Sunday, August 31, 2008

Lady of the House - Part 1

On December 26, 1928 , the Hannibal Courier-Post featured this headline:

Mrs. Laura Frazer--'Becky Thatcher' of Mark Twain's Stories and Sweetheart of His School Days Here--Dies at Age of 91

The headliner went on to read:

"The "Becky Thatcher" of the world's greatest books of humor and the childhood sweetheart of Mark Twain, their author, Mrs. Laura Frazer, died at 3:15 o'clock this morning at the age of 91 years. Her death came in the home of her son, Judge L. E. Frazer on North Fifth street, less than four blocks from the site of the little private school where she and Sam Clemens attended more than eighty years ago.

Mrs. Frazer was widely know as the inspiration for one of the most lovable characters in Mark Twain's books, little Becky Thatcher, and the famous writer often referred to her as the original."

The sketch above used in the headliner was an artist's drawing
made during the 1920's for a feature story
written earlier in the decade.

While much had been written for the character Becky Thatcher, there is remarkably little written about Laura (Hawkins) Frazer, the person.

Perhaps such could be attributed to Laura's era when women were not considered substantive figures in their communities as much as men were - or perhaps women themselves preferred a more anonymous existence, agreeable to societal expectations of female modesty. But then, this was not the era where all could look forward to receiving their "15 minutes of fame".

Here are some things that are known about Laura Hawkins:
-She was born in 1837 to Elijah and Sophia Hawkins in Georgetown, Kentucky.
-She was only a few years old when her family moved to Hannibal, Missouri, where they lived in a two-story frame house on Hill Street, across from the Clemenses.

The childhood home of Laura Hawkins at Hill Street between
3rd and Main. The house is currently undergoing
massive restoration. Photo courtesy of Wikepedia.

-She attended Van Rensselaer Presbyterial Academy in Rensselaer, Missouri (about 7 miles east of Hannibal).
-In 1859, she married James W. Frazer (1833–1875), a physician, with whom she had two sons - Judge L. E. Frazer of Hannibal and Ben Frazer who settled in Shreveport, LA.

Laura Hawkins in 1856 at age 19.
Courtesy of Mark Twain Museum archives.

- She became the matron of a Hannibal home for orphans and the indigent (Home of the Friendless) in 1895.
- Samuel Clemens visited with her in Hannibal in 1902 and in Redding, Connecticut, in 1908. He had left Hannibal in 1853 and went on to a literary career, portraying Laura Hawkins as Becky Thatcher in Tom Sawyer (1876) and Huckleberry Finn (1884), and used her name for one of the principal characters in The Gilded Age (1873).

---------- * ----------

Bits and pieces of the personal side of Laura Hawkins have been immortalized in long-ago written memoirs and in the memories of the very few left who knew of her.

So, what was Laura like? Much that was original to this house clue us in to her life. Yet much has eroded or disappeared the way others' memories have.

We're grappling with restoring the house to showcase some of Laura's tastes and preferences during the latter part of her life. Any speculations or suggestions, readers?

MRS. LAURA FRAZER (LAURA HAWKINS)-"Becky Thatcher" serving tea in the Mark Twain home, Hannibal, Missouri, November 30, 1915, in memory of the author's birthday - Photo from The Mentor magazine, May 1924

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Stupid Contractor Advice

Most contractors will not be sensitive to your desire to restore a Victorian treasure back to its original glory.

That said, here's some stupid idiotic contractor advice I received concerning restoration of the Laura Hawkins house.

Cover the exterior with aluminum siding.

Ya, ha, ha! Even someone as inexperienced as we were knew what a sacrilege this would be. Aluminum siding? Be real. This house is already suffering the indignity of being sheathed in cement-asbestos tiles installed during the late 1940’s. And you want us to cover the exterior with aluminum siding over this?

Said the contractor, “Locals like aluminum siding and you’ll be more able to sell the house with this installed.” No comment.

Replace all the windows with new brand-new, double-paned ones but first, staple 6 mil plastic over the window exteriors.

Now come on, Mr. Contractor. This house has survived well over 100 years with its windows exposed. It’s not going to matter one whit that we leave the windows alone for awhile longer. Is this one of your “make-work” schemes?

Also, we intend to painstakingly restore and refinish each window frame, particularly the curved glass one on the northwest corner of the house.

This curved window pane has remained intact despite the gradual decay of its frame.

We may replace certain panes, but this will be done judiciously. Any frame replacement will require a clone in its place.

Put on a new roof, but there's no need to remove the existing shingles of which there must be several layers.

There was something so wrong about this advice, I didn’t even want to consider the contractor who gave it. Does he really know what he’s doing? And isn’t it even illegal to leave more than 2 or 3 layers on when re-shingling a roof?

As we were to learn later, the house contained four layers of asphalt shingles. And, each layer was well beyond its intended life.

The current roof had obviously seen better days.

Get rid of the existing radiators and install infrared heaters.

And put these protruding infrareds where? On the wall for the viewing pleasure of our guests? Now really, what could be more fitting to heat the Laura Hawkins house than its handsome and original period radiators?

This curved steam radiator is so unique, and so precious.

This steam radiator sits in front of the living room window on the front of the house. Lovely transom above.

We intend to replace the converted coal-burning boiler in the basement with an efficient boiler. New World (new boiler) will meet Old World (steam radiators) with class.

I'd call this the "Jabba the Hut" of all boilers.

These contractors are idiots, aren’t they?

Our goal is to restore the house as much to its original glory as is possible. If we find areas where improvement can be made without compromising the integrity of the house, we’d definitely consider it.

I think Laura would be pleased, don’t you?

Laura Hawkins with Samuel Clemens in Hannibal, 1903. Photo courtesy of Hannibal Courier-Post archives.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

We Got It, We Got It!

Upon learning of the foreclosed house, our gears began turning. We were filled with excitement about the property next door and we were filled with doubt...

We're already restoring a behemoth, dare we take on another? Yes we can; this is the Laura Hawkin's house - a treasure that could fall in the wrong hands and possibly never be restorable again. Also, a new owner would be our new neighbor. What were the chances we'd have undesirables living next door to us again?

We watched...

Our good neighbor who owned Rockcliffe Mansion scouted the property and nixed its value due to the massive amount of junk still in the house. He gave the bank a lowball offer which was subsequently turned down. Surely this neighbor who had brought life back to Rockcliffe knew what he was doing.

A worker of a contractor we hired scouted the property and got his even lower offer rejected.

A member of the local preservation society made an offer. No bite.

A relative of the not long-deceased owner vied for the property. Nothing.

We observed...

Meanwhile, the bank hired a crew to clean out the house. In about a month and four big dumpsters later, the job was nearly complete; the house was cleansed of all clothing, furniture, books, appliances, and the many bags of garbage that filled the property.

Here were some of the rooms just before cleanup:

This was the porch on the south side of the house. It was used as a dumpster by the former tenants.

This was the bathroom just off from the kitchen. It stank so badly, we eventually gutted the room of all of its fixtures - cabinet and shelves, carpeting, paneling, toilet, and even faux ceiling - a fire hazard constructed of styrofoam.

Incidentally, I'd much rather die in a plane crash than use any of the toilets that existed in this house. Not to worry about us tossing out antiquities. The toilets and bathtub were unfortunate 1940-1950-1960''s attempts at bathroom remodeling - particularly the garish pink tub on the 2nd floor.

This was the main area of the attic and another dumping area, apparently one of several.

Fast forward - this is the west end of the attic cleaned up. If you look carefully, you'll see a little room on the right past the stairs. See the small makeshift door cut from the black plastic? According to some of our experts, this was at one time a greenhouse for a particularly illegal cash crop. Does this solves the mystery of how the former and non-working head of household could eke out an existence for as long as he did?

The east end of the attic. From here, one can view the Mississippi River.

Here's the view of the garage in the backyard from that attic window. This is a photo taken after we purchased the property and sealed the roof before replacing it.

According to the cleanup crew, the former tenants simply threw their Hefty bags of trash down the basement, as they used no garbage service. This went on for about two years and the basement was literally filled with garbage bags. EEWWWW!

We did our homework...

We decided in spite of the rejections we'd look into the vitals of the house and headed for the Marion County Courthouse in Palmyra.

Marion County Courthouse in Palmyra, just 10 miles north of Hannibal. Photo from this website:

In going through the records in the Recorder of Deeds office, we discovered that the house was bought in 1999 for a mortgage of a mere $46K. Some of this had been paid off, leaving an outstanding mortgage balance in the mid $30K range. Who walks away from a mortgage this low?

We jumped...

With our knowlege, we finally went into action. We called the bank and requested a showing - a very quick perusal which revealed a gutted and tattered home needing everything repaired or replaced. The house's saving grace was its apparent solid foundation, despite being infested with roaches, mice, and termites.

We requested a sealed bid request, which the banker was eager to have us fill out right away. Later that night, we contemplated the previous offers and why even reasonable ones were rejected. We were to learn that the bank was as civic-minded as could be and wanted a serious restorer to take over the property. We knew we'd be up to the task. We had to be.

We got it...

We offered the bank most of the mortgage outstanding, got a counteroffer back and volleyed our counteroffer in return. It was accepted. We got the house for under $30K. Omigosh, what a feeling.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The DO’s and DON’T’s of Successful Small Town Living

Before I get into the guts of restoring the Laura Hawkins house, some of you may be yearning for a Rockwellian piece of pie and figuring how best to go about it.

If you are contemplating owning your own private Hannibal or whatever town you fancy, here are some things I’ve learned and witnessed and want to pass along to you.


Bring your (portable) job or business with you.


Arrive in a small town and expect to get a decent-paying job.


Understand that the scale of economies will dictate that you and you alone will be the manager and funder of your grandiose restoration dream.


Announce grandiose plans to resurrect a local landmark and expect money & support to flow from every conceivable pore in town.


Keep a low profile for the benefit of naturally suspicious locals.


Flaunt your freakish lifestyle and not expect to get your freak run out of town.


Keep your house or other assets in your big city until you are 100% sure you want to fly for good.


Abandon your safety net and safe retreat and sell everything you own to live in a small town.


Understand that there is a bit of “lawlessness” in a small town.


Call the cops everytime your neighbors fight or park the wrong way on your street.


Conduct yourself outside the house as if everyone is watching – because someone is, and that means everyone will know what you did.


Do something that will cause folks to talk trash about you. If you do, it will be your signature for life – just like "that girl who had an illegitimate kid" 25 years ago. Nobody will forget.


Accept the S_L_O_W_E_R pace of life.


Expect your neighbor, friend, or contractor to come to your place at your agreed-upon time, pronto.


Attend social events and get involved, as there can never be enough volunteers.


Be that hermit or mean ol’ man who never talks to anyone.

Get it? Got it? Good.