|Vol. II, No. 1, Summer 1988|
by John and Babbie Stull
It is a love story, of course, this strange thing that happens between some people and their old houses. Best described as a combination Magnificent Obsession and Of Human Bondage, it usually overwhelms the victims at first sight. There is an almost mystic sense of recognition, and so it was with us. Time will never dim the memory of when we looked up from the road below and saw our house. There it stood, tall on the crest of Marmaduke Hill in Hartville, its two silver towers thrusting proudly into the sky. John was sitting on the front seat of the car with the realtor and he dropped his hand down behind the seat, with fingers crossed. From the outside, the Steele Mansion looked exactly like what we had come to the Ozarks to find.
A chance meeting with a relative who declared that the Ozark Mountains had created the most beautiful area in the United States had brought us to the hour. Although all our most meaningful family ties are in California, we had come to the point of thinking a clean break was in order. Looking so far afield was because John was a California state senator and it is difficult for old politicians to just fade away. They are expected to be eternally on call for the cause. It seemed like "now or never" time if we were to ever have a life of our own.
This sense was partially precipitated by a gross partisan gerrymander that had given John almost a million people to represent, a 16,000 square mile district to travel which comprised the greater part of three counties between the Pacific ocean and Arizona border, all of which was about 500 miles from Sacramento, the state capitol. Eleven elections, maintaining two homes and four offices, seeming only to meet at head tables or on airplanes, made our marriage feel as though we were constantly being shot out of a cannon. We have had 29 major and many minor moves in the course of a long naval career and subsequent political life. After retirement, we wanted to settle down and live for us even if it meant some burned bridges.
On the inside, the Steele Mansion was also what we had imagined. Both of us have inherited antique furniture, much of it older than the house, which was built in 1890. Our furniture has seemed to us made for the rooms, especially the several parlor pieces which were bought by Babbie's grandparents when they set up housekeeping in Los Angeles in 1875. In the downstairs bedroom, there is a handmade chest with iron bands which has been in Missouri before. It was in the covered wagon which Babbie's maternal great grandparents drove to California. There is a bellows on the hearth of the fireplace room that was in Robert Louis Stevenson's mother's home on the Isle of Iona to remind us of "peat fires and a sturdy race" and the Balfour cousin of Stevenson who gave both the bellows and Babble her Scottish name.
There is a carved chest bought in Hong Kong, brass from Algiers, bronze from Turkey and Japanese woodblock prints from the Navy years. A large collection of elephants is housed in Captain Steele's glass fronted bookcases in one of the libraries. There is a lot of California in everything and a life which has sprawled over as many miles as ours results in an eclectic combination of possessions.
Laura Ingalls Wilder of Mansfield was a friend of the Steeles and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, wrote Bob Steele (the San Francisco banker grandson of the man who built our house) that "such houses are not built anymore; their workmanship cannot be equaled now"; and of course, this is true. Captain Steele built his cruciform shaped house from his land itself--quarrying and dressing the stone; cutting the oak, cherry, persimmon, maple, black walnut; making the brick down near where the Confederate field hospital was located during the brief but bloody Battle of Hartville on January 11, 1863. It is a strange feeling to know Quantrill's men were on our land and that the young Confederate General, John Sappington Marmaduke, directed the shelling of the town from a spot on what is now our front lawn.
That is the closest the property ever came to the Confederacy although there is a determined legend that the Steeles kept slaves chained in the stone auxiliary building attached to the house. This is extremely strange as Captain Steele was a Union veteran with a lifelong limp as the result of Civil War injuries; he was the son of an ardent Illinois Abolitionist; and the buildings were not built until 1890. However, once built, they were a lasting local wonder. The Mansion had a passenger elevator, the first telephone (to his bank), and the first central heating in Wright County. Old timers still talk with glowing eyes of musicales their parents told them of having attended in the blue drawing room.
At one point in its 98 year history, the house fell on evil times and that same blue drawing room was used for hay storage. However, several families had worked on the restoration before we got it. It is not always easy to live in a shelter which is also a continuing project. The day we arrived is an example of what is involved. We picked up the keys at the grocery store and once inside found half the floor of the interior porch covered with water, the basement awash, and a stifling musty odor throughout. However, the whole yard was full of monarch butterflies. We have found that in the Ozarks there are always compensations.
We found our yard full on another occasion -- this time not of monarchs, but of strangers. Although we have shown our house occasionally to friends, it is not open to commercial tours. Now, however, a tour bus had disgorged all its passengers and they were preparing to explore our home. The driver explained, "1 supposed you were open for business. You had a flag flying." Another group came long after the house was dark, demanding to be taken through, and were incensed when we declined. Fortunately, these thoughtless people are few, and are more than compensated for in our daily contact with many fine neighbors.
It is a constant and expensive battle to preserve and protect this old house. We named it Senator's Rest but it is definitely Senator's Work. Nevertheless, at a time when, as Morris West has expressed it, "...the rooftrees of the world are cracking," it is comforting to be under a rooftree that has stood for almost a hundred years.
Best of all, is being home.
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