Last week I dropped my three kids off at school and then stopped by a historic mansion. What a way to end my week — I know. I adore old houses. They enthrall me. I cannot help but be drawn into the mystery of who lived inside these buildings and what shape their experiences took in the dramatic sway of U.S. history. I was at this particular mansion on a cold but bright January morning to check out the place for a possible overnight stay.
The Lehrkind Mansion is the elaborate Victorian home of a German beer baron who built his fortune in late nineteenth century Bozeman. The house sits in a neighborhood that is intensely interesting for its architectural diversity and mixed uses. There are old mills restored as office buildings and art galleries. There are diminutive cottages from the early 1900s and new homes built with rooflines that echo those of the surrounding mill buildings. There is a working supply yard full of trucks and heavy, wrapped materials. There is an old and abandoned brick railroad station with a view of mountains behind it. There are tracks that see regular use by mile-long trains carting Montana’s rich coal deposits, deadly coal deposits that we both bemoan and depend upon for energy, to the West Coast and the Midwest. The Lehrkind Mansion is situated within a large fenced yard among these eclectic structures and transportation hubs. The home, a successful bed and breakfast, has been beautifully restored and glows with the luster of another age. I thought it might be an ideal setting for a mini writing retreat that I wanted to plan for a friend, the historian Martha Jones, and myself. We both have books stacked up in our minds, waiting to be written, and we both needed a push.
I had an appointment to see the bed and breakfast, during which I would gauge whether I thought this house had the personality to be an inspiring writing environment. Little did I know when I crunched through the snow on the path and rang the bell on the broad front porch that I might meet a muse inside. The woman who opened the door and asked me to take off my shoes was perhaps in her forties or fifties with pale blond hair just past her shoulders, lightly applied makeup, and a fleece sweatshirt the color of blue sky. She had just been finishing up breakfast for a guest, which was some scrumptious dish that she described but I have since forgotten. She took me on a brief tour through some of the rooms in the cozy main house as well as the garden house on the grounds. Then she invited me to sit in front of the warm fire in the parlor and started to chat.
My host had a story that I found remarkable. She didn’t actually work at this bed and breakfast, and she was a southerner, not a westerner. She hated cold, she confessed. A businesswoman from Florida, she was house sitting at the B&B because the owners, whom she had met at a hospitality conference, had not been on a vacation in ten years. She had volunteered to manage the place while they went to Hawaii to bask in tropical breezes and rejuvenate with friends. I had happened into the mansion during a transition within a transition: days before the house sitter / temporary manager was about to depart for good and minutes before she was heading out for a lesson at the Bridger Bowl, a small, relatively affordable and beloved-by-the-community ski resort.
We talked about her work as an entrepreneur (including her former horse farm, her gelato shop in a hundred year old cottage, and her current marketing business) and also about my work as a professor and history writer. She confided that she couldn’t tell me about the history of the Lehrkind Mansion because she had been too tired to pay much attention when the owners gave her the history tour. She said her thoughts tended more toward ways the B & B could innovate, like scheduling yoga retreats and writing retreats. I told her I thought writing retreats would be perfect. It was my turn to confide that I was previewing the place for a personal mini writing retreat, and that writing retreats and conferences had been crucial to my work, especially in the last six years that I had been trying to write a novel. She asked what my novel was about and whether it was historical fiction.
I was not expecting this question. I had kept the novel itself a secret from my friends, colleagues and even family members for years, and I was only then starting to make it public. This was the first time I was being asked to describe the work to someone who knew nothing about me or my scholarship in African American and Native American history. It was a sudden “elevator pitch” moment and I worried, in the second that she waited for my response, that I might not be able to summarize the book in a way that would be interesting to a person who led a very different life from mine. I took the plunge, telling her it was a novel about women in the present day who travel to a nineteenth century Cherokee plantation, discover a diary written by a missionary, and learn about the history of the place and each other. She said she thought that sounded great, like the kind of history that she would want to read. She said she had never liked history in school because it was always about “dates and facts,” but she was interested “in people, in stories, in living history.”
And with that, the transitory host of a beer baron’s historic mansion gave me a way of speaking about my work that seems elegantly simple and exactly on target. I usually think of “living history” as a kind of public history enterprise that involves the reenactment of historical events or ways of life. But my host had given me another way to think of this term: “living history” can also mean bringing history to life, reviving history in our present moment by highlighting human stories of the past and showing their relevance to us today. This is exactly what I aim to do in my public history work as well as in my fiction, which is not historical fiction in the traditional sense of fiction that takes place in a past time, but is historical fiction in the sense of fiction infused with the meanings and import of history.
As we continued to chat before the fire while an hour faded away, my host casually pointed out to me that it seemed to her like I was embarking on a major change in my life, with my first novel coming out in the spring. She suggested that change might be something for me to examine and embrace. And, seeing how much I admired the house, she commented that she bet I would own a bed and breakfast someday. Everything she had ever wanted to do, she said, she has done. It could be the same for me, she added. And with this rather profound statement about my future in the wake of her infusion of support for my current endeavor, the businesswoman from Florida said she was headed off to embarrass herself at her skiing lesson.
This was, for me, an odd encounter. In the wake of my 45th birthday, which had occurred just days before, the unexpected conversation set my day askew and sent my mind spinning about what I have done, and what I want to do, in my career as well as my life. It made me think that anyone, even a stranger, can be a muse for our creative endeavors. And it made me want to be a muse for someone else. I could not help but notice that my experience at the Lehrkind Mansion that day strangely echoed the experience of the characters in my novel: when you walk into the vortex of a very old home, you might just come out a different person.