Category Archives: Home as existential focus

Mark Twain on home

I will never forget the opening words of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.


No answer.


No answer.”

When I read them at the age of eight, in one of the Heritage Club books my parents had subscribed to in an effort to encourage their daughters’ interest in literature, I was perplexed by the spoken-word form. I recall that I read far enough to learn that the missing boy was, or would become, involved with whitewashing a fence, but I can’t say I read much further into the story–an admission I’m duly embarrassed to make.

At high-school in England we didn’t read American literature, which I hope goes some small way toward explaining my lack of familiarity with Mark Twain’s writing. Instead, we read works by British writers short stories by Katherine Mansfield, novels by Vita Sackville-West, and poetry by Sir John Betjeman and Wilfred Owen. (I will never forget Owen’s account of death by mustard gas in “Dulce et Decorum Est.” It should be required reading for all 14-year-olds, especially in countries whose leaders all too often find it expedient to glorify war.)

So I was thrilled to read the following missive from Martha Kipcak, who attended my talk at Milwaukee’s Lynden Sculpture Garden in October 2013.*

Dear Bronze and Will,

thank you so much for bringing Nancy Hiller to town and then making it possible for me, and others, to attend the lovely event at Lynden.

Although I haven’t had the good fortune to be a homeowner in my life (with the exception of a short 15 months during a brief marriage), I have gained rich satisfaction as a homemaker all my adult life.

Many years ago, I crossed paths with a letter Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) had written to his friend Joe Twichell on January 19, 1897. The previous August, while Clemens was traveling abroad, his beloved 24-year-old daughter Susy died from meningitis at their home in Hartford, Connecticut. Clemens and his wife Livy were devastated. Joe Twichell was a dear and trusted friend who Clemens wrote to share his grief and reflections of Susy’s death. I was thinking about this letter while listening to Nancy describe her love of Home.
This is an excerpt taken from the middle of the letter.
“Ah well, Susy died at home. She had that privilege. Her dying eyes rested upon nothing that was strange to them, but only things which they had known and loved always and which had made her young years glad.  And she had you and Sue and Katy and John and Ellen. This was happy fortune.  I am thankful that it was vouchsafed to her. If she had died in another house — well, I think I could not have borne that.  To us, our house was not unsentient matter.  It had a heart and a soul and eyes to see us with approvals and solicitudes and deep sympathies.  It was of us and we were in its confidence and lived in its grace and in the peace of its benediction.  We never came home from an absence that its face did not light up and speak out its eloquent welcome.  And we could not enter it unmoved.  And could we now, oh how, in spirit we should enter it unshod.”
Peace and love to both of you,
The Heritage Club books are still with us (mostly with me, perhaps because I can build bookcases), though their pages are mildewed and many of their spines were ravaged by hungry cockroaches during the years the books spent in the non-air-conditioned dining room of our home in humid South Florida. I will have to dig out that edition of Tom Sawyer (with allergy medicine in hand) and acquaint myself with the writings of this man. Thank you, Martha.

Clemans, a.k.a. Twain









Martha Kipcak with eyewear from Bronze Optical, Milwaukee

Martha Kipcak with eyewear from Bronze Optical, Milwaukee

*The note was forwarded to me by Will Fellows, one of the sponsors of this speakers’ series, and is reproduced here with Martha’s permission.


Visit to the Mil

This week’s trip to Milwaukee was short but full of wonders.

First stop: a pilgrimage to my dear friend Katie’s childhood home to reconnect with her parents and the lucky Otis.


Otis and his parental units

Next came an evening at the Lynden Sculpture Garden with a well attended presentation on A Home of Her Own followed by a book signing. The event was sponsored by Bronze Optical, Lynden, Milwaukee Reads, and Historic Milwaukee, Inc.. Thanks to all, and especially to Margy Stratton, Polly Morris, and my hosts, Will Fellows and Bronze, for putting this event together.

On Thursday morning I gave a finishing techniques workshop at Lynden, where this set of instructions, complete with injunction to use the Golden Rule, was posted on the wall:

Sign at Lynden

Remember, keep your hands to your slef!

I was delighted to have a chance to visit Bronze Optical before driving back to Bloomington.

Will and Bronze

Will and Bronze in the gorgeous front room at Bronze Optical. After seeing the loving care with which these two fixed up and furnished their place of business, and having heard them discuss their approach to fitting clients with just the right eyewear, I must confess that I am fantasizing about a long-distance consultation.

Stay posted for details of Will’s talk in Bloomington in May 2014!

Daisy Garton’s farm

Daisy Garton with her Uncle John, reproduced from the website

Daisy Garton with her Uncle John, reproduced from the website

Daisy Hinkle Garton loved her home so much that she was determined to ensure its preservation as a house museum after her death. Once in the countryside, Daisy’s farmstead–a Queen Anne house, neighbored by a second house and outbuildings on several acres–is uniquely visible and easy to visit, since Bloomington has expanded around it in every direction.

Daisy left her home to Bloomington Restorations, Inc., a nonprofit foundation for historic preservation in Monroe County that now calls the farmstead home.

A lovely, short film about the Hinkle-Garton Farmstead has recently been produced by Michael Johnson.

Photographs of the farmstead also appear in a forthcoming volume  of essays on historic preservation that includes a piece co-authored by  longtime Bloomington Restorations board member Donald Granbois and Executive Director Steve Wyatt.

I love men

Fifteen years ago I had to replace my refrigerator. Being a person who breaks into a cold sweat at the mere thought of facing the wires, tubes, and electrical panels that make up the contemporary fridge, I bought a new one–the lowest-end, no frills model from Sears, which came with a warranty–instead of gambling on a used appliance.  Delivery added so little to the price that I signed up for it.

Two young men arrived with the refrigerator, which they carried up the steps to the side door just off the kitchen. I know a fridge is a beast to handle, but as this pair crashed carelessly into the original fir door trim, they piqued my concern. I’m no stranger to the challenges of delivering unwieldy objects to homes where nervous customers hover close by (“Be careful of that newel post!” “Watch the wallpaper!“), and so I asked them, as a fellow working person, to show a bit of care.

“She don’t like men,” one of them commented dryly.

“No, she don’t,” agreed his colleague, casting a knowing glance at my workboots (Redwing, men’s size 8-1/2).

How do you respond to such a classic example of the ad hominem fallacy, whereby it’s acceptable to dismiss legitimate concerns of an individual by casting him or her as somehow other, deviant, and therefore undeserving of heed? This pair left me speechless.

Well, here’s the thing, boys. I love men. And this has nothing to do with my sexual orientation.

One of the most gratifying aspects of this book project has been its reception by men, starting with my collaborator, Kendall Reeves. Yes, the book’s primarily about women, but we did our best to present the subject matter in a non-gender-stereotyped way. Following are a few remarks from male readers.

From author Scott Russell Sanders:

Nancy Hiller is a premier cabinetmaker with a fondness for wood and old houses, and with a storyteller’s feel for character. Here she offers us a gallery of women who have created distinctive homes, often in buildings that others had abandoned, sometimes after having been abandoned themselves, always with resourcefulness and imagination. As these women restore the outward fabric of houses and gardens and furnishings, they also restore the fabric of their lives. Hiller honors their skill and pluck, and Kendall Reeves, through his photographs, enables us to glimpse the beauty of their creations. After reading this book, you will see your own home place with fresh eyes.

From English designer Johnny Grey:

I am always a sitting target for American settler stories and seeing ordinary people’s well-crafted houses seems a solid triumph in the battle for existence in a new country. It brings out a deep sense of the sanity of the culture, and something that I believe America should hold up as one of its key civilised offerings to the world – the ability to be able to build your own decent ‘home’.  The country has truly been able to provide this opportunity to willing souls, even those who are not at the centre of the monied groups and traditional male-orientated society. More so than many European countries – at least over the last hundred years. Your book outlines that so clearly. You must have spent alot of time listening to stories of your subjects’ lives and trying to make sense of them.

From Will Fellows, author of A Passion to Preserve: Gay Men as Keepers of Culture

To my mind,  your book lends considerable support to one of my key conclusions: Gay men make extraordinary contributions in historic preservation, an arena well populated by straight women, because the mix of things that preservation is about strike many of the same psychologic chords in gay males as in straight females.

From Bruce Gleason, professor of music education and music history at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota

Several weeks ago, I was pleased to come across your October 2011 Old-House Interiors article, “Women and Their (Sp) Houses.”  While I’ve read numerous articles on home restoration and construction during my own twelve years of projects, this was the first that truly captured my own feelings about restoration and soul work. In a mere two pages, you synthesized what I have attempted to tell countless people, but you added the further dimension of intimacy, which I hadn’t considered in so many words until now. After living with this idea for a few weeks, I’m pleased to report that this added piece gives further meaning to my work and life.

After reading the article, I ordered A Home of Her Own, which I began reading yesterday—and concluded ten minutes ago. Needless to say, I connected with your work deeply. I’m not sure which story/woman/house is my favorite.  All are remarkable on many levels, and I’m writing simply to thank you for sharing your work and wisdom.  Your writing is poignant and clear, and your treatment of each individual as well as the individuals who passed through their lives is reflective, respectful and reverent…. 

In another note, Bruce adds:

When I read Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique twenty years ago, I was surprised and grateful to find that she wasn’t setting up an “us and them” scenario, she was simply advocating for the retrieval and health of the human soul by examining gender roles and what motivates them….

I was surprised and grateful that I didn’t have to take issue with anything throughout [A Home of Her Own]. I assume it would have been easy to paint any number of the side characters in a dim light—and to focus on why the work of the protagonists was more involved and/or difficult because they were women.  You steered around this and you wrote about the central characters in such a way that we were able to identify with them as human beings—not as women or men—which resulted in telling men that there was room for us as well. Betty would be proud of you.

From Jack Longacre of Elkhart, Indiana

Normally I would not be too enthused about reading stories about women and their home acquisitions and on top of that, written by a woman!
When I first opened the book I was taken by the beautiful pictures. The Introduction was great! I find it hard to believe that Ms. Poore’s home was built as a Summer Cottage. As I continued reading I realized that many of the subjects were close to “dirt poor”. What they each have accomplished is remarkable…. 
I have had to lay the book down from time to time even though I… could read straight through–I have to rest the old eyes. What I am saying is I have  enjoyed each and every page.
From Herb Hiller of Deland, Florida
I marvel at your sensibilities, at how you integrate the world around you, like a plant absorbing nourishment from roots, grounded, that sureness allowing you to be yourself and unwavering….
For awhile before I watched Leonard Cohen. He was himself and holy for it. The production values fitted his subdued mantra. No pizzazz, only the setting in which his croak was masterful. With maybe eight supporting musicians, I felt that I’d come to the corner of a street I’d never walked in a town I’d never noticed. He made me think sparse as if I were reading Cormac McCarthy.
Of course my reading your work did not invoke Leonard Cohen this evening. Yet it’s easy to experience you as thrum, indulge passing thoughts of who people are, how they become and evolve in their way, and I find myself an observer of clarity. You and Leonard draw me in from wherever I otherwise am. I feel channeled, further along where I otherwise am but now, reading you, hearing him, I’m myself in reflected light. A good place to find.

More on Home and Gender

Author Will Fellows learned about  A Home of Her Own through my essay, “Women and Their [Sp]Houses,” which was published in the October issue of Old-House Interiors.  Fellows contacted me after he read the book, pointing out some intriguing parallels between the intense relationships the women I profiled had developed with their homes and those of gay men he included in his 2004 work, A Passion to Preserve: Gay Men as Keepers of Culture.

He writes,

“I came to see your book as something of a companion volume, recalling a comment by a fellow whose work at the National Trust led him to remark on the longstanding design- and preservation-minded alliance of straight females and gay males: ‘There’s a joke at the Trust, that it’s staffed by lots of gay men and divorced women, which, if you look closely, is not far from the truth.’”

In A Passion to Preserve, Fellows  describes what he calls “key traits of preservation-minded gay men, past and present: gender atypicality; domophila (my term for ‘deep domesticity,’ an exceptional love of houses and things homey); romanticism; aestheticism; connection- and continuity-mindedness”–many of the same traits shared by the women in A Home of Her Own.

“To my mind,” he continues,  

your book lends considerable support to one of my key conclusions: “Gay men make extraordinary contributions in historic preservation, an arena well populated by straight women, because the mix of things that preservation is about strike many of the same psychologic chords in gay males as in straight females.”


Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class, calls Fellows’s book “a rich and detailed examination of an important and heretofore neglected aspect of our urban heritage.”

Darden Asbury Pyron, author of Liberace: An American Boy, writes: “Clearly Will Fellows has hit a nerve with many gay men…. As with his previous book, Farm Boys, Fellows presents the material in people’s own voices as much as possible and the best of these essays (and there are many) are wonderfully readable capsule biographies and histories.”

Will Fellows is also the author of Gay Bar: The Fabulous, True Story of a Daring Woman and Her Boys in the 1950s.

Yael Ksander Really Does See Spot Run

Ksander in radio mode

Some of us call her the next Terry Gross.

Yael Ksander’s  finely crafted essays and voluptuous voice have made her a favorite among Indiana Public Media listeners. But the brilliance of Ksander’s broadcasts begins with her close reading of texts.

Ksander recently wrote a segment about A Home of Her Own for the WFIU program Artworks. While the book’s lavish illustrations may tempt many to linger at the surface, this graduate of Columbia University’s MFA program in Art History took the time to absorb the words.  And how.

“A wolf in sheep’s clothing,” she astutely calls the work. “Betty Friedan disguised as Martha Stewart.”

Instead of taping interviews for her program at the studio, Ksander chose to visit one of the houses in the book, confident that immersing herself in context would enrich her story. She arrived at the home of  Linda Oblack, subject of Chapter 7, with microphone, recording device, and her well-read review copy of the book in hand.

No sooner had Linda retired than she painted her living room and replaced the well-worn carpet.

For a  recording and transcript of the broadcast, along with more of Ksander’s writings on Hoosier history and culture,  cut and paste the following link into your browser: .


Colleagues David Brent Johnson and Yael Ksander at the offices of WFIU, Bloomington, Indiana

Substance and Style: Peggy Shepherd

From about 1990 ’til 2004, Bloomington, Indiana was home to a store called Grant St. Named for its location, Grant St began as a hole in the wall nestled in a bohemian enclave next to Pygmalion’s Art Supplies and around the corner from the Runcible Spoon cafe.

Some of us who knew Grant St in its early days, when it occupied a couple of rooms in an old-house-turned-retail-space, consider those years the store’s golden age. Packed floor to ceiling with surprises–quirky lamps made from dead tea kettles, ’20s  couches refurbished in velvet or paisleys,  ’50s dinettes  before ’50s became the height of cool–the store had an intimacy of scale that made customers feel like part of the family. 
Behind the counter you’d almost always find one of the owners, Sharon Fugate or Peggy Shepherd. Stylish and savvy, they grew their business steadily over the years, expanding first into a storage area at the rear of the store, then opening up a wall into the retail space next door. 

A furniture-filled corner of the original Grant St store. Yes, this may look like a chaotic pile of merchandise, but in reality every object was carefully arranged to heighten the shopper's sense of adventure. You had to be there.

In 1996 they relocated, becoming the  anchor business in a newly restored 1913 meat packing plant at the corner of Third and Rogers. With the move came other upgrades–a certain slickness and sophistication, a wider range of clothing. The store became a well loved destination. 

Frosted Foods Building, Bloomington (Photo: Paul Puzzello)

Peggy and Sharon at the store

Those of us who knew Sharon and Peggy beyond the sales counter–and there are lots of us, since many customers became friends–understood that the secrets to Grant St’s success were the proprietors’ sharp eye, entrepreneurial skills, and dogged work. Trips to shows in High Point, New York, and Chicago sound glamorous until you consider that they involved 14-hour drives, 20-hour days, and sharing a hotel bed to minimize expenses. Dressing in stylish clothes and serving a hip clientele in industrial-chic surroundings may seem enviable until you learn that closing the store at the end of the day opened up an evening’s work of balancing receipts, making follow-up calls to customers, and cleaning the bathroom.

Grant St at night

After they closed Grant St in 2004, Sharon opened a new store, Relish. Peggy, ready for a change from retail work, explored some interests she’d had on hold and worked to finish the barn conversion on which she had already been working for a few years.  The cover of A Home of Her Own features a view of that barn’s completed interior.


Peggy dressed up to watch the Miss America Show, circa 1959. Her mother recalls that after the show, Peggy asked her father if he would buy her a mink stole.

David Bender, Carie Bender, and Peggy Bender in American Gothic pose, preparing to build a new family house.


In the 1980s Peggy worked as an interior designer at the Bloomington business EnviroConcepts


Working on a friend’s roof in 1989
The Civil War-era house outside of Spencer, Indiana, the restoration of which is mentioned in A Home of Her Own:
Front porch

Watering flowers outside the kitchen, a more recent addition to the house

Front view across a small part of the lawn


Peggy with her son Brian, circa 1998, at the party they threw before leaving the Civil War-era Spencer house and moving to Sixth Street

Never one to sit still, Peggy dreamed up an even more daring project once she’d restored her house on Sixth Street.

The barn, pre-dismantling


The barn during dismantling


Packed on a truck, the barn timbers were driven to their new location


The completed barn conversion (Photo: Kendall Reeves)

Meanwhile, life went on. Brian moved to New York, and Carie married, then had two sons.

Peggy with her first grandson, Ross


With her second grandson, Trey, wearing the pipe cleaner crown he won in the Cutest Baby Contest at the Monroe County Fair

Inside the barn house, view toward the dining area



Betty Shepherd and Carie Bender with Trey and Ross, September 2011