Welcome to “Mother House,” our family home, the heart of The Old Brabender Place. I had been fond of the name since the 1960s, after two of my St. Peter’s Catholic School classmates went to the convent in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, to become Franciscan nuns. When I saw them during a summer break, they affectionately talked about their convent's “Motherhouse.” In 1982 I helped host a family reunion that drew 500 people to our farm. Among them was Sonja from Washington. Her great grandmother Catherine, a sister to my grandfather Hubert, grew up in this old house. When Sonja and I re-connected on Facebook, she said she was so moved during her 1982 visit that she hugged our house’s limestone wall to feel closer to Catherine. I knew then we had our own Mother House right here.
This is the second house on Brabender farm. In 1865 it replaced a log cabin that stood along the field road less than ¼ mile south of our current farmstead. For years, our plow in the spring never failed to find the cabin’s abandoned stone foundation. We believe the Dreesens, our neighbors to the east, had built the cabin on 40 acres that Christian and Cecelia purchased in 1858. But after their son George was born on June 23, 1859, Catherine on August 4, 1861, and Anton on October 9, 1863, it was time to move north to a bigger house closer to the main Ashton road.
The family built a one-and-a-half-story home with limestone walls 20 inches thick, living room and master bedroom on the first floor, two bedrooms on the second, as well as an attached one-story, wooden-frame summer kitchen, open front porch, and enclosed back porch. The new house also featured quoins, oversized corner stones to add strength and an architectural design element, and concrete lintels, large horizontal supports above its doors and windows.
In 1908, my grandparents Hubert and Ursula, who had 13 kids, replaced the summer kitchen with an all-season, two-story kitchen of limestone with two more bedrooms on the second floor. My parents remodeled some of the house in 1959, gutting the kitchen, adding a bathroom and in-door plumbing, and replacing the back porch with a one-car garage. By 2012, it was ready for another overhaul. This time we gutted the entire house to add foam insulation, new doors and windows, all new electrical service and some plumbing, a second bathroom, two dormers, several walk-in closets, and other modern amenities.
During remodeling, I took charge of the demolition, because I wanted to preserve whatever I could of the old place. Like an archaeologist, I took my time searching through the rubble I produced. (See photo.) My great grandparents and my grandfather had died long before I was born. They had left little behind to tell me who they were. Perhaps, I thought, they had left some clues in the bones of this old house.
And bones I found, chicken bones, in the cavities behind some plaster and lath walls, along with pieces of string, wire, and leather, as well as many broken items: eggshells, glass, pottery, chair spindles, and silverware. Mice had deposited hickory nut and walnut shells, neatly gnawed into works of art. Mice were probably responsible, too, for the pieces of cotton cloth I found, some dyed purple with the juice of Concord grapes that once grew in our backyard and some dyed red with the juice of beets from the old garden. When I removed the windowsills, I discovered old buttons and marbles as I sifted through the dust. In the ceilings wasps had left me little mud houses to explore.
When I dismantled a small shelf near the ceiling in an upstairs closet, a variety of hairpins rained down, confirming what I had heard, that this was the girls’ bedroom, probably because it was the warmest room, with a stovepipe running from floor almost to ceiling. I found my favorite artifact in the ceiling of this bedroom – a tool used to install wooden lath, with a hatchet to cut the lath and a hammer, two claws, and a pincers to pound, pull, and cut the nails, probably left behind because a claw was broken but I like to think it was Christian’s way of telling us, “I was here.” Throughout the house I removed plaster reinforced with horsehair and straw. I saved samples of the plaster, but most of it, well over 100 bushels, I dumped into the pit at the bottom of our silo. I carefully removed all lath from wall studs and ceiling rafters. I sorted the lath by length, tied them into bundles of 25, and then stored them in our granary. I saved all the old square nails that had held the lath, studs, and rafters in place.
I wasn’t expecting to find a perfectly preserved rat skeleton, but there it was, hanging, as I dismantled an upstairs bedroom wall. At first I thought I had found more string, but as I removed more lath from below, the “string” grew thicker and thicker until little rodent feet appeared, a dead giveaway that it was not string. I often studied in this room when I was in elementary school and later in college. Sometimes I heard scratching in the walls. I had assumed it was a mouse.
The demo work was hard. It took weeks to complete. My last task was the most rewarding: cleaning out petrified dirt from the ¼ inch gaps between the knotty pine floorboards on the second floor. For a week, as I scraped away on my knees and inhaled 150-year-old dust, I began to feel closer to my ancestors. The artifacts that I had uncovered during remodeling were precious to me, items I could hold, admire, study, display, and share with others. But that dust becoming one with my body was mine, alone. I knew I would never get closer to my ancestors than that.
Like me, they were a part of Mother House, but now they were part of me, too, and I, part of them.
Author’s note: I upload posts as I complete them, so one written about a recent event may precede posts about earlier events. The introduction to each post shows where it fits into the history. For an introduction to my memoir, visit Whole Hearted - A Farm Love Story.
This blog is a book in the making. If you're a new visitor, read Whole Hearted - A Farm Love Story. You can also find a copy in Prologue.