Who: Steff and Jeff Condon
Where: Grand Rapids, Michigan
The Condons bought their 1918 Tudor totally ransacked. “Even the radiators and cast-iron sinks had been stolen,” Jeff says. But they loved the floor plan and the 60 divided-light windows, so all the work, including tedious days spent scraping those painted-shut windows, was worth it. Plus, some goodies had been left behind. When Steff took a crowbar to the ceiling in the room above the garage, for instance, she discovered an unmarked paperboard box hidden between the rafters. Inside? Two glass bottles of what they presumed to be well-aged moonshine (Michigan enacted its own prohibition in 1916) and a trove of black-and-white photos and negatives. “There’s one of four guys drinking in the woods and another of them all pretending to pee outside!” Jeff says. “They’re just being crazy buddies.” Another find behind a closet wall: a 1934 copy of The Case of the Curious Bride. As for the suspected moonshine, it remains unopened. Apparently, Steff and Jeff aren’t as crazy as the previous owners.
Something of Note
Who: David and Bonnye Good
Where: Seymour, Indiana
Late one night, while stripping layers of wallpaper from the living room of their 1911 Craftsman, David noticed writing underneath—and got so excited that he ran upstairs to wake Bonnye. Together they uncovered the original builder’s note scrawled on the wall, with the names of the architect (Robert H. Hall), contractors (Niemeyer and Rockstroh), and even the plumber and decorator. “I added our family names at the bottom, then preserved the note under spray lacquer and conservation glass,” Bonnye says. “It’s a daily reminder of the care that went into creating our home.”
A Stich in Time
Who: Cindy and David Horn
Where: Franklin, Tennessee
For a couple of years before they renovated their 1910 shotgun cottage, it was used for storage and filled with dusty items of yesteryear. “Mason jars, Mazola oil, and a lot of garbage, honestly!” David says. “I started hauling all the trash out to the curb, including one funky-looking La-Z-Boy. When it flipped over, there was an old quilt under the worn-out cushion—probably meant to add a bit of padding.” It turned out to be not just any old coverlet: It was a faded friendship quilt with the names of many local citizens stitched in. Upon closer inspection, David spotted the names of some of his relatives in one of the triangles, including a few of his grandmother’s siblings, who were an early act at the Grand Ole Opry. Because the quilt holds so many regional names, the Horns have thought about donating it to the local historical society so that everyone can enjoy it—and to help ensure that it never again winds up as a cushion.
Who: Terry McBride
Where: Harrisburg, Missouri
When Terry was replacing broken cedar siding attached with square handmade nails at the bottom of his farmhouse kitchen’s exterior wall, he unearthed a red clay pipe bowel and a reed stem. “The carpenter had to have dropped it when nailing the horizontal tongue-and-groove pine boards for the interior walls,” he says. Terry knows the kitchen was added in 1852, so he dates the pipe to that time, too. Though common in the 19th century, an intact one is a rare find today. We’re just glad it wasn’t lit when it fell—or this whole story might have gone up in smoke.
Shoo, FIRE, Shoo!
Who: Susan Hollenbeck
Where: El Cajon, California
California is prone to brush-fires, but Susan doesn’t worry. Years ago she found a talisman posted in the attic of an 1800s miner’s cabin deep in the woods of Big Sur’s Los Padres National Forest, where she was a caretaker. It was a piece of withering, yellowed paper with five words block-printed by hand that read the same forward, backward, up, and down. Known as the Sator Square, this Latin palindrome has been used to ward off evil since the Roman Empire. “It’s supposed to keep the house from burning, and it must do the trick,” she says, “because in 1970, a forest fire came right up to the cabin on three sides, and never burned the structure.” In every house she’s lived in since, she writes out the same square and hangs it in a closet. “I still haven’t had a fire…and I live in Southern California!” she says. “People might think it’s kind of witchy, but it seems to work.”
Who: Sheri and Clyde Renner
Where: Camp Point, Illinois
When the Renners were in the midst of what they like to call the, ahem, “Rennervation” of their 1891 Queen Anne, they uncovered crumbling, lipstick-kissed love letters from a woman named Flossy under the bedroom linoleum, and a broken child’s tombstone from 1870 that they think was used to build a cistern. But some of the coolest finds must have once belonged to a Civil War officer who lived in the house. “I chanced upon a Union officer’s belt buckle in the ground near the foundation,” Clyde says, noting that it reads E Pluribus Unum. “And once, when our contractor was drilling a hole in the porch ceiling, he looked up to see a little face staring back at him! He reached up into the hole and pulled out a tintype of a Union soldier.”
Who: Becky and Will Viall
Where: Belleville, Illinois
When Becky and Will bought their 1904 house, the parlor’s pocket doors didn’t operate properly. “Will was popping one off its track and felt an obstruction deep in the opening,” Becky says. “He used an iron bar to pull out an old insurance policy. Dated 1942, it was a fur floater for “one skunk coat, valued at $225.” That’s over three grand in today’s dollars! Yes, but so-called “American sable” was worth it, especially in brutal midwestern winters.
Chance of Showers
Who: Lynn and Luanne Coon
Where: Paris, Idaho
At the time the Coons’ vacation house was built—1906—there was no indoor plumbing. While renovating the bathroom, they discovered a huge wood barrel in the attic space above it. “We figured it was used to store water for baths or even showers,” Luanne says. The Coons ended up having to rig a makeshift pulley to lower the barrel out of the attic, using an old horseshoe and a rope. (Note: Don’t try that one at home.) “Now it sits on our front porch,” she says, for all the world to see. “Our neighbor’s cat gave birth to a litter of kittens inside it this spring!”
Three Centuries of Secrets
Who: Richard and Amy Burchfield
Where: Port Royal, Pennsylvania
If you live in a house as old as the one owned by the Burchfields—it’s a log farmhouse built circa 1780—you’re bound to uncover a few noteworthy artifacts of rural life. In their 40 years there, they’ve found everything from old newspapers to a secret closet, long boarded up and hidden away, that they like to imagine was a stop on the Underground Railroad. The Burchfields—this year’s Dining Room winners in The Search for America’s Best Remodel—shared a few more portable objects with us: a homemade mousetrap they date to the 1830s that was set above a horeshair plaster-and-lath ceiling; a Hershey’s Cocoa tin top (the Hershey’s chocolate factory was founded about 60 miles away in 1903); a corn husker; and a wood clapper the Burchfields believe was used for applause at local theaters. The clapper may also have frightened pesky birds away from the crops, but like all these objects’ true histories, time won’t tell.
Mousetrap: This was sitting above the kitchen ceiling—with 30-some rodent skeletons nearby.
Hershey’s cocoa tin: Someone once cut a slit in the top, perhaps to use the tin as a money jar.
Corn husker: A tool like this, used to slice open husks during the fall harvest, could be useful today, since the family grows up to 20 varieties of corn.
Wood clapper: This may have been used at the theater—or to scare birds away from crops.
Shedding New Light
Who: Dennis and Corinne Girouard
Where: Plainfield, New Hampshire
It’s one thing to find knickknacks behind old plaster. It’s quite another to stumble upon entire outbuildings. “Our oldest son was using a chain saw to tackle an especially large clump of bushes on our three-acre property and uncovered an empty gardening shed,” Corinne says. They eventually fully renovated it, even adding electricity and running water. “The faucet is nicer than the one in our kitchen!”
A Smutty Surprise
Who: Robin and Lynda Otey
Where: Yakima, Washington
When an electrician was stringing new wiring in the bathroom of the Oteys’ 1957 ranch, he found 20 Playboy and Penthouse magazines from the mid-1980s stacked in neat piles on top of the ceiling panels. Among them: the September 1981 Playboy with Bo Derek on the cover and the January 1984 issue featuring the last nude photo taken of Marilyn Monroe. “We looked up their value because we were curious,” Lynda says. “But they’re not even worth the cover price! Besides, the ‘great articles’ we have now are worth so much more.”