Victorian farmhouse proves #039;perfect place#039; to raise family

Published 12:00 am Thursday, July 14, 2005

One of the things that makes Butler County such an appealing place to live, is the abundance of historic older homes found here. Professor Al DeFrees of Notre Dame has called this area one filled with "architectural gems" – structures with striking details, historic value, and unique charms all their own.

Whether it's an imposing antebellum mansion, a proud Queen Anne Victorian, or a graceful Greek Revival cottage, many wonderful old houses still dot both cityscape and countryside.

Oddly enough, the empty pockets of many southerners in the days of yore proved an "architectural blessing in disguise," DeFrees has said.

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While other, more prosperous parts of the nation were tearing down older homes and businesses to make way for "progress," folks down South were making do with what they had, leaving these historic structures intact for future generations to enjoy.

Of course, life in a house that has seen a hundred birthdays come and go, can hurl a few roadblocks in the path of its owners.

Time, weather and neglect have often taken their toll on older structures. Many stand empty and forlorn-looking for years, sad echoes of the past.

For those willing to take on the challenge, extensive renovation work to bring electric wiring and plumbing fixtures up to date is often required; porches and roofs frequently need replacing.

Still, for many owners of the county's historic homes, it's all a labor of love.

Home, sweet Forest Home

One of the county's many architectural gems can be found in the once-thriving western Butler County community of Forest Home.

A rambling 1878 tin-roofed farmhouse, known by locals as "the Watt Home," is the welcoming abode of Whitman and Kevin Kramer and their two daughters, Rosemary and Isabelle.

An inviting front porch, complete with its original, intricate gingerbread trim and fretwork, welcomes you to the Victorian farmhouse. Its style is "a nod to the Queen Anne style, but simpler," Whitman Kramer says.

The busy wife and mom, noted for the spectacular cakes she bakes in the farmhouse's kitchen, operates a seasonal nursery on the grounds of their country home. Husband Kevin has his own wildlife and forestry management business, and enjoys working on carpentry projects in the large workshop he built behind their home.

'My heart just leapt'

"This house was originally built by a man named Elias Lazenby as a wedding gift for his daughter, Frances. Frances later had a daughter, named Gertrude, who married Frank Watt. They had five children and lived here many years, hence the name 'Watt Home,'" Kramer explains.

Through the years, several other families lived in the comfortable Victorian farmhouse.

Over time, however, the once-bustling community of Forest Home began to dwindle in number, as more and more families moved away.

"Many of Forest Home's fine old homes fell into disrepair, and some were lost forever," Kramer says.

By the latter part of the 20th century, the Watt Home, now sitting empty, had also seen better days.

A large portion of the roof on the rear of the house was gone, and a pine tree was growing right through the front porch. The entire structure was almost swallowed by thick kudzu vines.

Finally, a savior came on the scene for the decaying structure.

"Luckily, a man named Smith from Mobile bought the place, and he is the one who saved it," Kramer says.

It was on New Year's Eve, 1997, when the Kramers decided to take a drive to the country.

"We had been looking around for a home in the area with some property to go with it, a place where we could have a garden, some horses…we had looked, and looked, and just hadn't been able to find anything, so we were out driving," Kramer says.

It was a damp, dreary winter's day, and the young couple was exhausted from their fruitless search. The "perfect place" to bring up little Rosemary, and the babies they hoped would follow, was proving elusive.

And then it happened.

"We drove around a curve, and there, this old farmhouse stood, empty, cold and lonely. My heart just leapt," Kramer recalls.

Raised in Greenville, she says she had always wanted a country house like her grandmother's, "an old house with a pasture and a pecan orchard."

"And there it was," Kramer says with a smile.

The house hunter immediately jumped out of the car, running over to peek through windows as she pondered the potential in the old Victorian.

"When I saw the beautiful front hall, with the 13-foot ceilings and big archway, I said, 'This is it!' Somehow, I knew in my heart I could talk whoever owned the house into selling it to us," Kramer says.

Once the couple found out who did own the farmhouse, "we went straight back to town, called him that very night and asked if he would sell it."

Much to the couple's excitement, Smith agreed.

A work in progress

After doing some work on the structure, the family moved into the house in March of '98.

"We were very fortunate in that Mr. Smith had already added new wiring and a new roof. We had to do things like a septic tank and lots of painting and cleaning. We also underpinned the house, which was a major project," Kramer says.

In addition, the couple had the house re-plumbed and fully insulated.

"We've undertaken numerous projects over the years. We just do a little at a time," the homeowner says.

Currently, the Kramers are tackling the major task of building a new kitchen, along with painting the home's exterior.

"Kevin is actually the one doing all the work; I just hold the ladder and provide moral support, so I feel useful," Kramer says with a chuckle.

As in many older homes, the kitchen, tiny and poorly laid out, was set off from the home's main living area. Kevin Kramer tore out the hallway pantry in order to make a large eat-in kitchen that opens into what will be the family room, installing cypress paneling, a bead board ceiling and a pine floor. He is also working on new heart pine kitchen cabinets.

"It's a new, up-to-date kitchen, but we want it to blend with the spirit of the farmhouse. And I'm really proud of what Kevin has accomplished already," his wife says.

Though the house boasts no less than six fireplaces, the owners say they are afraid to make use of them (not caring to possibly burn their treasured home to the ground).

Last winter, the Kramers installed a large Victorian-style wood-burning heater, and took advantage of a negative situation.

"We lost so many trees to Hurricane Ivan, and just hated to waste all that wood. We got lemons, so we made lemonade! When it's cold, the heater is the center of the house – we love it," Kramer says.

While the old farmhouse requires constant upkeep, she says it is worth all the time and trouble.

"There is a history and a character found in an older house like this that just can't be built, or bought. You respect it, somehow. It has the dignity of a family matriarch," she explains.

Discoveries, such as an old pistol hidden in the walls, a note scrawled on the back of a board or a tiny button found in a keyhole, take hold of the owner's imagination, Kramer says.

"I can just picture someone catching their cuff on that keyhole and searching in vain for the button. And then, I find it, who knows how many years later. I like imagining what the people were like who lived here, how many babies were born here, all the things this house has seen and heard. It all makes it easier to deal with the problems," the homeowner says.

One of those born in the old house was the Kramers' second child, Isabelle, who was officially weighed on the local post office's scales.

The two little girls, who have never known another home, agree the Victorian farmhouse is "extremely fun and really neat."

"Sometimes when we've been away for a while, Rosemary will say, 'I want to go back to Forest Home.' They love it out here. We all do. Rosemary loves how the house creaks, so she can tell ghost stories. And Isabelle likes the big windows she can look out of…she just wishes we had stairs, too, so she could slide down the banister," their mother says with a smile.