Volume VII, No. 3, Spring 1980
A STORY ABOUT A HOUSE AND ITS FAMIY
by Melinda Stewart, Photography by Mary Schmalstig
The buildings were leaning, their foundations falling from beneath them. The house stood in the overgrown bluegrass, surrounded by old cedar trees, its siding weather-worn, some of its windows broken out.
The longer I lingered studying the farmstead in the silence, the more the place seemed to beckon me to find out more about it, until soon I was oblivious to the present world. When I stepped into the house, time became a funnel drawing me into the past.
"Mother, Ellen won't help me set the table for dinner," Tilly Franz screamed from the dining room to the kitchen where her mother, Anna, prepared her large family's supper.
"Ellen, help your sister," Anna yelled. Usually Anna was a quiet even-tempered person, but she was due any day and didn't feel well.
When Henry came in to wash up from his long day of work on the farm, supper was almost ready. From the washroom where he dipped water into the wash basin and washed his hands with the yellow lye soap, he could smell the homemade bread baking and the fresh green beans cooking with a bit of bacon.
"Papa, I made the pie for supper," Ellen said proudly.
After Henry said the blessing, the children grabbed the drumsticks and the biggest pieces of bread. There were only a few interruptions of talking and passing food while the plates were emptied and the ravenous appetites were satisfied.
After Adele and Tilly cleared the dishes, the family moved to the living room to relax as they usually did to talk about their day or listen to their father read from the newspaper or the Bible. On the day couch Anna crocheted on a baby wrap, explaining some of the simpler stitches to Ellen. Next to them Adele and Tilly hemmed the last of the diapers. Henry in the large wooden rocking chair smoked his pipe and rocked his two-year-old son Otto on his lap.
The older girls were talking about some new boys at school from a family who had just immigrated from Germany, when Adele realized that Otto had never heard their family's history.
"Tell again your story of coming here so Otto can hear it," she asked her father.
Hugging his first-born son to him and smiling at his three daughters, Henry began. "Your Uncle Otto and I came over in 1864 from Germany. Your uncle was a college professor and I was a certified public accountant. There were wars in Europe and we came here to the United States to avoid serving in the German Army.
"I always liked farming in Germany so when we came to the Ozarks, we looked for some land in the country but also close to a town so I could do some accountant work. There were advertisements in Germany about the Ozark land. The railroad wanted more business. It sounded good to us, so we came here and we each bought forty acres from the railroad. We got a good deal on the place. We didn't know there was a spring here until after we bought it.
"You know that south pasture? That's where we spent our first winter in a lean-to we built in the field. That was the winter of '65 and the snow was pretty bad! It got plenty cold, but the whole place was wooded, so we kept warm twice."
"How'd you do that, Papa?" Otto asked.
"We got warm cutting it, then we got warm burning it," he teased. "Anyway, we started pretty quick building the barn. We finished that then we built the house. Of course, at first it was only one story. Later on as we could we built the out-buildings--the chicken house, the tool shed and the calf barn after we dug the cellar.
"But after that harsh winter in an unfamiliar land, your Uncle Otto got homesick for the old country and returned to Germany. I liked it here, so I bought his forty acres and have been here ever since."
Anna started telling part of the story because Otto was fidgeting, and Henry had to put him down. "I remember your father when he first came to live on the next farm to us down the road a mile and a half. News of every new neighbor spread, but news of two single, sophisticated and educated men like your father and uncle was talked about all over the neighborhood. Your father was an uncommon person. He looked different than anything we had seen before because he had such a heavy head of hair and distinguished looking goatee and especially because his brogue was so thick you could cut it. He was a hard-working man, honest and dependable. When I first saw him, I was only a child, but I saw him every Sunday at church. I had a crush on him, but since he was a grown man, he barely noticed I was alive--or any girl for that matter for he worked so hard."
"I was waiting for her to grow up," Henry whispered to Adele, "but don't tell her."
"After six years nobody caught him," Anna continued ignoring the interruption. "He was almost thirty and most of the girls his age had gotten married or left. Then he just started sitting by me at church, and a year later we got married.
"Soon we had you three girls, Adele, Tilly and Ellen and the house was filled with life. Your father and I were happy because we were blessed with a healthy family, and we were prospering. God had given us three girls, and we thought that would be all we'd have until He gave us Baby Anna on Christmas Day in 1878. Then all of you girls came down with diphtheria when it hit here in 1881." Tears rolled down Anna's cheeks, and for a moment she was silent.
"Your sister Anna died two days after her third birthday. She was too young to fight off the fever." Anna couldn't finish the story. Adele sat quietly remembering her little tow-headed sister, and how every now and then she would get into her parents' closet to look in the box where her mother kept her sister's dress.
After a moment Henry finished the story. "We hoped to have some sons and needed more room, anyway, so we built the upstairs on the house."
"How'd you do that, Papa? Didn't the rain come in?" Otto asked.
Henry smiled at his son. "No, Otto, the rain didn't come in. Our neighbors helped us build it. We did it fast before it rained. You children ought to be thankful. We have been blessed with good neighbors. We have a good home, plenty of food and a growing family. And soon, the Lord willing, you'll have another little brother or sister."
Henry emptied his pipe and then at 7:30 got up, telling the children it was bedtime. The older girls hurried to bed, while Henry went to the calf barn to check on the calves and Anna walked Ellen to the outhouse. She was still afraid of the dark, and since it was a good time of the year for snakes, her mother went with her. While she was out, Anna looked in on the chickens and joined Henry in returning to the house after he let the mules in the yard to eat the grass, keeping it cropped low.
The creaking of the outhouse door broke the silence and brought me to the present. The outhouse was larger than most with two separate rooms--obviously once a his-and-hers arrangement. But in more recent years only one side showed use. There the wooden seat was worn smooth, while the other side was piled with clutter. Mud daubers had built nests inside both rooms.
The chicken house was not far from this building. In design and construction it was very similar to the best family hen house today with a concrete floor, well-constructed roosts, and feeders hanging from the ceiling. There was very little decay here. Even the glass covered by chicken wire was still on the windows.
In the adjoining calf barn an old grindstone sat amidst some rusty machinery. The family had kept the calves in this shed close to the house during weaning and when they were sick.
Back in the house I slowly climbed the narrow staircase, listening to the boards crackle under my feet. I pondered what it must have been like when those steps were new. What was it like to be Adele in 1888 when she was fifteen and the oldest girl in the Franz household?
Soon everyone was back in the house and the kerosene lamps were blown out. Ellen and Tilly started arguing because they kept pulling the blankets off of each other. Their father's stern voice came from downstairs and resounded through the house, "Ellen! Tilly! Stop fussing and get to sleep!" The children immediately quieted, obeying their father's command.
In a little while everyone in the family was sleeping except Adele who could not sleep because of the sadness she felt remembering Baby Anna, and also because she worried about her mother's pregnancy. The sounds of her brother in the next room mumbling in his sleep and the rhythm of her beloved father's snoring floating up the stairs comforted her with a sense of security. Soon she, too, was asleep.
Inside the old house the breeze that gently blew the tattered curtains through the broken window hit my face, making me aware of the room I stood in. The yellowed bedspread and coarse muslin sheets that covered the flattened feather mattress and musty straw tick reminded me that these events were illusions, that they happened ninety years ago.
Old photos courtesy of Betty Franz
The shoes under the bed, Anna's corset draped over the chair, the porcelain chamber pot by the door--everything in the room was just as last used many years ago. When Anna died in 1932 this bedroom was closed up; nothing, including even dresser scarves, was moved. The dresser drawers still held personal belongings and the closet still protected clothes. I reached up to get a box from the closet shelf. As I slowly brought it down, I was showered with mud daubers nests and dust that had been settling through the years.
The box was marked "Anna's dress," and when I carefully opened it, I found a little girl's low-waisted dress and sash--the one that Adele had cherished so much! The dress was still stiff from the starch used in ironing it, and the blue designs were still clear on the yellowed, white background. I folded it back in the box wondering if, with the exception of Baby Anna's grave, this might be all that was left to remember her.
Opening the doors of the washstand, I found stacks of pamphlets and books. Since Henry spoke and read both English and German, there were many publications written in the German language. Among these I found some almanacs from the turn of the century. As I was leafing through a 1914 German almanac, I saw a picture of a German soldier with a caption in German which I could make out, "Field Marshall Von Hindenburg." I remembered my history and was stunned to see pictures of actual German campaign rallies for the first World War. I had to wonder about Henry's feeling during this time.
The next book on the stack was a German Bible dated 1845. Though I looked for the family record in it, I couldn't find any writing. One page, probably signifying someone's favorite scripture, was marked by a brown braid of hair from one of the girls.
I also found a thin 1900 pamphlet. The introduction explained that it was a magazine published by
the Frisco Railroad advertising vacation stops along the railroad in some of the most beautiful
homes in the Ozarks. Leafing through the pamphlet, I came to one page that was more worn than
the others. In the corner there was a picture of the Franz house in its prime with this caption:
Two story frame house, eight rooms, in beautifully shaded grounds. Accommodations for ten or twelve people. Large spring near house. Good riding and driving horses and vehicles for hire at reasonable rates. Beautiful stream of water runs through the place.
The family took advantage of the railroad promotion to entertain boarders to pay for their vacation to the world's Fair in St. Louis and to have money for the children when they decided to leave home.
The family was excited preparing for their first guests who were from St. Louis. Joseph Haderlein, a small timid man who had always lived in the city and his wife, Emily, wanted to show their eight-year-old son, Jeremiah, that there was another way to live besides the crowded city life.
Late in the afternoon, Henry and Otto met the train at the Rolla depot and drove them to the farm in the buggy. Though the Haderleins were tired from the trip, they were also excited at the prospect of living on this beautiful farm for a week, The proud horse trotted up the curved driveway past the shaded lawn and stopped by habit at the well pump. Just ahead the guests could see the rolling hills and neat green meadows with cattle grazing. The sun was just setting as they stopped and the family spilled from the house and barns to welcome them and escort them into the house.
"Adele," Anna said, "take them upstairs to their rooms. Mrs. Haderlein, supper will be ready in fifteen minutes."
The broadloom rungs on the floor, the new flowered wall paper in the hall and the shining and spotless staircase all showed a sense of well-being earned from hard work and diligent care. The summer breeze blew through the airy bedroom. The girls had readied the rooms for the guests by filling the big ceramic pitchers from the well and setting them in the larger basin bowls and by hanging fresh clean towels on the stand for the guests to wash away the dust of the trip.
Morning came early to the newcomers who were not accustomed to the crowing roosters or getting up at dawn to the smell of ham frying and coffee brewing and the sounds of the men outside finishing the morning chores. The Franz girls had breakfast almost ready with Anna overseeing them to make sure the preparations were done just right when the guests ventured down the stairs. To the Haderleings, getting up at four A.M. to the hustle and bustle of the farm life was confusing, but to the large household it was normal.
Most of the children had their own chores to do. Otto, almost a man now, helped his father feed the stock in the barn. Herb and Steve, who were eleven and nine, split and carried wood into the kitchen for their mother, and Harry, who was seven, played with the young guest Jeremiah, introducing him to his dog.
Anna sent Ellen to feed the chickens and sent Alma for jelly from the cellar under the tool shed.
The tool shed was piled high with old tools and supplies. The family had saved every little scrap of everything, planning for the day it might be needed, and as I walked through, I had to step over busted nail kegs, old tool handles and feed sacks. A butter churn handle leaned against The wall, and several scythes hung from the rafters.
At the back of the room a trap door in the floor led to the underground cellar. The door was jammed from the shifting of the building, and as I pried it open, I remembered my fear of the dark and scared myself by thinking of the dangers that could be within--the steps giving way, spiders and snakes.
A cool draft of air escaped from the black hole in the floor as I opened the door, but in a minute I could see the step in front of me. A gleam of sunlight from a tiny window in the cellar filtered through the glass lids of blue Mason jars revealing ancient canned beets, blackberries and beans.
Gingerly stepping down the feeble stairs, testing each board first to see if it would hold my weight, I avoided the old green fruit jars, large stone pots and water jugs sitting on the steps. At the foot of the steps in almost total darkness, I was enveloped in a damp earthy smell. As my eyes became more accustomed to my surroundings, I detected a large keg used for homemade wine. When I could make my way around the cellar, I found wine jugs still plugged with newspapers wound up like a cork and many more jars of canned food.
The stone walls were sealed by cement and the earthen floor was packed down tight from many years' traffic. Log posts held up the ceiling, which also served as the floor to the tool shed above. In the last years of Steve and Harry living here when the cellar was no longer used much, junk was thrown down into it. Cautiously I stepped over narrow solid rubber Model T tires, old rusty wire, rope and rotting boards which littered the floor. Soon I became chilled and remembering my fear of snakes, returned to the warm sunshine.
Perhaps the most fascinating building of all was the big barn next to the tool shed where the horses were kept. The barn stood majestic, time marking the rust-colored weather-beaten sides whose once red lumber hadn't been painted for fifty years.
Opening one of the many doors, I stepped inside on the sagging but solid wooden floor made of railroad ties. Since very few barns had wooden floors, I realized that at one time this was a showpiece. Light entered the building through the cracks between the seasoned oak siding and through the windows which had previously been covered with feed sacks to keep out the wind and rain. The sacks now hung in shreds, worn through from years of exposure to the weather.
By the worn wooden feed troughs I discovered several curry combs and brushes still lying where someone last laid them after currying the animals. Near the stall a man's worn denim jumper, stiff and musty with age, hung on a handmade peg that also held old pieces of harness. Leaning against another stall, I found a one-legged milking stool covered with cobwebs. A cattle prod hung above it on the wall waiting patiently, it seemed, until dawn when the family would come to do the milking. A rusty pitchfork lay in the hayloft whose log floor sagged only slightly after all the years of holding so much hay.
After Ellen and Alma returned to the house from their errands, the family and their guests sat down to eat. While eating, Henry made plans to have Otto and Herb help him with the farm work. Not wanting to stay at the house with the women and children, Joseph Haderlein decided to go with Henry, and since the women had to do some last minute canning, his wife thought she might enjoy helping.
Breakfast dishes were cleared, Henry, Otto, Herb and their guest went to the barn, while the little boys and Alma played in the yard and Steve carried wood into the summer kitchen from the adjoining lean-to for the women to use in their canning.
Just a step from the house, the lean-to sheltered not only the supply of wood, but also the family's supply of grain in metal grain bins. Two rooms adjoined the lean-to, one serving as another piled-up tool shed, the other as a summer kitchen and bathhouse. Instead of having a fire in the wood cook stove in the house during the heat of July, the Franzes, like many other people at that time had an outside summer kitchen. Here they did their hot work like canning and heating water for washing and bathing. I was surprised to see a bathtub in the corner. This must have been real luxury at a time when a wash tub by the kitchen stove was the best most people had. This was a real bathtub made of tin painted white. The drain led outside through the wall. The women also did their laundry out here.
Now, it too was cluttered with old feed sacks, clothes and shoes with dust covering everything. Like the cellar, this building was probably not used for its original purpose since Anna died. The discarded shoes, the jugs, the cans--everything gave evidence of the activity of the busy days this place once experienced.
The women were dashing back and forth from the kitchen getting ready to start making jelly. The two oldest girls were carrying a bushel basket of grapes from the nearby vineyard and washing them at the pump. Anna and Emily Haderlein were in the summer kitchen building the fire and washing the big pans they needed to use.
Soon the smell of cooking grapes caught and dressed three chickens for dinner, for hardly had they finished clearing up from breakfast than they began preparing dinner.
The children ran in and out of the house yelling and slamming screen doors until Anna banished them to the yard where Steve joined them after he finished carrying in the wood.
The women could hear the sounds of rolling logs and thuds of falling lumber down at the barn as Henry and Herb loaded the posts to mend the fence. Otto and Joseph led the draft horses out of their stalls, and Otto showed the newcomer how to hitch the team to the wagon.
After mending the fence, the men cut firewood to sell in Rolla for $1.50 a cord. Later in the day Otto and his brother used the mule to pull some rotten stumps where they had cut wood the year before.
Activity such as this was a common occurrence at the Franz farm. Another time seventeen years later in 1917, the yard was full of people when Steve left for the army.
The photographer placed the family together in front of the house for the group picture. Everyone had come home to see Steve off, except Otto who was already in France. The house once again was filled with the active sounds of the large family.
Anna had been looking forward to her family coming home, but since Steve was one of the last children to leave home and he was going to the war, his eminent departure weighed more heavily on her mind than her other children's leaving.
She remembered when the others left. Adele had moved to Washington state several years before, Matilda got married in 1904, Ellen had gotten a job in Rolla, Otto was already in the service and Herb had married Maude a few years before. Harry and Alma, the youngest in the family, would be the only children left at home. After the army had turned him down because of his speech impediment and tilted neck, Harry had promised to stay and help his aging parents run the farm. Henry at sixty-eight and Anna at sixty-one both knowing that they would not have all their children together in the house too many more times, spent every second they could with them.
The photographer finally got the group together and snapped the picture. Afterwards the children and their families packed, and weepingly saying good-bye to their parents, they dispersed. As the house one by one gained its inhabitants, it slowly lost most of them. When all were gone this time, it felt quite empty to Anna, Henry, Harry and Alma. The four went inside and quietly went about their normal daily tasks.
The following years melted together, each indistinct from the others. The high point for the family at home was when the mailman brought the many postcards the Franz children wrote.
Picking up a dusty postcard on the floor, I noticed the other stacks of cards around the room. There were hundreds of them, each with a piece of the family's history. I learned of Alma's leaving home, the births of grandchildren, vacations, illnesses and well wishes for anniversaries and birthdays.
In the parents' bedroom I also found a photo of Anna taken when she was much older and heavier. The years of working hard, staying up with children, and the recent death of her husband had drained her of her energy. She looked very tired. The date on the back of the photo was August 1932. Soon after the photo was taken, Anna died on September first.
Most of the children were once again united in the house. Many had not seen one another since they were home for their father's funeral. This gathering as the last was a sad one, Anna's funeral.
The women did the necessary work of food preparation quietly. Since there was plenty of food brought in by the neighbors, Tilly, who took charge from habit, didn't have much to do. As she heated up a pot of soup, she remembered the last time she stood in the kitchen. Then, too, she had taken charge of the meal because her father had died, and her mother was tired from caring for him through his illness. That was four years earlier, and Alma had written her when her mother first came to visit her that she had not recovered her health.
After their mother was buried, the family once again left for their own homes. Steve and Harry were the last Franzes left to live in the house. After their mother's death they never went into her room, leaving everything just as she had left it when she left to visit Alma where she had died suddenly. These two youngest brothers never married. They worked the farm living in a few downstairs rooms. As the years passed, the house began to show a few signs of age and neglect. Though it had always been brightly painted, the men, also getting older, let it go unpainted. They kept the barns in better condition, but they also began to show their age as rocks in the foundations slipped and were not put back, and junk piled up in unused corners.
After their mother's death, the brothers also decided that they would do nothing to modernize the farm. They loved the farm as it was when they grew up, wanting to keep the house and the surrounding area as it was without electric power lines over their land.
Their brothers and sisters occasionally wrote to the men at home. Otto and his wife Clara lived on an adjoining farm. Their son Henry (Hank--the only grandson to carry on the family name) and his wife Betty often came to visit. Then in 1961 Hank and Betty moved across the road from the farmstead to help on the farm and take care of them in their old age.
At four o'clock every day, Steve and Harry would go to Hank's home. Telling stories to their nephew and his family was their favorite pastime, and the family enjoyed listening to them. Their youngest grand-nephew, Steve's namesake, Steve, enjoyed running his hands through his uncle's thick snow-white hair.
They lived contently and quietly for the next few years until Steve's death in 1963. By then Adele, Matilda and Ellen had also died.
After Steve's death Harry lived in the house alone, and, except for going to the funeral of Herbert in December 1963 and Otto in November of 1970, he stayed home.
It was rapidly getting dark outside as I started downstairs. My footsteps resounded through the house, and as I cautiously crept through the darkness down the stairs, I saw Harry's picture on the wall.
I felt as if any moment I might turn around to see Harry or any of the other Franzes who had once lived here. Betty had probably felt this way when she used to come over at night to check on her husband's uncle before his death in 1978.
As I walked out, I took a last look in the dim light before leaving. The antique butter bowl in the cupboard still full of butter, the shoes still sitting by the bed where Harry last took them off and his pants and work shirts hanging on the wall all said that the presence of the family continued to fill the house.
Closing the door in total darkness, I felt the house's wish for me to stay and once again fill it with
life, but I knew I had to leave. It was too late. The last remanent of its life died with Harry and no
one could give the house its vitality again. Nothing could revive the sagging floors and rotting sills
or bring back the people. Though I had entered their past to relive it for a few hours, I couldn't
stay. It was gone.
Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.