Small Home Gazette, Fall 2014
Letter From the Editor: past residents in your bungalow
Pete and I went to the exhibit “Open House: If These Walls Could Talk” at the Minnesota History Center the other weekend. It explores the history of a single, existing house in the Railroad Island neighborhood on St. Paul’s East Side. Stories of those who lived there are told through rooms representing the house in different eras. We walked through the lives of the German immigrants who built it—a candy maker turned pharmacist whose wife died of diabetes. Next were the loud, happy, close-knit Italians. Then came the African Americans trying to get by, and the immigrant Hmong family with a shaman altar.
Afterwards Pete asked if I thought they’d made any of the stories up. I don’t think they needed to make anything up. I imagine how, with time and diligence, the exhibit planners looked up the ownership and rentership histories, tax records, remodeling permits, and news articles. And they likely tracked down some past residents to add details to the paperwork framework.
My own bungalow hasn’t seen the same diversity of tenants, and I know little of the Irish, Dutch and Germans who occupied my home for its first 53 years. I do know that William and Emma Hurley first owned it for 34 years and that William sold it 9 months after his wife passed away.
A few years ago, a woman brought her daughter by to introduce her to her childhood neighborhood. She was part of a family of 12 who used to live next door, and some details emerged about the English and Scottish Lucas family who lived in our house for four years in the 1970s. The woman told me she and the Lucas’ daughter used to climb out the window onto the roof of my back porch.
The Vietnamese Phan family lived here for 21 years. Neighbors told me three generations were under the roof, and one of my friends attended a Phan wedding in my home. I wonder if the few grains of rice I found in the dining room window bench were from the wedding? My yard spoke vague tales of Vietnamese beliefs. A small mirror hung on the chimney to ward off evil spirits from entering the house. While gardening, I’ve found pennies seemingly planted in the soil. I hypothesized they were planted as “seed” money, a superstition to bring plenty of money all year long. Other hidden items took less conjecturing. When I removed the upstairs dropped ceiling during a remodel, a pack of birth control pills bounced off my shoulder. Was one of the Phan daughters keeping her sexual activity secret?
Bryon and Rachel sold us their home after living here five years. They were a childless couple who moved to California to teach at a boarding school.
Pete and I have lived here longer than three of the previous owners. We’ve pulled a number of remodeling permits that will leave behind clues to our lives. I wonder what other stories we’ll unwittingly leave behind?
Knowing who has lived and died in my home enriches its character. These bits of provenance make me realize that we are only the current caretakers of this beautiful bungalow. On numerous occasions, I’ve thanked the previous owners who took such good care of it (and never painted the woodwork in the living and dining rooms) and feel an obligation to continue the loving stewardship started by the Hurleys.