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Updated: Thursday, 05 Jan 2012, 7:03 PM CST
Published : Thursday, 05 Jan 2012, 5:44 PM CST
MEXIA, Texas (KXAN) - Robert Kraft, a want-to-be goat dairy farmer, had only been on his new five-acre Bastrop County farm for a month and a half when he looked up one day and saw a sky filling with smoke and fire.
“They evacuated us and I grabbed a few things out of the house,” Kraft recalled. “I couldn't find my cat, but I figured we'd be back in a couple of hours because how big could it be?"
Kraft left his house and barn behind as ordered, but he worried about the cat and he chafed at not knowing what was happening on his land.
“I snuck through the barricade and went back to find my cat and ended up staying there and fighting the fire for 12 hours,” he said.
Kraft waged his battle with a garden hose in one hand and an iPhone in the other, recording the effort with video and commentary .
“That night, I realized it was just way too big; there was nothing I could do,” he said. “It was closing in on three sides. My little water hose and me were not able to stop it. So I grabbed the cat and hiked out of there back to my truck and left and that night the place burned down.”
Ironically, Kraft credits the day-long fight with the fire with helping him avoid the traumatic stress so many other survivors experienced in the wake of the tragedy.
“It's like, well, you fought and you got beat,” he said. “It was a fair fight and now what do you do?”
His first step was to move a borrowed RV onto his place for shelter. Then he got busy trying to figure out his next step. Along the way, he paid a visit to his dentist and when the conversation got around to the fire, the dentist mentioned a friend who salvaged antique wood for a living and who also put owners of old houses in touch with buyers who seek them.
That friend turned out to be Mike Draper, who started salvaging rare longleaf pine flooring and other antique woods from vintage houses and buildings as a hobby.
His first job was on an old house in Walburg in Williamson County. The owner was astonished to learn that not only would he not have to pay a demolition crew to take the house down, but Draper would actually pay him for the salvaged wood.
But long before that, Draper had become his own customer, traveling to Columbus, Texas, to dismantle an aging 6,000-square-foot dance hall. He worked by himself, sunup to sundown, for 45 days straight on the job.
Then he spent another six months, again working primarily alone, to build a combination office, warehouse, workshop and residential apartment near Oak Hill in Austin.
Enjoying a huge customer response, Draper went to work under the name “ This Old Wood .” Later, he bought out a similar business called, “ Old Texas Floors .” Now he operates both and the customers keep calling.
When Draper comes across a vintage structure that still boasts of integrity, though, he offers to put the owner in touch with people he knows who are looking for such buildings.
“I have people calling me all the time,” said Draper. “I've got a list of about 20 people that are looking for houses right now.”
So, when Draper got a call from a Cedar Park couple seeking advice about what to do with a nearly 100-year-old house they had inherited in Mexia, he agreed to make the drive to the Limestone County community for a look. It didn’t take long to render a verdict.
“It had the beautiful longleaf pine,” Draper remembered. “It had the original bathtub and sink. It basically hadn't been touched for 100 years, almost 100 years, and it needed to be saved.”
When Barry and Suzanne Sharp heard that news, they were delighted. Barry’s mother, Benita Brown Sharp, had grown up in the house with her great-aunt, Mattie Victoria Brown Crouch. The aunt died in 1970, but over the decades that followed, someone in the family had stayed there, off and on, until 2005.
“It started out as the Humble Oil Field offices in Mexia,” Barry Sharp said, “and then found new life as a home for a growing family during the Depression and World War II, up through the '50s. It became a home away from home for my uncles when they came back from the military or from working.”
The last uncle died in 2005 and when the Sharps inherited the property and the home, they began the grindingly slow process of removing decades worth of family mementos, treasures and belongings, including Aunt Mattie’s clothing which still hung in the house, 35 years after her death.
Some things the Sharps left behind on purpose. The “wallpaper” on the inside of a closet was nothing more than newspaper. The date at the top of one page read, “Fri. Morning, August 22, 1947.” The headlines announced, “Sheep sharply lower,” “Butcher hogs higher,” “Corn and oats set new highs.”
There was an ad for the J.J. Riddle Company, which specialized in “Furniture, Hardware, Funeral Home.” There as a phone number for the company: 149.
In the hallway, beside the hole cut in the wall for the family telephone, was a crumbling calendar from the year 1954.
“You could tell by going through the house
during the five years we spent emptying it, they didn't get rid of anything,” said Suzanne Sharp
In fact, even after the Sharps finished cleaning things out, they later learned they had left behind boxes of family belongings in the attic of the 2,250-square-foot home. They knew there was an attic; they just couldn’t figure out how to get up inside it.
Once Kraft and the Sharps got together and started working up a deal, things moved quickly.
“I liked the idea because it was so true to how his family is,” said Suzanne Sharp about her husband’s forebearers. “They're very quiet, very humble people. They give; they serve. They were teachers; they were in the military. They reused, repurposed, recycled everything.”
As for Kraft, part of the appeal was practical.
“It costs less to do this than it does to build from scratch,” he said. “To build from the ground up would cost me three times what it's costing to buy this house and move it.”
But there was an emotional element at work, as well.
“This house affects people,” Draper continued. “You walk in and it's kind of got a feel to it.
“The interior reminds me of my grandmother's place in upstate New York. When I was growing up, we'd go visit her. She had an old Victorian farmhouse with the beadboard walls and the shiplap on the outside and the longleaf pine floors. It just feels like home.
“They don't build buildings like this anymore. This thing is so solid; it was built in 1915. It is a little creaky and rickety and it leans a little bit, but it's a solid building. This thing will last another 50 years.”
Draper, the wood man, agrees.
“The houses that are built today,” he said, “they're pre-fabbed; they come up in 30 days. The houses built in 1920 really had a lot more art. You really were an artisan back then. They would work on a house for six months and a lot of those houses are still standing.”
Kraft will put the Mexia house high up on his property. The house that burned there was in a flood plane, so things will actually be better there now.
“I lucked out,” the new owner said. “My trees all survived; my grass is all growing back. For a lot of people out there, it's charcoal and twigs and they're building houses in the middle of it. It's unbelievable.
“But I'm lucky; my place looks real good. The rains have made it green up real nice and it's a perfect place for this house to sit now.”
Kraft is lucky in another way, as well. He’s a musician; the Robert Kraft Trio plays Friday nights at Austin’s Continental Club Gallery on South Congress Avenue. Like most musicians, he’s had to find other ways to make a living, among them, carpentry, plumbing, drywall installing. So he’ll be able to do a lot of the work on the house himself.
“It takes a lot of imagination to see where the thing is going, based on where it is now, he said. “But it's really not that much work; I've got plenty of time. I'll spend the next couple of years renovating it. It'll be my little project.”
Kraft plans to work on the structure one room at a time, taking up residence in the house in about six months.
As for the Sharps, they’re losing a house, but gaining a friend.
“We actually have a relationship with Robert now,” Suzanne Sharp said, “and we have 'visitation rights.' I do plan on being over there when he starts cooking and stuff. Our son has said he would go help and Robert said he'd take him up on it. We have a relationship with him now and that's really a cool thing, too.
“We'll get to see it when it's finished and see how it's loved now and lived in.”
A houseless man gets a low-cost home. A loving family avoids the destruction of a memory-filled house. A landfill is less full. An artisan basks in the light of good work done, all because imagination and collaboration joined hands.
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