On the cover: Ferndale's Rose
by ELLIN BELTZ
EVER DO SOMETHING YOU'VE always wanted to do and then wondered if you'd lost your mind in the process?
When we moved to Humboldt in 2001, my husband and I traded an 1870s Greek Revival storefront with bird's-eye maple floors near downtown Chicago for a 1902 "butterfat palace" in the Victorian Village of Ferndale.
The house took some getting used to; it made a lot of weird noises and every board creaked. The redwood expanded and contracted a lot and gaps in the old floor boards let air whistle through. Sometimes it was so loud that it sounded like someone was calling; other times doors slammed without warning. We decided there were too many doors anyway, removed a few and put rocks in front of others. The slamming stopped.
But the calling noises continued, and it didn't help that one of the former owners breathlessly told me, "That house is so haunted, so spooky. How can you stand it?" Another said you couldn't pay her to go back into the building for any reason. Neither would say why.
"I won't mind a ghost or two," I thought. Ferndale seems like it's full of ghosts anyway, what with Bertha Russ-Lytel, a woman who started a foundation for the people of Ferndale, haunting the Ferndale Theatre, and local preservationist Viola Russ McBride appearing in Main Street property owners' dreams.
I started having dreams about the people for whom the house was built. Don't ask me how I knew it was them, or that they had daughters but no sons. I just knew. Some days when my husband was traveling and I was alone, I felt them around me as if I were a guest in their home. I even heard a man repeatedly calling, "Helene, Helene."
I wanted to know more about them, to find out if my dreams were true or just the product of a hyperactive imagination.
The search begins
We knew the age of our house and the names of the former owners from the title. A chat with a neighbor added a few more details, but no one could tell us why our new home looked like a tiny version of the big Taubman home next door.
I figured in a place as well-known as this, someone would have written the history of all the buildings, so I went to the Ferndale Museum and bought a book of the historic houses of Ferndale. But our house wasn't in it. Nor was it in any of the other local history books we read. One old-timer called the house "Rose Cottage," and from all the roses outside and bits of wallpaper and old linen floor coverings inside, we could see how it could get that name. And, it's on Rose Avenue.
Meanwhile, weird things kept happening. Our first All Hallows Eve in the house I was mourning the death of my father, who had died the previous month, and I set to work crafting a haunted arbor at our front gate. I had stopped for a minute when a pale child in a black cape came up and asked me if we lived in the house now. Next she asked the significance of each of the trinkets I was hanging on the arbor. She was persistent, asking why we considered skeletons and bats appropriate for such a great day. I told her I enjoy Halloween as much as she did, but had never really questioned the traditional symbols. She seemed dissatisfied with my inability to answer her and wandered away toward the big house next door. I assumed she was the next door lady's daughter, but later when that family left to go trick-or-treating, I saw that the family's daughter was someone entirely different. I've never seen the pale girl again.
One of the loveliest things
in Ferndale is the horse-drawn carriage. You can imagine the
past as the horse quietly clip-cloped along, harness brass jingling.
One winter day, the carriage stopped almost outside the house
and the driver, George Enos, told the passengers the history
of the house next door.
"I wonder if he knows anything about our house?" I thought. That same week George hitched Barnaby to his vintage carriage and took us for a drive on a bitter afternoon, telling us stories of the one hundred or so Victorian houses in Ferndale. He knew who built them, who had bought them and who had lived in them. But when we pulled up outside of our house, George just scratched his head and said, "I've heard it was built as a wedding cottage for the children of the big house next door, but that's about all I've heard. Some say it was built for the eldest son of the house next door, others for a daughter." George said "Gee-yup" to Barnaby and we rode on.
The very next day, I returned to the Ferndale Museum, but they didn't have a file on Rose Cottage. They suggested I come back when and if I discovered anything.
Our second Halloween was even
colder than the first, so we stayed in the house, which was lit
all by candles, and had the kids come to the door. Except that
few came up the walk. And the few who did were scared stiff;
one even knocked over an obviously fake ghost in his hurry to
get away from the door. After a while, I went for a walk around
neighborhood watching the tiny ghouls and goblins squealing over
their treats. Coming back to the house I thought I saw someone
looking out the lit upstairs
window as I walked up the path. I rang my own bell, my husband
opened the door immediately. I rushed past him up the stairs
into the bedroom. The lights were off, there was no one there
and he swore he had been downstairs the whole time.
That night I woke up in a cold sweat. I'd had a dream in which a group of people, three or four, were reaching out to me as the words "remember us" swirled over and over in my head. I told my husband, but he just laughed and said, "Too much candy," and went back to sleep, leaving me to lie awake wondering.
And there our mystery sat until Christmas of 2002, when museum researcher Ann Roberts and I were seated together at a luncheon. I mentioned the house, as I always did, in the hopes of finding out more than the title papers had told us. It turned out she was an experienced historical researcher and I think the challenge fascinated her -- an unknown house built for unknown people next door to one of the largest and best documented "butterfat palaces" in town.
Almost immediately, Ann sent me a copy of the marvelous Denis Edeline notes to the Ferndale Enterprise, in which he painstakingly catalogued all references in the papers to individual family names. Edeline literally wrote the book on Ferndale history, he has generously given away copies of his notes and even posted some of them online. The first thing Ann highlighted was a reference to the big house, which was started on April 1 and finished Oct. 3, 1899 for Lee Taubman, the "popular proprietor of the Red Star Clothing House" on Main Street. During the construction, the Enterprise wrote, "May he and his family live long to enjoy it ... . When completed [the] new residence will be one of the finest in the Eel River Valley."
How exciting! The names in the newspaper were identical to the title papers. I felt I was on the trail at last and read on.
A double wedding
The Taubmans had moved around a lot since after leaving Maquoketa, Iowa about a decade earlier. Besides Lee Taubman, the family included his wife, Belle, three sons and a daughter. The two older boys, Harry and Charles, were born in Iowa, daughter Maloa in Honolulu, and their last son, Merton, in Ferndale after they moved from Eureka in 1894. Lee Taubman must have been pleased when both his older sons decided to marry at the same time. He began construction of Rose Cottage in 1902, about as soon as they told him of their plans.
On Aug. 26 the Enterprise reported on the double wedding of Harry Taubman to Helene Helgestad and Charles Taubman to Verna Ring, followed by "a sumptuous wedding repast, served on the lawn [of the Taubman house on Rose] in a lunar shaped canopy arranged for the occasion. The happy couples, who will make their homes on Rose Avenue, were the recipients of many beautiful and costly wedding gifts."
After that, the young brothers and their wives moved in and out of Rose Cottage, back and forth to Fortuna -- and then nothing. I'd arrived at a big blank wall.
The odd noises in the house continued, although the very direct presence of the young family faded in the spring. I felt that if I could only solve the mystery of what happened to my unknown Victorians, they and the house would be happy -- and I might get a good night's sleep.
Coincidence, fate or magic?
On May 16, 2003 I had a 101st birthday party for the house. It was a quiet affair; only our closest friends were aware of what we were celebrating. I still felt that we should know more about the Taubmans. I wondered where they had gone and why no one remembered them.
Another summer passed quietly and as Halloween approached, I dreaded to think what would happen. This time we invited a bunch of people over and had a great party with the house all candlelit. We took the smaller children trick-or-treating. Absolutely nothing occurred until the middle of the night when a most incredible whining and hollering woke both of us straight up awake. We decided to blame mating raccoons or other wildlife as we tried -- wide-eyed -- to return to sleep.
That winter, I set about poking around in the house's nooks and crannies, but remodeling work over the years had left nothing more than a scrap of wallpaper in the front hall cupboard and two pieces of linened floor-paper in an upstairs closet. Every wall had been dry-walled. The only way to see the original construction of the downstairs walls was by crawling into the attic.
I had heard one too many creaks from the attic so I enlisted the aid of two friends to explore with me. We walked around on pieces of plywood under beams that had been old-growth trees only a century before. I imagined how much history had happened since they'd been imprisoned under the roof. But we still learned nothing. There were no diaries, no newspapers stuffed into the cavities, no marbles in the cracks -- only the handwritten names of the carpenters on an attic beam.
Where to find the people whom time had forgotten? Perhaps the cemetery held a clue, although the "plot list" at the museum, showing who was interred where, said nothing about the Taubmans.
So in mid-January 2004 I began
a regular series of walks exploring Ferndale's illustrious cemetery,
up one path and down another back and forth, up concrete stairs,
down stairs searching paths bordered by shrubs and trees.
By March I felt as if I'd crisscrossed every walkway, seen every stone. I'd taken hundreds of photos with my new digital camera and discovered dozens of "Mothers" and "Fathers" carved deep in stone more lasting than the hearts that once remembered them. But no Taubmans.
Several afternoons I was joined by my friend Lisa Samuels-Ybarra and her sons, Brandon and Kenneth. As Brandon, 5, dashed this way and that through the stones, he ventured somewhere I'd not gone before. Lisa was hampered by the baby stroller so I ran after him. When I caught up, he was hopping up and down on a huge concrete slab. Just then, his mother called to him, "Don't do that, Brandon, he could come back to haunt you!"
I looked down and saw between his sneakers, carved in a marble plate set in the slab, "Harry Lee Taubman 1880-1918."
It took a while to begin breathing again, but when we looked farther, there under a rhododendron bush were markers for Helene, his wife -- and "Baby Helene."
Back to the museum
After Brandon's discovery I could barely sleep waiting for the museum to open the next morning.
Historical research can be frustrating because you have to know just what question to ask before you can find the answer. But once we had the dates from the stones, everything fell into place. The ever-helpful Ann Roberts found Harry's obituary; from there the rest of the tale unraveled rapidly, and the most astonishing photograph popped out of the museum's archives.
There in Ann's hand was a photo of Harry and Helene themselves, dressed in their wedding finery, staring at us from the mists of time.
Their wedding portrait was in a matte inscribed "Cardozo, Ferndale, Cal." the mark of Abigale E. Cardozo, an amazing early photographer, who briefly had a studio in downtown Ferndale.
Reading the newspapers, I learned that the young family had many happy occasions to celebrate at first. In 1903, Helene delivered her first daughter, Maloa Belle.
What none of them could know was that they didn't have much time left together. On Sept. 2, 1905 Helene delivered her second daughter, Helene Pauline. I'm guessing it was a difficult birth: Mother Helene died eight days later in the upstairs bedroom, the same room where my husband and I now sleep.
The Sept. 15, 1905 Enterprise reported, "An immense number of friends and acquaintances of the deceased attended the obsequies and attended the last sad rites at the grave in our little city of the dead. Many beautiful floral pieces literally covered the grave and in a measure attested the love and esteem in which the decedent was held by the people of this community."
We can only imagine Harry holding his infant daughter and clutching Maloa's hand at the funeral of his beloved young wife. Harry moved out of Rose Cottage immediately.
The next tragedy was the loss of Baby Helene on Jan. 15, 1906 by the whooping cough she caught in December. She was laid to rest near her mother in the Ferndale Cemetery.
In August 1907 Harry remarried,
tying the knot with May Belle Heney of Table Bluff; they had
a daughter, Amy, two years later. Harry and his brother Charles
opened a store of their own in Fortuna, and moved back to Ferndale.
Harry and his family lived first on Eugene Street then on upper
Berding, while the Charles Taubmans moved back to Rose Avenue.
Alas, Harry was not fated to live happily ever after in Ferndale. Early in December, 1918, he died, just as the Spanish Flu epidemic was spreading throughout California -- Harry may have been among its first victims here. The Enterprise described him in glowing terms: "He was well known and admired and respected by all as a young man of sterling worth, upright and honest in every relation of life. A son of whom his parents might be justly proud, a kind and loving husband and father, he leaves a memory that will be cherished always by those who loved him."
The whole story made sense now and we could fill in the rest. Two of the previous occupants had told us of spooky events but no one could tell us of the handsome, well-liked young people for whom our house had been built so very long ago. No wonder they were calling "remember us." Once they'd been among the most popular people in town, then they were utterly forgotten.
Once I hung a reproduction of their wedding portrait in the hall overlooking the slippery step, a lot of the noise and creaking, calling and bad dreams stopped.
I can barely wait until Halloween this year. I hope the pale child returns so I can tell her the history of my house and ask her name.
Ellin Beltz is a paleontologist, the author of the upcoming Frogs of the World, due out early next year, and the Journal's theater critic.
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