The Coleman House

Joseph Campbell said that sacred places are where you go to wake up something important about yourself. Specifically, “A place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are or what you might be.”

…go where your body and soul want to go. When you have that feeling, then stay with it and don’t let anyone throw you off.  –J. Campbell

When I wrote about how creating and inhabiting personal space nourishes us from the inside out, [The Poetry of Space] I remembered a place rooted in my childhood­. It was an 1840’s, pre-Civil War, stately brick home fronting more than 600 acres of Missouri woods and farmland.

Why did a 100+ year-old house in Villa Ridge, Missouri, deeded to my grandmother on the sudden death of her second husband take me metaphorically “where body and soul wanted to go? I stayed with the feeling, as Campbell suggested, dug into archival history, then realized it was a story of its own.

This place, in rural Missouri, is why houses and spaces resonate with me. Time spent in this house, with more than a century of history, was where I learned that certain spaces are more than a container with walls and floors.

illustration of Coleman House by Eloise LeSaulnier, 1975

I don’t remember John Coleman, who wed my grandmother late in life, but I do remember the house that his grandfather, Spencer J. Coleman, bought exactly one hundred years before his last living heir, grandson John, dropped dead outside the home where he was born. 

That unexpected death occurred only two years into the second marriage of John Coleman and my paternal grandmother, Effie [“Fifi”] Harbour Coulter. John lived 77 years. Fifi, widowed for the second time at age 68, was deeded the house and 665 acres of prime Missouri farmland.

wedding photo john and effie coleman [center], I’m on my mother’s lap next to john

The Coleman House, as it is called today, became the place for our extended family to spend time together. Thirty miles from St. Louis off old Highway 100, Fifi’s six children and many grandchildren annually spent Memorial Day, July 4th and Labor Day holidays at the farm. Potluck picnics were set up on tables in the side yard. The adult crowd ate and socialized on lawn chairs while grandchildren from toddlers to teens were largely left to their own devices. 

In my age group, cousins ran freely around the house and outbuildings or across the road to the school playground. We banged out every version of “Chopsticks” on the old upright piano. We walked the grassy road to the first big gate. If the black bull with a reputation for charging wasn’t in sight, we went on through and down the hill to the pond.

It was a jubilant time with a different brand of freedom; protected independence, discovery and exploration, wide-open country spaces, and the backdrop of a slightly downtrodden, but still imposing house, with tall-ceilinged rooms so different from the way we lived in town.

Coleman House, 1960s version

The condition and decor of the house might be described as mid-20th century shabby. There had been multiple renovations since its pre-Civil War prime. At this time, it featured large-patterned wallpaper, beige carpeting over wood floors, rickety enclosed porches with creaky, tilting floorboards, and fireplaces sealed or completely walled off. The eat-in kitchen had no built-in counter space. The plumbing upstairs and down was cast iron bathtubs, no showers.

cousin judy when she lived at the farm, with large format wallpaper

What it looked like didn’t matter. What I remember is feeling happiness and liberating independence. Coleman House was where I “woke up” to making a decision about the future. I would only live in places and spaces that offered a brand of comfort and being at home in myself.

The summer I turned 11, we moved to a different state. Two years later we returned to visit the St. Louis family. At that time, an aunt and uncle and two of my closest cousins were living with Fifi to help manage the big house, the livestock and the fields. 

When it was time to drive back to Texas I begged to be left for a longer stay. The rest of that summer is etched in long-term memory. Finally I was living in a place I loved, where learning and experiencing and confidence building occurred by waking up in rural country spaces every day.

My cousin Karen taught me to drive a stick shift VW Beetle on farm roads. I gathered eggs, hung laundry to dry outside, picked garden strawberries, rode tractors, hand milked the cow, and stuck my finger into the thick layer of cream at the top of the milk canister. In the pick up truck, we checked on the cows down in the fields, sometimes with hay or a block of salt. I hiked to where the tiny Coleman family cemetery was hidden in the woods.

My cousin Judy and I had a job selling July Fourth fireworks at a temporary stand on the highway. We sweated through our clothes, walked home covered in dust, and with a little money in our pockets. Before falling asleep, I climbed onto Judy’s bed under the window hoping to catch a whiff of breeze. Every night, with hands propped under her chin, she rattled off the make, model, and year of each passing car as it rounded the curve in the highway. Squinting at red taillights from a second floor window and listening to her monologue was sleep inducing. 

In the old house, Judy felt the presence of “others.” No one believed her. According to her daughter Elise’s retelling, radio and television dials were in the habit of flipping on and off. Once, to make it stop, Judy unplugged the big radio in the kitchen, but the music continued. Sometimes the vacuum cleaner mysteriously went into action with no human nearby. On her only visit to the house, Elise herself experienced an eerie vision of “a coffin with a body” right where she was standing. She ran out of the house to escape the image. In an earlier century, the room she was in would have been used as the viewing parlor when family members died. Current owners of Coleman House mention “a light” or “a shadow” going up the staircase from time to time. 

When Fifi died, her estate was sold in its entirety, house and acreage, to a real estate firm in St. Louis and later to Ralston Purina Company. Purina owned much of the surrounding land since the 1920s and still operates a research farm in the area.

I knew the Coleman House before I understood Joseph Campbell’s sentiment about “sacred places and spaces”. It awakened something inside me at a tender age for two reasons. It was a unique and memorable place. And I was with people who granted me the freedom to experiment and experience during formative years.

Everything that happened at Coleman house helped create my better self then. And everything that happened brought forth the person I became.



–AN ADDENDUM– 

A Consolidated History of the Coleman Family and Coleman House

In 1837, Spencer Joseph Coleman [1816-1888] moved west, with his father and brothers, from the depleted soils of Virginia to land south of the Missouri River near St. Louis. They planned to start a new family plantation. By 1841, Spencer married Elizabeth Ann Wright and decided he liked the land further west, near Gray Summit, in Franklin County. So he split off from the family and began buying up different sized parcels over many years. Eventually he acquired 665 acres of rolling hills and fertile fields for growing tobacco and hemp. 

Along the way he saw an elegant red brick mansion built by James Ming in the 1840’s. He offered to buy it with an attached 200 acres. Ming was a skilled craftsman and had built the home for himself using walnut, white pine, and oak cut from the land. He oversaw the making of each brick–cut from clay soil, shaped, molded and fired on site. But he sold the house and land to Spencer for $6000 in 1856.

It was initially called Bellaire, a solidly built mansion of masonry walls two bricks thick with a foundation of limestone blocks. The front porch entry was relatively small, but featured hand carved decorations and four columns on the front and two on either side of the door. There was leaded glass above and around the door. 

front of coleman house, date unknown

Inside were two large rooms flanking a central walnut staircase. The back entrance opened to a double open porch gallery of two stories with its own smaller stairway. Beams used to support the upper gallery were hand hewn from trees cut on property and cemented with wooden pins. The kitchen was also in the back with an attached summer kitchen for hot weather cooking. Upstairs were three bedrooms, two large ones at the front of the house and a smaller nursery behind. There were six fireplaces for heating, three on each floor.

Spencer Coleman, with wife Elizabeth Ann [1823-1867] and four children moved into Ming’s mansion in 1856. For the next 100 years it was passed down through succeeding Coleman generations. Eldest son William Joseph Coleman [1848-1925] was the first to inherit the house and farm when Spencer died in 1888.

William Coleman married 15-year-old Emma Lou Sullivan [1860-1883] in 1875. She bore three children before dying tragically when her skirts caught on fire while burning trash and leaves in the orchard. She was only 23.  William was left with two young children–Emma Josephine [1876-1952] and my grandfather by marriage, John Marshall Coleman [1879-1956]. William asked his unmarried sister, Elmira, to move in and help care for the family. He never married again.

That generation of Colemans, Emma J. and John M., the children of William and Emma Lou, the grandchildren of Spencer and Elizabeth Ann, produced no heirs.

John Coleman’s first wife died in 1925. He waited 29 years to remarry. This time was to my paternal grandmother Effie Lavina Harbour Coulter [Fifi]. He was 75. She was 66. Fifi had raised five daughters and one son, my father Joseph Clayton. My grandfather, Andrew Joseph Coulter, left her widowed in 1946.

Fifi’s wedding day with her children, from left: Jackie, Lee, Nicky, Effie, Joe, Bess, Dot, 1954

Effie and John had already known each other for many years. John was a lawyer by degree but worked as the bookkeeper for my grandfather’s “Coulter Feed and Grain” store in downtown Kirkwood. It is rumored that he was sweet on Fifi for a long time before asking her to marry. She moved into Coleman House in May 1954. 

Fifi and John at the farm

Two years later, John was in the yard talking about building another pond in the fields when he keeled over from a heart thrombosis and died instantly. My cousin, Linda, remembers it because she was spending the night at the farm as she often did with Fifi.

From the purchase of the property by Spencer in 1856 to John’s death in 1956, one hundred years of Coleman legacy ended that summer evening. My grandmother inherited the estate. For the next seventeen years, Coleman House and farm was part of our extended family.

In 1973 Fifi died and everything was eventually purchased by Ralston Purina Company. It added a large parcel to their adjacent land. Transient workers, who were researching animals or Purina product development, moved in and out. Soon everything­–the house, grounds, and outbuildings fell into crumbling disrepair.

Finally, in 1985, Purina sold the house “as is” with a few acres of land to a couple working for the company. That’s when transformation began. I didn’t meet these owners, but I learned that their labor-of-love saved the historic property from complete ruin. Over many years, with a contractor’s help, the house was gutted and literally rebuilt from the inside out.

Because it was solid brick construction, they began pulling down interior plaster walls to build new walls with studs, insulation, and dry wall. All six fireplaces were opened and restored to the top of the chimneys. In the kitchen, one fireplace was hidden behind a wall. It turned into a beautiful and usable part of the room.

kitchen fireplace

White pine floors were uncovered and refinished. The walnut staircase was refurbished. The attic was insulated. Original single pane windows were replaced by custom built ones. Two rickety enclosed porches on the back were torn off and rebuilt to their original open architecture. 

The smallest of the upstairs bedrooms was opened and incorporated into the master bathroom with a fireplace and sitting area, now used as a sewing room. The summer kitchen was torn off and rebuilt brick by brick to become the back entrance. The old wooden front porch must have been unsalvageable because it was replaced with bricks spanning the front of the house and a second floor balcony was added. Shutters were hung on the outside windows.

After years of living in a construction zone, a job change occurred, and the property sold in 2003 to the couple that now lives there. They have added their own touches–an attached garage and an outbuilding for storing antiques for their business. The summer kitchen entry was raised by one story to house an office upstairs and an improved bathroom/laundry area below. The cedar shake roof was replaced with metal after severe hail damage several years ago. They built a patio and walkway around the house with 10,000 cobblestones and added to the landscaping by replacing dead trees, planting many shrubs, and adding a large flower/vegetable garden. 

These are the people who graciously allowed me to visit Coleman House in early spring this year. I went with my cousin, Karen, who had lived there with her mother, father, sister, and our grandmother. 

karen, who taught me to drive at 13

It was wonderful to see the changes from “then to now”. Coleman House was truly saved after 1985. It was revitalized to modern living standards and new generations continue adding to its legacy. Restorations that took decades of vision and a tremendous outlay of work enhance the original beauty of James Ming’s craftsmanship from almost two centuries ago. 




ADDENDUM 2

Added Coulter Lore with Pics

Coulter family, circa 1937
Standing left to right: Bessie Mae [Bess or Betty], Joseph Clayton [Joe], Effie Lavina [Fifi], Andrew Joseph [Joe], Ethel Ann [Nicky], Dorothy Jane [Dot] Seated left to right: Jacqueline Elise [Jack or Jackie], Frances Lee [Lee]
Fifi Coulter Coleman dressed up, in summer

*Final musings about my grandmother.

Until I began this research, I wasn’t thinking much about the work-a-day life for women in my grandmother’s era. It was overwhelming by anyone’s standards. Over the span of 17 years, Effie bore 5 girls and 1 boy at home and raised them almost singlehandedly. Her husband, a middle-aged man who provided for the family, was uninvolved in household life. Grampa Joe was known to sit in his chair reading the newspaper with a spittoon at his feet, seemingly oblivious to the chaos of six children running in circles around him. Added to that workload was the daily care and feeding of a mother-in-law who wouldn’t get out of bed for the last 20 years of her life. And then, after marriage, several daughters lived at home with their husbands until finding other arrangements.

The overall picture of Fifi’s life looked like this: The full management of a large household with six children underfoot, a disconnected, but working, husband, a mother-in-law who decided to stay in bed for 20 years, taking in boarders for extra money, and adult children moving in and out with spouses.

Perhaps John Coleman saved Fifi by carrying her off to the farm where she only had one man to worry about.

Comfort Food for Cal

My father was the fourth of six children, but the only boy. His oldest sister, Bess, made him an uncle for the first time when he was ten years old. That nephew is my oldest cousin Cal, who turns 84 this month. He doesn’t see so well anymore, yet still spends several hours a day at his law practice, serving clients he continues to outlive. His wife of more than 60 years, Joan, is one of my favorite people. She says that Cal has never been motivated by food or by his appetites.

Shortly after my first story was published Joan wrote, “I am actually doing a bit of cooking. Going out to eat has lost some of its charm. My efforts are very basic, as Cal doesn’t like anything fancy. He enjoys canned baked beans on buttered white bread. I use the vegetarian beans, but he thinks they are ‘pork’. His favorite dish from his mother is creamed tuna and peas on saltine crackers. I prefer my tuna and peas on toast points, thank you. As you can see, the bar is not high. We look forward to new ideas from you.”

I have never eaten creamed tuna and canned peas on crackers, toast points or anything. But Cal’s preferences started me thinking about the notion of comfort food.

Comfort food: n. food that is simply prepared, enjoyable to eat, and makes one feel better emotionally. [Collins English Dictionary, HarperCollins Publishers]

There is no single explanation for how our food preferences arise or change over the years. Yet the taste of certain food is tied to our experiences and emotions. Thoughts of home, family, love, hate, sickness, allergic reactions, holidays, sadness or happiness can trigger a taste memory of longing or loathing.

Cal is a true comfort food creature, formed by his mother’s cooking, honed by childhood likes that matured into adult preferences. His eating experiences are defined by U.S. Midwest geography and by the cuisine of a certain generation.

For example, he is obsessed with Jell-O. Jell-O filled with crushed pineapple and nuts or Jell-O filled with strawberries, bananas and nuts. At Christmastime something special–Jell-O with cream cheese rolled into balls and covered in nuts. This is meant to look like studded snow balls floating in a colored pond. Trying to visualize this, I’m certain I couldn’t eat it.

He also loves sweets. Chocolate pudding, cupcakes, or butter cookies like Aunt Bess used to make. Joan wrote, “Tapioca pudding is his favorite dessert. His mother made it from scratch, separating the eggs, beating the whites stiff, and folding them in after it had cooled somewhat. I make this from scratch when I see pigs fly by the window. Now he enjoys a simpler pudding.”

In similar Midwest fashion, I was raised on meat, potatoes, and mushy canned vegetables boiled before serving. So many childhood meals spent spitting vegetables into a paper napkin and hoping not to get caught.

My food preferences began to cut a wider swath in adulthood when we moved overseas to Singapore in the 1980s. Spices and chilies in ethnic cuisine from India, Malaysia, Thailand, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia and Singapore happily reformed my taste buds and palate.

Life became a tasting/eating adventure in Asia. I sweated my way through outdoor food stalls in heat and humidity plus the spices in whatever I was eating. It changed my definition of comfort food forever.

As Joan and I compared Cal’s food likes and dislikes, other family food lore tumbled out. My father’s second sister was Dorothy [Aunt Dot] who suffered from a “nervous condition” consisting of some strange phobias. She outlived two husbands and never had children. She also wasn’t much of a cook. At family potluck gatherings, she always brought her “signature” Pork and Bean dish. It was prepared by opening several cans of baked beans that contained cubes of pork fat. She added raw onions, catsup and molasses. The casserole was baked in the oven until warm. The onions were always “crunchy”. Children refused to eat it.

Joan and I lost track of time, talking and laughing about family food foibles. Cal called to ask if she had forgotten about him and his lunch. She left and later sent an email, “Cal is such a Prussian! The trains must run on time even if they have nowhere to go. However, upon seeing the glorious cupcakes you sent home to him, he was easily placated.” 

You have to love a man who softens when sweets are offered.

I surveyed other family members and friends for their comfort foods. Choices ran the usual gamut of American food tastes–cheese, pizza, ice cream, popcorn, chocolate, nothing unusual. Friends from other cultures and my Latvian daughter-in-law offered more variety in their comfort food desires.

It was our friend Alec [who is part comedian] that gave the most graphic descriptor:

 “My comfort IS food. I love to have my mouth FULL. A bite that causes the cheeks to protrude like two small Buddha bellies is a sign of bliss. I am comforted by eating with my hands…likely linked to Neanderthal kin who subdued dinner with their bare hands. There is nothing more satisfying than having a chokehold on a stuffed burrito or pinning the buns of a burger into submission before taking an oversized bite. Wrestling with my food gives both the victor [me] and the vanquished a sense of exhausted satisfaction, after the battle.

My cousin Cal and I will never share the same food preferences. Nor should we. The important thing is that Cal and I are connected by the way our comfort food choices make us feel–enjoyably nourished, emotionally content, and loved.

Two recipes for opposing tastes, one sweet and bland and one well seasoned.


CAL’S TAPIOCA PUDDING

  • 1/3 c. granulated white sugar
  • 3 T. minute tapioca
  • 2 ¾ C. milk
  • 1 egg beaten
  • 1 t. vanilla extract

Mix first 4 ingredients in saucepan and let sit 5 minutes. Cook on medium heat. Stir constantly until it reaches a full boil. Remove from heat. Stir in vanilla. Cool 20 minutes and stir. Makes 4 servings. Eat warm or cold. Top with seasonal fruit if desired.


WENDY’S SPICY EGGS-ON-RICE

  • 1 serving leftover rice, any flavor, placed in a bowl. Easiest rice cooking recipe: hack-1-making-perfect-rice
  • Sauté 1 minced shallot in butter until softened. Add red pepper flakes or fresh chilis [optional].
  • Add 1 or 2 eggs sunny side up to shallots. Turn over easy. Sprinkle with S & P.
  • Slide eggs and butter from cooking on top of rice bowl. With spatula or knife cut into eggs so yolk melts into rice.
  • Garnish copiously with chopped tomatoes.
  • Eat with a spoon.
  • Optional garnish: equal parts chopped garlic and ginger browned in olive oil.
IMG_3451
ginger and garlic garnish

For a less spicy version, leave out red pepper flakes, garlic, and ginger. Just eggs on rice. Very nice.


former location of cal and wendy’s grandfather’s feed store, kirkwood, missouri