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Tuesday, February 19, 2013

In My Father's House

© Zane Williams 2010    

With one or two exceptions, the Havilah Babcock House looks exactly as it did in 1905 when my great-grandfather left town for Winnetka, Illinois - where he hoped to recover his health at a sanitarium but died of a heart attack instead. Since his death the principal change to the house is the back porch, which was added about a decade later to replace a small, enclosed stoop. Located directly off the kitchen, the more expansive porch overlooked Great Aunt Nell's formal gardens and was used exclusively for less ceremonial but fully staffed family dining in the summertime. The sleeping porch overhead came in response to the fear of tuberculosis which was sweeping the country at the time. Fresh air, particularly at night, was considered the best preventative, so for as much of the year as possible my great aunts and their widowed mother slept out there at the back of the house off the sewing room, on simple iron army cots. The cots are still out on the porch, but the luxurient gardens, a floral cornucopia which took two men to maintain, are now gone.

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.

     © Zane Williams 2010    

To this day the Havilah Babcock House remains much the way it was in the years following my great-grandfather's death. In the library, for example, only the gilt-framed picture of his beloved sister's very beautiful daughter, Ella Johnson,  is missing. The portrait hung to the left of the fireplace to balance the one on the right of the three oldest Babcock children. I suspect that Ella's picture was relegated to the attic by my great-aunts because Ella's life came to a tragic end, having died upstairs following a protracted illness, most likely after being abandoned by her husband. Her portrait, painted in the bloom of her youth, similarly came to no good end: shortly before her own death Great Aunt Betty got it down out of the attic and gave it to some distant cousins who turned the frame into a clock which they hung over a bar they had in their basement. They brought Aunt Betty over to see their handiwork and she was horrified but said nothing to indicate her continuing dismay over Ella's fate.

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.


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.


  1. You have done an excellent job of laying out the tease so we look forward to next weeks blog. I am really enjoying your family stories. They bring to life what otherwise is just an old home to those on the outside. Thanks for your effort.

    1. No, I thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts. It may sound trite and shopworn, but my plan is to take the reader on a journey - to allow them to experience what I discovered more or less as it happened, to share in the experience of uncovering a remarkable family legacy - and at the same time to see the common humanity in all our lives. That and to laugh - affectionately - as much as possible in the process.

    2. You are doing an excellent job.

  2. I love this line:
    "...enough money to do what was necessary, but never enough to fall prey to the seductive power of changing fashions and mores, which in combination with great wealth most always proves architecturally lethal." !! Truer words were never spoken - it's amazing and wonderful that the aunts kept the house as it was. Could your great grandfather walk back in, and feel at home, has it changed that little? I'm getting the idea that it is a walk back into another time. If ever a house was a home that could tell a story of the lives that were lived inside it, it's this house, Peter. I'm so grateful you are giving it a voice. I'm enthralled!

    1. I trimmed that phrase but put it back in since you liked it. I sometimes think I go overboard a little and am pleasantly surprised when my excesses speak to readers. As for my great-grandfather walking back in, it's pretty much as he would remember it. We generally peg the calendar inside at somewhere between WWI and WWII which is a decade or two after his death but still reasonably close. Having said that, I think with one or two exceptions he would approve of the changes because they use what he did as a guide. And of course some of the changes - like the sleeping porch - now have histories of their own. He also made some changes himself, so you could say the interior is very much like a person, aging with small changes that collectively increase rather than decrease its character and interest.

  3. Lovely blog. I'm fascinated with the history of the Midwest, which doesn't get much cultural press. I'm a Michigander in origin but now living in the South, which revels in its history. I'll follow your blog.

  4. Actually, the large garage that sat on the Tamagami Estate is still standing. The estate was bought by Kimberly Clark in the 70's or 80's, and was demolished later. Before K.C bought it, it was used as a catholic retreat for Marquette. For some reason, they did not demolish the garage. Would you have any pictures of the estate by any chance?