B.J. Hollars

Tucked into the ivy just two hundred paces from the Eau Claire County Jail sits a pink house which you’ve probably never noticed. Built in the late Queen Anne style in 1893, today it’s known as the Woltersdorf House, named in honor of its original owners, German emigrants Frederick and Mary Woltersdorf, who came to Eau Claire in 1874. Following their deaths, the home became the property of their daughter, Hazel, before trading hands again in the 1950s to Charles Ivey — the home’s sole occupant for the past 60 or so years.

“Welcome, welcome,” a spirited 85-year-old Charles greets me one cool September morning. “You ready for the tour? How much time you got? I mean how many days?”

I laugh at the joke which, upon more closely examining his jam-packed parlor, begins to feel like less of one. I have, unwittingly, stepped into a time machine, a makeshift museum overflowing with brass lamps, a Civil War era Steinway piano, an organ, vases, and various 19th century paintings and photographs hung upon the room’s red wallpaper.

All of this, and we’ve barely even made it past the entryway.

Charles directs me toward one piece of furniture after another, taking me on an Antiques Roadshow-inspired journey so that I might gain at least some cursory knowledge of the historical value of the objects now surrounding me.

“Oh, and this one,” he says, leading me toward a low-backed chair near the organ, “is Queen Victoria’s chair.”

Given the cabinet of curiosities I’ve just entered, I’m inclined to believe him.

“That’s a joke,” he says with a smile. “It’s not really her chair. But when the queen comes to visit me, it’ll be her chair. So nobody else can sit in it. Unless,” he says, “you want to give it a try?”

With his permission I do, lowering myself gently between the chair’s wooden arms and leaning into the plush upholstery fit for a queen. But I don’t dare sit long; Charles’s tour continues with or without me.

“Just look at the rosewood on this music holder,” he says, “that’s solid rosewood, you know. And those lamps over here,” he nods, “there are no two alike.”

He leads me toward a different chair, this one retrieved from a Saint Paul mansion shortly before it was razed. “Now this chair is set in solid mahogany,” he says, running a hand atop its frame. “That’s the original finish, original tufting, original everything. You wouldn’t believe the beautiful mansions they tore down when they put the highway through Saint Paul. They destroyed the most unbelievable houses.”

Charles can identify with such losses, having experienced a bit of it himself.

When the Eau Claire County Jail began construction in 2010 — the most contentious battle in recent history, I’m told — it came at the cost of Charles’s neighborhood. He watched, horrified, as his friends and neighbors disappeared to make way for construction crews. From his place at the front window, he watched his world reduced to rubble.

A decade later, he still laments the loss.

Why, he wonders, do we insist on pitting progress against the past?

Charles’s disillusionment extends beyond the construction of the jail. Leading me toward the window, he points up and down the street to show me where the gas factory once stood, and the old music college, and the former courthouse with its bell tower. All of it now gone without a trace.

Or almost without a trace.

For over half a century, Charles has served as a one-man reclamation team, collecting the discarded items from our vanished local landscape: a lamp here, a cabinet there, each object has its origin story.

Charles is more than a collector, he’s a caretaker, one who views history not as a hindrance, but the best way for us to remember who we are.

But it’s not easy holding firm to the past. Nor is it easy being the last house on the block. Or, for that matter, one of the more senior members of his generation. And these days, he hears the rumble of the bulldozer growing louder.

“What I’m afraid of,” Charles says, “is that they’ll find me dead someday…”

And when they do, he knows, there will be no one left to protect the home and the history within it.

Charles is desperate to devise some plan for preservation, but options are limited.

“Don’t you think this house would make a nice law office,” he asks, “or a funeral home, or coffee shop or something?”

Anything would be better than nothing, I think.

“You know, I don’t dare die,” he says with a chuckle, “it would please too many people.”

We make our way toward the sun parlor as the morning light streams through the windows. The light catches on the crystal and the clock faces before settling into the various hanging plants. We venture into this jungle until finding a mid-nineteenth century Pipe Tone Organ sitting squarely near the center of the room.

Taking his place on the stool, Charles’s feet pump the bellows. He pushes air through the piping, pulls out the stops, and places his fingers to the keys.

I can hardly describe what happens next. The sound that emerges from that ancient instrument is so rich and full that I’m transported to a city only Charles remembers. The song is no funeral dirge, but an upbeat calliope. The kind of song I imagine streaming forth from Water Street in Eau Claire on a warm summer night when the last of the lumberjacks sidled up to the bar in search of a pint.

Charles’s music thunders through the windows toward the jail, then down toward the river where the logs once flowed. Past the old gas factory, and the old music school, and the former courthouse with the bell tower.

As the final note fades, Charles turns to me and says, “You know, I was going to be a music major. Back in 1953 or so. Were you alive then?”

“Not even close,” I tell him.

“That makes me scared,” he says, peering down at the keys, “I’ve outlived everybody in this town.”

Indeed, Charles seems like the last of a fading order. A templar knight guarding a grail no one has the time for. Like the sailor from Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” he pleads with us to listen to his story.

But we don’t.

We wouldn’t dare.

If we did, we might know what we’re missing.