Quentin Starr Wagner
By: Kim Flottum
When I first moved to Medina I lived in a rented house for several months, letting John Root, my new boss figure out if I was a good choice for this job. Apparently he was OK with that and I decided it was time to buy a house since I was going to be here for a bit, and having a garden, yard and a place to put bees was important.
The house that worked for everything needed came on the market right about then. Built in 1928, it has that grand old house feeling and look and smell. A ranch style house was about as far from what was needed, or wanted as you can imagine. The one we found had had only a single owner and it was in magnificent shape, and I got it at the auction, in October.
Originally it had been purchased and built by the son of the farmer who owned the land it now sits on, and built so they were neighbors, working the farm together. There’s still a sidewalk leading from my house to the neighbors that they had used. The son died years ago and his wife lived there until she passed too, and their only child had to figure out what to do with the house he didn’t want.
It was a kit house, made by a company called Aladdin, from up in Michigan and had been delivered to a railroad siding about two blocks from where the house now sits. The basement and foundation were dug and prepared before it arrived and when it came in they took their horse and wagon to the rail siding, loaded up the house and brought it home.
There are only a few homes nearby. One is converted from what was a hotel right next to the depot, an empty general store is close by, the depot is still there, and a couple of other houses that came along after the hotel, but before my house are across the road from where I now sit.
The oldest home in the neighborhood, the first at this spot, is kitty corner across the road from me that had belonged to a farm family that had been there before the hotel, the depot or general store. They were long gone, but their son took over the house and was farming the land his father had, but when I moved in had been building ships up on the lake. He’d raised his family there, was renting out most of the farm land but had just retired from his ship building job.
There was another home on his property, about a mile from his house that had belonged to the family, and was sitting on that original 40 acre piece of land so many pioneers had made a living on. He used part of that land to build a landing strip for the plane he built himself, and the FAA still has it on record as Quentin Wagner Field.
It turns out there wasn’t much of anything this guy couldn’t fix, build or jury rig to make work. He was a welder, motor mechanic, farmer, gardener, poultry, cow, duck and quail expert, a hunter, carpenter, wood worker craftsman, banjo musician, brick layer, tree cutter, antique repairer, and did anything else you can think of that needed fixing, building, converting, mowing, growing, protecting or watching. He wasn’t a big guy, maybe a bit over five feet, and weighed about 120 pounds when soaking wet.
Well, he had retired about a month before I moved in, and wasn’t getting his daily fix of fixing and building and making things he’d had at work all those years, and his farm land was all rented out so there wasn’t that to do, and even with two half-acre gardens, an asparagus patch, enough sweet corn for an army and more grass to mow than you can imagine, he was bored.
That garden thing of his. He was death on anything that tried to share what he grew. He used live traps, a .22, something bigger and louder than a .22, even a shotgun once in a while and definitely leg traps. He used fences and such for the deer, but he had a real thing for groundhogs and rabbits. You’d see him out there at dusk, setting his traps and tightening the fence. Then, in the morning, BANG! And another varmint bit the dust. Then he’d take the carcass up to the other farm on the back of the four by four right after breakfast and toss it behind the barn there. By late Spring the Buzzards would be waiting and watching from the top of that barn for that four by four to be coming up the road with breakfast. I watched one time and warned him that he probably wouldn’t want to go up there empty handed. He wasn’t so big that three or four of them couldn’t carry him off.
His wife was still working at the local high school, so she wasn’t around all day, so often he’d go there to help her with her work as the janitorial supervisor. He’d be washing rugs, cleaning windows, running the floor buffer in the gym, fixing the broken door jam in the bathroom, getting the loading dock straightened out so the next load had room, or whatever needed doing, whenever it needed doing. But he was still bored.
I’d been in the house only a week or so when he showed up in my driveway one Saturday morning and introduced himself. He got around to all the places he needed to get to on that four by four that could go anywhere he needed to be, or an old bicycle he had fixed up and used. Walking a lot was troublesome because of a bad and getting worse knee problem, so riding was a lot easier.
We got to know each other a bit, but I was gone long hours during the day, and often weekends to meetings so we only crossed paths on occasion. He came over a couple of times before dawn to plow my driveway with his four by four during the winter after an evening of snow, and he wouldn’t take any pay for the work. It wasn’t a particularly snowy Winter so he only plowed a couple of times.
The next Spring he helped get the garden plowed using a tractor he borrowed from another neighbor. The sod he turned over had been sod forever, and before that the whole of the backyard had been fenced and held pigs when the son was still farming. After he passed his wife let it go to pasture for heifers for a bit, then just grass to be mowed. There was a north/south row of maple trees on one side of the backyard lot between the two places, and a similar row of Osage orange trees on the other side that ran along the road the length of the lot. Together, one blocked the light in the morning and the other the light in the afternoon and the garden just wouldn’t do well there with only a couple of hours of direct sun. So we decided to take some of them out. We, that is, Quentin decided they should go if I wanted a garden at all. And, since he burned wood for heat, and he said he’d be happy to take them down because he could use the wood and needed something to do, the wood was his for the cutting. And away they went, and in went the garden.
That first Spring I was on the road a lot and working late a lot and getting things done around the house was not at the top of the list. I only had a push mower for the two acre lawn, so you can kind of imagine it got out of control. One Sunday evening I got back from a weekend away and the whole lawn was mowed. Perfect. Quentin’s handiwork I supposed, but it was late and I didn’t get back to him for several days.
Sure, he said. Nothing to it. I have this great big rider and it’s easy to do, and it gets me out of the house and away from that old woman and something to do, so no problem. Well, I didn’t mow my lawn for 22 years. Didn’t even own a lawn mower for that long. I’d buy him all the gas he needed, gave him gift cards for the best restaurants in town because they liked to dine fine, as he said, and didn’t spend one minute mowing grass.
One thing about that big mower. It turned, on a quarter it seemed, not quite a dime. So if I planted something out there, and he couldn’t quite make the turn, it had been planted in the wrong place. It wasn’t his driving or the mowers fault – just poor site selection for the sapling apple tree.
Early on he had bees, and I helped him with those. He used to have a lot of colonies he said, and he had a big old Cowen-Root extractor in the garage to handle all the honey he made. That sits in my basement now because he thought I might need it one day. We chased swarms, hived packages, moved bees out of an abandoned truck body, and cleaned out deadouts in the spring. But a few years back it was more than he wanted to do anymore, so he gave up on the bees.
Over those years we got to know each other pretty well. He fixed anything I broke, and I let him mow my lawn, plow my driveway, cut down trees, and pretty much anything he thought needed doing. We’d invite him and that old woman he lived with, Stella, over for picnics on the deck, and birthday parties and the like. We were comfortable together.
Quentin started slowing down about six or seven years ago, and his wife wouldn’t let him cross what now is a busy road with his lawnmower to mow our lawn anymore. That’s when mowing lawn came back into my life, but fortunately Kath likes that chore way more than I do, so we bought her a tractor with a deck and I still don’t mow grass. And a couple of years later they let the garden at the other house, then the one at home come up grass, except for a few tomato plants in pots.
Quentin turned 95 just a bit ago, and right after that stomach cancer showed up. But he’s one tough old nut and it didn’t get him then. But even though he beat it, eating was hard, and what he was supposed to eat wasn’t much to his liking, except for fresh eggs. And we had chickens and all the eggs he wanted. So for more than a year mostly what he ate were eggs from our chickens. For a while, two a day, then one, and in the home stretch this fall, only a half.
That home stretch didn’t last long. He was at my birthday party in August, then went from cranky old guy eating my eggs and reading my Ford 9-N magazine to bed, and was gone by mid-November.
We visit Stella every few days, and if there’s something we can help with we’ll lend a hand. Her children are close so they mostly handle what she needs. And she still drives, believe it or not, so she gets to doctor’s appointments, shopping and the like when she wants.
But for the 30+ years I’ve known them they sat across the kitchen table for breakfast, lunch and supper, the weather on the TV, eating what she cooked and reading the paper. Now, it’s just Stella and the paper. And Quentin’s bike sits just outside the door, right where he left it last time. As good as new.