Tom Eblen: When old house's history is a childhood memory

Herald-Leader columnistDecember 25, 2012 

I called Maxine Harding Comley with many questions. But before I could ask, she had one for me: "Have you found my secret hiding place?"

Every old house has a story. I was told that this 90-year-old lady in Frankfort could tell me a lot about mine.

A year ago, my wife and I bought one of the five original houses on Mentelle Park, a street whose developers promoted it in 1907 as Kentucky's prettiest and most modern subdivision.

Early on, my house had a series of occupants: a road contractor, a cabinet maker, a traveling salesman, a doctor and an insurance executive.

Then, in 1924, the house was bought by Bob Harding, a locomotive engineer with Louisville & Nashville Railroad. He was a widower with two daughters when he married his second wife, Jewel. They had a daughter, Maxine. The family moved to Mentelle Park when she was 2.

After our phone conversation, I visited Comley and brought her recent photographs of the house. After a few tears, she shared fond memories of her childhood home and neighborhood.

She recalled that the manager of the old Lafayette Hotel (now city hall) lived in a big house on the corner. The people next door owned Congleton Lumber Co. The Congletons had several children who were among her many playmates.

"We had 20 or 25 children in the neighborhood, and we had a lot of fun," she said, recalling kickball games by the stone pillars at the end of the street and hide-and-seek games in the bushes along the grassy, tree-shaded median.

"Kick the can was a good game to play out in the middle of that street," she said with a wry smile. "The neighbors didn't care much for it at night."

Because Comley's father was often away, driving coal and lumber trains through the Eastern Kentucky mountains, her mother converted three downstairs rooms into a rental apartment. The front window of what is now my study was turned into the apartment's outside door.

"We had some nice tenants," she said. "But we all shared one bathroom. That wasn't fun."

As we thumbed through my photos, Comley described how each room used to look. "You can still see the old house in these pictures," she said, noting the fancy mantels and woodwork, the leaded-glass window in the living room and the bathroom's claw-foot tub.

The Hardings installed gas heaters in the coal-burning fireplaces. Still, the house's cottage-style roof kept the upstairs bedrooms cold in winter and hot in summer. Comley recalled sleeping summer nights on the floor of a small upstairs room, putting her pillow on the floor-level window sill to try to catch a breeze.

Her stories made me thankful that the couple we bought the house from installed central heat and air conditioning, plus an upstairs bathroom. Comley said walking down that steep staircase to the bathroom in the middle of the night wasn't easy.

Finally, I showed Comley photos of an upstairs bedroom with solid pine wainscoting around the walls. "This was my room!" she said. "It was so nice and big."

Then she told me about her hiding place. Between the dormer and another front window, she said, one of the wooden panels could be removed, creating a child-size entrance to a "secret" room behind the wall.

"My friends and I would hide in there," Comley said, her eyes twinkling. "No telling what's back in there."

Comley lived in our house for nearly 20 years, until she married Bob Comley in December 1943. The next spring, she graduated from Transylvania University with a degree in music and economics.

While her husband ran restaurants in Frankfort, Comley taught first grade at the old Bridgeport School for 25 years and played the organ at Highland Christian Church for 50 years. The Comleys recently celebrated their 69th wedding anniversary. They have seven children and so many grandchildren and great-grandchildren that she has lost count.

Bob Harding died in 1952, eight months after retiring from 45 years of railroad service. Two of the Comleys' children lived with her mother while they were students at Transylvania. Jewel Harding died in 1971.

The house was rented for a couple of years before the Rev. John and Margaret Therkelsen bought and renovated it. He died in 2011, a few months before we bought the house and began our own renovation.

Last week, I found time for a closer inspection of Comley's childhood bedroom. I had noticed one panel of wainscot that didn't fit quite right. I chipped away some paint, removed a screw, and the panel popped out.

Behind it was a space about six feet long and two feet wide, undisturbed for decades. On the floor were a few once-colorful pages from a 1920s carpet catalog and an empty antique Ball Mason jar, all covered with a thick layer of dust.

I called Comley to tell her I had found her hiding place. "It's not a secret anymore!" she said with a laugh, then apologized for not leaving more valuable treasure.

"It's a wonderful house," she said. "You take good care of it for me."

Tom Eblen: (859) 231-1415. Email: teblen@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @tomeblen. Blog: tomeblen.bloginky.com.

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