Vol. III, No. 1, Summer 1989


A Song from the Third Floor

The Dohman-Boessen House

by Bill Nunn



Some places---a location, a house --- get inside you and won't go away. They become a part of you, personal and important, something to tell others about. The Dohman-Boessen House is that kind of house -- in that kind of place.

It stands tall out of the bottoms of the Maries River, surrounded by the hills of the central Missouri Three Rivers country which attracted its German immigrant builders here a century and a half ago. Then it reflected their dreams of a life in this new land. Today it evokes reactions which tell much about the people who see it -- and about the house.

Architects see features, mostly recognized from textbooks, and want to assign a definite style to the house. Historians see a relatively untouched abode which housed a way of life now only faintly remembered by second and third generations. Artists see an object of texture and symmetry and color, all with an Old World aura. Plain old house buffs see the romance of "old" with challenge enough to last a lifetime. And preservationists see a prime example of dire need.

On a hot Sunday afternoon Patrick Steele saw it for the first time. Faster and faster, he explored all twelve rooms and the wine cellar and the attic -- and the workmen's sagging log cabin in the back and the leaning shed, and the two chicken houses. And he gave himself a headache clapping his head with both hands at each discovery. "The most pristine" preservation find he ever saw, he called it.

Artist Joseph Orr came on a cold and wet March day. He had made an illustrious career based on paintings of old barns and houses. But "1 never saw anything like this," he said as he stumbled into his overshoes to slog through the muddy fields shooting perspectives to take back to his studio. (The accompanying illustration is one result.)

Gary Kremer, professor and Archives director, saw it with the eyes of an historian and a native Osage Countian, and wondered about the Dohmans, what they brought here to start their new life, what they raised on the land. Typically, in a few days he sent the Dohman pages from the 1850 agricultural census.

From Delaware, Charles van Ravenswaay wrote. The author of Arts and Architecture in the German Settlements in Missouri and retired curator of the DuPont Museum, remembered the place from his Missouri days.

"The old house is one of the most important early buildings left in Missouri,'' he wrote, "and in terms of American architecture may very well be unique in design and construction techniques in this country."

Later, offering his help in trying to save it, he referred to "that remarkable old house, surely one of the most important in the Middle West, both as a tribute to the German migration, and because of its design and construction which is so completely Old World in the forests and valleys of the New World."

The Dohmans (or Dohmens) came to the northern Ozarks from a small village near Kaiserswerth, Germany. They sailed from Bremerhaven in July of 1836 on the "Charles Ferdinand" -- J. Dohmen, 40, his wife, 38, and four young sons according to the ship's passenger list. (A four-year-old son was listed as having died on the voyage.) Coincidentally, on the same ship were Christian Bossen (Boessen), his wife, and six sons.

According to the diaries of Henrietta Bruns, wife of Dr. Bernard Bruns, the first Westphalia settlers, most of the new immigrants "found temporary shelter with Mr. Scheulen. Then they gradually bought land and established farms."

In 1837, four years before Osage County was formed out of Gasconade County, Dohman bought the land for their new home -- a long stretch of bottom land bordered by the Maries River on the west and fringed on three sides by wooded hills. The three-story structure was built of brick, baked on the site, and covered with stucco. Actually, there are four levels, including the full attic, but, with the long, steeply pitched roof, only two floors show on the outside. Some knowledgeable historians have guessed that this feature came from the European's way of avoiding taxes when assessments were based on the number of floors the assessor could see on the outside.

Dohman faced the one-story front toward the river, but far back from its second bench to avoid any possible flooding. The two-story back looked up to the hills -- and a bountiful outcropping of stone, weathered and layered. And convenient.

Some of these stone -- some as large as three by four feet and five to six inches thick -- are the floor in two of the bottom rooms. They are glassy smooth now but still wondrously level and even at the joints. Built into the north wall of one room is a 4'x4' cooling cabinet which backs onto the wine cellar which runs alongside the north side of the house.

The wine cellar floor is also made of the huge stones. The ceiling is arched brick. The ground level roof is half original hooked red tile and half standing seam tin.

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From an original oil painting by Joseph Orr

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A faint vinegary odor still lingers in the middle ground level room, an ambient reminder of long-ago wine-making. Near the ceilings in the two front rooms, hinged windows let in late evening slanting across the field --and, conceivably, let out the fragrances of wine in the making. Ledgers at Hilkemeyer's & Co., the fifth generation grocery store at Westphalia, show frequent entries of John Dohman's paying for staples -- salt, sugar, flour --with wine. Later occupants continued the practice. (One older couple willed the place to a son but they stipulated that they would retain, until their deaths, one room and one-tenth of all wine produced on the farm.)

The second and third levels have similar floor plans -- two rooms, sixteen by sixteen feet, on each side of a central hallway. A pecan bannister, worn smooth by the hands of 150 years, line the stairs between the two levels. Owners in the early 1900s put in new pine flooring on the second level; but the third level floor is original pine planks, a foot wide and more. In a corner of the northwest room dark-stained planks and a cache of tanning boards tell of trapping and tanning.

Center wall flues rise through each room; but there are no openings on the third floor and one shivers at the prospect of bedding down on cold nights, covered with thick quilts and heavy comforts and seeing breath on frigid sunrises.

The windows are all recessed casement type, with panes of bubbly old glass, many of them still unbroken. They still work, swinging in for reaching shutters still hanging outside most of them. The only changes are on the first level where owners in the Twenties put in Victorian windows and replaced the two-panel, handmade wooden doors with narrow modern ones. But both panels, with their big wooden knobs, were among the many items which Patrick Steele found that afternoon --and which gave him a headache.

Like the ground level stone floors, the attic shows the construction which has kept the house standing. The rafters are double-truss, handhewn walnut beams, mortised and pegged. At each end intricate brick mousetoothing, still solid high above ground level moisture, shows the workmen's attention to the smallest details throughout the construction. John Dohman knew how to build a house that would endure. Becky and I first saw it soon after we knocked on Pat and Gerhard Hilkemeyer's door in Westphalia. We were looking for an old farmhouse that we could work on and live in. An encyclopedia of central Missouri German lore, Pat knew "just the place." In ten minutes we were in their Blazer bouncing over the back road between Westphalia and Loose Creek. The road wound along the ridges and below, through the woods and pastures. Across the bottom fields we could catch occasional glimpses of the Maries River. At every view around every curve, Becky was jumping all over the back seat at the prospect of living in this beautiful country in, finally, our old house.

We crossed the rusty iron bridge over the Maries, curved up the hill, then headed back down toward the river...across the last cattle guard, past three turkey barns. And there it was.

The white stucco was fading, and red brick showed through in spots...and was falling out in others. But out of the shoulder-high weeds, the house still stood sturdy and tall and beautiful in its no-frills symmetry.

"It'll need a little work," Pat had warned us. "And you might want to carry a big stick in case we see some snakes," she added as we walked in on the ground floor.

It did need some work -- more than a little. More than at first thought we wanted to take on. But it had that solid character and lived-in feeling we had wanted. And, we told ourselves, above that badly damaged ground level, the old house was as solid as Gibraltar. We tried to buy it, with a few surrounding acres. Unable to do that, we reasoned it would make the perfect office for our fledgling book publishing business, The Westphalia Press. It would be a symbol of the kind of books we wanted to publish --books with substance and beauty, books of enduring worth, books which otherwise might never be seen on a bookshelf...It was that kind of house.

We shoveled and raked and scraped. The Bosessens hauled debris away and hauled in huge stones and long planks so we could walk in the hallway above the water that rose in rainy weather. We had the worst patches of bare brick re-stuccoed. We cut the weeds and mowed the yard and planted flowers.

Gus and Fran Boessen by then had decided that, although maybe we were a bit crazy, we were harmless. The day that Becky put up her mandatory bluebird box on an old post by the chicken house, Gus stopped the tractor his grin as wide as his combine.

"Gonna catch you a woodpecker, are you?" he asked.

The Westphalia Press had found a home.

Since then we have tried to gather all of the information we can find about the house and the people who have lived there. Providence helped on one occasion.

We had dropped the mail at the Loose Creek postoffice and wandered up the little valley past the baseball diamond. An interesting old house, behind a neat bungalow, stopped us. A man and his wife were making early garden. Sure, help yourselves, he told Becky who, trying to explain our interest in old houses, casually remarked that we rented the old Dohman-Boessen House.

"1 was born in the Dohman house," said Herbert Haslag. He was the only person still alive who had lived in the house. He was born there in 1916 and grew up with it as a typical self-sufficient farm of those days... "growing everything, from huckleberries (they're out in the front yard) to tobacco."

He remembered the hillside orchard so full of apples that "they came in wagons to get them" from Westphalia and Loose Creek.

He had attended Immaculate Conception School at Loose Creek, some five miles from the house -- up the hill, along the ridge above the Maries, down Grapevine Hill, then up the hill to Loose Creek. "And I walked it every day for seven years and never missed a day," he said proudly.

The Haslags, like the Dohmans probably, were true "scrub Deutsch." Herbert was the youngest of four boys, so many of the household chores fell on his young shoulders -- including much of the cooking and scrubbing floors.

"It was my job, rain or shine, cold or hot, to scrub the hallway floors every Saturday," he said. "And many's the time I remember it was so cold that the water would freeze on the floor before I could get it mopped up."

When we first talked of living in the house, young Augie, fearful that we were truly crazy, warned us, "Why, it gets thirty below down here."

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On many mornings when I opened the "office" -- with frost on the inside doors--I believed it. But in the "main" office room, the little Cole's Charter Oak wood stove soon thaws it out, once those ten-inch walls warm up. And we've enjoyed many "overnights" in our pioneer bedroom on the third floor -- under, of course, plenty of quilts and comforts.

On summer nights cool breezes and moonlight blow in together through the pecan tree and the life of the Dohmans 150 years ago doesn't seem quite so primitive and harsh. Becky, with a bit of the fey Irish in her, swears that she's heard singing in the room across the hall. Mostly, she says, it's about dusk, on the nights when the fog floats in from the river. Or when the big thunderheads roll in from the west across the flat front field and rain rattles on the corrugated roof. Then she hears it --lilting, happy, wordless airs. Someone's happy, she says, that we're here, trying to take care of the place.

I can't say that I've heard it. But, surely, if so, 'tis an authentic German folk tune.

Bill Nunn is a writer, editor, and publisher of Jefferson City and rural Osage County. He is the proprietor of Westphalia Press, the offices of which are in the Dohman-Boessen house near Loose Creek, Missouri.

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Copyright -- OzarksWatch


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