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Caitlin Dashiell Project 1: Interview Essay 2/9/12 On the 23rd of January I interviewed my Great-Aunt Miriam over the phone about her early childhood and the family mansion she lived in for six years of her life. I had heard many bits and pieces of the story concerning the mansion, about how beautiful it was and how it burned down after the house had been abandoned, but I never understood the whole story. I had heard these stories for the past several years from both my father and grandfather, but never to the extent of learning a great deal about it. When I was given the chance to look further into my family history, I took this as the perfect opportunity to dig deeper and better understand parts of that history that had never been clear before. To do this, I interviewed my great-aunt, who I refer to as my aunt, as well as my Grandfather Frank ( at a later date), to learn more about the details regarding the mansion and what it was like to live there. I had heard from other family members that the house was beautiful, but in interviewing my great-aunt, it seemed as though the house had not been done justice. A three-story brick mansion, this masterpiece was designed by my great-greatgrandfather and grandmother in 1905, and constructed while both travelled to Europe in search of items to garnish the house with. My great-great-grandmother, Minnie, was born in Paris, and had travelled around Europe before she got married, explaining the European influence on the house, as well as why both her and my great-greatgrandfather, Roberts, went back during the time the house was being built, in search of items. What is important to note about my great-great-grandparents is that my great-


great grandmother was the one who had all the money, therefore paying for the house to be built, the furniture to be purchased overseas, and the majority of expenditures my great-great-grandfather had over the course of their life as a married couple. Though Roberts owned a business, and had a bit of income from this business, Minnie held all the wealth. Though this piqued my interest, I was curious to know exactly when my greatgrandparents and their kids, my Aunt Miriam included, moved into the house. I wanted a first-hand account of what it was like to live there. To this similarly phrased question, my aunt responded by saying that everyone moved into the house in 1932, after both her grandparents had passed away the year prior. At this point in time, my aunt was only four years old, however she still remembered the move. When I talked to my grandfather, who researches our family history quite heavily, I found out that both my great-great grandfather and grandmother had passed away the year prior, and the house was moved into after family affairs were straightened away. As my grandfather explained, when everything Roberts and Minnie had was divided up between my greatgrandfather and his older brother, Charles, all the money and a piece of land across the street went to Charles, and Henry, my great-grandfather, was left with the house. Though this seems fair enough, as the house was valued at over 500,000 dollars when the property changed hands, a lack of sufficient funds to maintain such a large structure put Henry at a disadvantage. When I asked my aunt if she would describe the house to me, she was quick to agree and then proceeded to pull out pictures, so as to most accurately describe everything about it. What amazed me the most is the picture I was able to form when


she was recounting the features of this structure to me. On a visit home, my parents pulled out a few of the pictures of the house that had been taken and I stared in a state of disbelief at how closely my mental image of this mansion matched what was before my eyes. As my aunt described it, the mansion was beautiful. From the outside, it was a giant, spectacular, brick structure. There was a long drive from the road to the house, with many exotic trees on either side, brought back from countries around the world, and planted by Roberts when he moved into the house in 1905 with Minnie. As my aunt commented, when detailing the exterior of the house to me, ““I can remember walking down the drive, the house had a long driveway, and my father would make me name every tree as we went down.” These trees, placed along the driveway, were only part of the property’s landscape architecture, as there was also a Japanese garden with a pagoda, a large front porch, and a carriage house around back. After my aunt had explained this much to me, I became more direct, asking specifically what the inside was like. As she talked, a picture formed. There was a large center hall, with the left side leading to the big U-shaped stairway going to the second floor, and the right side going to the living room, enclosed on all sides by books, and the botanical conservatory, which housed many plants. Also on the first floor was the large kitchen, as well as quarters for the maid and governess that worked for them. Continuing on, as if we were to imagine walking up the giant staircase, there would have been four bedrooms, plus a master (which would have been walked through to get to the nursery), her father’s study, and the music room, off to the right of the staircase. Finally, there was the third floor of the house, which included the billiard room and a


large cedar closet with windows. From the way my aunt talked about it, in a bittersweet way, I only wish I could have seen it in all its glory, for the next part of this story is where it takes an unfortunate turn. When my aunt was ten, and my grandmother was five, my great-grandfather made the decision to move out of the house, down the street to a smaller one. Now, I’ve heard this part of the story many times, though it is vague in my mind, and I have never been able to get a straight answer on why Henry made the decision he did. When I asked my aunt, she claimed that her father had his own way of looking at things, and turned the house into a boarding house run by farmer friends of his when they moved out. As my aunt put it, he was “ hard to understand.” I sensed this comment was made with a bit of resentment, so I didn’t press much further. When I consulted my grandfather on his opinion of my great-grandfather, he was very blunt in saying that he believed there were things about Henry that weren’t quite right. He believed that it was something to do with Henry’s mental state, and when such a decision as that is made and carried about in such a short period of time, with no one aware of a reason, one has to wonder in what mental state the decision was reached in. With my great-grandfather’s mind made up, the family moved out of the house in 1938, when my aunt was ten, and it was converted into a boarding house. Eventually, it was abandoned all together. What I was told when I asked about what happened to the house after they moved down the street was that the house was left to rot, and my great-grandfather hadn’t done much upkeep to prevent this from happening, so it was inevitable. From the sounds of it, the farmers running the boarding house never put much effort into the house either, causing it to fall further into a state of disorder and rot.


In the winter of ’64, two days before Christmas, neighborhood kids broke into the house and were playing on the third floor with matches and candles, eventually catching the house on fire. The house burned, and the entire interior of the mansion was destroyed before anyone could come and put out the blaze. A grand piano, and a good portion of the library of books that had been acquired were now ashes. What my family has from the house now was what my grandmother took out and put in the apartment above the carriage house during the time she came back and lived there. My grandmother hauled boxes and boxes of books and various other items from the house to the apartment, in hopes of preserving a bit of what is now family history. All of this would explain the bittersweet tone I hear my aunt talk with; so many memories gone up in flames, as I see it. Now, I wanted to end this conversation on a positive note, as it seemed like the appropriate thing to do when interviewing a family member on what turned out to be a very saddening part of our family history. As though she had read my mind, she started to reminisce a bit on the memory that was the strongest for her while still living in the house. “The biggest thing I remember from that house was this night my parents had company. Aunt Dot and I were sent to our room, and we stomped our feet on the ground, our room was right over the living room, until my father came upstairs.� As she went on to explain, she got in the most trouble for that one night. Though that may not be the most joyful memory to relay to someone, a memory based around being punished, she talked through this and I knew it went much deeper than that. I could hear her chuckle a bit as she thought back to that night. Maybe it was a memory long forgotten. Maybe it was nice for her to think back to a time when everything was simpler


and she was only fooling around with her sister. If I was in her shoes, I might feel the same. However that memory affected her, I was grateful for the favor she did me in filling me in on a part of history that has always been sitting in the shadows. There are going to be parts of my family history that will forever remain a mystery. It is safe to say I will never know why my great-grandfather up and left a beautiful mansion, giving no reason at all. Along the same lines, I’ll never know what would have happened if the house hadn’t burned, and was still around today, to serve as a piece of history for that community. However, what I would like to do, carrying on with what has become a much more clear piece of family history for me, is look at houses and stories similar to that of my family’s. By doing this, I hope to uncover pieces of history that may have been sitting in the shadows before, and show how closely the relationships between various historical mansions and the stories behind them may be linked.

Works Cited Epps, Miriam. Telephone Interview. 23 Jan. 2012. Farr, Francis. Telephone Interview. 4 Feb. 2012.

Word Count: 1,882

Uncovering a Piece of the Past  
Uncovering a Piece of the Past  

An interview wth a family member uncovers the truth behind great American historic mansions