Restoring the Bell House: 'We're crazy old house people'
Ellen and Eric Gregory are “crazy old house people.” So when her family’s circa 1909 homeplace needed restoring, they took up the challenge.
But they didn’t count on a few surprises, such as the six-foot snake in the attic or a basement filled with 1,500 rotting fruit jars stashed there before World War II.
Working weekends and vacations with their three children, relatives and friend John England, the Gregorys have been at it for two years and figure they have another two years to go. But the frame farmhouse is regaining its original luster, and the Gregorys have made memories both touching and hilarious.
“We joke that it’s a comedy-drama every day we’re working here,” Ellen said. “We’re our own reality show.”
Eric is president of the Kentucky Distillers Association in Frankfort. Ellen is vice president of marketing and communication at Midway University. They live in Midway in a house they restored after having redone other old houses in Lexington, Georgetown and Winchester.
None of their previous projects were as challenging as the Bell House, which stands surrounded by farmland in a Metcalfe County crossroads called Red Lick.
The house was built by Ellen’s great-great grandfather, lumber dealer and merchant J.H. Kinnaird, for his daughter, Icyphenia Cora, and her husband, Curtis Bell. When they moved into the house just before Christmas 1909, Ellen’s grandmother, Kizzie James, was 19 months old. She lived there the rest of her life.
“I used to come over and sit in the kitchen with my grandmother every time I was home from college and catch up with her,” Ellen said.
“I always had this nagging feeling I was going to be connected to this house,” she added with a laugh. “But I didn’t know I was going to be this connected!”
Eric remembers visiting the house when he and Ellen were dating more than 25 years ago. Her father and uncle were trying to remove old concrete poured under the wrap-around front porch — with dynamite.
“They put charges in there and blew it up,” he recalled, laughing. “I’m like what kind of crazy family is this?”
The Gregorys’ first task was cleaning out the house, which filled four 20-ton dumpsters.
“My people never threw anything away,” Ellen said.
That wasn’t all bad. Missing window frames, door keys or even a back stair case rail and spindles removed decades ago were all stored away on the property. So were the house’s construction blueprints and original carbide gas light fixtures, which are now being restored and fitted for electricity.
The Gregorys also found things they could have done without. Ellen spent four days cleaning out the attic before she noticed a six-foot-long snake curled up in a corner. She made a hasty exit. They never found the snake, but he had left his skin behind.
In the basement, the Gregorys found 1,500 glass Ball jars of fruit, which her ancestors had put up between 1910 and 1940. More than 300 of them had fallen and broken, coating the floor with several inches of rotten muck.
Eric posted photos of his smelly stash on social media, where somebody dubbed it “Jarmageddon.” The posts also brought them a call from a museum in Muncie, Ind., where the Ball brothers produced glass jars for home canning from 1889 until 1993.
Many of the jars turned out to be rare, so the Gregorys emptied and scrubbed out 1,123 of them, about half of which have been sold to collectors to help fund the restoration.
The Gregorys also had to clear a lot of trees and bushes from around the house. Ellen’s father, Richard Duncan, insisted that they leave a small grove of paw paw trees. They had been there all his life, he said, although he never remembered them bearing fruit. That fall they did. Duncan died three months later.
“They were showing off for Richard before he left,” Eric said.
The Gregorys’ three children — Ginny, 15, Duncan, 13, and Sarah, 10 — have helped a lot with the restoration, though not always enthusiastically. Ginny has become a skilled painter. Duncan is more brave than his parents when it comes to crawling under the house or climbing out on the old tin roof to work.
The Gregorys say all of the time spent cleaning, scraping, painting and jar-cleaning, plus the two-hour drive each way from Midway, has made the family stronger.
“We have had some of the best times together,” Ellen said. “I don’t know how many moms with teenage girls can say they have had the amount of quality time. And our kids really hadn’t gotten to know their cousins before this.”
The Kentucky Heritage Council in May recognized the Gregorys for their work on the Bell House and four earlier projects with its annual Service to Preservation Award.
The Gregorys plan to continue living in Midway near their jobs, but use the Bell House as a family gathering place and vacation house. They and their cousins own several hundred acres of farmland nearby.
“It’s definitely more of a labor of love than any of our previous projects,” Eric said. “It’s all about the memories. We tell our kids when they’re complaining, ‘When you’re our age and you’re over here with your kids, you can complain all you want to about those crazy summers when mom and dad put you to work.’”