I often photograph abandoned old houses. I map them in my mind, and the next time I drive by, I always look to see if something has changed. Every once in a while, I’m enormously cheered to find that someone is fixing up some once-lovely place. More often, I discover that one wall has caved in, or that someone has razed the place altogether.
A few weeks ago I packed my laptop and my cat into the car and headed to Door County, Wisconsin, for a weeklong writing retreat. I’ve been driving this route periodically for almost thirty years, now. My drive takes me through an area once settled by Belgian immigrants, and I always look for a couple of special houses. I’m a bit worried about one of my favorites.
A journalist once described the Belgians living in the southern portion of the Door County peninsula as “a quaint colony of jovial people.” (Milwaukee Journal, May 9, 1926) They must have been good farmers also, for even with the red bricks produced locally, these homes weren’t quick and easy to throw together.
Whenever I see such a place, I am reminded of the poignant poem “Abandoned Farmhouse,” by former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser. I’ll reproduce just the first stanza here:
He was a big man, says the size of his shoes
on a pile of broken dishes by the house;
a tall man too, says the length of the bed
in an upstairs room; and a good, God-fearing man,
says the Bible with a broken back
on the floor below the window, dusty with sun;
but not a man for farming, say the fields
cluttered with boulders and the leaky barn.
Mr. Kooser interprets his abandoned farmhouse in the same way curators hope museum visitors interpret artifacts carefully chosen to help tell a story. If you love history but haven’t discovered Mr. Kooser’s work, I recommend Delights and Shadows, or any of his other volumes.
I am interested in historic architecture. Still, like Mr. Kooser, I think mostly of the people who once lived in these abandoned farmhouses. Who proudly stepped inside for the first time? What joy and anguish did the house once hold? How did the last occupants feel when they moved out? Did they know the house would sit empty, and perhaps crumble into the landscape?
Say the phrase “historic site” and most of us think first of a place formally preserved; a place we now need an admission ticket to explore. But historic sites surround us, every day. All we need is a little imagination to bring them to life.