Friday, December 02, 2016


One of the first motivations for building “big houses” was as a fortification, an echo of castles.  But then in safer times they became the hub of an ordered way of life that supplied materials, work, and wealth under the supervision of the “landed gentry.”  Gardens, pastures, cottages where weavers and blacksmiths lived, woods and wardens, all fitted together to create a social ecology.  What happened after the first creation depended somewhat on where the Big House was.

In England every war and revolution reconfigured who owned which land.  If the religious world was in alliance with the king, they were awarded places for their monasteries.  If a fairly important person was of help to the king, he was suddenly endowed with land, and the reverse.  But as we know from the nostalgia-powered depictions (“Upstairs, Downstairs,” “Downton Abbey,” “The Buccaneers,” “Remains of the Day,” “Revisiting Brideshead,”)  none have shown the actual destruction of the fabulous country houses.  Partly they were done in by economics, like tax structures.  Partly they were miserable places to live and demanded major maintenance.  Partly they were used during wartime as hospitals, barracks and so on, which damaged them.  Partly no one wanted to live that far from shopping.  Maybe the Internet will save them.

For a while social opinion was against big houses in the country, finding them nasty elitism and oppressive of the people on their estates — the ones that were still there, anyway.  Sometimes a more modest house was built on the site, one with decent heat and dependable electricity.

In Ireland  big houses became conflated with the imposed economic domination of Protestant people from England.  Therefore their fate was deliberate conflagration, burned down to drive the people back to England.  Again, the big house was a symbol of being “better.”

In the Southern USA there was no need to resort to symbolism.  Obviously, a plantation mansion with its tall pillars and wide verandas was “better” than a slave’s shack.  As such it was a big white target for both resentful lesser locals and for Northern martial Puritans.  And yet we sympathized with “Miss Scarlett.”

People sort of fail to mention the big houses that industrialists of the north built, often on a hill above the noise and soot of their factories.  But then there are those mansions in Manhattan.

In Oregon the “third rail” of my family was Hatfields, because my aunts all married Hatfield boys (cousins of Mark Hatfield, the governor and senator).  It was their grandfather who built the “big house” that was a symbol of wealth and achievement along South Deer Creek.  When the Howard Hatfields moved into it, it was a claim of primogeniture and being the head of the family.  

The fire that burned it down was traced to electrical causes, probably aluminum wiring, an old technology which was replaced by copper.  “According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), "Homes wired with aluminum wire manufactured before 1972 ['old technology' aluminum wire] are 55 times more likely to have one or more connections reach "Fire Hazard Conditions" than is a home wired with copper.”

This is the “big house” with its many porches, including one upstairs screened for summer sleeping and one off the kitchen meant for dairy and butchering, where the well-head attached to a sink hand pump.  There were three big barns to the left, all in active use when I was a kid, but now pretty much standing empty.  

Unrelated to the fire the family wealth was reconfigured when the generations rolled over and the timber on the land was cut.  But it was even more changed when only one of the Pinkerton/Hatfield marriages produced males.  One was unsuited to running a ranch, and two were fraternal twins, very different from each other.  From the death of the grandfather on, though the complex of land was formally designated a business called “the Hatfield Brothers,” it was the ground of contention over which twin got which house and land.  

The original house where the grandfather was born was modest, the most remote upstream at the end of South Deer Creek road.  The Hatfield house before that, a typical modest porched shotgun plan built when the first settlers came up from the south, also burned, but it was hardly a “big house.”  There was a big barn, though.  The family didn’t have employees except an occasional hired man.

This little homestead place was just a mile downstream of the big house and was where the Howard Hatfields lived when I was a child.  There was no place where I felt more welcomed and sheltered, even more so than at home.  It was a little rickety four-room house with a steep front yard and an orchard to the left in the photo.  It finally failed and had to be taken down.  Both big and little houses were rebuilt as conventional ranch-style one-story houses with sliding glass doors, but both still use woodstoves for heat.  They are well-furnished but conventional.

In my own unconscious, this is the “Big House” that represents power and wealth, but the little house is love and family.  Both have the same political overtones as the big houses in Britain.  Who controls families controls wealth and vice versa.  But there is obligation.  My brother in his last years took refuge with Hatfields.  None of the rest of us had enough resources. 

There are no big houses in Valier with so much emotional valence as the British estate houses, but Helena has a street of them, built with copper fortunes from Butte, mostly, by men who had ties to Boston where men had ties to Britain.  Not that different from Empire.  Quite a bit different from the gold rush galoots who wore themselves down until they could afford hydraulic sluices that left huge piles of tailings just outside Helena.  They do say that when buildings in Helena have their foundations dug, the dirt might contain enough gold to pay for the building.  Poldark would smile.  The fires there were among the crowded Chinese who did so much of the labor and they roared up the gulch in devastating fashion.

When the big house is built, that's a sign of wealth.  When a big house burns, it can't help but leave an emotional mark that can't be seen.  The pattern remains.

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