Magical house

by Juanita Neal Baker

Gather round and let me tell you a story about a remarkable woman... Every one of you wouldn’t be here today at this reunion listening to this story if it weren’t for Juanita Wilson. my grandmother, unless she had lived and did what she did, not one of you!  [Many of you are related to her and have some of her blood (we say “having someone’s blood meaning not her actual blood, but her genetics, DNA handed down through your parents that makes you the person you are)...and that means you wouldn’t have been born without her.  And if you don’t have her blood, then you wouldn’t be here either because you are here because of someone who does have her blood. ]

She was a special person and I want you to get to know her.  She was born in 11/10/1878, in Cincinnati more than a century ago, in the 19th century!


Juanita Wilson Thompson 1930

Juanita Wilson Thompson Roettig, 1920s picture

(11/10/1878 Cincinnati, OH-8/23/1958 Cole Hospital, Champaign, IL)

Her father, James Bogie Wilson was born in 3/2/1838, in Cincinnati, OH and his ancestors came from England to America. He was a banker and came from a wealthy family.  Her mother, Sue Josephine Camblos Wilson 8/15/1845 in Washington DC whose ancestors were from France and Spain named her “Juanita” as that is a Spanish name and I am named after her!  I feel very special to be her grand daughter!  She grew up with 3 older brothers, but sadly they all three died in their twenties. 

After they had died Juanita was very sad, but soon she was happy when she fell in love with Frank Reed Thompson, a very handsome man.  But he had been married already, and her parents may not have approved that she marry him as that was just not done in those days.  You were supposed to fall in love with one person for life.


Frank Reed Thompson

Frank Reed Thompson (3/4/1873 Cincinnati, OH-10/1/1907 Kelley’s Island, OH)

So they 1st wed on 9/19/1905 in Chicago IL and she became Mrs. Juanita Wilson Thompson and then perhaps when her parents couldn’t do anything but accept it, and wanted society to recognize and plan their wedding, they married again on 5/19/1906 in Cincinnati, OH.

A year later they were excited to have a baby girl and named her “Desha Franklin Thompson.”  Life seemed so happy right then, and they went on vacation to where their family often went, on Kelly’s island in lake Erie, in Canada.  Her father was having a very good time, he loved tennis and played hard one morning.  The first cars that were made were different from those we have today and required one to crank them with a hand crank to get them started.  If that didn’t work, they’d get the car moving fast enough to jump start it.  So after his tennis game, his car did not start so he began to push it.  But it must have been too strenuous as again Juanita’s life became sad because her husband Frank, after pushing the car, he felt tired and sat down in a rocking chair on their cottage porch to rest but died of a heart attack, so young, when Desha (our mother, - Jim, Nita, and Tom) was just a tiny baby, 3 months old.  Sadly, Juanita and the baby moved back to live with her parents...remember her father was a banker, so could help her out...and where did they live? But in a hotel!  They ate their meals in the hotel dining room!  Can you imagine what good behavior the little girl, Desha, had to have!

When Desha had grown and was 7 years old, Juanita wanting her to have a father, married another man, William J. Eckman, and she became Juanita Wilson Thompson Eckman, but unfortunately she was unhappy with his temperament and they divorced just 4 years later in 1918.  The 1920s were a very freeing time in America, people thought America was so different and the possibilities were endless to become wealthy and do things differently from tradition in their old countries.  So some women began to think that they could and should do about anything a man could.

Juanita wanted to be independent, earning her own money and so she started her own store, named “Juanita’s Art shop.”  Few brave women did such a thing in those days!  She loved art, and beautiful things were being brought from China and other countries, so she had some very unique art and furniture in her shop. Since she started the store in 1927, many of the pieces she had would now be considered antiques! 

Juanita's Art Shop 1926 1

Juanita’s Art Shop 1927-1932

So ancestors are important, because you know if she could do such a brave thing, and be successful at running a business, then you can too, because you are part of her heritage and know that you can be like her!  You can be a successful entrepreneur, just like she was.  You too can do brave things that she did...raise a child by herself...make decisions to make her life better, even though “people may not have approved, or others had not done things like that before.”

However, you may have heard that in 1929 the “stock market crashed” just like last Fall our market crashed...that means people who had invested in businesses which had to close, had worthless promises and often lost all their money, and many lost their jobs because the companies had to close and then those who did not earn, couldn’t pay the bank for their mortgages on their house, so they had to lose their house.  Do you know of anyone today that’s happened to?

So it was a very hard time for Juanita as people didn’t have money to buy art, though people who had money did buy art as a long term investment, most people stopped buying so much and she had to close her shop in 1932.  She also may have closed it because she met and married her last husband that year Louis Roettig, and they lived in the house together, the magical house I want to tell you about...Juanita Wilson Thompson Roettig...was a loving and interesting woman.

Visiting grandmother Juanita Wilson Thompson Roettig’s home for a week was always a great excitement as we drove from Illinois.  She lived in a cream-colored stucco house looking just like the outside of the other houses along her street in Cincinnati Ohio, placed very close to each other.  Stucco is plaster all over the wall’s sides with little points sticking out.  Since everyone used coal to heat their homes, the air contained tiny coal particles falling down and resting on each of those points, making them black, so the outside looked really grubby on the outside...but magical on the inside!  It was not far to walk to my grandfather Louis Roetig’s drugstore, where I could climb up on the high wrought iron stools to sit at the counter while the soda “jerk” gave me a real coke with coke syrup and soda water fizz forcing the cola to mix with the soda in delightful bubbles that tickled my nose.  [Tom being the persuasive, assertive person he was got grandpa to let him go behind the soda fountain and make his own would you like: Orange sherbet with marshmallow topping and butterscotch sauce?  He says, ugh!  What kind of soda would you like to make?]

The house sat on a corner on a rise, a sidewalk to the front porch. Up two steps then up a short sidewalk and then up about five steps to the covered front porch. The front porch had about a 12 ft sq. portion of the front porch, to the right of the front door (facing the house) in front of the living room. The porch had a stone open structure 2.5 foot high wall around the edge and we climbed the stairs up to her front porch where we could sit on the porch swinging couch overlooking the world of the street.  The house faced North, with large sycamore trees lining the West street or right side of the house, with their peeling bark and canopy of lovely leaves and shade, keeping the house cool in the summertime. 

Grandma was there on the porch to welcome us warmly with open arms and hugs.  In her entry hall one faced a stairway on the left going up to the second floor bedrooms, and to the stair’s right side was this wonderful tall “grandfather’s” clock. Every Sunday morning grandfather would go to the clock unlocking the glass door, pick up the keys sitting inside the clock on a ledge and wind it.  A large brass circle pendulum, swung back and forth.  They had electricity, but no electrical appliances or clocks like we have.   I loved to hear it chime every hour, the big hand pointing to the Roman Numeral XII and the small hand pointing to the hour, another Roman numeral. 

One of my favorite songs as a child was “My grandfather’s clock.”

My grandfather's clock

Was too large for the shelf,

So it stood ninety years on the floor;

It was taller by half

Than the old man himself,

Though it weighed not a pennyweight more.


Ninety years without slumbering,

Tick, tock, tick, tock,

His life seconds numbering,

Tick, tock, tick, tock,

It stopped short

Never to go again,

When the old man died.

It was bought on the morn

Of the day that he was born,

It was always his treasure and pride;

But it stopped short

Never to go again,

When the old man died.


In watching its pendulum

Swing to and fro,

Many hours had he spent while a boy;

And in childhood and manhood

The clock seemed to know,

And to share both his grief and his joy.

For it struck twenty-four

When he entered at the door,

With a blooming and beautiful bride;

But it stopped short

Never to go again,

When the old man died.


My grandfather said

That of those he could hire,

Not a servant so faithful he found;

For it wasted no time,

And had but one desire,

At the close of each week to be wound.

And it kept in its place,

Not a frown upon its face,

And its hand never hung by its side.

But it stopped short

Never to go again,

When the old man died.


It rang an alarm

In the dead of the night,

An alarm that for years had been dumb;

And we knew that his spirit

Was pluming for flight,

That his hour of departure had come.

Still the clock kept the time,

With a soft and muffled chime,

As we silently stood by his side.

But it stopped short

Never to go again,

When the old man died.


I wonder where that clock is today!  Perhaps it was given to one of the mother didn’t bring it back for us.

On the right of the clock one could pass down a narrow dark hall straight into the Pantry (a special room just to store all the food, (sacks of potatoes, flour, sugar, salt) area where the white storage area of shelves with glass doors displaying the foods available. Canning vegetables for the winter of the garden produce was necessary as there were no canned foods (metal was needed for the war). She had large glass jars of canned peaches (she had a peach tree in the back yard that produced many peaches), tomatoes, and other vegetables she had grown in her garden.  To help the “war effort,” everyone had a “victory” garden, the way we could grow our own food and live more cheaply as no one had much money in those days.  Our presidents today don’t ask us to help “our wars” by doing anything, but in those days, one would really use those “piggy” banks to save one’s pennies to buy “war bonds,” loaning the government money to build war machinery.  Grandma’s garden had the peach tree, and vegetable garden and a bird bath where the birds came drink.  A wooden tool shed for the garden tools and a small, detached wooden one-car garage stood just a little bigger than the car. 

In the pantry was an icebox they still used.  Ice was delivered every other day and put inside the thick walled icebox with a solid wooden door front with metal lever-styled handles that locked the door airtight.  Every other day the milk man came by horse cart very early in the morning would deliver the quarts of milk in a carrier setting the bottles at the backdoor so you’d have fresh milk...Each bottle of milk had a thick 1-2 inch layer of cream on top, that you would spoon off the top for using in your coffee or for cooking.  Before refrigerators (remember they didn’t have electrical appliances before or during the war), everyone had iceboxes, so my family often called our refrigerator the “ice-box” and now you know why!  The small darker kitchen was next to the pantry...where the maid/cook prepared all the food for everyone...

I was very curious to explore every corner of the house. A door from the pantry led down a narrow slat step wooden stairway to the basement where the huge iron furnace sat next to the coal bin.  The coal bin was a very small space (big enough to hold a ton of coal) you could see over the door and a Shute from the window allowed the coal truck to dump lumps of coal into the basement coal bin.  There was a wide coal shovel.  Coal burns slowly, so one would open the heavy door of the furnace and shovel coal from the coal bin into the very hot burning furnace.  One could open the damper (air vent) to allow air into the furnace to make it burn faster and hotter or close it and it would burn slower and only the amount of heat needed to heat the upstairs floors where the air vents allowed heat into each of the rooms.  When it was cold upstairs I would find the square black metal grate incased in the wood floor along the edge of the room to sit on and the heat coming up was so warm and cozy.  Also down stairs was a small room where the maid would iron, putting the glowing coals in the heated iron...She also could spend the afternoon times there when she wasn’t working.

On the right of the hall we’d pass through a large wooden frame, into the living room, filled with lovely old formal wood with upholstered furniture.   You faced a large fireplace and mantle with a golden medallion of a woman’s side view I’d pictured as the way my mother or grandmother had looked when they were young.  On the fireplace were silver candlestick holders and candles; and on the wall old-fashioned lanterns with ornate holders adorned each side. Since we visited in the summer, we did not see the fire, but fireplace tools, grate and bucket, with a rack of wood stood ready. Grandmother had gathered such lovely furniture, Tiffany glass lamp and was a work of art herself in her flowered dresses, always dressed up! Her feet squeezed into high heels.  Always expressing appreciation for the fine and the beautiful. 

Life was very different without our current technology. There were no cell phones, video games, television, computers, CDs, DVDs, ipods.   But we loved each other (that’s the most important thing, isn’t it?) and loved life too. To the right of their fireplace stood a large standing radio next to my grandfather’s chair, where Grandpa Roettig smoking a cigar while listening to the news. Brother Jim would always try to listen on different days, to the half hour shows of The Shadow  (The shadow knows...heh, heh, heh) and The Lone Ranger (Rides again!! Hi Ho Silver!).

But I was more interested in climbing on the right a wide step up to the lovely wooden floor with small lovely oriental rug in the bay window area where the sun streamed in warmly. It was a great light place to sit on the wooden window seats with cushions and pillows to read a book.  Since the house sat on the corner, I could see anyone coming from the left, up, down, or right on the sidewalks and cars on the street.  The Bay windows overlooked and were surrounded by large fluffy flowers of the Chinese Snowball bushes.

Adjoining the living room through another wooden wide areaway with doors folded back, was the magical dining room, on the right was the chair and table with the up right telephone with the ear piece separate from the base with the dial pad and long piece at mouth level where mother would sit, for hours it seemed, animatedly talking into the phone with her old friends whom she had either met in college or when we lived in Cincinnati when I was very small.   Sun shown in the series of windows with a window box for real live green plants growing inside!  Real soil and small watering can were part of the 10’x3’ foot window box extending along the wall.  Bright sunshine streamed through these plants and scattered at different heights standing on metal rods thrust into the soil of the window box were life-size, but flat, wooden birds colorfully painted––robin, blue jay, cardinal, downy woodpecker, goldfinch, Baltimore oriole I remember.  On the wall on the other side of the dining room were formal wooden furniture containing linens and dishes and a Chinese carved shelves with lovely Rookwood pottery and Chinese vases.  A shelf went high around the walls with fancy plates (decorated with tiny flowers) displayed, sitting on their edges facing us.  A large dining room table where everyone could sit with white table cloth and napkins formally set with china plates, shining silver, and polished silver salt shakers and candelabra...all in its precise place.  Grandmother would sit at the head of the table at the far end nearest the kitchen door.  It was revealed to us an amazing thing...under the table we could press a bump in the oriental carpet near where grandma’s foot was, and it would ring a buzzer in the kitchen to call Sina, the maid!  That was how the maid knew exactly when to come in to serve us or to know when we had finished the course and were ready for her to clear the dishes and serve the next course! 

A Stair way that led up stairs went to the bedrooms past a wonderful Stained glass window glowing in the morning light.—and I thought they’re found only in churches!  It led me to think that this house was very special, where one could think deep thoughts from the heart.  The colored glass window shielded the view of the neighbor’s house that was just 10 feet close! Yet, the magic of this house seemed that it was a world of its own, insulated from the world. 

There were 3 bedrooms on the second floor, one being a sunny sewing room with a sewing machine which you peddled (not electrical) and Tom really thought was super to pedal and make it sew, a guest room, and the very large bedroom where my grandmother’s 4 poster bed took up much of the room. Each bed in the house had homemade sewn quilts, each square so carefully cut and sewn by hand in such a variety of patterns, each meaning something to my grandmother or her mother who had made them.  Grandmother’s room also had a chaise lounge (originally it came from the French word “longue (meaning "long")” which was misidentified and therefore misspelled for the English word "lounge") with embroidered pillows....that I loved to lounge back on in the morning as grandmother sat before her 3 tabled vanity dressing table with three mirrors, one facing you and slanted mirrors on each side so she could see herself from different directions and with her ivory handled mirror could look in and see the back of her head!  The mirror reflected all sitting the things on the vanity table: her ivory comb and brush set, round powder box, and many bottles of all different shapes and sizes of perfumes and atomizers. After her bath in the large tub (it had feet! And was such fun to take a bath in!) on the white tiled floor bathroom, large as a bedroom almost (!) she would sit on the stool in her slip and spend at least an hour it seemed with making herself beautiful.  It was a sight to behold! Grandmother would take one container after another out of the drawers and put on layer upon layer of foundation, make up, powder, rouge...I had never seen someone put so much rouge on...literally on her ear lobes extending all around her large round cheeks. She would put body powder and perfumes, uncurl her large curlers holding her silver hair in large curls and comb it out...finally she would put on her very elaborate, often gold and pearl jewelry, always her sparkling earrings in her pierced rouged earlobes (no one had pierced ears that I knew but her in those days!) and her glasses.  Finally, ready for her mirror to mirror inspection making sure every hair was in place, eye liner, lipstick, eyebrows (plucked and lined) were perfect.   

The Attic was on the third floor.  It was scary climbing up the narrow dark stairway by myself at night to the third floor where I slept in one large room that had a wooden floor, walls, and slanted roof...where I would sleep all by myself in another big bed you had to climb up into it.  There was an already wound up alarm clock sitting on the dresser that made a loud tick tock, never stopping.  It was an eerie place to be when it was dark, a little scary, all alone up there...with the shadows of the sycamore trees dancing across the window shades when the trees were blowing. And the tick tock tick tock, incessantly, though the tick tock was kind of it was there to watch over me. 

But I would come up to the Attic in the day time, when it was light and I was not scared at all...but would open the storage closet and there were all kinds of interesting things stored there...boxes of things...a box of old letters with old stamps and piles of National Geographic magazines.

As a 12 yr old child, I’d leaf through the magazines, different worlds opened before me.   One exciting National Geographic I opened, I discovered the pages to these marvelous, unusual plumes and creatures in paintings by Walter A. Weber in the National Geographic magazines in my grandfather’s attic in Cincinnati, I was astounded!  How beautiful!

2B GreaterPlumeGrayBreasted BOP-2




Called birds of paradise I could not believe to exist, so colorful and unusual. I don’t think I imagined them as real, but I always was so intrigued by birds that were so different from ones we had in Illinois. As I became an adult and familiar with birds around the world, went on many birding trips, as we traveled to Asia, Pakistan, India, China, Africa, Europe but still, after 50 some years of extensive travel, I still had not seen any birds of paradise, but I knew they at least existed somewhere and I remembered the experience of discovering them so many years before.  Because a lot of exotic birds are going extinct, I decided in 2006 I had to see them before their habitats were destroyed.  We went to Papua New Guinea and hiked miles in tropical rain forests to see them.  And the discovery in the wild was even more spectacular as the colors are so brilliant! On our return, my family challenged me after I had told the story so often of seeing them when I was 12 years old, and said, I should show them the National Geographic I had seen.  After our trip, I borrowed the National Geographic CD from Brenda and found that sure enough, in the February, 1950 issue, this wonderful article of an expedition into Papua New Guinea hunting for the birds of Paradise!    

And in the attic I want to share one last thing...3 last boxes I discovered, 2x1 foot by 4 inches high...[can you guess? ] I carefully opened the lid, to peak... it was filled with soft, fluffy cotton and in little indentations in the cotton, like nests, were nestled so many different kinds of bird’s, white, speckled brown, pale green... some very tiny, others rather large, all carefully in line in their cotton-lined boxes,

I wish as a young child I had thought to question my grandfather about birds and his wonderful collection of eggs …a mystery I’ll never know now: how, where, and when he collected them…surely before birds egg collecting was banned.  [Why do you think they banned collecting birds eggs?] Only long after some people die do we think of questions we wish we had thought of or had the courage to ask them!  So if you are curious about anything, ask!

So what were the seeds for my love of the beauty of birds that grew in Grandmother’s house that magical house? 1. In the garden bird bath, 2. the dining room garden birds on metal rods, 3. the birds of paradise in the National Geographic, and 4. the eggs nestled in the cotton boxes... these led me to many woods in search of the wondrous beauties.   So your dreams and artistic vision can be nurtured in unique places as a child... What you learn as a kid can impact you as a grownup...follow your dreams.  Let your curiosity lead you to interesting new experiences and even to life long loves and careers!

[And what of all the many things I’ve told you about in her magic house would you like to see if you could visit her and her house today?]

Here are some more pictures of art objects Juanita had in her living room: Swan dish.jpg

Swan, Pottery by Rookwood, Cincinnati, OH and Frog.jpg

Flower Dish, Pottery by Rookwood, Cincinnati, OH Glass Candle Holder.jpg

Small Candle holder