Share this article

print logo

THIS OLD HOUSE
BUILT AT THE END OF THE CIVIL WAR, IT HAS SEEN MORE THAN ITS SHARE OF HISTORY AND HUMANITY. THE HOUSE STILL BEARS CLUES TO THE LIVES LIVED WITHIN ITS WALLS -- AND STANDS AS A TESTAMENT TO THE JOYS AND HEARTACHES COMMON TO US ALL.

Because some horses needed to rest their feet and eat, this old house was born.

Or so the story goes.

And except for three maps and a few neighbors' dimming memories, that story is all we can rely on.

For this house was born about 1865, when slaves were being freed in the South and railroads were being hammered into the ground. Despite a title abstract that painstakingly details the history of the ownership of the land this home sits on, few documents about the building itself have survived.

All we know for sure is that this old house -- this white, clapboard, double-porched house set on a few woodsy acres on Route 20A halfway between Orchard Park and East Aurora -- was, like so many others in the area, born and built to shelter servants in the employ of a rich man. A rich man with horses whose hooves had grown sore from the cobblestones of Buffalo, and whose bellies needed, literally, greener pastures far beyond the city limits.

Since it was hammered together at the end of the Civil War, it has been set on log rollers and moved by teams of horses down a hill to where it now rests; given electricity and running water; lengthened and widened; knocked apart for a fireplace and a kitchen, and surrounded by flowers, a driveway, a lawn and fruit trees.

It began housing servants and farmers, and at century's end houses a single working mother, trying to make sense of its history -- and perhaps her own -- by tapping out its story on a computer in a room 134 years old.

But that's getting ahead of things.

The land this house sits upon was parceled off in 1821 by Wilhelm Willink, an agent for the Holland Land Co. and the man whose name appears at the start of most title abstracts in this region. It was tilled and farmed for the next 80 years, while the 3,500-acre estate surrounding it went through massive changes.

That estate belonged to Harry Yates, who would become as benevolent a citizen and philanthropist as Orchard Park would ever see. A businessman and farmer, Yates employed an enormous staff of farmhands, sawmill workers and servants, all of whom needed living quarters.

One home pressed into such service was a small white clapboard farmhouse near the main Yates house, a massive brick structure that remains at the crest of the hill where 20A and Transit Road intersect.

The farmhouse became a home for unmarried workers only. It was used chiefly for eating and sleeping -- there were few hours left in the day for anything else.

But as Yates' farming and business interests diversified, some of the homes began to be carved off the sprawling estate and moved elsewhere, either to make way for extra barns and storage for Yates, or to allow certain workers to begin lives and farms of their own, in these transplanted houses.

And so, in about 1910, this house was carefully hoisted onto more than a dozen enormous logs and tethered to three teams of six horses apiece. And with all the fanfare accorded a town parade, this house -- by then already 45 years old -- was moved about a half a mile down the road, slo-o-w-w-w-l-l-ly down a steep hill, and set atop a parcel of 80-year-old farmland, like a small perfect hat atop a finished outfit.

The journey was so exciting that people came from miles around to witness it, says former Orchard Park Town Supervisor Dennis Mill, whose grandmother was a child at the time, and living on her family's farm a few hundred feet farther down the road.

"She used to talk about it all the time. She remembered it quite vividly," he recalls.

"She was running up and down the road with about a dozen other kids. It was very exciting. The house would move forward; men would pick up the log as it came off the back and then run it up to the front. Oh, it could take all day. It was like a big family picnic when they moved houses back then."

East Aurora Town Historian Don Dayer agrees.

"Oftentimes events of that nature were written up as news stories because so many people would come to see them," Dayer explains. Sadly, no town newspapers in Aurora or Orchard Park go back that far, and the original date of the house's moving has never been recorded.

But what is known is that one summer day, this house was rolled slowly, foot by foot, until it came to rest on a hand-laid stone foundation, facing a field of cows, corn and, beyond it, rolling hills.

There it sat, plain and unadorned, serviceable and airy.

Built of pine and oak planks so thick and so tightly lashed and nailed together that few creak even now to walk over them, the house contained very little by modern standards, but precisely what was needed then.

It had three large rooms below and three small rooms above, which one reached by going up the narrow, steep stairs that bisect the house.

Out back, a summer kitchen was laid down for cooking in a field that stretched for an acre before spilling into woods, which stretched for another acre.

And over the next 60 or so years, some eight families would take up residence there, their last names reading like a history of the ethnicity that marks our neighborhoods still: Hammersmith, Pickett, Crooks, Slaughter, Tyler, Pokorny, Klipp, Creveling, Blackmore, Paluch.

Some were farmers right up until they passed. Others were laborers and by-hand craftsman.

How many children were conceived and born out of this address is unclear, but at least four layers of plain, gentle-looking wallpaper in the tiniest room upstairs suggests that nearly always a small child has been under its roof, and nearly always in this room, as there is now.

How many marriages came home to this address is also unclear; but the title abstract, with its long and virtually unbroken list of joint last names -- always with the woman's explained parenthetically: "his wife" -- suggests that until the very end of the century, the marriages that were made here, or came here, stayed, and did not break.

In the past 30 or so years, this house has been as reflective of its time as anything could possibly be.

Its cellar cistern has been, over time, ignored and taken out, and a sump pump system installed. A front porch was added. A back porch was added. New windows and a fresh fireplace, too.

When Fisher-Price flourished in East Aurora, a toy inventor and maker lived here with his wife, and some levels of decorating that remain buried through the house reflect that: bright colors, bold uses of wood, strong patterns, burnished pine plank flooring.

When they moved on, for the first time a woman owned this home -- albeit with her father -- and she let it to her brother for a while.

Somewhere in this time, the telltale harvest gold and avocado green color scheme of the 1970s took up such pervasive residence that even backs of closets and undersides of stair banisters bore its stamp. There was, by now, an upstairs bathroom with enormous green and yellow flowers the size of a human head dotting its wallpaper, and ankle-deep apple green shag carpet lining its floor.

The woman, a junior high school gym teacher, met and married an English teacher at her school, and they moved in at the start of the 1980s. Midway through that decade, the small room upstairs was once again pressed into service for a crib and changing stand.

Shortly before the 1990s began, the doorbell rang. The teacher and her husband answered it, their toddler son peering out anxiously from behind their legs.

Before them stood a young woman both teachers had had as a student some 10 years earlier. She was now married and expecting, and eager to move back into the countryside.

They stood open-mouthed, blinked at each other in recognition, and then burst into laughter.

An offer was tendered and accepted within days.

By the time the final decade of the century was under way, this old house was holding yet another infant under its roof, and bearing yet another coat of paint on its clapboards.

And by the time the decade was half over, it would sit silently while storms indicative of the times ravaged both its exterior and its very heart.

There have been times in the past 10 years -- as I brought one child home to this house, lost a husband, found love again, lost that as well, and then brought yet another infant son home -- when I was convinced that this house has born witness to and contained so much sadness, loss, frailty and hope that surely it would tumble down.

Over and over, a line from Bonnie Raitt's "No Nukes" rendition of "Angel From Montgomery" has come back to me: "If dreams were thunder/and lightning were desire/ this old house would have burnt down/a long time ago ..."

It has not. I have not.

Instead, I've come to realize that while it is my name now on the title, declaring an ownership of land and property unthinkable at the century's beginning, I still share this house, at century's end.

I share it with the dozen or so souls -- children and adults alike -- who moved here or were conceived here; and who breathed, slept, wept, laughed, shouted, sighed and wondered their days away amid the old, creaking walls and winding stairways that held all their sadness, loss, frailty and hope.

And when I move on, if I do, I merely become the next soul in a long succession -- the farmer, the homemaker, the toy maker, the teachers, and now the single-mother journalist tapping this story to life via the Internet in a room that is 134 years old -- whose breath, sleep, tears, laughter and ambitions will be hewn into the mass of oak, pine, plaster and stone that is the largest -- yet surely the least significant -- part of this old house.