Creating a cozy hearth for the family
How did I miss seeing them? Six years I’ve lived here on this old homestead in rural Alaska! I’d gone into the broken-down Quonset hut on the edge of our property before, but I hadn’t actually looked at the weathered wood doors covering the ten-foot opening on the front.
The doors in their original location. Photo By Julia Normand.
Maybe I was in too big a hurry to discover the treasures I hoped it held. The treasures turned out to be nothing more than busted up, wooden barrels full of rusted nails, boxes of plumbing parts, some water main size, 70s style kitchen appliances, roofing material, huge nuts and bolts, and heavy duty pieces of equipment that the previous owner had stashed, thinking some of it might come in handy someday. I reclosed the doors and didn’t look back.
Not until the day my husband and I decided to cart off the junk and demolish the hut. “Wow, look at that wood!” I said.
“Yeah,” my husband agreed, “it’s probably worth something to someone who knows what to do with it.”
However, neither of us could think what. Although we both have our own hefty hit of the "it’ll-come-in-handy-someday" bug, keeping these huge, heavy doors seemed a long shot.
“Let’s hold off tearing down the hut until I get back from my trip to the Midwest,” I said. “Maybe something will come to me on the trip.”
My sister and I were making our first ever adult trip together to visit family, some of whom we hadn’t seen in fifty-plus years. We flew into the St. Louis airport just ahead of a tornado that took the roof off a section of the terminal. We spent the week reminiscing with our Missouri relatives. Then we had one stop left—cousin Mary Frances, our old softball playing cousin, across the river in Granite City, Illinois.
At age ten, when I’d last seen Mary Frances, she was my hero, one of the “big kids,” one who out-tomboyed me and all the boys. If she’d lived a couple generations later, she might’ve become a major athlete with the advent of Title IX that gave girls an even break with boys in sports.
After a nostalgic drive past the old vacant lot where we played ball, Mary Frances treated us to lunch at the Garden Gate Tea Room in downtown Granite City. Somehow, the tea room thrives even though Granite City itself verges on ghost town status. In the 1950s, about the time my family left the Midwest, the city’s ironwork pretty much shut down. In its heyday, it produced utensils resembling granite, like the dark blue, enamelware roasters still found in most kitchens today. However, new technologies—aluminum, stainless steel, and Pyrex, replaced the old, iron-based utensils.
Brenda Whitaker, owner of the Garden Gate Tea Room, established her English tea room in a turn of the century stone cottage that once housed immigrants who came to America looking for a new life working in the steel mills. Whitaker, born and raised in Granite City, started the Garden Gate in 2000, working afternoon or midnight shifts as a coiler operator on the 80-inch hot strip at National Steel, now US Steel. After fifteen years in the mill and two years juggling both jobs, she gave up the mill and put all her energy into the tea room. When designing it, she went for an eclectic look, leaning toward the weathered rustic potting shed look instead of the traditional pastel and lace. Partly that was her taste, but also she wanted the guys she used to work with to feel comfortable when they came to the Garden Gate. She filled the walls with photos of family and friends, watering cans, books, ornate mirrors, flowered wreaths, Nesco graniteware, small birdhouses, and signs with pithy sayings. Two special items caught my eye, a Nesco toaster in its original packing material—probably still worked, too, and a can of Granite city made faux Tinker Toys. However, it wasn’t what was on the wall that excited me. It was the walls—walls off which Whitaker had chipped plaster to expose wide strips of wood with remnants of plaster still attached in places.
Our living room wall before the installation of the weathered wood doors. Photo By Julia Normand.
Weathered wood! I’d forgotten all about the doors. Suddenly I could see them on my living room wall, providing an old-fashioned backdrop for the photos and memorabilia currently hanging on a white plaster surface. Most of the pieces on the wall related to my husband’s and his family’s history with the fish industry in Alaska and around Astoria, Oregon. My husband’s mother had fished the Columbia River with her father in the 1930s, and one of the photos on the wall was of her, as a teenager, mending nets.
My mother-in-law mending nets. Above the photo is the needle she used for mending. Photo By Julia Normand.
Back home, in Alaska, I measured the doors. Ten feet four inches. I measured the wall. Ten feet, four inches! I began to feel this was fated. Fortunately, the doors were constructed in three segments that made it possible for me to haul them, one at a time, on the back of my ATV, without having to take them apart, board by board, and reconstruct them in the house. They were a couple inches short, so after my husband attached them to the wall, I pulled a long board off another unused structure on the property and nailed it across the top for a border.
The doors are in position, but still unattached. Photo By Julia Normand.
Before rehanging the pictures, I attached crocheted doilies and tatting squares made by my mother. In front of one the tatted squares, I hung the photo of my husband’s mother mending nets. Then I tacked up several wood needles like the one she was using in the photo. I added a couple of wooden fish painted in subtle blues and greys that matched the wall. My sister-in-law had given them to me the previous year, and I’d stuffed them in a drawer, not knowing what to do with them. Voila! They found their home today.
The finished wall! Photo By Julia Normand.
A neighbor gave me a ceramic half-cup planter that I filled with dirt and a couple small polka-dot plants. I fastened it to wall near the old door handle that I rigged to slide back and forth as a reminder to me it used to be a door. On the edge near the window, I hung the antique, hand-carved, wooden sconce my mother-in-law willed to me. On it, I set another planter shaped like a watering can, this one with a red-veined prayer plant. The live greenery seemed right for the doors that’d stood so long outside surrounded by trees and brush.
The planter on a floating sconce. Photo By Julia Normand.
Like the weathered-wood walls at the Garden Gate Tea Room, my Quonset hut doors provided a homey, rustic background for the photos, pictures, and objects that held meaning for me and my husband. Besides that, bringing the doors into my home preserved a part of the old homestead that would otherwise have been lost.