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Letter From Home: “Modern-Day Settlers” 7/31/19

July 31, 2019

I had not intended to be reading, during the closing hours leading to the signing for purchase of the other half of our Old Victorian home, about the settlers who traveled the Oregon Trail.  The story about the hearty, adventurous men and women who made the journey, and who were far more fit and suited for such a trip than I can even imagine, seemed timely, however, as they too were following their dreams.  Turning the pages of “Polk” by Walter Bornenan I was again reminded of that ever-present human desire for expansion along with the gaining of personal happiness.

The settlers often started out in Conestoga wagons piled high but soon found the need to convert to prairie schooners as the terrain necessitated a more slimmed down mode of transportation.  If the settlers made 12 miles a day it was a successful effort.

I can relate to the tedious nature of getting to ones’s destination.  James and I moved into our home in 2007, the only two-condo unit association in Madison.  In terms of owning the rest of this 1892 home our ‘trek’ started in early November 2017.   The very elderly owner of the other condo moved to assisted living, and with James and I having right of first refusal to buy, a smooth and fast transaction should have been the obvious conclusion.  We were certainly ready, akin to the pioneers.  They knew it was important to sell the wagon and get the schooner packed for the next day’s sunrise.  But as we were to learn all are not able to move at the speed of those earlier adventurers.  So today, July 31, 2019, we finally signed the paperwork for full and complete home ownership.

The fact is we started to turn this whole home into our own back in November 2017.  We hired a painter to handle the job of  high walls and a story-and-a-half ceiling in our entry way.  We brought in our electrician to install floor outlets to both the front and back entrances.  We ordered a thin and tall Christmas Tree, perfectly sized and lighted, for the main entrance to showcase the grand wooden staircase. Long-time residents of the neighborhood told us they could not recall when the home had the Victorian Holiday mood so welcoming from the front stoop.

My appreciation for history and old homes starts with my own childhood.  As a boy I knew a small portion of the ‘back basement’ in my family home had been constructed prior to the Civil War.  It always had the coolest temperatures downstairs and it was where the root vegetables were stored for months on end.  I was sent there to bring back potatoes or beets or a fall squash for supper.

Hancock, in my childhood, had always seemed so far removed from where exciting and momentous happenings had occurred.  No major historic event took place in my town that demands any recognition. But there were many personal histories, when patched together like a quilt, along with all the other families in all the other towns and villages nearby, which then created a narrative which makes for history.

When I grew as a teenager, and focused on that more inclusive way of thinking about history, what is termed ‘people’s history’, is when that 1853 portion of the basement meant something to me.  My dad’s great-grandparents, the Wood Family, built the house.  Some of the extended family fought in the Civil War, with one dying at the most horrific Andersonville prison camp.

Pictured below is that old portion of the basement being connected with for the last time in 2011.

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The first history class for me was in the fourth grade.  It was all about Wisconsin.  Fur traders, explorers, and Shake Rag, a term that caught my imagination from the start.  Among the state notables introduced was James Doty.  There was no way for me to know that he would play a bit part in my life decades later.

Doty worked to have the isthmus land between Lakes Mendota and Monona become the state capital. He was a land speculator and keen political mover and shaker. Madison was declared the permanent capital in November 1836, with construction starting in 1837. All this was due to Doty’s continuous efforts.

Roughly a year ago James and I returned home from shopping to find a large thick legal sized envelope inside our front door.  Inside the package was the complete Abstract Of Title to this parcel of land where our home sits.  To say we were taken by surprise and deeply pleased would be a huge understatement.  That it was left by an anonymous person means that we have not been able to say thanks for something that is not only special, but historic.

James Doty owned our land as the first proprietor.  Yes, that makes for smiles and a slight tingle that any lover of history fully well understands.

Here is a page with the elegant script.  Note the dates!

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The abstract tells the story, page after page, of this land where a family of harness makers will build a huge house, and the decades which follow.

When the settlers moved west they did so for many reasons.  Some sought adventure, or better means of making money, while still others were fleeing legal entanglements.  When James and I decided to buy the rest of this home it was to have a firm hand on the maintenance and upkeep needed for these old gems.  Homes like this one need advocates.

Over the years while living in this neighborhood I have not been shy about advocating for historic preservation.   My first concern was for the carriage stoops that street construction crews were literally destroying.

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These stoops were placed for the convenience of ladies as they exited the carriages back in the time the old Victorian homes were first constructed and lived in.  I fell in love with these at first glance as they conjured up all the grandeur of days gone by.   Madison is blessed to have these physical reminders of our past.   With some verve, and a sense of purpose, I worked with our local alder and city council to make sure that no further damage will ever again be allowed to happen to these stoops in our city.   That same intensity of purpose will be used to ensure our home will have the care and respect which it deserves.  After all, it will be here long after I am gone.  I want others to feel and know it as I do, but that only happens with our caring for it now.

Over the years I have heard many talk about their home as an investment.  I fully grasp the financial grounding for such views.  But I differ substantially with such perspectives.

I grew up with parents who became home owners after World War II.  The home they bought was not new, in fact, it was old and needed lots of work.  Over the years many projects were completed, including one that allowed for my brother and me to have a new bedroom off on the side of the house.  I have often joked that my parents were even smart enough to time our births (11 years apart) so there was never a question my brother and I would have to share that room.  He moved out on his own just as I was needing, for the first time, to upgrade my living space.

For all the years I grew up in the family home there was never, not once, any word spoken about what that improvement,  or that addition, would do for the value of the house.  The value of any improvement was the day-to-day pleasures and conveniences it made for the family.  Nothing more, nothing less.

The family home where I grew up was not so different from all those in the community of my youth. Inside were the favorite places to tuck away to read, the family kitchen where everyone gathered no matter how many folks there were or how small the room might be, and the favorite window to watch the snow pile up or the rain to fall.  The home was a place to live and relax.  It was a place to ‘be’.

Yesterday afternoon James and I were talking as he abruptly said, “I will be right back”.  He took the measuring tape and soon came back with the dimensions for the window seat on the third floor.  The colors of the cushion and the pattern are just one of countless conversations which start as soon as our feet hit the floor in the morning until after the last light is off at night.

The American Dream has always been about expanding the place where one lives life.  Like the settlers heading west those many decades ago we too wanted a new horizon to look out upon.   We now have that opportunity.

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