(Audio version above, shared on this week's episode of Strangerville.)

By Eli McCann

My great grandpa Hinkle built his own house. People sometimes talk about someone they know doing this—building a house. It doesn’t usually get the reaction it deserves. This is probably because most people have not built a house or contemplated building a house or thought about what it means to build a house.

My grandpa built his own house. With his bare hands. I once knitted a basic scarf after watching several Youtube videos and I bragged about this for an entire year. If I ever get up before 7:00 AM, everyone I see for the rest of the day hears about it. You might think, considering my own hubris, I would be in a position to appreciate that that man designed and built a dwelling, but for years it just never really registered for me how big a deal it was that my great grandfather built a house.

He actually built a house.

I don’t think it really hit me how big a feat this was until I helped my friend Matt take his 1930 brick bungalow down to the studs so he could put the whole thing back together in 2016.

“We need to rip out all of the pipes.”

He ambushed me with this information one day when I showed up to his home, thinking we were going to have a glass of wine and do nothing else. I thought this because he texted me only an hour before and said “come over for a glass of wine and nothing else.” I guess I should have read into the wording—specifically the “and nothing else” part. People don’t usually feel the need to generally exclude all other activities when proposing only one. I was blinded by the promise of wine. I wish I could say that was the only time that has happened.

When I asked Matt why we were ripping out all of the pipes he told me it was so we could “put in pipes.” This whole process felt irresponsible to me, and while I understood as a general concept the value of demolishing something old to make something new, I often wondered if all of the tetanus and asbestos exposure was worth it.

I thought maybe he didn’t sufficiently appreciate the fact that he had purchased a lovely early twentieth-century home full of character. Yes, it was faded and droopy, in the way old things often are, but if he couldn’t admire that, then what business did he have buying the home in the first place?

Some people are just that way. Stubborn and finicky and unable to see the value of rust and mold. My maternal grandmother had never been outside of the United States, except for brief trips across the border to Mexico to buy medications. In the late 90s my uncle decided that he would show her the world, so he planned a number of international trips. Within a matter of just a few years, they saw the Andes and Jerusalem. The Pyramids of Giza and the streets of Ecuador.

She seemed to be enjoying and appreciating the various cultures, or so my uncle thought, until they got to Rome. After wandering the city for a couple of days, he asked her what she thought of the place. Grandma looked around with her hands on her hips, and then said in an exasperated voice, like it was a house she had returned to after a long day of work, “this whole place needs a good scrubbin’ and fresh coat of paint.”

It seemed that Matt had a similar philosophy when it came to antique character.

“What’s wrong with the pipes you already have?” I asked him when I got to his house, nary a glass of wine in my hand. “They’re old,” he told me. “Well so is Angela Lansbury and she still works,” I reminded him on several occasions. That’s usually how far the arguments ever went. Matt would shut it down at that point, which is fair because once you have to resort to Angela Lansbury to prove a point, you’re already in trouble.

Whenever Matt would finish a project on the house, I enjoyed telling him I liked it better the way it was before.

“Yeah, the paint is nice, but I was sort of partial to the daffodil wallpaper with blood stains.”

“I understand that these wood floors are all the rage now, but what was wrong with the matted down shag carpet covered in blood stains?”

“It’s not that I don’t like the new stainless steel kitchen sink, it’s just that the old porcelain one seemed like it had such a story to tell—all those times it was used to wash away blood stains.”

I don’t know that we ever confirmed any particular discoloration was actual dried blood, but if you can’t assume that every old house was the site of some massacre, then what’s the point of old houses? I bought an old house myself in 2014. I had been looking for an old house, specifically. I was guided to three others before entering the one I ultimately bought. It wasn’t necessarily the prettiest or most sensible of the four. I bought it because the moment I walked inside I noticed the house felt peaceful, enough so that I yelled “THIS PLACE ISN’T HAUNTED,” and I just couldn’t get myself to let go of that high for the rest of the house-hunting process.

In the end, it made more sense to just pick the place that was most likely not haunted, even if it didn’t have a great story to tell. Later I learned that even my non-haunted house had seen recent death. Well, sort of. I found out after I moved in that an elderly woman who lived in the house long ago didn’t die inside, but rather she fell over the retaining wall in the front yard and died on my neighbor’s driveway. It was very sad. But if anything, she’s haunting his house.

I used to assume my neighborhood was probably a pretty nice place when it was first developed in the 1920s. It sits on top of a hill so it looks down on the rest of the city. It gave me great pride to believe that, although most houses have seen murder, my tiny house was more likely to have been visited by traveling royalty because it sat on a hill. Hills are where the nobility and social elites live.

I liked to imagine the people who built my house—not with their own hands because they obviously had people for that—were among the who’s who of Salt Lake City.

Then one day I found out the lovely park at the top of my street was the site of the Utah State Penitentiary until 1951, meaning the original owners had viewed all of the options and determined they wanted to break ground for their home next door to a prison.

“Did you hear about the Beverlys,” I then pictured the original owners’ friends saying, using the name I imagined for them. “They just built a house in the such-and-such neighborhood.”


“The one by the prison.” That’s probably how my neighborhood was identified in conversation. A moniker that is decidedly less glamorous than “the one on the hill.”

I wondered how long it was called “the one by the prison.” I’m certain it was referred to in this manner long after the prison moved from the neighborhood. I assume this, because my neighborhood is still referred to as the “furniture district” by many of my parents’ friends, even though most of the furniture stores were replaced by hip bars and cafes in the 90s. “We don’t sell furniture anymore,” I remind these people, as though I once helped sell furniture in the neighborhood and now feel it my duty to defend our community’s changes.

My parents’ friends probably complained in the 80s about their parents’ friends still calling the neighborhood “the one by the prison,” even though the prison had moved in 1951. “We’ve turned that old prison into a park,” I expect they protested when misidentified. “That’s where the furniture manufacturers have lunch on nice days now.”

There’s a decent chance my own children will roll their eyes when I refer to the area as “the gayborhood” three decades from now. “The gay bars were pushed out years ago, dad,” they’ll exasperate. “They’re dystopian bomb shelters now.”

My future kids will have no idea how good they have it that they never had to combat the notion that this was once prison or furniture territory.

I’ve had to wonder what possessed the Beverlys to choose that spot of all the spots they could have chosen. Land wasn’t exactly scarce in town in 1925. If you put a flag down on vacant soil and yelled something with an Irish accent, you could have a few acres for free. Surely there were other options than laying roots by the prison. Why not build a house by the mill or next to the river? This has led me to conclude the Beverlys either worked at the prison or they had a son who was an inmate there. Why else would they do this?

Yes. One way or another, the Beverlys were prison people. They were prison people who built my house and lived their dirty prison lives in it. Who was I to judge the mass murderers who had once owned Matt’s home?

In humility, realizing that I was not actually better than Matt like I had initially assumed, I started working on taking his house down the studs so he could put it all back together. It was around the time that I was helping Matt build a wall where one had not been before that it suddenly occurred to me I never fully appreciated the fact that my great grandpa Hinkle built his own house.

My mother told me he had done it. I was very young when I first heard the news. I should have been wowed by the revelation—shocked that I was related to someone who had performed something close to a miracle. But it landed on my ears the way all tales about old people did—apocryphal but common enough to also be unsurprising.

“Grandpa built his own house.” Didn’t they all back then?

Great grandpa Hinkle told my mother at some point the hardest part of building his house was figuring out how to design the stairs. I would have guessed the hardest part would have been doing anything at all before the internet. He built the house in the 1940s. I’m not sure whether there were even hardware stores back then. The fact that he figured out how to dig a hole and then build a house made of asbestos and lead paint without a single Youtube tutorial should have qualified him for a Nobel Prize in every category.

The house was simple. Three small bedrooms, a tiny kitchen, and a cozy living room on the main floor. There was also an unfinished basement down below. The house sat on a hill on a relatively large piece of property in Salt Lake City. There was a space for a garden, big enough that it was probably technically considered a farm, and off at the edge of the property was a grove of trees and a creek, which Grandpa called “crick.”

We weren’t allowed to play back there much, and although he was an objectively good man, he could also be quite cranky so we were more than a little terrified of Grandpa. By the time I was old enough to understand that all adults are not created equally, Grandpa’s Alzheimer’s was pretty advanced. Or at least that’s the story I had always told myself until recently when my grandmother, the daughter of great Grandpa Hinkle, told me he was “so strange that it wasn’t always easy to tell when his personality ended and the Alzheimer’s began.”

I had assumed for many years that the occasions on which he would gather the children in a circle so he could pass his dentures around before popping them back into his mouth—no explanation, by the way—was a product of the disease. But then grandma told me that when she was growing up he used to melt buckets of dirty snow over the basement furnace to use as his bath water, and look, I admire the frugality, but I’ve got my limits.

By the time I was ten it was pretty clear that Great Grandpa Hinkle’s Alzheimer’s was a bigger piece of him than anything else. He didn’t know my name, even though I saw him at least twice a month. Grandma Hinkle took care of him by herself, despite approaching age 90. She slept on the main floor of the house he had built. He slept in the basement.

He mostly recalled who she was. She was about the only person he ever consistently remembered. Grandma Hinkle told us one day that grandpa had come in from the garden/farm to ask her “who the hell” she was. After she exasperatedly informed him that she was his wife, he countered “if you’re my wife, then why the hell aren’t we having sex,” to which grandma informed him “because I’m unwilling and you’re unable.”

I was told this story. When I was ten.

It was around that time that my parents instructed me to write my name on a piece of masking tape while we were visiting the house that grandpa built. All the great grandchildren were doing this. There were about thirty of us at that time. Grandma Hinkle had decided she and Grandpa were going to die, and so it made sense to her that we all write our names on pieces of masking tape that we were to then stick onto household objects that would become ours when the Hinkles kicked the bucket.  It was like a 3D will.

I was ten, and so probably incapable of understanding exactly how dark this practice was. Either that, or I was too distracted by a set of fish-shaped bookends I had my eyes on to consider that expressing gleeful delight over this might be insensitive in some way. 

To this day, I’m not sure why I chose the fish bookends of all the objects in the house. Grandpa had a sword in one of the upstairs bedrooms—I assume one of my older cousins claimed that. Grandma owned a number of dolls, but there was little chance I would have been interested in those. I was too young to covet the 1940s record player, and too small to want any of their clothes. But grandpa had a number of antique toys that should have caught my eye, even if only because they were toys.

It’s possible that everything good was taken by the time I got ahold of the masking tape. I had a lot of cousins. At least thirty. The masking tape role was thin in my hands, almost down to the flimsy cardboard inner circle, by the time it was handed to me. Maybe it really was the case that the only item left in the Hinkle home was a set of fish bookends, and I claimed those, because at least they were something.

Grandpa died a few years later in the Alzheimer’s wing of a nursing home. Grandma sold the house shortly after that, moving in with her daughter, my grandmother. She didn’t want to take most of her things with her when it happened, so suddenly, even though death hadn’t bequeathed us the treasures, a great day of masking-tape reckoning occurred.

I came home from school to find a shoe box with my name scribbled on top sitting on the kitchen table. Inside was a pair of cracked fish bookends, a curled piece of masking tape peeling off the bottom of one of them. I pulled them from the box and set them up on a windowsill in my basement bedroom, placing two books between them—a children’s mystery novel and a half-completed book of crossword puzzles.

Twenty years later I bought my house, in a neighborhood only a few blocks away from the one where Great Grandpa Hinkle learned to build stairs.

I detour past his home from time to time on the way to or from work, staring at the simple frame and dated paneling that he somehow designed without the internet. The trees leading down to the “crick” are mostly gone. A new brick patio has been installed. I stare at the house, wondering if whoever lives there wears dentures, and if they do, whether they pass them around to their great grandchildren as a party trick.

Then I drive home to my place in the neighborhood on the hill—the one by the prison, as it would have been known when Great Grandpa Hinkle was making trips to whatever hardware store existed in that area in 1945.

Two of his paintings hang on my walls—pieces of art he created before the Alzheimer’s, back when he was just strange.

Down in the basement, on a shelf, are a couple of cracked fish bookends.

~It Just Gets Stranger