52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks: Close to Home

There is a place that all Jaegers of a certain generation remember well.

Warmth, holidays, loose tiles, Popo and Granny, flowers, dogs, and family. Those are just a few of the things I think of when I remember the house at 5900 Jaeger Rd. Some of the cousins had the opportunity to live there long enough for names to be assigned to rooms (“Michele’s Room” upstairs was one of my favorites). Others like me got to stay a night or two during the holidays or summer, and still others only got to stay for day trips. Regardless of how long we got to stay, we felt a deep connection.


But do you know the rich history of this house?

Sometime before 1930, Fritz Stenken, who lived on what is now the Dube farm, built a small wood frame house consisting of a kitchen, a single all-purpose room, and a small upstairs. After Fritz moved, the house stood empty for a few years. One story passed down in the family goes like this: Henry C. Jaeger’s brother Benno, who lived nearby, saw a light in the house one night in the fall of 1933. He set out to investigate but recalling that Bonnie and Clyde had been spotted in the area hiding out in empty houses and barns, he turned around and walked away. 

Although Henry and Lillie purchased their farm from Henry’s parents in 1931, they did not reside there with their children until 1946. They lived first in what later became known as the “Big House”  This is the house their daughter Delores lived in until she passed away in 2013. Henry purchased Fritz Stenken’s “Little House” and moved it towards the gravel road.  For the next nine years, various people lived in this house, including Cefus and Ella Ray, Leslie and Lorena, and Benno.

In 1955, Henry remodeled the Little House and added on to the first floor so that he, Lillie, and the children could all live there.Between 1964 and 1965, Henry and his son Will remodeled the house again, adding another room on the first floor and additional rooms to the upstairs. It was at this time that he installed the much appreciated indoor plumbing. The family moved to Houston shortly afterwards and used the not-so-little house as a weekend or vacation home. In 1979, Henry, Lillie, and their youngest son Lanis moved back permanently. Henry remodeled the house once more and added a front porch. The house was painted white with blue trim, and the beautiful woodwork was reminiscent of a gingerbread house. It is said that people would often drive by the house just to look at it. 

On January 30, 1981, the front room and porch caught fire and burned down after one of Henry’s boxer dogs knocked over a warming lamp. Henry’s children Mel, Will, Larry, and Delores assisted in the rebuilding process. Henry, Lillie, and Lanis continued to live in the house. Lillie died in 1995 and Henry moved to his daughter Jeanette’s home in Houston in 2001. Lanis remained in the house for the remainder of his life.

Let’s go back together, 30 or more years ago, to visit the place that brought so much happiness.

There was parking at the front of the house and at the back, near a large tree. For as long as I can remember, the sliding door at the front of the house did not work, so we always walked in through the back door. There were concrete steps and a railing leading to the screen door, and if you looked closely, you would notice the name JAEGER spelled out in iron railing.

You entered the screen door into a small “mud room” then directly ahead was the big bathroom which smelled of Granny’s pink Camay soap. There was no shower; however, the large bathtub had a detachable shower head or spray. The toilet was on the right and above it was a heater. My first memory of the house had to do with this heater. I was about three years old and standing inside the bathroom. Mom reached to the right and flipped on the heater switch. She said “oops” and then reached to the left for the light switch.

Turning left from the mud room, you would enter the den. On the immediate left was a curio cabinet with gifts from Popo and Granny’s Golden anniversary. On the right was an entertainment center with a record player that may or may not have worked. In one of the drawers were parts of a Monopoly game, a few pieces of Battleship, and The Game of Life game board with only one of the little cars. A 1970’s orange floral print couch and loveseat and a cracked brown, vinyl recliner offered seating. There was an old TV set sitting on a console TV that had long since stopped working. A curlicue archway and a half-wall decorated with dozens of pictures of grandchildren separated the den from the “company” dining room.

Popo had a large desk on one end of this dining room with stacks of newspapers and pictures. Like me, he loved genealogy. Popo also loved nature and all around the walls hung pictures of cardinals and blue jays which he pasted onto landscape photos cut out of old calendars.On nearly every wall, there was a Bank of Brenham calendar. This was very helpful last year when I was determining dates when labeling photos.

On the other side of the room was the table. I remember sitting there when I was a kid, with dogs constantly underneath the table looking for scraps. Walk a little further and you’d enter the smaller dining room. Popo sat at one end of the table with Granny at his side. This was the grown-up table. I recall it was always covered in a plastic tablecloth to hide the worn, scratched surface. During the winter months the only warmth came from an electric furnace. If you got up from your seat at the dining room table and walked to the right, you would enter the kitchen. Be careful not to trip! There was a step down into the kitchen where Popo later installed a ramp.  Popo’s chair, a tan stool with a back and a footrest, was always next to the counter top. This was his special chair that we weren’t supposed to sit on but did anyway. The stove was on the left, ice box on the right, and straight ahead was the sink and the dishwasher. On the ice box were the strongest magnets I’d ever seen. Small metal cylinders stuck fast together that would snap your fingers if you were not careful.

If you turned around, you could take a detour up to the second floor. Have you ever walked up a narrow staircase? Well, this was the narrowest one I’d ever seen in a house. The railing on the left side was shorter than the right on account of the doorway and if you held onto them tight enough, you could flip yourself over like a gymnast. The blue carpet upstairs was worn thin even when I was little, on account of so much foot traffic. There were three beds, two of which were unfortunately placed right below a low section of the ceiling. There was a door leading to a small balcony from which you could but were not supposed to crawl onto the roof. Because the room we called “Michele’s Room” was added to the house during one of the later renovations, it did not match the floor plan of the house at all.  A tacked-up sheet served as a door. It was a large open room with  windows facing the road. There was a full sized bed, a dresser with a mirror, and stainless steel pipes from which to hang clothing, as there was no actual closet. I recall having slept upstairs once during a visit one summer but other than that, it served primarily as a playroom.

Going back downstairs if you turned to the right, then right again, you’d enter Popo and Granny’s bedroom. Sometime in the late 1990s, Jeff painted the walls white and accented them with green, blue, and pink. Their bed and closet were to the right and dresser and mirror to the left. Past their bed, on the far right, was a door leading to a hallway. On the immediate left was the room where my family slept when we spent the weekend. There was a queen sized bed, fold out cots with feather beds for the kids, a dresser and mirror on the left, and a tall dresser pushed against one of the walls. The dressers held various clothing, books, and toys that people had left behind over the years. A Sesame Street Little Golden Book, a fuzzy red bear, the inner workings of a music box. These were my “country toys,” I suppose. There was a door to the outside, which was stuck shut. The little bathroom was across the hall and it lived up to its name. It was almost impossible to shower without knocking into the walls. Unlike the soft Camay in the big bathroom, the preferred soap in this space was Lava, a soap designed for working men like Lanis.

Lanis’ bedroom was the most interesting room in the house. I used to walk in when he was not at home and just stand and stare at everything. Posters of pinup models in bikinis or tight jeans were everywhere. One poster showed a loaf of bread and a bottle of beer and boasted the statement “Man cannot live by bread alone.” My brother especially liked the poster of an armadillo drinking a beer. There was an L shaped desk where he kept farm records and other important documents. I never could understand how Lanis could find anything on the desk, but this was before I came to understand the concept of “organized clutter.” Lanis’ room exited out onto its own porch, and thus ends the tour of the house.

John Zemanek, my great uncle on my father’s side,  was a prominent architect who was known for his award-winning homes throughout Houston. John taught that houses come to life through the interaction between the structure and the inhabitants. Like all living things, they go through periods of growth and decay until they at last reach their end. Henry and Lillie’s house passed through the rhythms of life in its close to 80 year existence. What began as Fritz Stenken’s one room shelter in a field grew into a complex, multi-generational family dwelling that served as a central meeting space for the Jaeger family.

The house began its decline following Henry’s death in 2004. Lanis was alone. There were few visitors and little need to keep the extra bedrooms, the extra bathroom, and all of the guest areas neat and in order. After Lanis’ untimely death in the fall of 2007, the house was closed up. The termites and holes in the roof went unnoticed and portions of the house fell into disrepair. On July 4, 2008, several dozen family members met at my aunt and uncle’s house. They lived across the street from Popo and Granny and a few of us decided to go into the house. Weeds had overtaken the porch and a fine layer of dust covered the interior. Popo’s  metal chair, once proud and untouchable, was now rusted through. A Bank of Brenham wall calendar declared it to be August 2007. I remember one of my uncles pushing another one in a wheelchair. As they paused to navigate a doorway, one said, “Well, I guess this is it.” 

On November 4th, the house burned down in an electrical fire. All that remained were the concrete steps and portions of the metal railing leading to the backdoor. The well-maintained grass has since erased any physical signs of the beloved house that once stood. But the memories we have about this place can never be erased. And I invite others who grew up playing, sleeping, visiting, or exploring Popo and Granny’s house to revisit it sometime. You’ll be surprised at what you find when you close your eyes, turn inward, and walk through the rooms once more.  

Ashes collected after the fire

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