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The Elfner Cottage

Since 1954, the Elfners have been fortunate enough to spend a lot of time on White Lake in Marquette County, Wisconsin.  This is the story of how we came to be there.

In 1954, my grandparents, Joe and Dit Elfner, were searching for some land on which to build a summer home.  My father, Eliot, has told us stories of looking at land on a river, swimming in a mucky pond on some farmland and visiting many other parcels until they came upon the property on White Lake.  It was an ideal location for them being only an hour North of Madison.  It was and is a beautiful, clear lake, just barely big enough for waterskiing.

They had purchased a mobile home (or the trailer as we called it) from my grandfather's employer, The University of Wisconsin, that they were going to put on the land.  The trailer had been used as excess student housing during the boom of GI Bill students after World War II.  Evidently by the time they had bought the land and were ready for it, it was beyond the time UW had given them to remove it from the premises.  There is a vague story that my grandpa hired a couple of his larger students to help him break into the yard and liberate it for delivery to White Lake.

So they brought it up to the lake and put it on blocks with a nice view of the lake.  It's interesting to wonder how much thought they gave to the spot because the location they chose is where the cottage stands today.  I always wondered what it looked like when it was just the trailer, and only recently found some slides that showed what it looked like.  Here's how the front of the trailer (facing the lake) looked by itself in the spring of 1955.  I believe this is the back of the trailer (facing the road) and a shot of the driveway from the road.  Here is Uncle Rick walking on the beach, and a shot of Buck's point from May 1955.

In 1955 they really got to work.  They must have painted it, and then my grandfather (with my Dad's help) built a HUGE screen porch off the front of the trailer.  It is about 16' x 24', and is the only part of the cottage that is virtually unchanged to this day.  Here's how it looked from the front.  If you stood at the northwest corner of the current cottage today, the view would be remarkably similar to this shot from 1955.

According to Eliot (in response to a question about this picture), "The cottage was built by Giese Lumber Co from Princeton (subsequently known as Stock Lumber and now out of business) in the spring of 1956, so it was ready for us during that summer. The fence with the brightly colored squares was completed by my Father after the cottage was completed, and uncle Rick's mode of attire and the open window in the cottage kitchen suggest the temperature was not too cold, so this was probably later than spring. I also like the red 1954 Mercury station wagon - a V8 with three-speed column shift."  The trailer was moved to the side and used for storage, a kids playhouse and an extra bedroom for years to come.

Unfortunately my grandfather only got to enjoy the finished cottage for a year because he died in September 1957.  The remaining Elfners, my Grandma, my Dad and his brother Rick, enjoyed the cottage for the next nine years, but when my Grandma died in 1966 (five days before I was born), the cottage almost left the family.  This is where my other grandparents, Larry and Bert Hansen, stepped in.

Because Uncle Rick was still a minor, my Grandma Elfner's will put all of her assets into trust for the benefit of Eliot and Rick.  She had no provision for the cottage in her will, so the executors of her estate insisted that it be sold.  My dad wasn't happy with this, but being in his twenties with a young family and a new house of his own, didn't have the ability to purchase the cottage.  My Grandma Hansen told me that she knew the cottage was in Eliot's blood and hated to see him give it up.  She told her husband Larry, "You've always wanted a cottage, and Eliot loves that place.  Why don't we buy it and keep it in the family?"  So they did.  Nice save, Grandma and Grandpa!

That's how we got to grow up spending summer weekends at such an awesome place.  My brothers and I would explore the woods, climb trees, ride our BMX bikes, climb the hill, fish, sail and waterski as much as my Dad would let us.  He had to institute a one-and-a-half time around the lake per kid limit during the oil crisis in the 1970s because we would have skied all day.

Except for my mom's decorating touches (Uncle Rick once accused her of trying to turn it into "House Beautiful") the cottage remained relatively unchanged until 1984.  It was a bit crowded, and we weren't old enough to sleep in the trailer, so the kids got to sleep on the porch.  One of us in Grandpa's bed, one on the fold down couch and the unfortunate one on the wooden chaise lounge with a very thin pad.  When Grandma and Grandpa Hansen were there too, Grandpa would actually sleep in Grandpa's bed and Chris would have to go into the back bedroom in the house.  Jon and I recall that if we were still awake when Grandpa came out to bed, we would count how many seconds elapsed from the time he began to snore.  It was usually in the 20 to 40 second range.

In 1978, my parents decided that we needed a tennis court (there were lots of interesting ideas in the 70s), and a good chunk of the back woods was cleared to create one.  At the same time, the trailer was removed and replaced with a 1 car garage with a sleeping room above it.  My Grandpa, Larry Hansen, gave it the tongue-in-cheek moniker of "The Palace", which is what we call it today.  The upstairs was unfinished, but had some chairs and a fold down couch, and had a cool deck off of the second floor.  My mom also had the idea to use a ladder to get up there and a fireman's pole to get down (again, the 70s.)  She was quickly horrified by the 12 foot drop from the second floor and it was replaced a few years later with some steps.  Unfortunately the steps were way too narrow and steep, and really were about as dangerous as the ladder and pole.

In 1983 my parents decided it was finally time to expand the cottage.  I put up some resistance because I liked it the way it was, but I was over-ruled (as most 16-year-olds are.)  They worked with Norm Prachel, a Princeton builder to design an expansion and renovation to the old cottage.  To check him out and evaluate his workmanship, they had him finish the upstairs of the palace with drywall.  This made it much more usable, but sealed up some adult magazines I had stashed in the eaves (they're still there, including the Suzanne Somers Playboy from the late 70s!)

The end result was that they pushed out the sides of the cottage itself 8 feet in each direction, and added a second story.  This allowed us to include 2 real bedrooms downstairs, and a master bedroom (with its own bathroom) upstairs.  The porch remained the same.  This renovation also made the cottage inhabitable for the entire year with electric baseboard heating and insulation.  We still closed it down in the winter, but typically had Thanksgiving there before we turned off the water and brought it back online around Easter.

The latest renovation occurred in 2003 as the cottage began to feel tight when all the grandkids came to visit.  My parents designed an 24 foot addition toward the driveway that would include a huge living room downstairs and a master suite and office upstairs.  They used Glen ---, a Montello builder, who did a great job with it.  The new addition is not quite as streamlined as the 1984 addition from the outside, but it looks OK and is fabulous on the inside.  Now when all the grandkids come to visit, space is not the primary problem.  Preparing dinner and trying to get 8 kids ready for dinner at the same time is chaos, but it's a good, fun chaos!

Eric Elfner
May 2007