by Carol Spearman, Becketwood Member
In 2000, an abandoned farmhouse on a lake in Sylvan Shores near Staples, MN became available for sale. When I immediately wanted to consider buying it, Rowland thought I was looking at an investment property to renovate and sell. Given its position on a beautiful lake, on a half acre of land with large oak trees, I was secretly considering it as our retirement home. Four years earlier, the former owner left suddenly with his family, after being found guilty of theft. Banana peels, baby bottles and food were left behind. Broken windows had enticed a family of woodchucks to inhabit the house, throwing wild parties in the kitchen with flour and sugar used as confetti. When I confessed that I thought we could build an addition on the house and live there, Rowland was a little dismayed, but he agreed that the price was right and he trusted that I had the vision to design our new home. The purchase was complicated; when it was finally completed, winter had set in. The former owner had six months to clear out his possessions but had removed only some old cars and a few antiques from the house. His visits were difficult, since he was living on the east coast and there was an active arrest warrant for him in Minnesota.
By spring I had completed the plans, torn out the old kitchen and staircase, hired a builder, a plumber and an electrician. A few months later there was a new well and septic system, new windows were purchased, and the addition was going up. We moved into the house in August 2001, although the house was far from finished. With a great deal of work to do inside, Rowland determined it was time to clean out the garage, which had a trap door to a large attic.
Near the end of August, the dumpster arrived and the project began. Within an hour, a small box of Roman coins was discovered in the bottom of a large box. My son jumped into the dumpster to check that we hadn’t already thrown out something of value. Although we thought we may have found the only treasure, no more non-discriminating tossing occurred, as each container was examined carefully, starting in the garage area and moving on to the attic.
By the end of the first day strange artifacts appeared in separate boxes and more small containers of coins were found. Some expensive shirts and silk ties were hanging in the attic. That night some ancient-looking masks and several old fishing lures, which we had found and left setting out, disappeared from the garage. The next day the former owner appeared asking to look for some important papers. He denied being around the night before, but we knew he had been in the garage. He was a charming sort of rogue, a playwright and a former theater director. He told us two different stories about the shirts and ties, as he looked in a couple of trunks for items. I watched him carefully, wondering what he was really searching for and hadn't found the previous night. When I mentioned that I had called the sheriff about the theft, he decided to be on his way. On the second day, a brown envelope with over forty 11x14 photographs of famous actors, actresses, writers and producers appeared, hidden in the back of the attic, close to a large faded tapestry of Dante and Beatrice. We continued to find coins and artifacts scattered in boxes in the attic.
Although we did find receipts for some of the items, we were fearful that we might have some stolen goods, and were unsure of what to do with the treasures. The shirts and ties went off with a friend visiting from Ghana, to help fund a school project we were working on together. Eventually some of the coins were sold, but the photographs and artifacts remained a mystery.
While wandering through an antique store in Stillwater years later, I happened on a book called Famous Faces and recognized the photographs from the attic. The book is a collection of hundreds of photographs by L. Arnold Weissberger, known as the attorney for the stars and as an amateur photographer. It was published in 1973, and the photos in the envelope were printed in 1980, just months before Weissberger died.
The house was completed, although the woodchucks lived in the old stone foundation for a couple of years, proudly bringing out their babies to sun in our garden. Sometimes they would knock on the wall behind the refrigerator, reminding us that it was actually their house and we were the intruders. After a wall needed replacement to put on an attached garage, we found ourselves living with a bat family flying through our master bedroom. This required the expensive services of “BatMan” to provide the bats with a way out without a re-entry point. Eagles, herons, beavers and muskrats added to the wildlife entertainment and our home provided us with years of enjoyment with family and friends, but we were ready to leave when we moved to Becketwood.
Although the attic is gone, the mystery continues. Who printed the photographs? Why did the owner of the house have them? Are the artifacts real or theater props? Why were they scattered in the bottom of different containers? Where did the coins come from? Were they purchased and/or stolen? What was the former owner looking for when he came to the house?
Some of the photographs and artifacts will be on display as a part of the Becketwood Art Show for February. Perhaps one of you can help solve the mystery in the attic!