Jim, Vera Shaw Age: 81, 76 Occupation: grandparents
For Jim and Vera Shaw, history isn’t abstract. It’s something you can run your hands over.
Their history has yellow pine walls and a cedar-shingled roof. It is tiny sacks of flour stored behind the door and tubs of lard on the shelf. It’s four chairs at a kitchen table that feeds 11.
The Shaws are seeing to it that their tales from the past are more permanent than air passing over vocal cords.
The Shaws are telling their history with a miniature farmhouse.
The Spokane Valley couple built the farmhouse for their children and grandchildren, great nieces and nephews.
They wanted future generations to understand what it was like to live in the early 1900s, on a 120-acre farm near Orofino, Idaho.
Jim Shaw was born on that farm in 1916, in a four-room home he later shared with seven brothers and sisters. He recreated the farmhouse on a smaller scale last year, cutting the 1,400 cedar shingles by hand and shaping each tiny board.
Vera furnished it with the wood-burning kitchen stove, the padded storage box that serves as a sofa and the quilted beds that sleep three or four children at a time.
“The younger generations had never seen the old house,” said 76-year-old Vera Shaw, who helped her husband unveil it at a family reunion last summer.
“They were absolutely fascinated,” she said. “They couldn’t understand how you could live without Nintendo, electricity, TV. … Even the next day they were asking questions.”
The house, Vera Shaw said, was something the younger generations could touch and feel. She and Jim supplemented it with old black and white photos of the farm, and of Grandpa Jim as a baby, playing outside in his favorite wagon. They also wrote a four-page story about daily life in the Shaw family home, detailing everything from homemade clothes to homemade ice cream.
“It was a labor of love,” said Vera Shaw, who believes children benefit from a sense of roots. It’s a belief she passed on to her son, Greg.
“If you don’t have a sense of belonging, you have a good shot of getting in trouble,” said Greg Shaw, now 51 and the father of two teens.
But with so much competing for kids’ attention these days, the Shaws knew they would have to be creative to capture their more modern descendants’ interest.
They put a hinged roof on the 28x30x17-inch house, so the young people could peer inside and remove the old-fashioned furniture for a closer look. They dug out photos of the ancestors who lived there and added details to the story they knew would capture the youngsters’ imagination.
It told of Grandpa Jim’s chores, including cranking his mother’s washing machine by hand and carrying water from a nearby spring. He and his brothers earned spending money by hunting for magpie eggs and squirrel tails.
The story fascinated the Shaws’ grandchildren, great-nieces and great-nephews, who had gathered in Lewiston for a weekend reunion last July.
“It’s kind of hard to imagine how they lived,” said Kristine Shaw, Jim and Vera’s 15-year-old granddaughter. “But they made it realistic. I thought it was cool.”
The old farmhouse gave Shaw’s descendants a new perspective. It also returned the 81-year-old man to his past.
Suddenly, Shaw’s memories were turning into solid walls. He could see his mother in the kitchen, filling rows of jars with fresh vegetables and fruit from the garden. He could see his younger brothers and sisters tugging at her skirt.
He could see his grandfather, who homesteaded the land in 1905, and his father, who continued farming it, with horses, sweat and muscle.
His father died young, when Shaw was just 20. His mother and three youngest siblings soon moved to Lewiston. Eventually, the family sold the property.
But Shaw doesn’t want it forgotten.
The former logger and sawmill foreman plans to return to the farm someday. When he dies, his ashes will be scattered there.
The miniature farmhouse is one piece of Shaw’s family history. It’s a puzzle he and Vera began working on 11 years ago.
In 1987, they created an 80-page ancestor book, with pictures of Jim’s grandparents, parents, siblings, and each of his sibling’s children and grandchildren. It included birth dates, wedding dates, deaths and other information, in a loose-leaf binder that could be easily updated. The Shaws made 33 of the books, and gave them as gifts to family members.
This year, Vera plans to start an ancestor book for her side of the family. With the help of her 95-year-old mother, she wants to include stories about each relative.
She hopes they’ll touch her grandchildren as strongly as her husband’s stories did.
Thanks to those stories, 16-year-old Steven Shaw says he now looks at the world a bit differently. Waiting to cross a busy Spokane street, his thoughts sometimes drift to a time before semi-trucks and minivans, when only an occasional horse trotted past, kicking up dust on the roadway.
It’s a world he and his sister, Kristine, rarely thought of before. In that little farmhouse, they’ve found history in their hands.
“It’s pretty surprising,” Kristine said, “what my grandpa can do with wood.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Cityline You can listen to Vera Shaw as she tells the story of the Shaw children growing up in an Orofino farmhouse in the early 1900s. Just call The Spokesman-Review’s Cityline at 458-8800 in Spokane, or 654-8811 in North Idaho. Punch in category 9870.