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While walls don’t actually speak, for a lucky few there is still a timeless story to be pieced together through the history and contents revealed in their home. I recently caught up with two Wisconsin homeowners who, through remodeling projects over the years, found themselves literally looking into time capsules. Both of the homeowners had very different experiences, but they both have an appreciation for the past that has grown deeper from the experiences they share.
Just as anyone who remodels an older home, Andrea McFaul expected to find a hint that could be traced to the home’s beginnings. Perhaps she’d find an old coin, matchbook or even photograph wedged between the old wall studs. Instead, she found a treasure-trove of items that has helped her develop a deep bond with the original occupants of the New London, Wis., former parsonage.
Interestingly, the home provoked McFaul’s interest long before the first pry bar opened up a view into the past.
McFaul’s story began when, “One night, while reading the local shopper, I saw the house was for sale. I used to walk by it and admire it, so I was thrilled. The college year was starting soon, so I had to pull something together pretty fast. I had always wanted that house, and luckily was able to work out a deal with the prior owner.”
After relocating and getting used to the old home’s charm, McFaul spent the first year cleaning and moving into the place. It suited her needs just fine, but the first winter revealed a major flaw: drafty rooms and sky-high heating bills. When the construction began, her life changed literally overnight.
“It was the end of the second day of the project — in the west wall in the bottom right-hand corner — where we started to pry loose the tongue-and-groove ledge above the window sill. That’s where we found the first items.”
The items found have ranged far and wide. From a blue and white child’s teapot to old prints, McFaul carefully retrieved each one, taking great care to keep them intact. “It was amazing,” she said. “There were books, perfume bottles, clothing, silk ribbons, children’s school papers, toys, paper flowers, talcum tins and more. The items weren’t just stashed there; they were put there on purpose. Most of the items were grouped into sections. They were so well organized, in fact, that I soon learned the original family consisted of the parents and three children … two girls and a boy.”
“I don’t know why they hid what they hid, but it was pretty cool,” McFaul admits. “I found [workout] pins and dominoes. Some items were so large that they barely fit between the walls and ceiling areas where they were placed.”
The most interesting items?
“I found toy train tracks and train cars spread out in three different walls. Packages of violin strings and fancy shoes,” she said. “I think this house was one of those places that was so well loved that the family wanted to let others know who they were and what their interests were.”
“I almost want to explore some more,” McFaul said. “A great sense of pride and love went into this house. These people had great character and respect. I felt bad ripping it apart during the remodeling process, but I am happy to pick up the tradition and carry it on.”
Since completing the remodeling project, McFaul refurbished many of the items and has them on display in her home, including framed pictures of the original owners now hanging on the walls. “We kept most of the items, but did put some of them back into the walls,” she said. “There will be no eBay on this stuff. I plan on keeping it.”
The most personal find for her did not come from the walls, but rather from the living room. A visit from her grandmother revealed that she and McFaul’s grandfather had been married in the parsonage on December 23, 1948. McFaul plans on leaving a little history in the walls for future owners to discover and she continues to pursue researching the history of this very special home.
Whereas Andrea McFaul found antiques and collectibles that were purposefully left behind awaiting discovery, Merlin and Barbara Horn found their old home contained mementoes that were most likely forgotten and left behind.
After a 10-year career as a professor at the University of Arkansas and then as a consulting global geologist, Horn and his family left their home in the Chicago suburbs in 1973 and moved four hours north to Waupaca, Wis. They settled on a 120-acre farmstead, which included a run-down home with no basement or modern plumbing, and very modest electrical service.
The Horns, both raised on farms as children, knew what they were getting with the old home: lots of work. What they didn’t know is that they’d find items dating back to early settlers and one of our nation’s early presidents.
Renovations bring surprises; in this case the Horns found things not only in the floors and walls, but also under the old farmhouse. They began their renovations because the house had no basement, needed a heat source other than just wood and a new well.
What they found when putting in the basement was on old cistern beneath the house, and many different types of paper items.
Unlike McFaul’s experience, the items found by the Horn family were not purposefully placed, but rather, literally fell through the cracks. Items found include: old calendar cards dated 1916-1917 from The Otto Zimmerman & Son Co., magazines from 1949 and 1950, a scrapbook of cutout and pasted farm implements, and several other ads and cards.
It took years to find some of it, as they started work on the house and then did additional renovations about 10 to 15 years later. Finding the items helped make the work more interesting, and according to Merlin Horn, “There was always the expectation that we might find something more.”
Horn went on to say, “It is not common to find hidden things because many things simply do not survive over time as they are exposed to heat, moisture and pests. I left some magazines and newspapers under a set of steps during our renovation and my son, Chuck, hid a jar of coins on the property.”
What they did find in an old trunk left behind was the original deed to the property going back to its conversion from Indian Territory. The deed bears the supposed signature of James Buchanan, although it is most likely the signature of the secretary acting in his stead. It is however, a great piece of the history of this home.
His favorite find was a pre-1940s picture of the farmhouse simply left behind. That picture and the deed were the inspiration for his interest in learning more about the farm. In fact, Merlin has written a book about the time he has spent renovating the farmhouse, “Our Farm Home,” for his family, friends, future owners of the property and others interested in his story.
While the walls do themselves do not speak, the vintage items left behind within seem to beckon us to pay attention to their origins while simultaneously inspiring and impacting the future through their very existence. Thus, the tale of past, present, and future is woven on in perpetuity for those who are inspired to explore the antiques and collectibles that cross their path. ?
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