History of the Wheeler House
by Sharon Howe
In 1908, tragedy stuck the town center in Hollis, NH, when the Price Building was totally consumed by a nighttime fire. The Price Building stood at the intersection of Main Street and Monument Square just north of the Always Ready Engine House. It was an imposing structure, nearly 135 feet long, and two stories on the front and three in the back, containing apartments, a store, many storage rooms, a tavern hall, and a connected stable. The flames, fanned by a wind blowing from the west, sent burning embers a mile and a half toward Nashua and made saving the building impossible.
The loss of the Price Building led the news, but the fire also destroyed another small building that was perhaps held just as closely in the memories of many a Hollis child of long ago. Just north of the Price Building was the store’s ice house. This building was formerly the Beaver Brook schoolhouse – a one-room schoolhouse from the Proctor Hill Road area that had been moved to the Price lot in the early 1870’s.
The Price Building fire could have changed the face of Monument Square had the property remained vacant, but the Hon. Franklin Worcester rebuilt, naming the new structure The Cranford Inn. The Inn included a hotel and a store and was widely known as a delightful place to take a trip to, especially for automobile parties.
Unbelievably, in 1912, just three and a half years after being rebuilt, the Cranford Inn also burned to the ground, taking with it the small garage building that had replaced the Beaver Brook schoolhouse turned ice house next door.
After the second fire, a temporary store was built by Will Gates at the schoolhouse/garage location, now 20 Main Street, to be used until the Worcester Block with apartments, post office, and store could again be rebuilt. By 1914, the Block had been reconstructed and the little temporary store building at 20 Main Street was about to take on a whole new life, thanks to a farmer from Pine Hill Road named Almond Wheeler.
The many branches of the Wheeler family tree stretched from Monson down to Patch’s Corner (Wheat Lane/Silver Lake Road) out South Merrimack Road, over to Wheeler Road where there was a cluster of homes identified as “Wheeler Village,” and down to Pine Hill.
Almond Wheeler, born in Hollis in 1862, grew up in a house that his father, Theodore Wheeler, had built at 38 Pine Hill Road in Hollis. When Theodore died on Feb. 6, 1892, Almond inherited the picturesque homestead where he worked as a cooper and a farmer, and married Carrie Mitchell of Nashua in June of that same year. The following year, their daughter, Beatrice Mabel, was born. The joy of her birth was short-lived – tragically, little Beatrice died three days before Christmas, aged, 7 months, 12 days.
Carrie and Almond were blessed once again in 1896, when their son, Elwyn S. Wheeler was born. As an only surviving child, Elwyn made friends with the neighborhood children, among them, Ruth E. Hills, born in 1889, the youngest daughter of James E. Hills, who lived two houses down at 54 Pine Hill Road. Despite Ruth being nearly seven years older than Elwyn, their childhood friendship matured and they became engaged to be wed only to have World War I intervene.
1917 was a significant year for the Wheeler family. Elwyn was one of the 24 million U.S. men who felt honor-bound to register for the draft, and he was called to duty to serve overseas in 1917. Carrie and Almond sold their farmhouse on Pine Hill Road, and Carrie purchased the deed to the ‘temporary store’ at 20 Main Street next to the new Worcester Block from Mr. Worcester’s estate. Almond set to work converting the building into a home for his family, embarking on a career as a merchant, commuting to Boston by train.
But tragedy struck again. On October 15, 1918, Elwyn was killed by a shell in the Argonne Forest, France, in one of the deadliest battles in World War I, only a month before the Armistice. One can only imagine the sorrow that filled the hearts of Almond, Carrie, and Ruth.
As much as Ruth Hills may have longed for a home and family of her own, she set on her life’s path with purpose, determination, and self-reliance. After graduating from Hollis High School in 1908, she earned her B.A. degree from Simmons College in Boston, an M.S. from Boston University, and then advanced study and certification in dietetics at the Massachusetts General Hospital. During her career, she was a professor of foods and nutrition at Murray College in Illinois and Rollins College in Florida, and a teacher at Nashua High School for many years.
Though she was well traveled and well educated, Hollis was always home and she re-mained close to her family and friends. It is thought by descendants of Ruth Hills that Mr. Almond Wheeler was very fond of the woman that had captured the heart of his only son, and he may have felt he could provide some security and companionship for her, something his son was never able to do. Clearly, they shared a common sorrow that bound them together for their lifetimes. In any event, after Carrie died in 1934,
Almond Wheeler and Ruth Hills agreed to be married in 1935, and Ruth moved into the house at 20 Main Street.
Almond may have had another motivation also. He passed away in 1936, just over a year after they married, and his estate passed to his wife instead of the tax man. Ruth was left in the little house on Main Street that Almond had so carefully remodeled into a home. She never remarried, but there she lived a full and meaningful life that reflected her values and generous and loving nature.
During the years after the death of Mr. Wheeler, Ruth became a dietitian at the Mass. General Hospital in Boston, followed by service in the Memorial Hospital (now Southern New Hampshire Medical Center) and St. Joseph Hospital in Nashua. In addition to her career, she served her community, her church, and her country in many ways. Perhaps to honor the service of Elwyn and all the members of the military whose lives were lost in war, she worked as a Red Cross volunteer in World War II. She opened her home for volunteer work among women and served as an occupational therapist at Fort Devens Hospital.
She presented the bell chimes to the Hollis Congregational Church in memory of her husband, Almond, and his son, Elwyn. She introduced and taught first aid classes to Hollis firemen; introduced the first Hollis kindergarten, provided teachers, and opened her home to the children. She was a founder of the Hollis Girl Scouts, and she encouraged and assisted many young people in searching for and obtaining college educations.
A number of Mrs. Wheeler’s grand nephews and nieces and their children continue to live in the New England area and they remember their ‘great’ aunt with much love and respect. It has been said by one that, “Aunt Ruth treated us like we were her own children.” She was the one who would gather us together and take us on trips to see the Ice Capades or the Bunker Hill Monument. Anything that would be a learning experience or contribute to our education was of high priority. One trip was a long walk out to Beaver Brook to see the beavers, and the trip home didn’t commence until we all had seen the beavers.
Children were welcome at her house after school to play games and do chores. The ‘games’, perhaps more aptly described as ‘puzzles,’ might consist of interlocking wooden sticks with notches or twisted miniature horseshoes or nails that you would have to figure out how to stack or disconnect. The children didn’t necessarily think of them as ‘games’ – not ‘fun’ games anyway; they were intellectual challenges that must be met!
She was always the teacher or the family nurse. If you were ill and needed to recuperate, you would go to Aunt Ruth’s where she would tend to your recovery. After a late night bus trip home from a high school basketball game, you could spend the night at her house rather than arrange for a ride home with a tired parent. The neighborhood children always knew her home would be open on Halloween eve for trick or treat. Mrs. Wheeler’s treats often consisted of popcorn balls, not the treat that candy might provide, but a nod to her thrift and nutritional concepts. And the children would dutifully follow Mrs. Wheeler’s invitation into her home where she could show them some of her treasures. A history lesson was often included.
A young neighborhood girl thought Mrs. Wheeler’s house was intriguing in many ways. In the wide doorway between the front hall and the parlour hung a curtain made of conical sea shells hung end to end on strings of graduated lengths and the goldfish pond behind the house was endlessly fascinating. In the fall, the boys were assigned the chore of filling bags of leaves to cover the pond to keep the fish alive during the cold winter. The fall chores also included putting the wooden side boards up on the north side of the porch to keep the cold winter wind from blowing in the vestibule when the front door opened and the pay for stacking firewood downstairs was fifty cents.
And, at Christmas, they decorated the spruce tree by the front walk with lights for the holiday. In the spring, the boys had the honor of clearing the fish pond of leaves and muck. Mrs. Wheeler always let you know who was the ‘employer’ and who was the ‘employee,’ yet she never raised her voice…a true Edwardian lady…proper, well-mannered, well-spoken, gracious, and kind.
In 1958, Mrs. Wheeler worked with many interested Hollis residents to establish a society for the preservation of Hollis history and artifacts, and she became one of the charter members of the organization of the Hollis Historical Society. At her death in 1979, at 90 years of age, Mrs. Ruth Hills Wheeler, in addition to a number of other bequests, willed her home at 20 Main Street in Hollis to the Hollis Historical Society for their headquarters and museum.
The Hollis Historical Society’s “Ruth E. Wheeler House” stands today as a testament to Mr. and Mrs. Wheeler and to their love of family, community and home.
The house has remained much as it was during Mrs. Wheeler’s lifetime. It is a “modest World War I-vintage wooden dwelling, stylistically in the Craftsman/ Bungaloid streams.” The form of the house is a simple block with a later one-story ell at the rear (ca. 1930). The ell appears originally to have consisted of living space to the north and a possibly still later open porch to the south. All space is now fully enclosed.
The roof ridge runs parallel to the street. The front plane of the roof extends to cover a porch — carried on four round Tuscan influenced, Colonial Revival wooden columns (lumber yard variety) —running across the entire front of the house. Large shed dormers accommodate second-story space. As is characteristic of both the Craftsman and Bungaloid styles, rafter ends are exposed, without fascia or cornice. The eaves on the north part of the ell are treated with cornices in the Colonial Revival manner. The foundation of the main block of the house consists of fieldstone.
Inside, the house contains five principal rooms (including the former ell porch – now know as the Kit Hardy Reading Room) plus a reception hall on the first story. The kitchen walk-in pantry was converted to a half bath for the first floor ell room when Mrs. Wheeler rented the room to Mrs. Beth LeRoy. The kitchen itself remains as it was when Mrs. Wheeler owned the house and is an interesting example of a mid-20th century kitchen. The original, wood-burning stove with a copper hot water tank behind it has been removed, but the electric stove and a small early GE refrigerator next to the porcelain drain board kitchen sink remain in place along with the multi-colored linoleum flooring.
The upstairs includes the original three bedrooms and a full bath. A door from the east bedroom opened out to the flattened back porch roof which was enclosed with a railing and allowed for views of the activities in the field behind the Worcester Block and the Library. Finishes throughout the house are primarily lath and plaster, with wooden trim, formerly clear-finished, but now mostly painted. Surprisingly, for a house of this age, some of the trim was hand-planed...perhaps a remaining vestige of her husband, Almond Wheeler’s, coopering skills.
Behind the house is another small structure, originally an ice house, subsequently used as a preschool, now used for storage, and holds the piano that belonged to Almond’s son, Elwyn Wheeler. South of the ice house is a garden area, partially enclosed by the foundation of an earlier barn.
Over the years, the Wheeler House has been well used by members and visitors of the Historical Society. It includes a varied collection of Hollis artifacts – in fact, Mrs. Wheeler’s kitchen is a museum itself – reminding many visitors of the way their grandmother’s kitchen once appeared.
The Society has a large collection of Hollis school memorabilia and numerous archival materials, letters, documents, diaries, and albums. Information on genealogical records and photographs and histories of old Hollis homes are available.
For the volunteers of the Society and the visitors to the house, one of the most pleasurable aspects of time spent there is the warm and welcoming spirit that seems to pervade the space. Many memories continue to be made there and many threads that connect people and Hollis history have been re-established there as well. It seems likely that the spirit of Mrs. Wheeler lives on within the walls of her home and continues to welcome and touch all who enter.