushed into the dining room to help with the cleaning.  It was confusing for me to see Warren with a big smile on his face.  How could he be happy I thought, until I remember that it was APRIL FOOLS DAY!  He got me big time and I am sure that I deserved it.  We laughed about that the rest of the day.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Current History & Fun

The Benjamin House was commissioned by a very interesting man, but there has been a lot of interesting "history" since 1873.  John Forbes owned the house about 2 years;  whereas, the Crist family cared for the home about 35 years with five children!  The stories of that era had to be interesting!  A door in the basement is adorned with names and + signs (even a heart or two).  We were going to auction the door to see which of the area citizens or Crist kids would prize it the most.  It is a part of history that some may wish to hide.  Oh well, who would be interested in a Heidi + ????? or Chuck + ?????

One of our first "moments" was a comment from one of the neighbor girls.  We were the new story on the block and opened the home for the first time in her short lifetime.  So, often the young lady would drop in for a visit and could go up and down the stairs like a gazelle.  Being a parent, I worried about her falling or getting injured around the restoration.  Also, I was sure that mom would be worried whenever she could not locate her daughter.  A visit with mom confirmed that she had instructed her daughter not to enter the mansion.  She had told her "We don't even know them" and this brought the response from daughter, "Yes we do Mom.  His name is Mike".   I still laugh at that reply.  It reflects such a beautiful simplicity.  In fact, I am Mike, not positive or negative, just "Mike".  Soon, we were old news and the visits passed with the beginning of school.

Many people stopped to visit that first summer and the comments often involved tunnels, ghosts, and the underground railroad.  Well, it is a big old house and there are noises sometimes.  One day I walked up the stairs from basement to ballroom and was getting a bit winded near the top.  My head was down watching the steps and my hand went up to grab the bannister at the top to help with the last few steps.  Can you imagine my fright when my hand landed on something cold but softer than wood?  Something like "skin" and it moved a little.  After all the ghost stories, I must tell you that my hand flew up into the air as quick as if I had touched a hot pan.  My heart stopped and my mind was trying to understand the situation while my feet were shifting into reverse.  Well, as much as I didn't want to see something from "Night of the living dead", I did look up.  There stood a carpenter who had just rested his hand on the bannister  before me.  His eyes said, "gotcha", because a couple days before I had walked up behind him and made a loud noise.  What goes around, comes around and we both laughed (me because I was so relieved). 

One great joy and heritage of the home, is the flowers that we inherited from previous owners.  Especially now, after the blizzard of ought 11, we look forward to the hundreds of flowers that return each spring.  The colors and locations add surprise and beauty to the yard.  Never have I seen so many surprise lilies in my life as adorn the back yard.  I see more well kept yards in Shelbina, but we so enjoy the flowers that others left for us.  Thank you.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Land of 10,000 choices: Benjamin House

Honey, do you want to go to that auction in Shelbina for the Benjamin House?  The first of many choices, and the answer was yes.   For three years we had been looking at old homes in search of one that we could decorate and enjoy.  For many reasons (or destiny), we found the Benjamin House to be exactly what we wanted.  The fireplaces caught our eye immediately as well as the majestic mirrors in the parlor.  Several pieces of original furniture were available to be purchased separately (choice 3) and a nice lady from the local historical society (Kathleen Wilham) provided a booklet with a brief history of the home.  This could be the one! Questions # 4,5,6,& 7 were my wife's hand in the air and we were on our way.  Shortly afterward, my wife's main question was where could she find a working bathroom in which to "toss her cookies".  The excitement had begun as the water lines had frozen and burst in several places during the previous winter.   That evening we reviewed photos that we had taken and ate ice cream to recover from "buyers remorse".

     If you have children or have hunted deer, you understand that after the fun there is a lot of work.  We wrapped up our child  at the title company and a new life began.  Choices like new furnaces, roofing, and paint were obvious, but plaster repair was a tough question.  Lime plaster is very durable, but 100 years of expansion and contraction loosens the bond between the lathes and the hair bound plaster.  Do you wait for the ceiling to fall, or replace it first?  Do you find a really heavy duty wallpaper to apply over the existing 70 year old paper and hope that it hides/holds the cracks that were visible?  Then, if you choose to search for the rare lathe plaster artist, do you tear out the false ceilings that were used to hide past mortar avalanches?  We picked plasterers for the same reason that you keep a three year old.  They are worth it in the long run (I hope).  New ceilings, repaired medallions, huge plaster cornices were rebuilt and a lot of knowledge was gained. 

      Not all questions or discoveries were negative as we did find an energy efficient "green friendly" heating system original to the house.  We call it "stairs".  There are 54steps in fact and they take you all the way to the Belvedere!  As a note, Belvedere is a more accurate term in Italianate style architecture for the little room at the very top.  The meaning is beautiful view;  whereas, cuppola sounds like someone ordering two pounds of hamburger.
So where does that leave us? My wife has recovered fully and you may view pictures of the work on our website(

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Congressman Shot! --- in Shelbina late 1800's

The recent tragedy in Arizona has captured the attention of the world and will likely alter many aspects of political life.  The media is reporting many details and a host of testimony from people involved.  It makes me wonder how the shooting of John Forbes Benjamin outside the post office in his home town would be treated by the media today and how it was reported in the press of the 1870's.

As a public figure and civil war general, Mr. Benjamin was known to have been supported by some and vehemently opposed by others.  Case in point, his shooter.  News of the incident was no doubt of interest to the community and spread quickly.  Perhaps even more headlines would have been garnered when the shooter was acquitted of the public shooting inspite of the presence of witnesses.  Did the fact that Mr. Benjamin survived being shot in the chest make the incident less serious in those times?  After all, this was post civil war and a time when Jesse James was on the prowl with his gang.  Whatever the situation might have been, the man who shot Mr. Benjamin seems to have ultimately slipped from the history books. His fame was very short-lived without the media to repeatedly broadcast his face and the accompanying backstory complete with motive.  Perhaps he was weak and easy to influence, as many criminals are today.

Though not much is known about his shooter, we can take a look at the life of John Forbes Benjamin. From New York originally, like many others of the time, he heeded Horace Greely's words to "go west young man."  He may have initially went a bit too far (ending up in Texas) but stories of good land in Missouri soon sent him packing!  This is a well known beginning to his story in Shelby county, but it should also be the beginning of our understanding of the man.  Mr. Benjamin's drive allowed him to  accomplish so many things after starting as a homestead farmer in Shelby county. Unfortunately, it wasn't without controversy.  If you were in his neighborhood at the time how would you have handled the news, rumors, here-say regarding this "Republican from East Coast". If a person were to convey unsettling news, would you question not only the truth of the news but why the person was so willing to share it?  Should we fault Mr. Benjamin if, amidst his long list of accomplishments, some of his actions were advantageous?  Hamlet once answered a question about his character with, "Sir, you confuse the man with the deed."

To own the grandest house in Shelby county was just one of his goals and he accomplished it not once, but twice!  In addition to the Benjamin House, he owned a home in Shelbyville (destroyed by fire long after his death).  Ironically he had not foreseen, that for the completion of his grand vision, the county would tax him the "Grandest Amount".  This taxation, along with the shooting outside the post office, was the beginning of his personal frustration with life in Missouri.  His rise to prominance as a politition, civil war general, and mansion maker no doubt put him in the position of lightening rod.  But a driven man is driven by some need.  We do not know of Mr. Benjamin's early family life or insecurities, but there was a reason that he was compelled to achieve.  This need for adulation or recognition also may have made him vulnerable to the charms of the "Big City Girl" by the name of Guy Allen.  Needless to say, at that time in his life a perfect storm was forming... and there would be no time to recover from its' effects.  If nothing else, John Forbes should be thanked for leaving a structure that has generated so many property tax dollars for the county through the years. 

Looking back, one might be inclined to wonder. Would children have helped ground John Forbes' ambition?  Did being a Union general in an area with strong southern sympathies place him on a path to rejection in the county? What if he had been more involved with the community?

That opportunity is history, but perhaps we can take from Mr. Benjamin's story something that we can apply to our own situation today.  Fostering improvement in ones own community might be as simple as supporting someone in need or moderating someone else who is too easily influenced.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Not So Humble Beginnings

Shelbina itself is a small town located in northeast Missouri.  For a small town, it has had several noteable residents.  Many people would recognize former resident Sam Walton of Wal-Mart fame, but perhaps the most enduring historical figure is actually a gentleman by the name of John Forbes Benjamin.  My introduction to this man was not with a handshake and a conversation but an equally personal experience... my wife Marilyn and I now walk the floors of the mansion he once called home.

Mr. Benjamin was no run-of-the-mill Shelbina resident.  His colorful history is paralleled by this ornate structure he built in the late 1800's, originally known as Vesper Place.  In search of a peaceful setting for he and his wife he commissioned the build but continued to travel to and from Washington, D.C. where he served in Congress.  The peace he enjoyed was short-lived as only two years after the homes' completion he passed away.  To add a bit of intrigue, his passing occurred just after having rewritten his will and his wife, who spent more time in the home, passed away shortly after.  But that's not all... the estate soon fell into a long and colorful probate due to the interest of a beautiful young "girlfriend" of Mr. Benjamin's from (you may have guessed it) Washington, D.C.  This story still echos through Shelby County today and pre-dates current Washington political scandels by over 100 years!

As for Marilyn and I, what we thought to initially be the purchase and restoration of a beautiful home turned into a wonderful chain of stories from former owners and the community that has grown to love what they call "The Benjamin House".  As these facts come to our attention, the sometimes overwhelming task of restoring/maintaining the residence becomes even more dear to us.  If life has shown me anything, it's that important work is rarely easy!

Technology has changed since the times of Mr. Benjamin.  I imagine a blog written by him would have been an avidly read site!  Our desire in starting this one is to share the story of this great home.  We hope that it will lead to a better understanding not only of its past but the Benjamin family as well.  Stay tuned for more tales of the home built by the 49er, civil war general, congressman, lawyer, philanderer, and survivor of several brushes with death!

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