Charlotte's Wheel

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My husband and I live in an old slaughterhouse that was built in 1907. During the Second World War, when my grandmother was in her 20’s, business slowed and the slaughterhouse closed its doors. For a brief time thereafter it was used as a hay barn and tractor shed, a hide-and-seek hub for local children, and was later converted into a rustic summer home.

The slaughterhouse was a small operation first run by a Swiss man with the last name Zuberbühler and later, from 1919 on, it grew into a thriving enterprise run by the John and Elisabeth Pfister family. Pigs were raised and killed here one at a time then processed and cured for sale at the local meat market. Specially ordered meats for delivery were packed on large ice blocks--cut from the lake with crosscut saws and horse sled--then delivered to sawmills and cook houses within a 25 mile radius. During its production years, bones and remains were buried between the house and the nearby river. Today the backyard bone pile fortifies a very healthy elderberry tree and also surprises dogs with an occasional aged treat.  

In the walls and roof rafters of the house we have found 100-year-old chewing tobacco, a corncob pipe, and the yellowed manuscript of an ancient legend tucked into a nest. Old brown and blue medicine bottles, shards of fine china and wagon parts regularly work their way to the surface of a buried refuse pile along the east yard. The place is continually revealing its past.

From a working slaughterhouse to a gathering place for writers and friends, the house has seen transformations in both people and purpose over the years. In the 1960’s one could sip a martini in the Red Room that emblazoned wall-to-wall red shag rug laid directly over the blood trough and iron hoisting anchor cemented into the floor. Local writer and historian, Keith McCoy and family, added a sleeping cabin and a museum room that displayed items of local history, homesteading tools, and a variety of western antiques. Today it is our year-round home and also the place where I work as an illustrator.

Even though this house is many times removed from what it once was, it continues to speak. It’s not haunted; there is no spirit-of-pig-past here but voices revealed within the care and tending of it over the years. It tells time in triangles of sunlight that climb walls at sundown, it gives directions in paths that hem around patio and flowerbed and it negotiates with grand ponderosas who knight and castle our best plans to rearrange one thing or another. The large wood beams of a bygone way of life rest over and around us.

Today the vaulted ceiling that holds a formidable wooden wheel--once used to hoist a pig's carcass--boasts a glorious tapestry of undisturbed spiderwebs. When I look up and see the intricate gossamer threads gripping the wheel, I hear the house and also E.B. White’s, Charlotte, saying: "R-A-D-I-A-N-T".

Joanna Kaufman