WoodruffHouse.org
The web site of The Woodruff House and Eaton Store Museum

The Webmaster's Story

Growing up with the Woodruff House

Hi, my name is Keith Burkert. I am currently a trustee of the Hillside Historical Society and the webmaster of WoodruffHouse.org. I have a very unique perspective on the Woodruff House since I have been a de facto member of the society since I was all of 8 years old.



The old house next store

Growing up I lived next store the Woodruff House. It was always the old house next store. Later I would discover that the extra lumber from my house built the store addition to the Woodruff House. My parents knew T. Winslow Woodruff the last Woodruff owner of the house. I remember hearing stories of him taking a lantern to check on the backyard and how he cut down an old tree in between my parents house and his when my parents starting to have kids. He was worried that the tree might someday fall into our house and hurt one of the kids. I don't remember Winslow or anyone else at the house. To me it was always the boarded up house next store that looked different then the other houses in the neighborhood.

I don't remember the exact day, but one day when I was 8 years old there was some activity next store and I went to investigate. Little did I know that those steps of an 8 year old boy would turn into a life long love. You see the activity was the members of the Hillside Historical Society working on a house that they had just purchased.

Back then the house was nothing like it was today. There was no fancy shake single roof, there was linoleum floor covers on all the floors, the fireplaces where all boarded up and space heaters where in every room for heat. We didn't even got into the store since there was a big hole in the floor and the ceiling. Nothing about this house screamed history - especially to an 8 year old boy. To me the only thing historic was the people there. To an 8 year old these 50 and 60 year old people where old.

But they accepted me as one of their own. Now that I am an adult I really don't know why. I must have been a real nuisance. Having an 8 year old under foot couldn't be easy. But maybe it was because I asked so many questions and they were eager to answer those questions.

Especially Mrs. Schorr. You see, Mrs Schorr was Jane Eaton Schorr whose family had run the store with the big hole in the ceiling and the roof when she was a kid. She lived in this house. She knew how everything was. She knew what all the strange things in the house. To me she was living history. We became fast friends and she took me personally under her wing.

Before any restoration took place there were things to catalog and I became Mrs. Schorr's helper. My earliest memory of actually working at the house was running home from school at AP Morris and helping Mrs Schorr catalog things. We'd sit in the back room and she would produce an item. I'd ask what it was and she would start to tell me. But this wasn't like my history classes at school. She knew what this item was used for because she used it. I remember her showing me a bed warmer. To me it looked like a big pizza shovel that they use to put pizza's in the local pizzeria, but there was a round thing at the end. My 8 year old mind couldn't make heads or tails of it. She proceeded to explain to me, and show me that back when she was a kid they didn't have heat in the house - only a fireplace. And when they went to bed her mother would put hot cools in this thing and run it between the sheets and mattress to make the bed warn for the kids to get into. It was fascinating.

As an 8 year old boy, I was fascinated with cars and I remember asking Mrs Schorr how cars back in the olden days. And she told me about the day she first saw a car. This amazed me, I knew there was a time without cars, but this was someone who remembers a time before cars. She told me about the time a deliver person delivered something to the store in a truck and that was the first car she had ever seen. I remember thinking that this women had grown up without cars and then suddenly there were cars - it made me wonder what changes I would see as I grew up.

When I was in fourth or fifth grade our class decided to have a fundraiser for a local charity. I suggested the Woodruff House and to my surprise they agreed that our class would raise money for the house store. I remember my excitement at the end of the fundraiser looking at the little cigar box of money that we had collected. My teacher said she would give the money to the society, but I insisted that I be allowed to give it to them. She finally agreed after what must have been much whining on my part and I ran home as fast I can to show my friends at the old house what my class had done. I was so proud went I handed over the little box of money. It was my way of financially helping.

Later that month my class visited the Woodruff House on a class trip as do many of Hillsides grade schoolers today. Mrs Anderson and Mrs Schorr gave the tour and at one point singled me out of the group to come up and "finish" the tour. I had watched so many people give the tours of the house that I knew it by heart and I quickly babbled off what I knew to my classmates. My recollection was that they weren't impressed, but I enjoyed it and was happy that the they trusted me to give a small part of the tour. I would eventually go on to give full tours of the house to many.

My first job, other then my impromptu tour guide position, at the Woodruff House was painting. There is a closet that opens onto both the 1890's kitchen and 1790's all purpose room. This closet needed to be painted and I was the only one small enough to get into the closet. So I crawled in and painted it all white from top to bottom. I remember that Mrs Anderson another person who had taken me under her wing gave me $2 for a job well done. I still consider it my first paying job.

As I grew up, the house "grew" older as the society continued to bring the old house back to life. The first part of house to be restored was the store. To this day I can remember the smell of the fresh wood when I walked in after the carpenters had replaced the floor and ceiling and make some repairs to the wall. Mrs Schorr walked me around the store and told me where everything was when she a kid and explained how the boy scouts were repairing the original counter and how the electrician was "electrifying" the old gas lamp.

Our next task was to fill the shelves with items. Unlike today where the shelves are overflowing with items of all kinds, many not originally sold in the store, back then we had to do the best we can. We bought anniversary editions of Kellogg cornflakes that had the old time writing and pictures on them, we filled old glass milk bottles with cotton to make them seem filled, and a request was made for cans. Mrs Schorr had the idea of filling some of the blank shelf space with cans. She told me to tell my mother to open all her cans from the bottom so that they could be washed out and displayed on the shelves. And I did just that. Of course back then the old canned food I ate was spageittos so the next day I ran back to the old hose with my spageittos cans cut from the bottom and cleaned out. And Mrs Schorr lovingly displayed them up on the shelf next to the generic green beans and corn that everyone else had donated.

My spageittos cans lasted a while, but where soon replaced by actual canned string beans and other cans found in people's homes and garages. Soon the store was finished and one of the great annual traditions of my youth started - the annual Apple Festival.

As with many things the society did, the apple festival was based on the history of the house. Before Hillside became what it is today much of the surrounding area where apple orchards and I was told that there would have been celebrations like the apple festival during harvest time

I was older now and was able to help more. I carried apples and manned the store counter behind the cash register answering questions. The store was at the end of the tour so I didn't get a lot of questions, but those that did ask questions got a mouthful from me and were surprised at my knowledge of the house at such a young age. I enjoyed talking to the people and spreading the word of this great house.

I especially remember one apple festival that was very popular - more popular then we could image. Word had gotten around and the crowds increased. We sent out for more cider, more apples, and more pies. And we also needed more tour guides as the crowds were backing up waiting for a tour of the house. I was pressed into service and did dozen of tours that day running from one side of the house to the other and back again. That was probably the first time that I felt like I wasn't the small kid underfoot, but a real member of the society.

As the restoration continued I was a part of it. I remember the day they put the cedar shake roof on the house. The shakes came all the way from washington state. The society had hired roofers to install the shakes, but they needed to be treated with a chemical before they could be put on the roof. And since the society had little money this part was left up to the members. We formed a chain gain that lifted each shake individually off the pile and down to a person next to a drum who would dip the shake in the chemical and then had it up the ladder to roofer. This was done thousands of times, but it allowed the society to get the job done.

Soon after the roof was put on the society decided to restore the interior of the other rooms. Contractors where brought in to pull up the linoleum flooring and to see what was below. We had no idea what floor lay below. No one had seen it in 100 years. To our surprise and amazement what we saw was the original 1735 floor in perfect condition. All the floorings that had been put on top of it over the centuries had preserved the floor. Here were 200+ year old piece of wood feet wide - floorboards that I had never seen before. One polished and restored it made the house truly look historic from the inside as well as the outside.

Painting was next, but what color? The society send out samples of the dozens and dozen of layers of paint to be analyzed so we could choose the right color. One of the more interesting things to come from that analyst is the precense of animal hair in the older paints. Not uncommon in a day when you animals would share the house with you - but just one of those great facts that make this house special.

As I became a teenager the major work of the house had basically been done. I had watched the entire house transform into this jewel of a historic place. And I thought that the restoration work had been completed. That is when I got another surprise. We were going to build a barn

I was a senior at Hillside High School when the barn began and the foundation was laid This was the only part of the structure that was going to be modern - and only because Hillside building code required it. The rest of the barn was going to be built by us. There was going to be a Barn raising.

Now I had heard of barn raising, I had been to the Amish Country and new that a barn could go up in a day or so. But never in my life did I feel like I was going to be a part of one. I mean really, how many people can claim they were part of a barn raising?

I watched as large trucks delivered the frame of the barn and how the contractors put together the frame like a giant jigsaw puzzle. No nails at all - all tongue and grove construction. The empty frame stood outside my backyard waiting for the barn raising.

The day came to raise the barn and what a day it was. The society has advertised an old fashioned barn raising and volunteers and media came from all over to cover the event.

As a way of deferring costs the society decided to sell indivdual boards of the barn. I believe for $5 you could by a board and write whatever you wanted on on the inside portion of the board. Of course, I couldn't turn down a chance to become part of history since that board would be there as long as the barn would be. I bought my board and but my name and Rutgers University class of 1993 as I had recently been accepted to Rutgers University. I also knew that I better graduate on time or I'd make a liar out of that board. I signed my board and off it went into the barn as did many other boards that day. And in just two days there it was a completed barn. It was a marvel to look at, but it was a more of marvel knowing how it came together. The next day I even got to see myself on the front page of the lifestyle section of one of the local papers nailing a board to the side of the house.

On that picture below me holding the latter for me, was Bob Lynch. Bob was in charge of the Barn project and a great force behind getting it done. He lived in another historic house in Hillside, the old gristmill house. He was a friend to all of us. I mention him here because Bob was one of the managers of the port authority of NY/NY on on 9/11. He was believed to be in or at the building when the attacks happened and was confirmed dead. Bob had left the society years earlier when he moved out of town and it wasn't until months later that we found out about him. The society has a small memorial to him in the 1735 section.

As I entered college as a History major the major projects of the society has been completed. I still made all the events and kept in touch with the members at meetings. And I watched as many of my old friends pasted away.

After I graduated college with my BA In History and Education I was asked to join the society as a trustee. I've served in that roll until this present day. And as I sit here writing about my experiences at the Woodruff House I have to smile. I know now that these normal folks who wanted to preserve a local landmark did much more then that. They changed me for the better. They gave me an appreciation for history - an appreciation that I took to jobs that had no direct link to my major. They gave me an appreciation for volunteering and for helping others. Those values were not foreign to my family, but having them reinforced by others can never be a bad thing.

When I sit down and look at the Woodruff house now I see much more then other do. I see it both from the eyes of an adult and the eyes of a child. I remember how the house used to look and can appreciate how much has changed. And most of all I can appreciate the accomplishment that has been made. The lasting memorial that is the Woodruff House. I memorial that will stand to teach others of the past and in doing so teach those who visit about the character of the people who restored this house and continue to take care of it.

 

 

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