Frank Lloyd Wright and the Never Ending Story of the Far Away Farm
By Charles Chandler
Editor’s Note: N3 Special Correspondent Charles Chandler is a storyteller supreme whose presence in our pages occurs all too seldom. His discovery and chronicling of unique and interesting aspects of the greater White Cloud community provides a distinctive look at the richness of our region while advancing an appreciation for the people who populate it.
He also has been known to strike fear in the hearts of finned creatures from Belize to Barrow.
Every story has a beginning and here is one version, spoiler alert for the local historians and architectural purist, just go with it, please.
And so it was on a dark and stormy night on October 8, 1871 when...
...Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow kicked a lantern over setting the milking shed on fire and subsequently burning Chicago to the water line and a young man from Richland Center Wisconsin named Frank Lloyd Wright soon moved there looking for job helping rebuild the Windy City.
Young Frank landed a job as an apprentice draftsman working for an architectural firm, and as always needing more money, developed a side business designing private houses in the Oak Park and River Forest neighborhoods. This moonlighting landed him in hot water with his boss and he was summarily booted to the curb. He set up an office in his home and designed houses for customers in nearby neighborhoods. These designs were called “organic architecture" a style where houses were supposed to look like they sprouted from the flat midwestern landscape. Later to be called “Prairie Style” they would be recognized by their flat architect, integration with the landscape, solid construction, quality craftsmanship, and sparse ornamentation.
I have had a long love affair with Chicago and I especially like the architecture. The Wrigley Building is my best in show. The architects of the Chicago School developed some of the most beautiful buildings in the world including designing the modern skyscraper. Of course one of the most famous of these early Chicago architects was F. L. Wright who was able to design and build beautiful buildings in spite of challenging situations, tragic events and big messes, most of his own making.
Recently while attending the Father’s Day Fly-In at the White Cloud Airport I overheard Mr. Ron Sanders discussing the Prairie Style House that he had owned. I rudely inserted myself in that conversation stating that I was a F.L. Wright fan and would love to hear the story. He was leaving at the time for another meeting and said that we could get together later.
At the following Wednesday White Cloud Rotary luncheon I mentioned that conversation to fellow Rotarian and Ron’s son, Stewart. He said yes it was so and that he and his family now owned and lived in that house.
Well blood in the water. I immediately began pestering him for the rest of the story and a visit. We both had busy schedules and were finally able to get together for a pre visit interview and then a scheduled tour for Sunday November 20 at 2:30 pm.
I am sure some curious minds would like to know how we jumped from the turn of the century upscale neighborhood in Chicago to Benton Lake to the Sanders’ family farmstead.Simply put, it was young Mr. Wright’s money problems and a certain Dr. Chester E. Fish of Cook County Illinois. Dr. Fish needed a place where he and his pals could hunt and fish and so like many other well to do Chicagoans looked for property in Michigan. He found and bought 320 acres around Benton Lake. Dr. Fish also owned several businesses in Cook County including a lumber and coal company. One of his customers was Mr. Wright who had run up a considerable lumber and coal bill and was having big trouble paying up.
Dr Fish needed a summer cottage on Benton Lake and strongly suggested to Frank that if he would design a summer cottage that would meet Mrs. Fish’s liking he would toss his outstanding bills. Frank took the deal and in the early 1900s the Fish’s Prairie Style 40’ by 40’ three bedroom Cottage was built on Benton Lake. Dr Fish retired and lived there until he passed in the early 1930’s. Three generations of the Fish Family used the summer cottage and around 1965 the “Huron-Manistee National Forest staff approached the Fish grandchildren, Mr. James Champion Jr., Mrs. Marguerite (Champion) Conrad, and Mrs. Bonnie (Champion) Flowers and asked if they were interested in selling the property so they could develop a campground.”
The Fish grandchildren agreed to sell the property but not wanting to see the old Cottage bulldozed under sold it to Mr. Ron Sanders a local White Cloud business man for about $1500.00. For the F.L.Wright fans this was not the steal of the century because over the past 20 years the Fish Cottage had sat empty, been vandalized and generally allowed to deteriorate and had to be moved eight miles down a simple dirt two track to the Sanders Farmstead.
That move in 1967 (a story in itself) fell to Mr. Ron Sanders and legendary White Cloud strongman and house mover Lenny Smith and his sons. Mr. Ron Sanders often worked weekends and nights by car light trimming tree branches and bulldozing narrow road banks back so that the Cottage would clear the trees and road banks on the journey to the farmstead. Once there a basement was dug, the foundation laid and the Cottage carefully placed and the family began some restoration work. One of those Sanders boys would later become our own Register of Deeds Mr. Stewart Sanders. The Ron Sanders family grew and dispersed to begin their own families and different lives and the F.L.Wright Cottage became a rental property, and yes, once again began that slow slide into disrepair. Stop it; are you kidding me, not again?
It was a cold, blustery, snowy evening when I rounded the curve on Baldwin Ave and saw for the first time ever a classic F. L. Wright Prairie Style Home. I got out and took it all in, the setting would have made Andrew Wyeth weep, gently rolling farm fields recently harvested and covered with a sprinkling of snow; large bare maple trees in the yard and with the house placed against the soft natural background and low evening light looked like it was growing right out of that small hill. The house was painted in classic white with all the traditional F.L. Wright architectural elements; hipped roof with dormers, wide overhanging eaves, grouped windows and all decorated with festive Christmas wreaths with bows. The outbuildings, pump house, garage, wood shed and side flower garden were of the same sparse design and color.
Each appeared to be stage props placed appropriately to support the main house and all perfectly integrated into the surrounding landscape.
Frank would have been pleased.
Well, I couldn’t stand outside all day staring at what appeared to be a big Hallmark Christmas card or a small white gate that was decorated with a lovely Christmas wreath. Who does this sort of thing anyway?
I rang the doorbell, Stu opened the door and welcomed me straight into the pages of an Architectural Digest Layout and introduced me to the folks that do these sorts of things, wife Cynthia, son Gabriel, and Uncle Don Hopper. Daughter Ashley was away. As we started the tour Stu gave me a bit of their back story for a base line, as you recall, I said it was going to get worse before it gets better and this was one of your true “This Old House” projects.
When Stu and Cindy purchased the house from Stu’s Dad in 1995 it had been a rental property for about 20 years and was basically a trashed out wreck. The west wall was falling in and one of the renters had knocked a hole in the east wall and foundation, put in a drive and door, and turned the basement into a garage. Committed, Stu and Cindy developed their project plan and began the long and grueling task of pulling this house back from the brink.
They were the perfect team and up for the job, Cindy was the interior decorator and spent the better part of two years developing the plans for the reconstruction and addition. Stu, like his Dad, had a contracting business and the necessary skills and experience and would do the heavy lifting. Their goals were ambitious; restoration and preservation of a traditional Prairie style structure, create a functional family home, and expand the footprint with an addition so that at some point in the future they would have the option of turning the place into a Bed and Breakfast, hence the name Faraway Farm.
We began the tour room by room, main floor, upstairs children’s bedroom, same space as Stu and his brother had occupied and basement addition occupied now by Cindy’s octogenarian Uncle Don. Don used to live at 28 North Street in White Cloud and now he is one the keepers of the oral tradition of what happened in White Cloud back in the day. I have to dote a bit on the downstairs apartment as it was a Field and Stream moment and a step back in time, small galley kitchen, bed, bath and large sitting room with comfortable couches and chairs and a warm Franklin stove. All decorated with perfect Michigan sporting memorabilia, trophy deer mounts, several tanned hides on the wall, cases filled with well used fishing lures and reels, legacy photos, books and magazines, a perfect place for afternoon naps or looking at photos and reminiscing about White Cloud.
All told the interior was a masterpiece, Cindy’s design, layout, paint and trim, decoration, furnishing, window treatments and accessories were breathtakingly beautiful. The addition melded perfectly with the original cottage and only enhanced the Prairie Home style. Describing the elegant interior of this home should be done by one of those talented Chicago or New York editors and compiled into one of those big coffee table books.
Soon it became too much to take in; too much, too much, I had reached a point of sensory overload. I was like one of those little kids that I see so often in airports that become overstimulated by all the sights and sounds and all of sudden break away and run shrieking down the concourse not knowing where they are going but they just have to move. I was just at that point when the tall grandfather clock standing unnoticed in the nearby corner chimed and brought me back, just perfect, and this house was perfect in every way.
I also realized that I was a guest in a family’s comfortable and cozy home so I put the camera and recorder away and we moved to the fireplace and comfortable chairs for a bit of civil conversation. Cindy served a delicious homemade peach and blueberry pie and wonderful coffee. The fluffy family cat recently disturbed from an afternoon nap joined us as we chatted. The Sanders kindly listened to my long winded story about how my wife and came to live in White Cloud and I looked through their project photos detailing the before, during and after progress.
Being humble hardworking Midwesterners they did not focus on their dedication to this home and the sacrifices of all the family as they worked on this arduous project. You could hear their love of and pride for restoring this bit of our American Heritage but they skipped over the parts about all the financial cost and the thousands of hours of hard concentrated labor it took to bring this Architectural Icon back to what we were now sitting in on this snowy afternoon. Nor the emotional and physical stress of trying to make a family home in a construction site, rather they focused on the other folks that helped with the project, the movers, carpenters, masons or those that were interested and had been associated with the house. Stewart mentioned that a couple of years back the Great Grandchildren of Dr. Fish held a reunion around Benton Lake and by chance one of Dr. Fish’s great grandsons, Mr. Rick Flowers came to his office looking for information on their old Cottage. The result of that piece of luck was that about 20 of the Fish heirs had a chance to visit Faraway Farms and once more take a walk down memory lane.
It was a privilege and honor to get to spend a few hours on a snowy Sunday afternoon in an authentic Frank Lloyd Wright Prairie Style House that is currently the beautiful and cozy Sanders family home. As stated in the beginning this is a never ending story, this classic structure appears to be as enduring as the solid Midwestern Values of the folks that have owned it. It had stood for over a 100 years and owned by the Sanders for about 50 and no doubt this continuing and wonderful story will be told by them. Daughter Ashley would certainly be qualified as she has a PhD in History and works for Claremont College in California and recently met and had coffee with Eric Lloyd Wright the 86 year old grandson of F. L. Wright. Now the Sanders family is sharing documents and photos of the Faraway Farm with the Wright family.
For this Correspondent, I would like to go back and hang out with Uncle Don Hopper and the cat in his Man Cave and look at those antique fishing lures and hear about other interesting people and things to be found in and around White Cloud.
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