CHAPTER I, Part 9
Depending on how liberal a definition one chooses to apply, the total number of mansions built in Neenah was just about forty. Another six or so built in Menasha (in spite of the tax implications at the time) could be reasonably added to the pot, as well as Tamagami, the 80-acre estate of F. J. Sensenbrenner that overlooked Lake Winnebago in the nearby Town of Harrison. Out of this total count more than a third of those in Neenah have been significantly altered, subdivided or even demolished. In Menasha the percentage is reversed: only a third are still standing. As for Tamagami (once considered the largest and most imposing estate in Wisconsin), nearly all trace of its existence is gone - the 44-room great house and its organ, both the formal and sunken gardens, the boathouse and its vast dancing pavilion, the huge garage and its underground tunnel to the house - every piece of it gone but two roadside clusters of pine trees that at one time flanked the entrance gates (also on the list of grim fatalities).
In spite of these sad and in some cases tragic losses, the mansions of the rich have fared far better than the families that once occupied them. Out of what had been a substantial human inventory, a rough head count now shows that nearly half the leading mill families are no longer on the accounting ledger. The Stevens, Davis, Strange, Howard, Oborn, Hewitt and Kerwin families have all vanished without a trace. As for the others, only a small representative sampling can still be found in the local phone books - and even then it helps to know their married names. Few if really any live in the grand style their families once knew, and only three by my count in the mansions their forebearers built. Of these only one dates back to the glory days when Neenah emerged suddenly as one of the leading paper manufacturing centers of the United States.
And that one mansion is the house my father brought us to live in forty years ago.
Spared the ravages of time and the quixotic dictates of good taste, the house built by Dad's grandfather, Havilah Babcock, avoided the fate of its contemporaries due to two factors. First and foremost, its construction and intensely attentive decoration was my great-grandfather's handiwork and his most satisfying accomplishment in life. Everything and everyone in it was all that mattered to him, not his work at Kimberly-Clark or his prestigious role in its founding. Surrounded by that powerful aura the house became the welcoming center in everyone's life, which in turn made it very hard if not impossible for his family when it came to altering or even rearranging things from the way their father had left them. The second important factor was that after Havilah Babcock's death his widow and their children for various reasons parted company with Kimberly-Clark as owners. Now, from one perspective this was a foolish decision, because in less than ten years the company began its trajectory into the stratosphere of consumer products, establishing a global identity and making all those still on board far richer than the four founders - or any of their families for that matter - could ever have possibly imagined. For the house, however, this decision to separate was a blessing. Severing ties with the paper giant left Babcock's wife and children with enough money to do what was necessary, but never quite enough to fall prey to the seductive power of changing fashions and mores, which in combination with great wealth most always proves architecturally lethal.
With each passing decade, marching further and further out of step with the times in the unchanging world of their father's creation, my great-aunts simply operated in a holding pattern for the remainder of their lives, never knowing in this shuttered existence that they would achieve almost as much recognition as came from founding one of the world's largest paper companies. For in 2010, the house and rooms they preserved - not simply as a museum but as a continuing way of life - were recorded with great sensitivity by photographer Zane Williams for the pages of "Wisconsin's Own," a Wisconsin Historical Society Press publication of the twenty most important homes in the state. There, alongside Frank Lloyd Wright's Wingspread, Milwaukee's Pabst Mansion, and Ten Chimneys, home of Broadway legends Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, was their father's house, the home they loved and protected, the only one still occupied by descendants of the original builder - the only place my father ever thought of as home.
But in telling you all this I've gotten ahead of the story. It's time I take you back to the events, as I gradually came to understand them, that led to my father's return to Neenah, the anointed prodigal son.
CHAPTER II begins HERE.
The above photographs of the Havilah Babcock House appear courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society. They were among those taken by Zane Williams of Madison for the Wisconsin Historical Society Press publication, "Wisconsin's Own: Twenty Remarkable Homes." Further information on the photographer and the book are available through the above two links shown in red. More photos can also be seen in the Photo Album - "Wisconsin's Own" page.