from Better Homes and Gardens
Get Your Family Roots Into Your Own Soil
by Ellis Parker Butler
I hope no reader will lay aside this issue without reading down to the last word Ellis Parker Butler's great article on page 11, "Get Your Family Roots Down Into Your Own Soil." It epitomizes the whole creed of the ownership of your own home. It proves that the ownership of a home is not so much a question of dollars and cents as it is almost a spiritual proposition. So many people I know who do not own their own homes are going through life dissatisfied, undernourished in all the finer things which really round out and vitalize life because they subscribe to that shallow theory, "it doesn't pay to own your own home." They are bartering the real for the material, the substantial for the financial. For the powerful influences of life are not, in the end, the material things; they are the intangible things -- the things we think "don't pay!" Read the article!
A couple of weeks ago I went out into my back yard and built one hundred feet of trellis fence and painted it green with my own hands, and tied my climbing roses to it. It wasn't John W. Crawford's back yard; it was my back yard. It wasn't the back yard I rented from John W. Crawford; it was the back yard I owned -- my own back yard.
Building that trellis fence was a great pleasure. I enjoyed working with the fresh spruce lumber and sloshing the lovely green paint. I did a good job, and a job I am proud of, and the whole thing looks fine and dandy now, but I would never have built that trellis fence, blowing in my money and time on it, if I had not owned my own home. Why should I or any other man build a spiffy length of trellis fence in a back yard that belongs to some other man? And then, because I have made the place look better, have the rent raised? Or have to move off the place because some other fellow admired what I had done and was willing to pay more rent to enjoy it than I could afford?
Out there in the back yard, as I write this, my wife's iris garden is in full bloom, with the grass paths between the beds and the trellis fence in full green foliage and the bird bath patronized by every bird in the neighborhood. It is not a large garden, but I have never seen anything more beautiful as the sun shines through the blooms of the blue and yellow and white iris. My wife planted the iris herself. There are not many expensive varieties -- none that cost over $5 per bulb -- but iris does not bloom well the first year. If we did not own the place my wife would not have planted iris.
Nor would she have planted the peonies, at the other side of the yard, near the Clark's. You don't plant selected peonies -- or any other kind -- and wait several years for them to reach perfection if you expect you may have to move out next year.
I don't know how many shrubs I have had set out on my place -- dozens of them, perhaps hundreds. They are superb now; it has taken years for them to develop. I wouldn't have bothered if I had feared the moving van might have to back up and tote me and my icebox elsewhere almost any time. Neither would you.
There's a maple tree I had planted, and two dogwoods, and a "weeping willow" alongside the house. My wife had the willow put in; she had always wanted to own one, she said. There'd have been none of this planting skinny little trees and waiting for them to grow into beauty if we held this place on one of those "and the party of the first part" leases that make you afraid to unpack the meat-chopper for fear you'll have to pack it again before you get it screwed to the kitchen table.
You don't buy birdbaths if you are afraid that, when the lease expires, you may have to move into a flat because there are no houses. Somehow a birdbath is rather a nuisance in a flat. As a matter of fact a birdbath, unless you own your own home, is a constant menace to your peace of mind. A bird bath in a garden is one of the most delightful things in the world, but if you live under a lease and have to give up the garden I hardly know what you would do with the bird bath, unless you set up business as a church -- not Baptist -- and used it as a baptismal font.
It is amazing what an enormous influence in my life this thing of owning my own home has. Being an author I could flit from hither to yon and my business would go on just the same. Maine or Mexico would be all the same to me. I need be a citizen of nowhere. I could be a Canadian today and a Frenchman tomorrow. Some authors are. But I own this place and I have planted trees on it, and I am a citizen of Flushing. I care whether the roads are good or bad, and whether the schools are good or bad, and whether the transit is good or bad. Careless government that means higher taxes is a vital matter to me. I own my own home and it interests me to know that the Bourguignons have planted lilacs on the other side of my fence. Today those lilacs are little twigs a foot or so high; I'm looking forward to the day when they will be big bushes and form a leafy screen on that side of the iris garden.
I said once, in a talk at a club, that the man who owns his own home is a better patriot than the man who rents. It was half a joke, and was not at all understood by some of the renters who heard it -- some of them having had a little too much champagne -- but it was basically true. A patriot is a man who loves his own country. He loves his country better than he loves Czechoslovakia because he has no ownership of Czechoslovakia and he has a sort of ownership of America. He loves his own children more than he loves other peoples' children, because his children are his own. He loves his dog more than he loves the other fellow's dog. He loves his dog more if he owns it than if he rents it. So a man who owns part of America -- even if only forty by one hundred with a bungalow on it -- cannot help but have a little more vital interest in his nation, his state and his town. He is not a chance dweller there, he is a part owner. He is in partnership with his country. If I rent a place and a foreign enemy takes it away from me I will move on to some other place; if I own my place and a foreign enemy comes in and takes it away from me I'll do my best to shoot the son-of-a-gun. What's mine is mine, and what's my landlord's isn't.
Back in Iowa, where I used to live -- in a rented house -- there was a small town to which retired farmers used to move. It was said that these farmer citizens had nothing to do but sit around eleven months of the year and figure put ways and means to beat any ticket that had on it candidates who, if elected, might spend money to have the fence around the Public Square painted. This was undoubtedly true. I have seen the fence around that Public Square and it had not been painted since the year One. Several sections of it had grown weary of standing and were reposing on the ground. The iron fountain in the middle of the square had been out of business ten years, and the weeds in the Public Square were so high that cows often got lost in them for weeks at a time and came forth so covered with burdock burrs that they looked like plush elephants.
This seems to indicate that the own-your-own home scheme may lead to anything but patriotism. These farmers came to town, bought little places, had to pay taxes, and were willing to have the town in general have streets that were mud holes and a park that looked like sin. All they cared for was to have their taxes as low as possible. As far as the town was concerned they seemed mighty unpatriotic. But you should see that Iowa town now! It is one of the neatest, smartest, prettiest little towns in America. You must remember that those come-to-town farmers were mostly old men; all their lives they had had steady incomes from their farming; when they came to town they just wondered whether they would have money enough to last through their remaining years; they felt that they must save every penny or perhaps go to the poorhouse. But presently they found that they were not skidding direct to the poorhouse after all. They began mowing the lawns of their little town lots, and painting the fences, and their wives began planting flowers and whitewashing the chicken coop and asking father if he couldn't mow the weeds along the sidewalk. Then whole blocks began to look neat and nice and tidy, and whole streets perked up, and these very same old farmers began saying it was a durned shame the Public Square looked so like all-get-out! And finally the women said that, my gracious! if you men ain't going to paint that Public Square fence we women will get some paint and brushes and do it ourselves.
Patriotism does not mean only the act of shouldering a gun and going forth to smite an enemy. It means, even more, such a love of country that one will do things to make the country worth living in as well as dying for, either because it is beautiful or because it is comfortable. The retired farmer who begins by thinking "own-home" thoughts so sincerely that he kicks about the taxes is pretty sure to end by wanting to see worthwhile results for the taxes he pays, and voting for them.
I am convinced that a community of homeowners is, to a very marked extent, happier than a community of renters. A man or woman is happiest when fully occupied by something that seems worthwhile. When the home is owned there are a thousand and one things worth doing or planning for that are not safe to tackle if the home is rented. No two men, and no two women, are exactly alike, of course, and different people find pleasure in different things. One man, owning his own home, may find a real delight in planning to replace his tin leaders and flashings with copper ones -- one this year and one next year -- until all are copper and permanent and giving him a feeling of solidness and worthiness. Another man may take to planting things that need years in which to grow. One man may look forward to a sun porch, or a sleeping porch, or a fieldstone open fire, or a wide Colonial stairway. And, taking into consideration the way houses are sold these days -- one thousand dollars down and the rest on mortgage -- every man who "owns his own home" can take pleasure in reducing the mortgage bit by bit until he owns his own home.
A woman is happier in a home that is owned. Year by year a family's roots go down into the soil and a woman has a safer feeling when she knows the family roots are going down into soil that is the family's own. You can see this by the obverse -- you know how sad it is when a family that has lived for generations in a home is forced to sell. What a wrenching of long-settled roots! With what regret the family leaves the trees that grandfather planted, the garden of perennials that grandmother began, the porch that was built because mother liked the afternoon sun! That's sad; it is one of the saddest things in the world. And, just so, one of the best things is the buying or building of a home of one's own that you do not have to give up.
I think there is, in this country, far too much living in wooden tents and, for that matter, brick tents and marble tents. There are still far too many who are living "temporarily" in houses that are rented. The result is that too many of our possessions are not what we would have if we could have what we wanted. We don't grow perennials because annuals are safer if we have to move. We don't plant shrubs because they might only benefit the tenant after the next. We fill our rented houses and rented flats with furniture that is not in any way expressive of ourselves -- we have to buy what will "do" in any rooms we may happen to move into later. How can anyone who expects to be obliged to hunt a new house at the end of the lease dare to buy furniture that really is a part of the house?
A woman knows what this means. It affects a man's happiness little or not at all, but I'll wager there is not one woman in a thousand who is not happier if she can secure the one couch in the world that seems to have been built and shaped and upholstered exactly for that particular corner in that particular room and for no other corner in any other room in the world. There is a joy in even such little things as finding exactly the right picture for a certain space between two windows. You can do such things and have that pleasure when you own your own house; if you don't own your own house you must buy things that will fit into any house in town -- fit into them somehow, and look as if that was exactly how they did fit.
Whether to buy or to build is a matter of personal temperament. I prefer to buy my houses ready made and fit myself into them, as a wren makes itself snug in an old boot or an old tin can; others, like robins, prefer to choose a crotch in a tree and build according to their own plans, although the robin has the advantage of most humans -- a robin builds its nest and is satisfied with it, but I have seen very few human-built houses, however well planned, that were not soon being ripped up and changed. But that, of course, is mere human nature in its ordinary state. One trouble seems to be that we plan a little darling of a house for us two, and presently we have fourteen children; or we plan a very comfortable house for the sixteen of us and a little later the fourteen children get married and have homes of their own and we call in the carpenter and change the big house into a four-family flat. But what does it matter? It is all fun; it keeps us interested in something worth being interested in. Big house, little house, old house, new house, costly house, cheap house -- it is no matter which. It is worthwhile owning your own.
Common sense will tell any man or woman that it is not wise to buy a place that is beyond the family means. I, for example, would be a fool to buy the Duggenheimer place out on Long Island even if it is a bargain. Only $40,000 cash is needed to "buy" that place, and the remaining $210,000 can remain on mortgage, and the place is really worth $500,000 of anybody's money. But if I bought that place my family would have to do without shoes, stockings, clothes, soap and food.
We might get along fairly well without stockings and soap but in a couple of weeks we would be rather hungry if we had no food, and a man can't enjoy even a palatial estate very much after he has starved to death. No man should buy a place so expensive that he can't "carry" it comfortably, nor one so large and showy that he can't keep it in good trim, but as between renting a showy place and owning a modest one I'd prefer to own the modest one every time.
Neither do I think it reckless or bad policy to buy a place and give a mortgage for a large part of the purchase price. A mortgage, while it continues to exist, is a fair deal all around; for the lender it is a safe loan with good security, and for the borrower it is an incentive to save and pay. Indeed, for many men a mortgage is a factor of safety, for it insures that the taxes and insurance are kept up. It is my opinion that if a man is able to pay the interest on the mortgage, the repairs and other necessary expenses, taxes, etc., he should "own his own" even if he can pay down but a few hundred dollars on a house.
There is but one other thing I'd like to emphasize, after being a homeowner a great many years. If two houses stand side by side -- call them "A" and "B" -- the house that is best suited to your needs is the best house for you to buy. The house "B" may be for sale for $10,000 and be worth $12,000, and not quite suit you. Don't take it; instead of taking "B" take house "A" even though $10,000 is asked for it and it is worth only $9,500, if house "A" is exactly suited to your needs. The house, before you buy it, is only a "house," but after you buy it it is your "home." It is fine to feel that you have paid $10,000 for a house you can sell for $12,000, but it is a lot finer to feel that you have bought a house that just suits you, no matter what it cost or what you can get for it.
When I talk of the added happiness that comes from "owning your own" I don't mean anything at all about buying a piece of property with the idea of selling it tomorrow, or next week, or ten years from now, or ever. When you set forth to "own your own" don't just go out to "buy a house." You did not choose your wife with any idea that you could sell her again for a $2,000 advance in sixty days. You did not choose your husband with the idea that you could trade him in for another husband and a pair of mules in a year and a half, provided you painted him and repaired his roof.
Choose your home as you choose your wife -- or husband -- and with the intention of living in it many long and satisfied years. When you have found that particular house -- marry it! You'll be glad you did.