A house is built of logs and stone,
Of tiles and posts and piers;
A home is built of loving deeds
That stand a thousand years.
We didn’t find Bellefonte house. Ed called us up from Pennsylvania and announced, “I bought a house for you.”
“Well, you said you wanted us to look for one for when you came back from Colombia, and we found one. We’ll send pictures. It’s a two-story in Bellefonte, over a hundred years old.” As he described the house, the part that stuck with me was, “Needs some work.”
It’s 1977, and I’ve enrolled in Penn State University for my PhD studies in anthropology. When we arrive at Penn State, Ed drives us up Benner Pike to Bellefonte. The Frenchman Talleyrand laid out Bellefonte (“beautiful spring”) in 1795, a town of steep, cobbled roads with names like “Stony Batter.” The shouts of boatmen and neighing of mules are long gone, but the deep ditch from a branch of the Pennsylvania Canal still remains. And some train tracks. In 1864, twelve trains a day traveled to Bellefonte on the Nittany & Bald Eagle line. This day, one tired cargo train rattles along a single track.
In the upper part of Bellefonte we see a whole area of down-at-the-ears Victorian homes, many with five stories of marble fireplaces, curved-glass princess towers, multiple balconies, and fish-scale shingles. Ed tells us, “In the late 1900s, iron barons built these because they found all they needed— iron ore, limestone, and lots of trees for making charcoal that they fed into their furnaces..”
You need to know about the man our kids call “Uncle Ed.” Short, with a guttural laugh, he’s one of the most interesting men I know. He’s a forester and nurseryman, and a visionary. I never saw him make a business deal without showing concern for the other party. He started WTLR, the local Christian radio station, climbing the huge tower himself to install the antenna. He has bought and fixed up over fifty cars and done the same with several houses. He’s a can-do guy and can’t understand why other people can’t. So when he mentions that the Bellefonte House “needs some work,” I worry that this means the house is sustained only by its thick paint and termites holding hands.
We turn down Reynolds Avenue. Some of the homes are in better repair than others, but most have sagging front porches that need paint, and only a few have front yards. The sidewalks consist of uneven pieces of broken slate.
We pull up before a two-story, wood-framed house that sits atop a twenty-foot bank. A high chimney on the south side of the house stands above curled-up green shingles. Lots of the asbestos siding pieces are cracked. No garage. We climb up the steps to the sidewalk and walk around to explore the yard. A spotty eight-foot-high hedge lines one side, and behind the yard a cliff plunges downward to Spring Creek.
Ed says, “We bought it cheap because it’s stood two years empty. With a little work, it’ll be great! Oh, and someone set a fire in the laundry room and tried to burn the house down. Not much damage though.” Did I mention Ed is an optimist?
We climb crumbling concrete steps (no railings) onto the high porch that stretches across the front of the house. I scratch off some pea-green paint that’s peeling from the pillars and spindles.
Ed gazes at the house through the eyes of a handyman. “It’s got four bedrooms and real lath and plaster walls. People don’t see the value in old houses like this.”
I say to myself, I think I know why.
When we walk in, I notice that to the left of the central stairs is a “parlor” with its dirty gold carpet. “Oh, look,” says Barbara. “There’s a round hole in the wall for connecting a woodstove to the chimney. And I love the high ceilings!”
On the other side of the stairs, we enter the family room with its blue rug and papered walls. Substantial oak trim (painted white) circles the room. I puzzle over the sticks lying in the windowsills and then realize they’re to prop up the tall, single-glazed windows that have lost their balance cords. Cast-iron steam radiators stand along the walls, their pipes disappearing into the ceiling. The kitchen lies behind with its white wooden cabinets and peeled wallpaper. A half bath lies off the kitchen, and next to it a door opens to the basement stairs. The small laundry room at the rear has blackened walls from the fire.
Barbara says, “What’s this door in the back of the kitchen here?” We mount two steps, then turn right up a treacherous, steep stairway that ascends to a large pine-floored bedroom on the second floor.
Next to it the master bedroom has two tall windows with the sun streaming in. Across the hall, we find the other two bedrooms. “Oh,” says Barbara, “Jeny [nine months] can sleep in one, and Timothy [three] can have the other.” We walk through the upstairs bathroom with its old tub and into a tiny closed-in porch that might serve as a study.
We go downstairs, exit, and walk around outside the house. There’s a door under the front porch, and we enter it, passing under massive wood beams. Windowless, humid, and smelling of damp mortar, the basement reminds me of something out of Oliver Twist. A walled-in coal bin still stands empty in one corner of the dark room, but there’s no sign of a furnace. I realize that the radiators upstairs were only an empty promise.
Barbara’s a vigorous woman who works hard and keeps an expert eye on her family’s welfare. She’s impressed with the huge rooms and adequate kitchen. “It’s an amazing house! I love the big yard where Maggie can run. (We brought our dog, Margaret Mead, back with us from Colombia.) The kids can raise guinea pigs, and we can plant our own garden in the back! We can work on it and fix it up.” Clearly, she sees the house as one of Grace Livingston Hill’s enchanted barns—abandoned, in disrepair, but full of possibilities. My heart sinks. She’s buying into Ed’s vision!
I wonder, How will we heat these high-ceilinged rooms with no furnace? The previous owners had installed electric heating strips in some of the rooms. However, if you turned them on, the electric meter would go wild. I strain to recall my marriage vows, but don’t remember anything about house remodeling. And how will we pay a mortgage when I’m receiving no salary? How could we even qualify for a loan? How can I politely decline Ed’s generous offer?
But in the end, Barbara’s bright vision prevails. Ed accompanies us as we enter the Bellefonte bank—businesslike, efficient, intimidating. The suit behind the polished wood desk manifests a morbid interest in my personal affairs—”What’s your credit card debt?”
“We don’t have a credit card.”
He stiffens. “Well, what’s your credit record?”
I ponder the question. I am the son of my mother, who grew up in the Great Depression and always eschewed debt. “We don’t have any; we’ve never borrowed any money. I do have down payment money though.” His brow furrows.
But it turns out Ed knows the banker. His face glows as he paints a picture of us that we struggle to recognize—sacrificing missionary sojourners, succorers of wounded accident victims, nursers of stray dogs, leapers over tall buildings.
For unknown reasons, the suit buys it. My hand trembles as I ruin two checks for the $4,000 down payment on our first home. Ed bought the house for $16,000 and sold it to us for $19,000. For the first time in our lives, we will have monthly payments: $145 a month. How will we do this without a salary? The good news—we’re now homeowners! The bad news—we have to make this house livable and start paying for it.
We have done the American thing—we now own a home. It never occurs to us that we might be unhappy here. We can’t imagine some of the dark days that lie ahead—the struggle to put food on the table, the trauma of finishing graduate school, Jeny’s pneumonia, Tim and Jeny’s chickenpox, and my frequent visits to the welfare office. Today we enter our empty house full of joy.
Ed and his son John superintend the renaissance of Bellefonte House, beginning with repairing leaky water pipes that froze and burst because of no heat during the past winter. We install a freestanding woodstove in the parlor.
Barbara says, “We’ve got to fence in the yard so Maggie won’t run off. And we don’t want the kids falling down the cliff into the creek.” I pull up huge stones as I try to dig the fence postholes in the rocky ground.
I replace many cracked pieces of asbestos siding, and, since this was before the asbestos scare, blithely cutting pieces with my circular saw. We dump several dozen bags of particulate insulation into the attic, an act that produces no discernible rise in warmth. I scrape off multiple layers of paint on the front porch and spread on new white and gold paint. We pull up the rugs in Jeny and Tim’s rooms and discover paint-spattered hardwood, so we rent a commercial sander to resurface both floors and then apply stain and polyurethane.
Soon winter falls in central Pennsylvania. Sometimes when I stoke the woodstove, a few glowing embers bounce out. I quickly stamp them out, but this leaves dark pinholes in the carpet. One morning I notice our decorative candles exhausted and the wooden candleholder charred. “Barbara—we forgot to blow out the candles last night! We almost burned the house down.”
Surviving Graduate School
We have left South America for good, along with Mission Aviation Fellowship’s salary, and we feel poor and dependent on small amounts of graduate fellowship money. I work at minimum wage in Ed’s nursery and do flight instruction at University Park Airport. As I try to earn money, my studies begin to suffer. Yet when I turn to focus on my studies, I notice that my babies don’t have enough to eat. We apply for food stamps. “Barb, we’ll have to apply for county welfare,” I say. They allot us small monthly sums, but in return they put a lien on our house.
Barbara says, “I’ll apply to a temp agency and do overnight nursing care.”
We can’t generate more income while I’m in graduate school, so we try to reduce expenses. We completely furnish the house with free or secondhand furniture. We trawl the trashcans in front of the Victorian homes. Barbara shops garage sales and secondhand shops, exclaiming over bargains she finds. We buy a used bedroom set that we keep for thirty-five years. I carpool to Penn State or ride the bus. Barbara puts up dozens of jars of peaches, cherries, pears, string beans, and tomato juice. We eat lots of rice, peas, beans, potatoes, and a little hamburger.
Barbara turns stones into bread daily. Our stony garden produces carrots, tomatoes, cucumbers, and cabbage. We dumpster-dive behind the supermarket. Every two weeks Barbara picks up her free WIC food (“Women, Infants, and Children”)—our preschool children qualify us. One day we return home to find a bag of groceries sitting on our porch. Grace happens.
Kim (six) says, “Can we make tacos tonight?” “Making tacos” is a communal project that involves the help of our friends, the Kutches. We invite them over early to help. We add water to cornmeal masa and make little doughballs, which I smash between two boards, stomping and twisting to make perfectly formed tortillas. Someone fries them, bends them into taco shape, and finally drops them into boiling oil for a few seconds. Somebody else mashes up beans to make refried beans, and someone else fries the hamburger meat. Meanwhile, other people are cutting up onions, tomatoes, and olives. The kitchen fills with laughter and the smell of onions and seasoned meat.
One day I’m surprised to see plastic-wrapped taco shells on the table. “Barbara, where did these come from?”
“From a garage sale.”
“A garage sale!”
“Yes, but they’re wrapped in plastic. They’re probably still good. . . .”
We buy milk from the nearby Amish farm for a dollar and skim off the thick cream. We harvest ice outside in our yard, put it in a burlap bag, then crush it with a sledgehammer. The ice cream’s done when my arm gets tired cranking the freezer. Barbara’s recipe makes the perfect balance of icy and creamy. I’ve never tasted better than our homemade. I praise her. “Barbara, you know how to stretch nothing into something. You can squeeze a nickel ’til the Indian’s riding the buffalo.”
Our poverty was self-imposed, a necessary sacrifice for the future. Yet we were rich in everything but money. Penn State provided years of low-cost graduate education. Our church provided scholarships to send our kids to the Alliance Christian school. Uncle Ed loaned us his car when ours broke down.
Our family remembers the Bellefonte House years as some of the best times ever.