Research Update

Here’s an update of some of my research on The Pillars:

Out of the blue, or so it seemed, I received an email from the librarian at the Mary Baker Eddy Library in Boston with a copy of Mary Keeley’s reminiscences of her interactions with Mary Baker Eddy. It told of her initial interest in Christian Science (1888) and her training at the Massachusetts Metaphysical College (1898) to become a Christian Science practitioner. It also described her husband’s resistance to her faith and practice and his gradual softening towards it. Apparently he embraced the faith toward the end of his life, but not fully as he never gave up his medical practice. He died after being treated by Christian Science practitioners and then calling for medical treatment too late. (Mary Keeley was the second owner of the home, between 1913-18. I wrote about her in Going to Dwight.)

From this record, it seems unlikely that Mary Keely bought and improved the Pillars property to provide treatment for anyone addicted to alcohol or medicines. If anything, it is possible that she intended to serve the Christian Science faith in some way through the development of the property. Or, perhaps she simply enjoyed a big country home and property. I do know that she unloaded her investments in the Keeley Company, selling low to expedite the process since it didn’t seem in line with her faith. She later sued many of the family and business. I am not sure how that suit turned out, but I am guessing she may have used any awards to purchase the home in Oswego. I would love to know, but at present I have hit a brick wall in the research.

Secondly, after Christmas, I invited the daughter of a previous owner to visit the Pillars. Laurel Erlanson was born right about the time her parents purchased the run-down home on Main Street. She was brought home from the hospital to their new/old home, which had been subdivided into four apartments some time previously and painted throughout in “lime green.” (This was 1969.) Her parents worked hard over the next decade to restore the home, creating an elegant mansion once again while they raised four unique and talented children. They added the marble floors, the handmade carpets, the blue decor and the Czechoslovakian chandeliers, special lighting and sound systems. My favorite story is that her mom placed a sign by the door to the dining room, stating “Be a Blue Walker,” which was a reminder for the family to stay on the blue edges of the mostly white carpeting in the dining and living areas to preserve the expensive carpeting. Laurel brought real estate brochures dating from 1981-1996 while they attempted to sell the home and an extra copy of the Better Homes & Gardens magazine featuring the remodeled kitchen done in the early 80s. It was fun touring the home with her and sharing her stories of her family’s life in the home.

Last, I recently reviewed my research on third family that lived in the home, the Hansons’, who owned the home from 1918-1947. I knew that they had suffered a lot of loss in the home and that they were also Christian Scientists, but what I missed was that Eva was also a Christian Science practitioner as early as 1910. They had one son who came home ill from Dartmouth College in 1929 and died. Did they forego medical treatment? Sadly, five years later, Harry Hanson, the father, took his own life down at the pool house or “summer house” on the property. It does not seem as thought Mrs. Hanson stayed in the house for the rest of her tenure as an owner, and who could blame her? I wonder what these losses did to her faith?

(Interestingly, the first owner, Margaret Woolley also experienced much loss. She purchased the land from her sister who lived next door, she and her husband Charles built the home. He died seven years later, followed by the death of her sickly son a couple years later and her mother, whom she must have nursed in the home, a year or two after that. No wonder she chose to purchase land on the other side of her sister’s house to build a smaller home for herself.)

I’m kind of at an impasse in my research but there are still tantalizing details that help me press on. In the meantime, it is fun to watch the Birkey family enjoy the home and find ways to share it with others. Currently they are hosting house church three Sundays a month and Laura is looking for ways to develop a retreat location. She has hosted two yoga retreats and also has dreams of making the third apartment in the carriage house into a small retreat center. It is currently a run down, unoccupied apartment needing renovation, but opens up onto a secluded patio and a quiet, secluded view of the yard and river. At this time of year, with the foliage out of the way, we are enjoying the views of the river and the loud cacophony of a huge population of geese living on the river’s islands. The kids and I had fun snowshoeing one afternoon and they have enjoyed several snowy days of sledding down their back hill. Still, we are all really looking forward to spring with warmer weather and a resurgence of all the native flowers. It hasn’t even been a year since the Birkey’s moved in but the house is already well-loved.

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