By Robert Lucke
Hunkered down on a bluff east of Havre overlooking the entire Milk River Valley is one of the most incredible homes in this part of Montana.
Maybelle Avila owns it. She is only the third member of her family to own it since it was built in 1906.
From afar, the long, low house with three sides of screened porches almost gives the impression that it is brooding and has been brooding for years and years. But, walk in the kitchen door and there is a house full of happiness and peace in every room.
It all started when Avila's grandfather Fred A. Nystrom came from Sweden and homesteaded on that spot in 1906. He built a one-room house and was happy to be one of the first dryland farmers in the area. His family had a tannery in Sweden. Growing things was a better life for Nystrom. In 1915 he had a good crop so he added on to his homestead and built a long low Craftsman Bungalow with porches that wrapped around three sides of the house.
That is almost exactly what a visitor sees today. There have been improvements through the years like electric lights, running water and the like, but the old wood stove still sits proudly in the huge kitchen and the oak ice box gleams across the room. Avila sits at the large table in the middle of the room where so many of her family members have sat for years and years. Other rooms are filled with the original furniture. It's as if the original family might come out of a room at any moment.
A little more history: Avila's mother and father, Bella and Harry Christian, married and raised their children on another homestead at the foot of a Bear Paw mountain called Number One. Maybelle attended the Eagle Rock School and tells of having to walk the first year. She got lost in a blizzard one time and had given up when the family dog found her. The next year she had a horse to ride to school because her father told her the horse could always find his way home.
After finishing school, she moved to California with two aunts, and her mother moved into the house east of Havre to take care of her widowed mother. That was in 1948.
Meanwhile, Maybelle married Bob Avila and had a daughter, Linda. They moved back to the Havre house in 1968 to take care of Maybelle's mother. She had been on the garage roof fixing it, the ladder blew down in the wind and Bella Christian jumped to the ground. She broke her ankle in three places when she landed.
Avilas have lived in the remarkable house ever since.
Visitors enter the house like many farmhouses, through one of the porches into a large kitchen. In addition to the kitchen, there is what residents call a long room, a parlor or music room, four bedrooms and a bathroom.
The long room serves as a huge center hall and dining room for the house. It has comfortably held 35 people for holiday dinners, according to Avila.
The woodwork is all oak, every door in the house is carved in the Craftsman style with brass handles, and there is a large sliding pocket door between the kitchen and long room. Between the long room and music room is a unique set of French doors that are hinged together to open as one door rather than two.
And everything has a story. Comment about the pocket door, for instance, and Avila gets a faraway look in her eyes and says she can remember, as a young girl, waking up and hearing her mother close those pocket doors, then hear the grates on the kitchen stove rattle as her mother got a fire going. Later the girls in the house would all run into the kitchen and get dressed behind that stove.
Best thing of all about the house?
"Well, it is the home place," Avila said. "It is the place where the holidays were always celebrated. We have had so many uncles and aunts and children here. And, you know, I like old things. There is a charm about them. I immediately feel better when I come into this house."
If there is any one thing that has bothered Avila about the house throughout the years, it is that her grandfather put in lots and lots of windows and lots and lots of doors. It is hard to arrange furniture in that house.
There are the funny stories about her mother.
"You know, my mother fed a tramp here for a long time," Avila said, laughing. "The rest of the family kidded about Bella and her tramp. And then one time mother found a naked man asleep in one of the sheds. That scared her."
Avila's favorite room is the music room, whose window overlooks Havre.
And there are those porches.
"My favorite one is the front porch because that is where the family always sat," she said. "I can't remember how many fireworks displays we have watched from that porch. And we could always see the trains with their engines and smoke coming out. I always liked that."
Before electricity, Avila remembers the kitchen table she sits at today being full of kerosene lamps every night. There was a lamp for every member of the family.
"Every Saturday we had to clean those lamps," Avila said. "First we would crumble newspaper to get the soot out of the chimneys. Then they would have to be washed and polished, and if they didn't shine just so, grandmother would make us do them all over again."
One day Havre pioneer Joe Gussenhoven came out to dig a water well for Nystrom. He dug and instead of striking water, he struck natural gas. Nystrom refused to pay for a gas well and they didn't speak for years.
The stories continue in that place so close to Havre and yet so far from Havre. Stories from 1906 to 2002, all about the same family. Maybelle Avila hopes that yet another member of her family will come forward to continue family traditions and stories in that special place.
Research for this story came from "A Field Guide to American Houses" by Virginia and Lee McAlester.