Look to the Stars
by Alice Isom Gubler Stratton
Chapter 2
The House That Papa Built

8 Our brick house was built during the sad winter that my little brother died. Mama was tied down with the two of us and couldn't visit the house during construction. Then came the day that Papa took her to see it.

"Welcome to our home, sweetheart," he said as they entered the front door. The winter sun streamed through the windows and the house smelled sweet from new plaster and pine wood. From the spacious living room, Mama thoughtfully walked into the kitchen, visualizing where the stove and cupboard would be. Opening the stair door, papa beckoned her on, pausing on the stairway. Proudly he said "See this closet! It's something extra we hadn't planned." Actually it was a square hole in the wall above the cellar steps, with room to store a couple of quilts. On upstairs he led her through the four cheerful bedrooms. In the master bedroom, the one with the double windows facing the east, Mama hesitated. With a troubled look she asked "Where are the closets?"

"Closets are an unnecessary expense," he explained.

"But we drew them in our plans."

"The carpenters convinced me that this was easier to install, and much cheaper," he said pointing to a board nailed horizontally across one wall. Protruding from it was a row of spike nails. "There's one in each bedroom."

Fury welled up inside Mama. How perfectly horrid the rooms would look with the family's droopy clothes dangling from nails on the wall! Couldn't Papa realize that these were modern times! That they had planned real closets! She bit her tongue to keep from saying what was on her mind. Even her own mother hadn't had to put up with nails. At least her father had provided wooden pegs! Sick at heart, she suddenly realized that every special feature they had planned in the house had been omitted.

Papa's stock answer, as she questioned him was "The carpenters convinced me I didn't need it," or, "It was a foolish frill."

Mama's heart lifted when she saw the ample shelves in the pantry where pans of milk could cool, and she appreciated the cellar, underneath the kitchen, with, its rock walls and dirt floor, and enough shelves for bottled fruit, crocks of preserves and buckets of lard and molasses. In the beams overhead were spike nails for hanging bacon slabs, cured ham and dried herbs.

Papa saved one little surprise for the last. In the northwest bedroom downstairs, was a doll-house sized door. Opening it, Mama saw the rough underside of the stair steps, spike nails protruding from them. If dresses weren't too long, they could hang here. So, in all of this big, eight room house, this little miniature was really her only closet! Airing her disappointment would only have cast a pall of gloom, and this was to be a day of rejoicing. Compared to the drafty granary where they had lived before moving in with Aunt Alice, this was a castle.

The family moved into the new home in January 1912. Although Mama never confessed it to Papa, the absence of closets always rankled in her heart. Years 9 later, at the time Winferd and I were building our home, she related the above incident to me. "Alice," she said, "a woman should be on hand when her home is being built. If she isn't, the carpenters will talk her husband out of every thing she wants."

Winferd's mother, who was with us at the time, said "She's right. I had to be right there to get what I wanted when Hen built our house, and I did get clothes closets. When I insisted on a bathroom, Hen complained 'We're not millionaires.' but I stayed on the job and we got it."

All we had was outdoor plumbing down by the barn.

But our home was a happy one. On winter mornings when we were small, we were awakened by the sound of Mama shaking the ashes down in the kitchen stove. After the kitchen fire was made, she started a fire in the living room stove. Soon there was a warm spot for us to race to after we had dressed in the arctic zone upstairs. It is hard to visualize, unless you've been there, how cold a house can get during the night when the last whisper of heat dies with the dying embers after the family has gone to bed.

Papa couldn't chop wood, so that chore fell mostly to Mama and my older sisters. Try as I would, I could never swing an ax good enough to make the chips fly. And speaking of chips, they were mighty important. Without them, kindling a fire was difficult. Mama claimed to be the world's champion chip sifter.

Flickering firelight lent to the coziness of winter evenings. That, and our one kerosene lamp, furnished our lights. Some of our neighbors were "two-lamp-families."

At supper time, Mama often went to the pantry for more bread or milk, taking the lamp with her. The living room moved with weird shadows as she left, and then was dark. Then the fire in the little heater danced all the more merrily. On nights when there was no fire, we sat in the dark. It was a dark dark. There were no street lights or car lights to filter in from the outside. The only outside lights were stars or moon or lightning. On drizzling nights, nothing. The only way to comprehend real darkness is to crawl into a tunnel and feel your way around the bend. When Mama carried the lamp into the back part of the house the living room was too dark to even talk. We sat around the table smothered in black velvet silence, until the long, funny shadows backed away at her approach.

Shadows were an animated part of winter evenings. With our fingers and hands we made shadow pictures on the walls of dogs, horses, rabbits and cats. With the lamp positioned just right our animals would wiggle their ears, twitch their noses or bark. Actually they were quite classical.

Shadow games were popular at parties. The boys sat in a dark room and the girls were in a room with the lamp. A sheet hung over the doorway in between. Pantomiming in front of the lamplight, the girls cast silent shadows on the sheet. Each boy picked out his partner for the next game by identifying her shadow.

One night Mama and Papa were invited out. It was the only night I can recall being home without them. We actually had a whole, unsupervised evening to ourselves. When Mama and Papa came home, there, boldly traced in charcoal on the white front room walls, were the silhouettes of all of us. Our task the next day was to wash the walls.

10 The early years in the house that Papa built were probably much the same as that of the first settlers in America. We were on the very tail end of an era. I marvel that I should have been privileged to live the old life style before the world exploded into the new. Hurricane had no electricity, no pipeline, no automobiles and only one telephone. Airplanes, radios, etc. were undreamed of so far as we were concerned.

But Hurricane did have one modern marvel. In March of 1914 Charlie Petty opened a moving picture show hall. It was run by a gasoline motor. When they cranked it up the "putt, putt, putt" could be heard all over town. Mama let me go one night with my sisters Annie, Kate and Mildred. They had to pay a nickel but I was only four, so got in free. The picture trembled and flickered a lot. Men in white overalls were painting a house. Charlie Chaplin, with his funny duck walk, blundered beneath the ladder and a bucket of paint fell upside down over his head. I cried and ran home, but my sisters stayed. They laughed at me when they got home and said I shouldn't have left because no one really got hurt, it was only a picture.

Grandma Isom built her cute little brick house next door to us. Grandma was as much a part of the family as Mama or Papa or any of the rest of us. She had her special rawhide bottomed chair with a cushion on it, and her corner at the table. She cooked on our kitchen stove and ate all of her meals with us, except when she had company, and then she served her guests on her own polished table, on a fine linen cloth set with elegant china, silverware and crystal.

I was her legs, trotting back and forth between houses, carrying the butter dish, pickles or preserves. Her friends were the satin and lace bosomed, talcum faced, kid curler1, kid glove and kid shoe variety, and they called me "little Alice." They usually picked me up, smothered me to their bosoms, kissed me and said "She looks just like Evadna." I hated to be kissed.

"She's a chatter box and has a wild imagination," was Grandma's usual retort.

"Grandma," I asked one time, "do you wish I was an umbrella so you could shut me up?"

"No," she answered. "Now say your little piece then run along home."

My "little piece" was one she had taught me. I recited, "I am a little chatterbox. My name is Alice May. The reason why I talk so much, I have so much to say." The ladies were delighted, mostly because I was going home.

In contrast to Grandma Isom's house of old English finery, the house that Papa built had bare, pine board floors. Mama braided scatter rugs to make it homey. Uncle Jake Crawford made our dining table. It, s the same drop-leaf table that stands in the front room of the old home today. After Uncle Jake sanded, stained and varnished it, it gleamed like a mirror. The lounge, desk and the wash stand where the water bucket and wash basin stood, were made by John Hinton, a furniture maker from England. Our few rawhide bottomed chairs were made by my great grandfather Samuel Kendall Gifford. Our iron bedsteads and other chairs were freighted by team from the railroad depot at Lund, Utah and probably came from Sears & Roebuck. The desk was a two pieced affair, the bottom part standing high enough for me and my sisters to play paper dolls under. The sloped lid covered a bin where catalogs, or anything else we wanted to get out of sight, could be stashed. The top part had doors that concealed pigeonhole compartments, and stood so tall that the whole of it towered above the living room.

11 One blustery day I climbed upon the lounge to look out the window. A man sauntered down the sidewalk past our white picket fence.

"Mama, who is that man?" I asked.

"I don't know," she replied.

Craning my neck to get another look at him, I thought, "Oh my, he must have come from the other side of the earth. He must be from China." Never before had I seen anyone that Mama didn't know. In Hurricane, everyone knew everyone.

On September 3, 1914 Mama had a cute little baby girl. She was the second baby born in the house that Papa built, but I don't remember anything about when Edith came. She was just there like the rest of my sisters. What puzzled me was that the new baby's birthday was one day earlier than Edith's, still Edith was two years older.

Now Mama and Papa had six girls in a row! Aunt Ellen said it was a shame the new baby couldn't have been a boy. I didn't think so. I knew exactly what the folks should name her: Elva. Elva Crawford was the prettiest person I had ever seen. Her eyes and hair were dark and her skin fair. She was as nice a cousin as a girl could ever have. If Mama and Papa would name our new baby Elva, then she would be pretty and nice. I coaxed them to and they didn't say they wouldn't. At Sacrament Meeting I listened, and when Papa named our baby LaPriel, I scrunched my eyes tight to squeeze back the tears. LaPriel was an ugly, ugly name and I'd never, never call her that. What's more, I'd never tell any of my playmates what her name was. I was embarrassed. Then a funny thing happened to the name. It got nicer every day and before LaPriel even learned to goo, I knew Papa had named her right.

A chill autumn wind was scattering the poplar leaves. Barefoot days were over. Will and Maude Savage of LaVerkin, drove up to our gate in a buckboard and delivered a woven rag carpet to us. We'd never had such a luxury before because it took many rags and many rag bees to tear, sew and wind enough balls for a carpet. This was our one and only. Will's Aunt Adelaide was the weaver, and his mother Mary Ann the rag inspector. Adelaide wouldn't weave anything that might make the carpet lumpy. (Adelaide and Mary Ann had walked all the way from Council Bluff, Iowa to Salt Lake when they were little girls, and their mother Ann pushed a handcart.)

Mama piled wheat straw on the living room floor and the new carpet was stretched tightly over it and tacked down. Edith and I tumbled and bounced upon it. The floor was so springy that I felt like I was walking with bent knees. So let the wind scatter the poplar leaves. The house was snug and cozy.

Footnotes

  1. Kid curlers were made from soft, flexible wire covered with kid skin.