When it comes to unique historic homes, Jasper County Historical Society’s own Linda Wormley’s home, the Wittemberg Grange, is at the top list of candidates.
The grange, which was built nearly a century ago in 1914, used to host church events and dances. The building consisted of one main room, lined with wooden chairs, a kitchen and nearly 200 coat hooks for the many families that trudged through winter weather to reap the social benefits the grange had to offer in its heydey.
“They started building in the spring of 1914,” Wormley said. “And, if I got the numbers right, it was finished that year. Story is, it was three men a day that were building the building. If they didn’t show up, they would either have to pay $2 or $3 or find a substitute. And every subcontractor was pretty amazed at how straight, level and plum it still was. I mean, it was a sturdy building.”
Wormley said she grew up in the area and used to play in the grange. In the middle of the grange is a giant vent where the heat used to ventilate from over which she and her friends used to pretend they were Marilyn Monroe.
Once she knew the owners were trying to sell the property, she wanted to purchase it, but soon discovered a problem.
“We knew the building had a 99-year lease,” Wormley said. “(The original owners) leased the land for 99 years as long as it was used as a grange. We thought the building had to be either torn down or moved, and the land would revert to what was called a reversionary deed, (meaning) it would have to go back to the family.”
A lawyer did some research for her and discovered something that would forever change her decision toward purchasing the grange.
“(The attorney) did some research and discovered reversionary deeds no longer exist,” Wormley said. “In the 60s, some University of Iowa President was dealing with — this is my guess — that he got it through the legislator to do away with that. (The result) was, for a one-year period, people who had reversionary deeds could file a claim at the courthouse, and no one had filed a claim at the courthouse. So the building and the land could stay together.”
Wormley said she talked it over with her brother and decided to make a bid — and won. She did not remember exactly when she purchased the grange, but explained she had plenty of work put into the space before it would become habitable — a renovation process that took nearly the same length of time the building originally took to build.
“I had to run raccoons out several times,” Wormley said. “I had to clean out after raccoons — they would show up in the most unusual places. I have a snake skeleton that was above the window frame in the basement, it mummified. It probably got too big from eating the mice.”
She said she was happy to have great weather when she started renovating, but not everything went according to plan.
“They were putting in new windows and I really didn’t stop from that point on. It was a mild winter. When it’s 40 or 50 (degrees outside), it’s really good working weather. I worked daily from sun up to sun down, until October. I moved in the fall of 2010.”
Wormely encountered numerous problems during the rennovation, including replacing the entire basement floor, a failing ceiling and reinforcing the grange’s front wall, but she said she was lucky enough to have some family members who knew about house repair.
“I was just really blessed because my brother and my nephew were in the trades,” Wormley said. “They would know who I should call and could give me recommendations, and of course I would call two or three of them and get recommendations. It’s a major advantage that you wouldn’t have in a large city. You knew the tradesmen around.”
When it came to the renovation, she said it took determination and hard work.
“It was one of those things where you start, and you just don’t stop,” Wormley said. “The first couple of years, I didn’t do anything except for maybe the second year I think it was. I had a roof put on, because this whole spot over here, the roof had leaked.”
To repair the flooring, rather than purchase new flooring, she decided to go green and use the flooring in a different section of the home to repair it.
“That’s the floor from the ladies room and the bathroom,” Wormley said. “We took up that floor, because I didn’t want a wooden floor in the kitchen or the bathroom and used that to repair this floor. I had an Amish crew, and they did a lot of unusual things you’d wouldn’t find a local contractor wanting to take on. I was able to do some really cool things with their assistance because they were into the reuse, recycle and reduce things.”
In order to officially label the property as a home, Wormley said she was told she had to have some upgrades.
“(I was told) I had to have a stove, sink and refrigerator for the kitchen, and a tub, toilet and sink in the bathroom, and then I could move in,” Wormley said. “The stove that I had, somebody gave to me for free. Everybody made fun of a coppertone stove. It happens to the world’s best coppertone stove. It was the right price, and it looks wonderful with my cabinets.”
When it came to decorating her home, she decorated it in her own style. Rather than a traditional house with walls and various rooms, the grange is a studio, much like her first home after college graduation.
“When I first moved to Kansas City right after college I had a studio, and that didn’t bother me,” Wormley said.
Wormley’s home now boasts a bright peach coat of paint and, despite its general lack of walls, is divided into various “rooms” — a brightly-colored floral couch and leather chair occupy the middle of the room and a large wardrobe sets off Wormley’s bed in the (direction) corner of the home. Antique pieces — including many of the grange’s original wooden chairs — mixed with modern pieces line the walls, washed in sunlight from the nearly floor-to-ceiling windows.
When everything was done, Wormley said one of her favorite things about the grange is the history. As it was in 1914, the building still plays a role in the community — her plumber had his wedding reception at her house and another person who did some work on her house met for 4H meetings at her house.
“There are a lot of memories,” Wormley said. “I love stories. I never liked history until I moved back. This area was part of the Underground Railroad, and that is sort of documented, but we are not officially a site.” As such, Wormley is currently working to get her home officially named as an stop on the Underground Railroad.
When everything was said and done, Wormley said she could not be happier with her home and her new, simpler lifestyle.
“I did try, since I have retired, to simplify,” Wormley said. “The less you own, the easier it is to clean.”
“I call it my New York loft in the middle of an Iowa cornfield,” Wormley added. “If anyone told me I’d have a peach house with green accents, I’d have told them they were crazy, but it really works.”