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Aunt Lita's House

Submitted by Martha Owens - May 27, 2013

Aunt Lita's house was a wonderful, almost magical place for a child - and maybe for an adult also. A wonder of Victorian style with curved windows, a tower, and more, it dominated the corner of Cemetery Road (later Maple Avenue) and Fourth St., forcing Fourth Street to jog slightly south on its journey eastward. It was, we were told, the highest spot within Minonk.

Let me explain some Minonk history here. The home was built by my great-grandfather, Bela Morgan Stoddard. His wife Sarah was one of the two daughters of Reuben Pemberton and Lydia Edwards Bell. Before that home was built, the Stoddards lived in a large wooden frame house just north of the home which became Aunt Lita's, and next to the present day high school. This was actually the Bell residence that became the home of Bela and Sarah Bell Stoddard. As a side note, this earlier home was moved in 1912 to its current location on the northwest corner of Fourth and Mary and replaced by the home built by my grandfather, Reuben Bell Stoddard. That wonderful house still sits at 417 Maple, next to the high school.

The Stoddard family had its share of joys and perhaps a bit more than its share of sorrow. Bela M. and Sara Bell Stoddard had six children. Two children, daughter Zadel and son Donald were killed in the terrible Iroquois Theater fire in Chicago in 1903. Another daughter, Dorothy, suffered from what today we call bi-polar disorder. While medication can successfully treat most cases of this condition today, that was not the case when Dorothy lived. At 17 she was institutionalized and remained so until her death in the late 1930's.

The three remaining children survived to more normal adulthood. Bertel moved to Sloan, Iowa, and managed family acreage there. Later, his son Bela moved to Monticello and married Mildred Cessna. They had three sons, some of whose children and grandchildren still live in the Monticello area. His daughter Jane married a young librarian, Gene Wilson, who took a post at the University of Colorado in Boulder. He later became the vice-president of that university. Reuben Bell Stoddard married a local woman, Martha Elizabeth (always called Mattie) Wilcox. They had three daughters of whom my mother was the youngest.

And finally, there was Melita Edwards Stoddard, Aunt Lita to me, my great-aunt, whose name was the basis of my mother's name, Mary Lita.

Aunt Lita was very advanced for her time. She had graduated from Ferry Hall in Lake Forest. She drove an electric car in the late '20's. She was very interested in music, and, in her early years, she was, like her parents, a staunch Presbyterian.

Aunt Lita taught a Sunday School class at the Minonk Presbyterian Church. A young girl, Hazel, was in the class. After Hazel‘s widowed mother died quite young and the child Hazel was left in her grandmother's care, Aunt Lita decided that she would like to raise this child. Around 1918 or slightly later, she adopted nine year old girl, Hazel, who became the center of Aunt Lita's life. Hazel became an accomplished pianist. She attended Principia College, a Christian Science college near St. Louis, where she met her future husband, Don Laughlin. Their single child, my cousin Michael, became one of my best childhood friends.

Sometime during the 1920's, Aunt Lita broke with the Presbyterian Church and converted to the Christian Science religion. Exactly what happened, I do not know. The late Virgil Vivian, who played the organ at the Presbyterian Church for over sixty years, once told me of some infighting among some of the ladies of the church. The tiff was over who got to play the organ and piano. The upshot was that both ladies in question left the church and Vivian became the church organist. I am not sure if Aunt Lita was one of those two ladies. Aunt Lita's shift in religion may have been in part due to her friendship with Hazel Buck Ewing (think Ewing Castle) in Bloomington. They and several other ladies in Bloomington and Peoria were great friends and world traveling companions for many years.

At some point after Hazel married, Aunt Lita moved to an apartment in Bloomington for the winter months, returning each spring to oversee her garden and to prepare for the annual arrival of Hazel's family. In those earliest years, my family lived in the original Bell-Stoddard house that had been moved to the corner of Fourth and Mary Streets. In 1945, when my grandmother died, we moved to the home next to the high school, and next door to Aunt Lita's house.

Michael and I, along with my sister and brother, spent hours exploring Aunt Lita's house and the buildings associated with it. Don Laughlin once commented many years later, that we children had had an enchanted childhood. I think he was correct.

But let me tell you about this house. The outside was a smooth reddish/pink brick. The grey stone block foundation rose above the ground several feet. There was a porch across part of the front.

Where to start? I'll begin at the bottom. We did not spend a lot of time in the basement. It was very large, well lit, and immaculately clean. There was a furnace room and a coal room. Laundry facilities took another room. There was storage space for such things as window screens, and a room where, in earlier times, home canned items were stored. It was far from cluttered, and it held little charm for us.

The main floor was much more interesting. As children, we usually trooped in through the back door that led into the kitchen. This was Rosie Robertson's domain. She prepared meals, baked cookies, made jam from the grapes and currants on the property, and looked after almost everything inside the house. The kitchen itself was not modern. There were no gleaming cabinets. The pipe under the sink was in full view. The solitary cabinet was a wooden one with an enamel covered shelf for such activities as rolling out pie crust. Flour was stored in the cabinet and dispensed from a container inside. A white enamel table sat in the center of the room. There were several pantries off the kitchen. Two stored food supplies and kitchen equipment such as a coffee grinder, a machine for removing pits from cherries, a meat grinder, and a variety of other items that might make modern antique dealer think he had gone to heaven.

Between the kitchen and the dining room, there was a butler's pantry used for storing all table dishes, silver, and table linens.

A door on the south side of the kitchen led to a corridor that went straight past a full bathroom to the small screen porch on that side of the porch.

Aunt Lita Stoddard around 1900

(The above picture is taken by the outside steps leading to that porch.)

Considered the back part of the house, the wooden floors in this part were covered with a rubber runner that had ridges in it somewhat like corduroy.

That first section of rubber covered hallway ran south to the screened porch. The porch jutted out past the south side of the house by eight or ten feet. There in the corner created by the extended porch and the master bedroom, was the conservatory. It was never used much while I was alive, but it had been a place for not just house plants, but a place to start plants that would later be moved to gardens outside.

Sometimes on hot summer evenings, Aunt Lita would have Rosie make waffles and we would eat out on the screen porch. Waffles were a really special treat in those days. And eating on the screen porch at the end of a hot summer day was great. We usually chased lightening bugs after dinner. We loved catching them, but we never quite knew what to do with our collection at the end of our chase. I think we let most of them go rather than find them dead in the morning.

Go back now to that rubber covered hallway and turn to the front of the house. On one side of this hall was the back stairs leading to the second floor and then, after turning, continuing to the magical attic floor. On the opposite side of this hall was a very large bedroom. It was probably intended as the master bedroom and it was Aunt Lita's room when I knew her. The windows afforded a nice view of Fourth Street, and of the conservatory.

To better appreciate the rest of the main floor, let's look at the formal rooms by entering the front door. The doors on Maple Avenue had stained glass inserts and opened into a small foyer with a tiled floor. A second set of doors opened into a sort of central area dominated by a magnificent light oak stair case that cascaded west down from the upstairs before turning south at a large landing. Here it became contained by railings on either side but broke out of those confines as the final steps spilled out across the width of those railings. Several family brides descended those steps to their weddings in the music room.

Painting of Stoddard House by Dave Uphoff

As children, we thought nothing of running up and down the steps and, despite their being highly polished, we managed to never slip.

The side of the staircase toward the front of the house was the formal living room. It saw minimal use during my lifetime. The curved window at the front marked the lower part of what we called the tower on the front of the house. The room was home to some heavy tables and uncomfortable chairs. One table's drawer contained an old stereoscopic viewing device and lots of cards to use with it. We were allowed to use it at will, and we knew all the rules about how it should be treated and returned. That living room merged into a sort of hall area and was connected by a large double-door sized opening into a second front room that was designated the music room. It contained a baby grand piano, where, with Hazel, and sometimes my mother playing, we were frequently invited to sing a variety of classic songs such as "Bicycle Built for Two," "Home on the Range," and "Man on the Flying Trapeze," or patriotic songs such as "America." It was a great indoor activity when the weather didn't invite us outdoors. That room also had a marvelous mahogany display case. It was about five feet tall and perhaps six feet long. It was divided into three sections and contains small treasures collected on the various trips taken by family members. Above that piece were small windows, again with stained glass borders.

A second large squared opening led to a third room. It was a less formal sitting room. East of the music room, it was at the end of the hall that went past the back stairs and the master bedroom. There was a fireplace here. This is where Aunt Lita spent a great deal of time reading. We children were fascinated by a corner chair that sat in a nook at one side of the fireplace. There was a long rather stiff couch with wooden arms. That couch was where we normally sat, though never for very long.

The dining room was entered from three doors: one from the front room, another from the kitchen and butler's pantry, and the last from the back hallway. It was a long room quite filled by an oak table and a large number of chairs, as befitted a large family. There was a fireplace on the east wall. Aunt Lita had a smaller table placed by the large window that overlooked her flower gardens to the north. This is where she took her meals and read her paper. When we children were included, we also used this table.

One other feature of the main floor was the north entrance and hallway. The driveway from Maple Avenue went past the house on the north on its way to the garage and other places. Characteristic of its time, the house had a raised porch near this north door. A carriage could pull up, off load the passengers onto the raised porch and drive on. The entire porch and the portion of the drive next to it, was covered. There were also steps down from the porch which was more convenient for the later automobile passengers. Anyone entering the north door was met by a short hall and several steps that led into the central area between the dining room and the formal living room. Along this short hall was a funny little room behind some heavy curtains. It was actually under the grand stairway. It was probably originally a cloak room but had become a store room for all manner of exciting stuff like old tennis racquets and coats and boxes. It was also a great place to hide during hide and seek. We could burrow under a variety of items and remain hidden for some time.

The upstairs was a lot less exciting for youngsters. At the top of that marvelous staircase was a very large, room size hall. Like the main rooms below, the hall way had carpet over the hardwood floor. This was not wall to wall carpet, but Oriental rugs and other carpets.

Two rooms, one on either side of the top opening of the stairs, were not used when we were children. The front room, over the formal living room and complete with the curved glass window, had become a storeroom. It was filled with boxes, a few trunks, and some books. Across the hall was another unused room also filled with a motley collection of old magazines, clothes, and boxes. It was some years before we dared go in either room. We were warned to be careful of the second room. A portion of the floor boards had been removed when a hive of bees decided to take up residence there. In recent years Michael and I have puzzled about these rooms and why they were not used. One theory is that they were used by the two children killed in the fire. It is also possible that after a time, as the children left home, the rooms were simply no longer needed. Some of the home's furnishing were used in the Bloomington apartment and other pieces may have gone to family members.

There were six, perhaps seven, bedrooms on this floor. None was very special. Several rooms on the south side of the house were connected and Hazel and Don Laughlin used these rooms each summer. The front room of the two had a door that let us slip outside onto the small balcony that faced Maple Avenue.

The back stairs led to the east end of this floor – the upstairs as we called it. There were two rooms on this end. One was another large bathroom with ornate fixtures. Across the hall was a much smaller room, a sewing room of the type built for a seamstress who came to a person's home to make clothes for the family. There was still an old treadle machine in that room.

The best part of this floor was the door that led to the rest of the stairs that took us to the attic. This was our playground. It was a ballroom in size and was large enough to accommodate any number of games we might play. Two rooms were separated from the main part of that floor.They contained a dozen or so old trunks with curved lids and filled with clothes from an earlier period.

The front (west)) end of the attic was our theater for the endless production we wrote and enacted there. A large, and very solid, platform, perhaps 24'x12' and about two feet high, was our stage. To one side was a convenient alcove which was our green room where we waited our turn on stage. A ledge provided seating behind our stage and was also a place where we placed needed props to take on stage. A set of high windows behind the stage gave us additional light.

Our little plays often included characters from our favorite radio programs plus those from Friday night cowboy movies at the Minonk Theater. Sometimes we took a story from a book one of us had read. Of course, whatever we wrote, we were always the heroes.

Our audience was usually whatever adults we could drag to the attic.

The attic was by no means a dark and dusty place. It had electric lights, many tall windows, and a very high ceiling. We could play lots of running games, and even roller skate, up there.

The house was a wonder, but for us children, the wonders and marvels were not confined to the house.

The driveway that opened onto Maple Ave ran east past the pump house to the garage/carriage house/stable. At about the mid-point, a branch of the drive swung south and ended at Fourth Street. (Later, when the current home at 417 Maple was built, the drive was extended to the north so that both home used the same garage.)

The pump house was a square structure built of the same brick as the house and the garage. It was perhaps 20 feet square, maybe slightly more. It contained a pump - the old-fashioned kind with a handle to manually pump water used mostly in the gardens - a lot of garden tools including a push lawn mower still used by the man who cared for the grounds, and our bottle cap collection. We spent summer after summer collecting those bottle caps. We went regularly to all the gas stations that sold pop and asked for bottle caps. We went several times each summer to all the homes in the neighborhood to garner as many caps as possible. In those days, we weren't allowed cola drinks and we never had soda at home. We lived on Kool-Aid. Now what did we ever plan to do with all those bottle caps? We had a sizeable wooden box of them by the late 1940's. We never figured out what we would do with all of them. We just collected them.

The roof of the pump house was another favorite retreat. Like the house and garage roof, the pump house roof was slate (and there were lots of extra pieces of slate in the pump house) and we liked to scratch our names on the tiles on the roof. We also liked to jump from the roof to the ground. It was much quicker than a ladder. That practice ended about 1948 when Michael slipped and fell from the roof and broke his arm.

The spot where our pump house stood is now the location for the garage at 401 Maple.

The last building, the one that reached almost to the east boundary of the property, was the old carriage house which we called the garage or stable. The north side of the building was one very large, always cool, room where four or more cars could easily park. There was a table with some cabinets on one side and there were lots of uninteresting tools, oil cans, and such on that table.

The rest of the building was ours. There were two horse stalls, a large room referred to as the cob room because it stored the dried corn cobs used to start fires in the home's fireplaces, a closet for "stuff", and an enclosed stairway to the very large second floor. When I was very small, longtime Minonk druggist Mr. Hodgons, still kept a horse there. He used to tease me that he was going to put me in the feed box and close the lid. He was a nice gentleman but when I was only 3 or 4, I was never sure whether to believe him about being tossed in with all those oats. Later, when we had ponies, they were kept in that area in the summer. Michael's pony Thunder was the main resident. Our own little Shetland pony, Princess, was more often staked in the back yard.

The second story of the garage building was a huge open space. There was a large tack room at the top of the stairs and everything else was open. The main attraction was a set of doors at the back of the building, out of sight of either Aunt Lita's house or the one next door which became ours. The doors were there to lift bales of hay into and out of the building using some pulleys. Hay was no longer stored there, but, little Friday night western fans that we were, we saw a great opportunity with those doors. Immediately below those doors was the area where the ponies grazed. Remember all those movie cowboys who jumped from the balcony of a building, onto a waiting horse, and then rode after the bad guys? Well, that's where we practiced our "jumping on a moving horse" skills. We weren't
too successful. The ponies didn't like it too much. Thunder had a backbone that was uncomfortable. Princess's was much broader. We tried several strategies to get the ponies to help us out. Somehow we managed not to injure them or ourselves.

The ponies afforded us lots of adventures. We generally rode bareback because it was simpler. More than once Thunder got away from us before anyone could get on him. That meant a chase down Fourth Street until some adult could help us. Bruce Danforth rescued us more than once.

There were several acres of land in the properties occupied by Aunt Lita's home at 401 Maple, and my grandfather's home ( later our home) at 417 Maple. There were grape arbors on each property. They were the old fashioned kind that were a dozen or so feet long and had benches built inside. They were great paces to sit on a hot day. Aunt Lita's grape arbor was on what is now the front lawn of the house that was built from the old garage. There was also a great asparagus bed nearby. We loved playing hide and seek in that bed each year after it went to seed. Rhubarb and currents grew along the fence that separated the house property from the high school property.

Aunt Lita loved her gardens. I suspect her mother must have, too. There was a small vegetable garden near the pony pasture. In the same general area were flowers grown primarily to cut and use in the house. The most outstanding garden was the formal garden on the north side of the house. It was divided into a variety of small shapes which created a larger pattern when viewed as a whole. Each year there were peonies, tulips, black-eyed Susan,columbine, and (our favorite) tall spikes of blue balloon flowers that we loved to pop. Each spring, or early summer, we would see Aunt Lita on her knees (on a little rubbery pad) with a small basket of tools and some seedlings that she added to the other flowers.

There were ferns, lily-of-the-valley, and violets that grew unchecked in many areas immediately surrounding the house.

The large open space between the two yards held one very large martin house atop a fairly tall pole. It was not, as some thought, a marker to divide the property. The yard was shared by the two homes. In the summer, we played a lot of games of tag and croquet out there. Periodically, there would be cousins visiting and that meant a big family gathering which generally took place near the formal gardens and the pump house but usually spilled over into the larger open lawn.

Life changed around 1950. The house was sold and, to our shock and dismay, dismantled. The property which included the garage was sold separately. The Laughlins had moved from Cincinnati to Bloomington. Aunt Lita also moved to Bloomington. We children were soon in high school in different towns. My sister and I graduated from Ferry Hall in Lake Forest, the same school Aunt Lita had attended. Michael was at U High in Normal. My brother went one year to high school in Wisconsin but returned to finish school in Minonk. Michael went west to California for college while I went east to Massachusetts. My brother and sister stayed in Illinois. Michael and I don't see each other often now, but we talk sometimes on the phone. He and I share great memories of the house that was the scene of so much of our childhood.