Not far north of here at the Sangamon River Forest Preserve stands a house. And in this house lives Doug Sanders, Champaign County Forest Preserve Grounds Supervisor. Recently, I was fortunate to be Doug’s guest.
Doug hasn’t lived there long and hasn’t had a chance to learn much of history of the house, but he was nonetheless glad to show me around from the full basement to the spacious attic.
It’s a large, stately and striking two story home, made of rockface concrete blocks that were crafted on the site. And the house is even more fascinating inside. Doug showed me around upstairs, including the brightly windowed second floor sun porch and the spacious bedrooms.
“Doug, this house sure is nicely constructed. Look at this dark oak trim,” I admired. I touched the dark paneled walls and thought about the house’s long history “…boy, if only these four walls could talk, huh?”
“Well, Scott, what would you like to know?”
“I thought you told me you didn’t know much about the history of this place, Doug?”
Doug looked perplexed, “Huh? I don’t.” “Well why did you ask me what I’d like to know about it?” I replied. “I didn’t.” Doug went on “But hey Scott, I need to do some paperwork. Just look around all you want. Let me know if you need anything,” Doug said as headed off downstairs.
“Hmm. Sure sounded like somebody said something…” I said aloud to no one in particular.
“It’s us.” I heard. “Who?” I asked. “We’re the walls, of course. All four of us. Now what would you like to know?”
“Where the heck did you guys come from?” I asked incredulously.
“The Sears and Roebuck catalog, PH Nelson ordered us” explained one of the walls. “We arrived along with the rest of the house on a box car in Champaign,” added another. “We were a kit home, part of the ‘Modern Homes Program,’” said the third. “Very modern, we were indeed!” exclaimed the fourth.
“We arrived as 30,000 pieces of wood” “…750 pounds of nails” “…22 gallons of paint, 20,000 shingles for the roof and siding,” ”…and a 75 page leather bound highly detailed instruction book with the stern instruction on the inside cover: ‘Do not take anyone’s advice about how this house should be assembled.’”
“Impressive! Well, tell me about PH Nelson, the man that ordered you and built this place,” I inquired.
“Great Man!” “A Visionary!” “Truly a man of his time!” “Self made, too!”
“He was born in Iowa in 1856.” “And in April 1867, at 11 years old, he and his Dad brought a herd of 202 head of cattle here from Bloomington,” “They lived the life of the real cowboy,” “Then his Dad left him here in charge of all 202 head.”
“At 11?” I asked in amazement “That’s what we heard,” “Amazing how young, he was,” “…and by October they had increased in weight by 330 pounds each, a record we heard has never been exceeded.” “Great man!”
“Married Mary Ann Jervis in 1893. Lovely British woman, ” the walls continued “…they were a very progressive couple.” “Even went up to the World’s Fair in Chicago that year.” “Had eight lovely children“
“Mr. Nelson was Newcomb Township Assessor for a dozen years,” “…and director of his home school district, too.” “Did you know Mr. Nelson was a Democrat?” “A rare breed in these parts today.”
“Maybe not as rare as you might think” I interjected. Then the walls replied “Well, as for us, we cover all sides of the political spectrum: Left,” “Right,” “Center,” “Rear.”
“Hey, I’ve never heard of a political ‘rear’!” I interjected. “Are you positive about that?” the rear asked. “Well, now that you mention it…”
“Anyway, Mr. Nelson started out renting land in Newcomb Township,” “…then bought this 160 acre farm and started the house in 1915.” “It was done by 1918 or 1919,” “We don’t remember.”
“When it was built, this house was modern in every way.” “Furnace heated with acetylene lights” “and a refrigerator.” “Back in the day, we were described as ‘a home of peace and comfort, of widespread hospitality, and a favorite resort for the many friends of the worthy couple.’”
“Oh and the kids. One of them told us about playing on the river in the winter” “…said they’d ice skate on the river for miles!” “…once they came in talking about how they would build bonfires right out on the river ice.” “We all had a pretty hard time believing that one.”
“Yeah, I guess I’d have a hard time believing that myself” I replied to the walls.
“Unfortunately, Mr. Nelson passed four years after we were built.” “Most of the children eventually moved on, and their daughter Lela came to own the place.” “She never married, but later owned Daddy’s Pharmacy up in Fisher,” “…a strong and lovely woman.”
“Y’know, you guys sure seem to agree with each other an awful lot; finish each other’s sentences, stuff like that.”
“Well, there’s a good reason for that,” “…we’ve been hanging around each other for nearly 100 years!” “Ha ha ha!” “Ho ho!” the walls all had a jolly laugh at that one.
Unfortunately, it was time to bid the walls farewell. I thanked them for sharing their story and told them I’d like to come back.
“Certainly!” “We enjoyed the chat.” “Come back soon!” “We’re happy to talk anytime.” Then I went downstairs and bid Doug farewell, too.
I walked down by the Sangamon River under the spreading oak and sycamore trees. It was a beautiful sunny fall day, and I thought about the many people and families that have passed their days in and on the river over the years.
And I said aloud to no one in particular “boy, if only these trees could talk…”