V is for Victorian Houses

V is for Victorian Houses

Victorian houses have always had a special warm appeal to me. Oh, not the grand architect-designed mansions bearing stuffy aristocratic adjectives like Gothic, Italianate, Romanesque. And not ridiculously over-decorated gingerbread houses, or foolishly labeled cottages with pretentious towers and turrets. No, I am thinking of the simpler, square, two-storied folk-style late Victorian homes found in small rural communities, just large enough and with a few simple yet elegant touches, to give them the simple dignity worthy of the owner, perhaps the community doctor, or the owner of the local mill, or the small-town judge.

It was in just such a home that I spent many happy summer-time days in my childhood. The house was one of the early homes in Summerland, British Columbia, a small orchard and agricultural community perched by the southwest shores of Okanagan Lake, and described by one of the initial settlers, J Robinson, as “Heaven on earth with summer weather forever.” The house was directly across the street from the Summerland Hospital, and had been built by the community’s first doctor, according to my memories of stories my grandfather told me. I seem to remember him telling me that the house was one of the first built on the hillside above the original lakeside town site, around 1885, but according to historical accounts of the area, the first orchard in the area was not planted until 1887 (although the site was a trading post from the early 1800s), and it was not until shortly after the turn of the century that the town site began to shift up onto the flats. Yet by 1907 the town had its own school district and even a Baptist college. So it is quite likely that the house would have been built sometime between 1885 and 1905, as the doctor would be required to care for patients from both the lakeside site below and the new town site above. I suspect that the doctor’s home preceded the building of the hospital and that one of the rooms on the main floor may have served as his office. Although the house still exists today, it has been quite extensively renovated and many of its original Victorian-style features no longer exist.

But these are historical facts. My memories of this house come from my own childhood, in the late 1950s through mid 1960s. My grandparents had bought the house, I believe, sometime after the depression and before or during the early years of World War 2. The house was surrounded by orchards, and other homes, and below the house my grandfather grew apples, peaches, apricots and cherries, and supplemented his income with caretaking duties at the hospital and gardening at the agricultural Experimental Station nearby. My grandparents were incredibly hospitable, and the big old wood-frame house was always filled with guests for meals and overnights as well.

The front yard featured a big old walnut tree, under which sat, in my earliest memories, an old Model-T, with a crank starter, which us grandchildren found endlessly entertaining to watch being started. Behind the house and slightly downhill was an old barn, dark and musty with the permanent faint odor of skunk. I do have vague memories of chickens in my very young years, but later the old barn, with rough-cut beams, became for us a dark and mysterious playground, stacked with old tools, broken furnishings, and heaps of old National Geographic magazines from around the 1930s, which became great sources for school Social Studies projects.

The house itself was generally square in shape, but wrapped around its front and one side with wide verandas. The front veranda had wooden steps leading to the front door, old steps that curved slightly downward and had a naturally smoothed surface, long void of paint, witness to countless feet making their way to a door which was always open to anyone who needed a place for caring friendship, a meal, a place to sleep. I believe there may have been some simple gingerbread-type decorations under the eves, at least in the corners, but if so they were not very noticeable due to the heavy vines of ivy which encased the front porch and protected it from the hot southern summer sun. I do remember sitting on the steps in family groupings for photographs, and I also recall sitting in the shaded porch on hot summer afternoons, drinking lemonade.

The front porch joined the side porch through a screen door. The side porch itself was wrapped in fine metal mosquito netting, and featured a long row of old metal bedsteads, double and single. All the grandchildren, coming from far and wide, looked forward to coming to “help” grandma and grandpa with the summer fruit harvest, with the opportunity to sleep outdoors on the porch. Grandpa paid us, I remember, 4 cents for a 20 pound flat of cherries, and I think he must have been very patient, and probably had to set aside a lot of the cherries, which would not have been acceptable at the packing house due to our childhood lack of discrimination regarding ripeness, size, attached stems, and so on. Probably the unacceptable ones became those which grandma and our moms used, spending hours filling canning jars, both on the big wood stove at the house, and sometimes at the community cannery, always an exciting adventure for us though hard work for them. I am also quite sure that we ate as many cherries as we picked; I particularly remember one cousin who regularly stuffed himself with the sweet juicy fruit, and whom we nick-named “Gas-off Greg” due to the results!

On the back-side of the house were time-worn cement steps and landing, from which Grandma would hang laundry, while Grandpa would sit on the step, sharpening knives against the stony surface, while a clutch of grandchildren huddled around watching with great interest. Inside the back door was the big old-fashioned kitchen, its centerpiece the big black wood-stove. Very early in the morning, we would quietly climb out of our veranda beds and tie-toe into the house to watch Grandpa welcome the morning, dressed in his full-length one-piece old fashioned long-johns. If the morning were chilly, we’d follow him down the steep dark stairway into the dusty basement, which was dominated by a big old coal-burning furnace. Grandpa would shovel coal from the bin beneath the coal chute into the furnace, and get the fire going. If we were very lucky, it would be the morning for the monthly coal delivery, and we’d get to watch the black chunks of coal tumble down the chute from the coal delivery truck sitting up on the driveway above. The basement, like the barn, was dark and mysterious, and home to various items left behind by the original owners. One day, I found a slim volume tucked away on a rafter. It was the product of some religious movement of the past, in which the adherents were apparently fond of chanting together various couplets about God. I found the book incredibly interesting in an odd, far-away-and-long-ago way, and still remember two lines which even to my young mind seemed strangely wed: “He is the God of the rocks and rills; He is the God of the U.S. mails.” My grandfather encouraged us to read all kinds of things, although grandma was a proper lady and was quite horrified about the effect such drivel might have on our impressionable young minds. We loved and respected Grandma, but we all adored Grandpa!

When the basement duties were complete, we would follow Grandpa back upstairs, and watch him load the wood stove with freshly chopped wood, and get a cheerful fire going. Then he would bring out a big old cooking pot, pour in water, and set it on the stove to heat gently. Next he’d stir in large old-fashioned oatmeal flakes, and for the next hour or so, return time and again to tend to the pot, until perfect old-fashioned oatmeal was produced. It was a great talent, that oatmeal making. No measurements, no clock watching, no modern conveniences, but always the most delicious, satisfying mush in the world. Grandpa would scoop big helpings into heavy old-fashioned crockery bowls, and we’d go into the dining room to sit around the huge table for breakfast. Topped with creamy milk, and lots of brown sugar (too much according to Grandma), we’d joyfully shovel away amazing quantities of this wonderful porridge while Grandpa sat in his honored place at the head of the table, beaming with pride over his worshipful little tribe of grandchildren. The table itself was large and beautiful, with matching chairs. Grandpa had bought them during the depression for, as I recall, $6 for the table, and 50 cents each for the chairs, a bargain to our way of thinking, but a big expense at a time when he would work hard 12 hour days for other farmers for $1 a day. Naturally, the dining set is still in the family. The dining room had big bay windows facing the northwest and catching the early morning sun, a perfect light, airy roomy spot for a big family breakfast, as well as for the regular large gatherings for lunch and supper, which always featured fresh potatoes and vegetables from the garden. It was great fun for the grandchildren to sit out on the back steps with Grandma on summer mornings, shucking garden peas into the lap of her big old-fashioned apron, to then be poured into buckets and taken inside for dinner or canning for winter.

The living room was also large, but darker. It featured an enormous stone fireplace, and above the fireplace, an unblinking stuffed owl kept solemn watch. The owl had been there for years, certainly long before Grandma and Grandpa bought the house. I really don’t remember much else about the living room; we rarely used it although I don’t think it was a particularly formal place in those days, as Grandpa and Grandma often hosted gatherings of all kinds there. Off the living room, was a large, beautifully wood-panelled room which in the days of my memories was used as a guest bed-room. Along one wall were beautiful built-in wood cabinets, some with sliding doors, others, I think, with drawers. The room had the comfortable formality of a large old-fashioned study; and thus I have surmised that, with all the cupboards, it might have once served as the doctor’s office.

Doors leading from this room on one side and from the kitchen on the other side, opened to the stairwell leading upstairs. As a young child, this seemed like a long, long journey, and no doubt it was a fair distance, as the ceilings, both upstairs and downstairs, had to have been a generous 10 to 12 feet from the floor, at least. Reaching the top of the rather steep staircase, one could turn left or right into the upper hallway. At the end of the hallway to the left, was the bathroom, a bright sunny room with a window overlooking the backyard and orchard, an old-fashioned toilet so tall that we children always had to climb a step-stool to perch on it, and of course the most envied item of all, a huge old claw-toed cast-iron bathtub. Like most average children, we usually weren’t eager for an everyday bath, but at Grandma and Grandpa’s it was a highlight! We could easily fit 5 or 6 of us in it together, girls first, and then the boys’ turn. Compared to our modern bathtubs at home, this tub was a joy.

The hall also led off into three bedrooms, all generous in size. One was Grandma and Grandpa’s room, and the other was now used as a second guest room. But the really huge room, which stood above both the living room and the downstairs bedroom/study, was what I have been told was the former nursery. It had a number of windows on two sides, and was always bright and cheerful. I think it may also have had a door leading to a small porch over the front veranda, but if so, it was never opened in my time. In my day it held perhaps half a dozen bunk beds, plus at least one big old metal baby crib, and this was another great spot for cousins to bunk down. Those who ate the most cherries were banished to the upper bunks!

Off this great room was my favorite place in the house. I have sometimes wondered if the large bedroom was not originally the master bedroom, (or even perhaps a hospital room), for this extension, which went out over the wide balcony above, was a wonderful walk-in closet and dressing room. On both sides it was lined with amazing floor-to-ceiling built-in mahogany closets and cupboards and drawers with a hall running its length, to end at a tall, narrow window, covered with thick, old, deep burgundy velvet curtains running from the ceiling to the floor. On bright sunny days, the sun would filter through the somewhat time-worn curtains, casting a slightly orangish glow on the rich mahogany cupboards. Officially this room was out-of-bounds; perhaps there was a fear of it collapsing some day into the old veranda below. But many times I would slip alone into this old-fashioned space, quietly closing the door behind me, and instantly find myself in a long-gone world, a place I read about in old story books written by English writers of long ago, a place I had vividly imagined, and now here it was. Grandpa soon became aware of my disobedience, as Grandma would have seen it, but he never forbade me nor reported on me, and it seemed to be our little unspoken secret. Not only was the dressing room beautiful and mysterious, but its cupboards and closets were full of the most amazing things. Old silk top-hats and long-tailed suit jackets and dress pants, shiny with years of pressings. Long ivory silk dressing gowns. Beautiful floor length dresses with high cut bodices covered in lace. Old fashioned jewellery. Black button-up ladies dress boots, with tiny pearl-like buttons and clasps. I never touched anything, except to very occasionally allow my fingers to gently run over the beautiful silk gowns. It wasn’t just a matter of obedience, but perhaps a fear that if I actually touched things, this magical world would somehow disappear.

When I was perhaps 9 or 10 years old, my Grandma developed severe osteoporosis, and could no longer keep up the big old house. And the orchard was becoming too much for Grandpa, too. So my uncle generously bought them a small house up-town near stores and post-office, and later still built them a brand-new single-storied home with easy wheel-chair access for Grandma, gardening space for Grandpa, and easily cleaned and maintained. Uncle and Auntie moved into the big old house, and in youthful enthusiasm, brought it up-to-date. The precariously perched dressing room was dismantled, and all its parts and contents sent to the dump. The tired verandas were also removed, and a fancy new bathroom and mudroom area added to the back of the house. The old claw-foot tub and big old toilet also found their way to the dump, along with, I suppose, the big old-fashioned couches and cast-iron bed frames that were too large for our Grandparent’s new home, and too old fashioned for up-to-date tastes. Of course, just two or three years later, a craze for antiques started sweeping across the land, and Auntie spent the next few years trying to purchase small pieces of furniture to try to replace, in some small degree, the amazing items that had gone to the dump with so little thought.

The old house still sits perched on its hillside. The hospital across the street, in which I was born one summer morning, after my mom took the short walk across the street during my parents’ summer vacation, is gone, too, as is the orchard below which has been replaced with a pleasant residential subdivision, in which of a few gnarled old fruit trees still stand, memories of a past time, and also gone are the old barn and the old walnut tree. I occasionally drive down the steep, winding road that joins upper Summerland to lower Summerland and slow down, taking a long passing look at the old house, which despite its changes, still bears the dignified structure of this genteel old rural Victorian home. Sometimes I think of stopping and knocking on the door, asking the strangers who live there if I might just take a peek inside. But then I change my mind and drive on, content rather to let the house live on as it stands, firm and unchanging, in the byways of my memory.

Norma Hill

Note to the reader: My apologies if this narrative has been rather too long for you, but I have written it in detail especially for my sister, who, 10 years younger than I, missed out on the memories of this wonderful old folk-style Victorian home. She has in the past asked me to record my memories for her, and now, Marilyn, here they are. This story is for you, little sister.

Date: May 19, 2007

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