The Woods Mansion was well situated. Sitting on a rise, it commanded an excellent view of the lake, possibly the best vantage point of the lake to be had. It was a large, single storey structure and the best way to describe its aspect is brooding. Its gray exterior, punctuated by tall, blank windows, was not inviting, even on the brightest of days. Even in its heyday, it must have seemed cold to visitors. The facade of the building was devoid of any ornamentation. The entrance, a double-door affair approached by a flight of concrete stairs, was also quite plain. A large, semicircular drive once connected the house to the road. No landscaping was evident; nothing to mar the view of the lake, and the only oddity to the front yard was the life-sized stone statue of a dog, most likely a Labrador. A covered drive through was at one end of the house, possibly to allow the residents to enter the house dry shod in bad weather. This entrance must have been for the family only, since it gave directly into the bedroom area. At the other end, balancing the drive through, was a screened-in porch. The front of the property was lined with a black wrought iron fence with gates at either end for access to the driveway.
The back of the house was equally unassuming with windows balancing those of the front and a single door giving into the kitchen. Since the house was built a couple of feet off the ground, it was difficult for small eyes to see into the interior. Difficult, but not impossible. What we saw through windows where the drawn curtains admitted a view was an opulence, an otherness, to which we were unaccustomed. All of the rooms were high ceilinged. What we took to be the living room and the dining area occupied the full width of the house and were filled with furniture. Most of it was covered in white sheets but some exotic pieces, made of animal horns, always drew our attention. Thinking them exotic, we also thought them uncomfortable. The one bedroom we could see into was strangely sparse. A bed and a chest of drawers in a stem white room without even a picture to relieve its rigor.
The only outbuilding was a crumbling three-car garage which also once housed an area for household tools. Beyond that was an apple orchard whose overgrown trees still yielded good apples in season. These we used to gather and those we did not eat we took home. Two large chestnut trees located closer to the house also provided a goodly number of chestnuts. As with the apples, the uneaten ones were taken home.
Across the road, on the lakeshore, was a two-storey boat house. Wooden shutters sealed the upper level away from view. The lake lapped at the interior of the lower level. We never attempted to explore that building. Something about it did not invite our attention. There was a time when we believed that a troll lurked in the watery darkness, ready to pounce on any unsuspecting child unwary enough to venture in.
To be frank, we were always in awe of the house. It had not been inhabited since the 1930s and its windows provided a view back in time. There were various stories about its owner, none of them correct. He was, by turns, a Chicago gangster, a recluse, a stockbroker who had lost his money during the Depression and had gone mad.
The truth is that he was quite wealthy and had amassed his fortune selling patent medicines. I met him once when he came, unannounced, to our door. Introducing himself to my father, he was invited in for a cup of coffee. Sitting at our kitchen table, nothing at all like the table in his dining room, he explained that this was his last visit to the area. As he talked, he wove a tale which contained hints of madness, but spoke mainly of a man who had suffered some sort of disorder and had been institutionalized for a time. He entertained us with stories of selling his patent medicines, drawing samples from his pockets as he spoke. His eyes shone as he described the quality of his tooth powders, guaranteed to whiten your teeth; pain killers for headache and backache and other aches; other nostrums to cure a wide range of maladies, most of which I did not understand. These he left with us.
I never saw him again and the house remained closed. There are times when I wished I had had the nerve to ask him to show me the house. Truth be told, I was afraid to. We all thought the house to be haunted, a view fostered by remembrances of similar houses we saw in the Creature Features on Channel 3 on Saturday night. Like those houses, the curtains in the windows of the Woods Mansion sometimes moved, or so we thought, and it wasn’t too hard to imagine some spectre staring down at the trespassers in the backyard. We never went near the house alone and, if the group tried to leave you behind, a favorite joke, you ran like hell to catch up with them.
Although never actually apprised of the event, most of us surmised his death when his house went on the market in the early 60s. Ignoring the elegance of its past, the new owners turned it into a bed and breakfast. They mounted a tacky neon sign on the roof above the main entrance and painted the exterior an electric green. The once imposing structure now looked tawdry and cheap. The fence, too, was removed. And the boathouse, the boathouse too was renovated and painted an equally garish color, the tint of which escapes me at the moment.
The bed and breakfast, of course, failed and the property was sold again. The new owners, also ignoring the house’s past, elected to put the house out of its misery; issuing the final coup de grace by tearing it down. Left with an empty rise commanding a still magnificent view of the lake, the new owner’s imagination rose to the occasion as they erected a small one-storey prefab in its place. The ultimate insult.
We drive by occasionally, during visits to the area. As we do so, I remember the movement of curtains in tall windows and I secretly hope the mansion’s ghostly inhabitants have moved in with the owners of that little house. Perhaps, just perhaps, the owners might hear voices as the trees sigh in the night wind; voices reminding them of what was.