Journalist digs into history of 100-year-old home

2009-09-19T23:00:00Z Journalist digs into history of 100-year-old homeBy Matt Christensen | matt.christensen@lee.net Winona Daily News

My family lives in the former home of a Prussian soldier. It's the home of a horse breeder, of two old sisters, of the owner of an Arizona silver mine.

The old brick farmhouse at 29143 County Road 12 belonged to the Lietzow family for almost 100 years. Now I rent the house with my wife, my daughter and a black lab.

The Lietzows haven't been to the house in decades - only one still lives in the area - but the home is still in their memories and scrapbooks. At the family's reunions, they remember playing softball in the front yard, running through the hay stacks in the barn, drinking bottled pop on the large front porch and warm summer nights in the upstairs bedrooms.

Earlier this month, the Lietzows came home - to my home - in search of their history.

They wanted to understand how the people who lived here, and the house itself, helped them become who they are today.

So when Ed Lietzow, the great-grandson of the home's builder, called me earlier this summer to ask if his family could visit, I was happy to oblige. In a way, it is their home, too.

We scheduled the tour for Sept. 11, and I set to learning as much as I could about the old house and the people who lived here.

Archives tell a story

My first stop was the Winona County Historical Society, where archivist Marianne Mastenbrook was already helping Ed trace his family history.

Family patriarch August Julius Lietzow, born in 1841, was a Prussian soldier when he left what is now Germany for America in 1864.

By 1869, he was renting a farm in Wiscoy Township. A year later he married Anna Elizabeth Brandt, whose father was a minister at a small church just south of the Hart Cemetery.

Its likely August bought land in Wilson Township and began building the home in 1880, based on census data and the children's birth records.

August was a prosperous farmer and horse breeder, importing rare coach stallions from Germany. He owned more than 600 acres, was a founding member of the Rollingstone Farm and Fire Insurance Co. and was later president of the First State Bank of Lewiston for eight years.

He was such a notable figure that the Winona Republican-Herald, grandfather paper to the Winona Daily News, devoted three days of coverage to a civil trial in 1910 when August sued a neighbor whose bull got loose in August's pastures. A jury awarded August $1 in damages.

His home was noted in historical records as being "among the best in rural districts of the county."

A servant noted in census records likely lived in an upstairs bedroom in the back part of the house, where a staircase led down to a pantry and kitchen.

Another staircase in the front of the house led from a main sitting room with crown molding and pocket doors - where a large portrait of August holding a Kaiser helmet hung - to the family's bedrooms upstairs.

August and Anna had 14 children, six of whom died early in their lives. After August's death in 1914, and Anna's in 1920, the home went to their daughters, Elsie and Lydia.

The sisters never married, and maintained the house and farm with the help of two hired men. The sisters kept a formal, working relationship with the men, but the makeshift family was close, even vacationing together to Yellowstone National Park.

Ed and his siblings were born in Canada, after their grandfather - brother to Elsie and Lydia - homesteaded in Saskatchewan. As children, they came to visit the Lietzow farm in summers.

Ed took a job with Trane Co. in La Crosse, Wis., after college in the 1960s and looked in on Elsie and Lydia, who by then were old women.

When they died, the last living child of August and Anna, a son named Arthur, took over the house. He was independently wealthy - he owned a silver mine in Arizona and property in Malibu and Montana - but he returned to the old brick farmhouse to retire in the 1970s.

Even then, the home didn't have indoor plumbing. In fact, the house had changed little since it was built. But it was too much for an old man to take care of, and so one day, Arthur packed three suitcases into a Ford Country Squire, drove to town and told the desk clerk at the Sauer Memorial Home he was moving in.

Arthur died a year later, and Ed helped manage the estate, selling off the house and farm to neighbors in 1976 and most the property in an auction.

After more than 95 years, the home no longer belonged to a Lietzow.

Memories of home

As Ed's visit approached, I was nervous about what the family would think of the house. It's still in good condition, but the front porch they remembered so well is badly in need of repairs. The bathrooms haven't been upgraded in decades. And the house is no longer on a working farm - the outbuildings are empty, though fields surrounding the home's 4.7 acre plot are still rented to farmers.

My concerns were quickly assuaged when the family arrived. Ed and his siblings - Marian, Clare, Lorraine and Ron - scattered when they entered the house.

"This used to be the kitchen."

"Here's the old parlor."

"Last time I was here, I was like this," Ron said, holding his hand waist-high.

I learned our garage used to be a summer kitchen. My home office was Elsie and Lydia's bedroom. Our kitchen was a parlor.

My wife, Melissa, learned that Ed's sisters were scared of the same dark bedrooms that now give her the creeps.

Almost instantly, Ed's family began to share stories. They talked about playing softball in the yard. The horse tack in the barn. The piano in the living room. The huge portraits that hung from the crown molding.

Ed remembered when Elsie, Lydia and the neighbors were upset when Interstate 90 was built through the back part of the farm.

"I can remember the arguments around this table," Ed said, pointing to the dining room.

He opened several albums of faded black-and-white photos depicting the Lietzows and the house. He showed me August and Anna's marriage certificate, letters August wrote when he was a soldier (which were translated by the historical society) and a four-page timeline of his family history.

I asked Ed why he went to so much work in his historical research. What's so important about a house?

"I wanted to give the members of my family a sense of history and enjoyment in this research and to understand that in our travels - from Germany to Minnesota to Saskatchewan and back - there's a value in that process and trail," he said. "In some way, my family is a product of those experiences. To revisit that is probably a good thing."

And now the home is part of my experience, I thought as the Lietzows posed on the porch for a photo, just as they had during a childhood visit. I doubt we'll still be living in the house decades from now, but like the members of Ed's family, the old brick house on County Road 12 will always be a part of my history, and I a part of its.

Just before they left, the family thanked us in a long series of goodbyes. One more look at the house. One more handshake. And they picked apples from the side yard. One more memory to share.

Copyright 2015 Winona Daily News. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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