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199: House on Loon Lake

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Prologue

Ira Glass

From WBEZ Chicago, this is This American Life, and I'm Ira Glass. The story that we bring you today is a kind of classic mystery story, but a classic mystery of a very particular kind. It's a real life Hardy Boys story, or maybe an episode of Scooby Doo.

There's an old abandoned house. Some kids stumble upon it. They decide to break in. And then at that point, they kind of hit the jackpot kid-wise. The place is filled-- and I mean filled-- with fascinating stuff. It's also creepy and mysterious. And there are all kinds of tantalizing clues about what happened there, which they decide to uncover and which ends up taking years-- decades actually.

We are devoting our entire show today to this one story, The House Near Loon Lake. We first broadcast this show in 2001. If you're in your car right now as you hear this, I hope you have a long drive ahead of you, so you can stay tuned. If you're at home and it's night, you might consider turning down the lights. Adam Beckman tells the tale.

Act One: Act One

Adam Beckman

It was my brother's idea to go down to the lake. We brought an M80 firecracker, and we wanted to detonate it in the shallow water where we used to swim. We were 11, and it was late fall of 1977. We were visiting a place called Freedom, New Hampshire, a small town of a few hundred people, just across the border from Maine. My dad had volunteered to do some maintenance work at a summer camp I had once gone to.

My brother Kenny, best friend Ian, and I went along. We'd been inseparable growing up. But now Kenny had started hanging out with an older crowd. And I'd been seeing less and less of Ian since I just transferred to a new school. I was in a funk about losing touch with Kenny and Ian. And so for me, the stakes for the weekend were a little higher than usual. In normal times, we like to go shoplifting or set things on fire.

That Halloween, we'd taken cans of WD-40 and gone from door to door, spraying it in the mouths of jack-o'-lanterns until flames burst out their eyes, and they blew up in balls of fire. This is my brother Kenny. He's now 37, and he's a scientist.

Kenny

I think Ian's mom used to worry a little bit about Ian spending too much time with us or being brought under our bad influence. Because I think we taught Ian about throwing woodchips at cars, and we taught Ian about unfolding paperclips so that you could shoot them at people and so on.

Adam Beckman

So we were wandering around, looking for something to do. And we saw the house. It was gray, weathered, and leaning precariously at one end. The windows were boarded up from the outside. Two old cars, probably from the 30s, sat in the yard. One of them had a tree growing up through a hole where the engine had been. At the back of the house, we found a window that was broken, and I remember peering in into near darkness.

Ian

I remember it was kind of a dare kind of thing.

Adam Beckman

That's my friend Ian.

Ian

It was one of these things where we just would say, you know, I'd go in that house. Wouldn't you? And you would say, yeah, I have no problem going in that house. And Kenny would say, yeah, that house looks fine. And none of us really wanted to go in that house because we're all scared. But we did.

Adam Beckman

Ian was the skinniest, so it was decided that he should go in first. He slid sideways through the broken panes, so he wouldn't get cut, and disappeared. After maybe 10 seconds, he scrambled back out, clutching a newspaper. It was brown, and I remember it crumbled in our hands. The headlines said something about Nazis invading. That was all we needed.

One by one, we climbed into the house. It was dark inside. The only light came in through little cracks between the boards that covered the windows. The floor felt soft underfoot. And as my eyes adjusted, I could see that it was covered with a layer of filthy clothes. Junk was everywhere.

Kenny

Actually, we couldn't walk around on the floor because you couldn't see the floor in most places.

Ian

It was just jammed with more stuff than you could live with. Because I remember there were a couple of rooms you couldn't go into for how much stuff that was jammed in there.

Adam Beckman

I was careful to remember how we got in, in case we had to find our way out in a hurry. We were all very quiet. We'd seen enough horror movies to know that joking around could get us into trouble. Here's Ian.

Ian

We did not spread out. We stuck probably almost hip to hip. And our backs were glued to each other. And Kenny was maybe looking the other way, and his back was kind of-- so we were sort of like this little star of people walking through the house. And Kenny is like one of the worst people to go into a situation like that with.

Man

Why do you say that?

Ian

Because he's very jittery. And he always will kind of mumble about maybe what the worst thing might be that might next happen. Like, I bet somebody is going to come out of that closet.

Adam Beckman

Some rooms were in total disarray, with things strewn about like they'd been rummaged through. But then there were these little areas where things were untouched. In the kitchen, dishes were stacked on open shelves. Pots and pans cluttered the sink. And the pantry was stocked with canned food. I picked up a container of Hershey's syrup, and it felt heavy. A salt and pepper shaker sat on the kitchen table.

Kenny

The main sense I had was of disaster.

Adam Beckman

This is my brother Kenny.

Kenny

As if people had been kind of toodling along in their everyday lives, and something terrible had happened. Something catastrophic had happened to the people in the house, so catastrophic that no care had been put in arranging, or sorting, or editing any of the contents of their lives. And there was a feeling as we sat there that this time capsule hadn't been opened in 50 years.

Adam Beckman

Hanging in the kitchen was one of those calendars they give out at gas stations. It was dated December 1938. In the bedroom was a pile of shoes, maybe 30 high, that had fused into one mass. On a nightstand, I found a pair of eyeglasses folded on top of a man's wallet. And I slipped them both into my jacket pocket. In another room was a bureau, and tucked in the mirror frame was an invitation to a dance at the town hall. Pinned to it was a rose that was completely withered.

Kenny opened the closet door next to the dresser. And hanging there was a rotting white dress. We began to fabricate a little scene. A teenage daughter returns late from a dance with a rose. She pins it to the mirror and hangs her dress in the closet. And then something horrible happens. And that's when time stopped.

Outside, squinting in the bright daylight, we raced back through town. Kenny and Ian were like kids coming off a roller coaster. But I had this sense of doom about the whole thing. I'd heard about the King Tut exhibit that was touring the country. I wondered if we'd be cursed, like the guys who'd found King Tut's tomb. Also, I had someone's wallet in my pocket. I took it out and showed Kenny and Ian. Inside was a bright green $1 bill, dated 1935, and a driver's license for a man named Virgil Nason.

That night, while our dad drove us home, I put on the eyeglasses I'd found to make Kenny and Ian laugh. But then I felt bad about the joke. I didn't know anyone who died before, and now I was pretty sure I was carrying the wallet of a dead man. The next day, my brother would be going back to his high school buddies, and my best friend would be going back to our old school. I'd have to face the kids at my new school, where I hadn't made any friends, and it seemed like everyone was named Doug and played lacrosse.

I'd always been a moody kid, but it was an unfocused sort of moodiness. Now that all this was happening in my life, my gloominess took on a new focus. I brooded about the Nason house. My homeroom teacher had been an instructor for Outward Bound. Throughout the year, he made us go solo in the woods around the school. I spent hours sitting out there, alone with my journal and a flashlight, brooding.

The winter passed, and the only curse I suffered was grade seven. That spring, my parents went back to do their volunteer stint at the camp. This time, I brought a new friend named David. I knew it would impress him. We got up early and packed flashlights and our book bags. I think we even brought a canteen of water. It was raining as we climbed through the window of the house. Nothing looked like it had changed over the winter. And just like the first time, I had this acute feeling of being watched as we moved from room to room, touching things, opening up drawers, climbing up into the attic. David felt it, too.

David

All their personal belongings were right there, so they felt so close. And I remember walking through some of these dark rooms, looking around, being afraid of perhaps uncovering something, some evil scene, or discovering that they were there, discovering that they had died there.

Ian

I remember thinking that we were going to find a body in a closet at any moment. I mean, I remember there were some closets and cupboards that we just flat out didn't want to open or even open up the oven. You're just afraid that you might find something that you just didn't want to see.

Adam Beckman

Do you remember the basement?

David

I don't remember that. No, I don't remember the basement.

Kenny

Did we ever go down? We did go down into the basement eventually, didn't we?

David

I still don't remember the basement. Did you go down the-- you didn't go in the basement.

Adam Beckman

We never went into the basement. And here's why. The door to it had been blocked shot by a couch that was propped on its end, as if someone wanted to keep something down there from getting out.

David

I remember uncovering-- finding a small doll whose face had been burned off. And I remember being terrified of that, thinking this must have been some scene of some horrible ritual.

Adam Beckman

David has a really strong memory of a doll with its face burned off. Do you remember that?

Kenny

Oh yeah. Absolutely. That was scary. The minute you mentioned it, I've got the image of it. I mean there's something so creepy about a doll that's kind of been mangled.

David

I remember discovering that there was these sort of smeared feces area of-- or smeared-- either it was animal or human. We couldn't figure that out.

Kenny

The poop on the bed, that was scary, too. It made you wonder, what the hell is going on in here? I think at the time, we thought, oh, gee, maybe people were crashing out here. So that fit into a whole story about, oh, some fugitive on the lam from justice who's hiding out in an abandoned house, or the town alcoholic who used to crash out there after a binge, or something like that.

Ian

The strange part is, do people just pick up and walk out the front door one day and leave letters that are incredibly personal? I mean, these were important artifacts in their family. And if they did leave for some legitimate reason-- like you move, you pack up, you move-- you don't leave things like a wallet with money in it or your address book that has the birthdays written in it of your family members. Why do you leave things like that? How could you?

Kenny

We had a mission. The mission was to find out as much as we could about the family who had lived there. And all over the place were letters and pieces of paper. And each one was a potential clue, so we sat down in this dingy, kind of musky house. And we started to read.

Adam Beckman

November 29, 1933. Dear Mr. Nason, I've checked up your case quite thoroughly and find that you have already had as much, if not more, work than most people. I find also that you were working a car and a truck and that your son has a car and a truck. Also, that your team is working hauling cut lumber. So long as a man has anything at all, he has to use it, as we have to give work to the people who have nothing at all. Under these circumstances, you do not qualify for work at this time. Signed, the Office of the County Supervisor of Relief.

Dear Mama, I'm staying over tonight and go to the dance. Artie and I have had a fight. He thinks I'm going out with Eddie. I may, I don't know. I don't want him to know where I am, so don't tell him. Come over to the dance and bring my shoes, the black spike ones. Now come over, Mama, and don't be mad. Don't even tell PT. Now Mama, please don't be mad at me. Mr. Jackson is ugly today. Be sure you get Dad to come to the dance. There's a ball game tonight.

Over the next two years, I returned to the Nason house four times in all. And each time, I came back with more clues about what happened. I read these letters over and over, trying to decode them, convinced that the answer about the family's downfall was hidden in some seemingly trivial comment or offhand reference. This note is written on school paper by a young girl, who was probably my age at the time.

Dear Clyde, I wanted a boyfriend, so I thought I would write to you, darling. There's no other boy around here that interests me as you do, Clyde, darling. Call me up, Clyde, darling. When I saw you last night over at Pink's, I thought I would go crazy because I love you so. From your girlfriend, ED.

David

We had to take things that could help us unravel a puzzle. I mean, I don't think we even thought of it being private property at the start because it was just abandoned, and no one cared about it.

Adam Beckman

We read notes from doctors and found bills from creditors. We scanned library past due notices and studied postmarks and came up with lots of ideas about why the place had been left.

Kenny

We started to think, gee, maybe these people had their house foreclosed and were thrown out by bankers. Because it does seem as if somebody might have been shut out of the house, with all of the objects inside.

Ian

One of my favorite theories was that the father died at maybe the same time the sons had to go to war. Because we're looking at papers that talk about war starting and thinking about how a couple of events with an old father and a couple of sons could very quickly finish a family.

Kenny

I remember finding information about bedding. I think we saw I think they were tickets or a schedule of a dog track or a horse racing track. And the story we made up was, oh, these people had lost all their money gambling.

Adam Beckman

We needed to find someone who could give us some answers, a person who knew the family or a distant relative. Freedom is a small town. Someone must have known what had happened. But when we'd go ask down at the general store or the post office, people gave us the cold shoulder. This confirmed to us that they were part of the conspiracy to bring this family down, or at least part of the cover up. In retrospect, I realized the adults may have brushed us off because we were 12 years old.

It was David who found the breakthrough clue-- a matchbook, matches intact, soiled but legible. It said Stop and Shop at Nason Grocery, Freedom side near Effingham Falls Bridge. We rode over and ditched our bikes under the bridge. There were two or three houses on either side, all big old Victorian buildings. But it was obvious to us which one was the Nason Grocery. There were a couple of ancient gas pumps outside and a resting Moxie soda sign. A rope held the door closed, but we were able to squeeze through.

The first thing I saw when we went through the door were the boxes of Cornflakes that lined the walls. The Nason Grocery was a completely intact, perfectly preserved store from the 1960s, with products still on the shelves. By the cash register, there were magazine racks and rows of candy. There were glass countertops displaying fishing gear and stacks of canned vegetables, corn and green beans. Some of the cans had exploded from years of heating and freezing, which we thought was cool. Upstairs, there were a few rooms that must have been an apartment.

Kenny

Being in a store all of the sudden reminded us, gee, we're breaking and entering in a place that's got candy.

Adam Beckman

There was a small safe under the counter. And when I turned the handle, the door swung open. Inside, I found four silver dollars and three Kennedy half dollars. I also found a $5 gold coin from 1892. I took the coins.

I spent the eighth grade kind of detached from school. I'd stare out the window at the falling snow and think about the drifts that must've been blowing through cracks in the house. Or I'd lie awake at night and imagine how still and cold it would be in there. Instead of doing homework, I spent a lot of time reading through my box of Nason letters, drawing up a family tree from the clues we'd found.

Every reference to New Hampshire became relevant to the mystery. I'd sit at breakfast and stare at a tin of maple syrup and think about the Nasons. I was pretty sure that if there was some way I could support a family researching abandoned houses, that it would be my vocation in life. I was 13 years old, and I had a crush on a house.

I hadn't told my parents much about it. I was afraid they'd shut us down over fears we'd get hurt or arrested. But I remember feeling that I wanted a grown up to see it, to confirm that we hadn't imagined the whole thing. So I started to tell my mother about it. But I could see I wasn't getting it across how amazing it was. So that spring, I led my mother across the field of weeds and watched as she climbed through the window of the house.

Mom

I was a little appalled-- more than appalled when I went inside. It was much more-- a much greater disaster than I had imagined. Also, a much greater mystery than I had imagined. And in many ways, much more interesting for that reason.

Adam Beckman

My mom proved to be quite a sleuth. She drove me to the town cemetery, where we found plot after plot of Nason graves. There was Ivan Nason, died 1943; Bertha, died 1968; Virgil, whose dollar bill and driver's license I had, died in 1974; and Jesse, who died in 1969. There was another Jesse William who had a birthday, but there was no date of death.

So our theories of a car carrying the whole family into a ravine, of the war, of sudden plague, of the whole town rising up against the Nasons and massacring them, these no longer made sense. Whatever had driven the family from its home hadn't been sudden. The circumstances were more complicated than anything I'd imagined.

That winter, I had my first nightmare. I was in the house rummaging through things, and the Nasons were there in the walls watching me. And they weren't friendly. The next year, I didn't go to New Hampshire. I'd started high school and was finally making friends. There was less brooding in my life. And what brooding was left had to do with girls. My mother went up on the semi-annual work weekend at the summer camp, and she brought my sister along. When they returned, they told me a story that made my blood run cold.

Adam Beckman

Tell me about the time that you went up with Claire. What happened?

Mom

That was a big mistake. I think we were both very embarrassed. We were embarrassed. We were both very embarrassed.

Adam Beckman

Yeah.

Mom

Yeah.

Adam Beckman

I felt I was angry.

Mom

You were angry?

Adam Beckman

I was.

Mom

No, we blew it. We blew it, sort of in a sense.

Adam Beckman

What happened was this. My mother had brought my sister into the house, and they'd seen a child's crib rotting away in the attic. And they decided to take it. So they drove my family's bright orange Volvo station wagon up in front and went in to get the crib.

Mom

There was no way one could bring that crib down the stairs. And finally, I found a piece of rope somewhere, tied it up, and we lowered it down the window.

Adam Beckman

Outside the window?

Mom

Yeah.

Adam Beckman

Outside the window of the house?

Mom

Yeah. And that's when a boy walked by and saw it. We saw him see it. We saw him see it. And we realized uh oh.

Adam Beckman

The boy returned with two women, who told my mother and sister they had no right being in the house. My mom argued, asking them why, if someone somewhere had an interest in the property, they were letting it rot. The woman said it was none of her business and that she'd better leave. I felt betrayed. The scene my mother had described-- the orange car, the dangling crib, the confrontation in the middle of the road, people in Freedom had a word for greedy city folk from Massachusetts and elsewhere who came to town, plundering for antiques. They called them Massholes. That's what we'd become, and I felt sick about it. I collected all the objects and letters I'd found and put them in a small wooden fish tackle box I'd found in the Nason grocery store. I tucked the box up in our attic, and I never went in the Nason house again.

Three years later, I took a trip through New England with Ian, and we decided to take a detour to Freedom. I stopped the car where I thought the house stood. Ian remembered it being further along. So we parked and walked up and down the road. But the house was gone. All that remained was an outline of the foundation in the dirt. We drove to the bridge to see if the store was there, but it wasn't. We couldn't tell if the buildings had been torn down or if they'd burned. But they were gone, as was, I thought, any answer I'd ever get as to why they'd been left in the first place.

I was having the nightmare regularly now. Each time, it was the same. I was in the Nason house or some version of it. But now undead Nasons were leaving their hiding places in the walls and attacking me. It was a terrifying dream. And I had it many times over the next 20 years.

Adam Beckman

OK. So there's plenty in here.

This summer, I went to visit my mother and looked through the box of things I'd saved from the Nason house. All the years I'd spent away from home, she'd kept the box, carefully labeled and stored through four moves.

Mom

There.

[TAPPING]

Adam Beckman

Uh huh. Yeah, I remember that.

Mom

You see? Yes, the wooden box. You see, that's the wooden box that I remember. And I think it has things in it. It should.

Adam Beckman

The box was as I'd left it, a little makeup case with powder still inside, the eyeglasses, some children's records, and the coins, photographs of the family, the letters. And there were newspapers. Right on top was the one Ian found that very first day.

Mom

Oh, and this newspaper is very old. Boston Sunday Globe, look at that. "After marching--" Jesus, [INAUDIBLE]. "After marching into the rest of Czechoslovakia in March, Hitler and Chamberlain exchanged speeches. Nazis stayed there, and Chamberlain said he mustn't do it again." [LAUGHING]

April 16, 1939. And my-- yeah, my grandparents were already in exile because of this taking of Czechoslovakia. Hm.

Adam Beckman

When my great-grandparents fled their home in Czechoslovakia, they'd left furniture, paintings, letters all very suddenly and never returned. My mother tells me that all those things probably still exist somewhere. With that in mind, she couldn't bear to see the Nason things rotting away like they had.

Mom

And here's a spoon. [SIGHING]

It's all very melancholy, all these little remnants.

Adam Beckman

Why is it melancholy?

Mom

The abandonment. The abandonment is melancholy. In a way, it's worse than throwing away, much worse. I can understand one family being obliged to flee or run, or abandon, but that nobody else cared, that it was so overwhelmingly abandoned by everybody, that nobody had cared to solve something, to resolve something. That was very offensive to me.

That was-- you know, it was like leaving a corpse. You don't leave corpses. And that's a little bit the feeling that I had, that here was a carcass, a carcass of a house, of a life, of a private-- And nobody cared to pick it up and give it a proper burial.

I thought that it was important that somebody should care, that somehow somebody was leaning over these words, reading them, unfolding these letters that somebody had bothered to write. And it really didn't matter that it was an 11-year-old boy who cared. Objects have lives. They are witness to things. And these objects were like that. So I was, in a way, glad that you were listening.

Adam Beckman

There was one letter in particular that my mother and I couldn't get out of our heads. It was different from the others. And I'd kept it separate in a plastic Ziploc bag. It was mildewed and barely legible.

Mom

"April 18, 1940, Laconia Hospital. My darling, excuse writing. It's the best I can manage. They brought me to the hospital here Tuesday night at 8:30. The baby was born prematurely at 3:00 yesterday afternoon. I am writing to you-- writing for you before I name him.

What are we going to do? I'm nearly crazy. Did you get my telegram? Be sure to bring the $20.50. I am weak and can't write more.

Hurry. I may die. But I love you more than ever. I registered here as your wife. I knew it would be better. With all my heart and love, come quick." Underlined, what, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8.

I can hardly stand it. I can hardly stand it. I've thought about her so often. I've worried about her. I've worried about that kid. I've never forgotten these.

Adam Beckman

Yeah. I remember finding that. I think you explained to me what it was about. I don't think I understood.

Mom

Yeah.

Adam Beckman

Back home in New York, I started doing research on the internet, working off the list of Nason names I'd found in the cemetery. Eventually I found this posting in a genealogy website. "Nasons of Freedom, New Hampshire, looking for relatives of Jesse Nason and his wife Bertha. Any info from their kids or grandkids and pictures would be awesome. They are my great-great-grandparents."

The person who'd written it is named Samantha Thurston. I sent her an email confessing everything. And this is what she wrote back.

"Hello, Adam. I'm very interested in what you found and almost wish you had taken all that you found. Jesse and Bertha are my great-great-grandparents. I don't know a lot about them, but they did have a store in Freedom, New Hampshire and were well known.

We exchanged a few more emails and made plans to meet. Samantha said the immediate family either didn't have many answers or didn't want to talk. Her last email to me included this cryptic postscript about the Nasons. "They might not be what you'd expect. They are a rough crowd." The line is followed with three exclamation points.

Ira Glass

Coming up, one of the rough crowd meets one of those meddling kids, in a minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

Act Two: Act Two

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. We're devoting our entire show today to just one story, a real life mystery, "The House Near Loon Lake." We first broadcast today's show in 2001. Adam Beckman resumes his tale.

Adam Beckman

In August, I drive north to New Hampshire to meet with Samantha Thurston, the woman from the internet, and see if I can find someone to talk to me about the Nasons. I've brought the box of Nason stuff with me. It's small, about a foot square. Inside are family letters, the coins I took from the grocery store, the can of Hershey's syrup from the Nason's kitchen. I'm hoping to give it to someone who cares about the stuff. If not, I plan to bury it on the spot where the house stood.

At the turnoff from Route 25, I take a short bypass called Nason Road. On the way into town, I stopped to get directions from a woman working in her front yard. She's wearing a sweatshirt that says Nason Landscaping.

Samantha had told me that the Nasons either didn't know what had happened to the house or didn't want to talk. She also said that everyone would know I was in town. It's hard not to feel a little paranoid. Here I am, an outsider from New York City, come to town with details about the past, digging around for more details. I'm apprehensive about what kind of reception I'll get.

I arrive in Freedom August 2 and a parade is marching through the center of town. It's Old Home Week, the annual homecoming festival, an event created by the governor to combat problems of abandoned homes and farms in New Hampshire, all the way back in 1898. After the Civil War, young people had left the state in droves for better land and opportunities they'd noticed elsewhere.

I'd last visited in the 1970s. And a few things have changed since. The town's only store has been replaced with a shop for tourists selling tea doilies, hand-dipped candles, and Beanie Babies. Farming is pretty much dead. And city people have moved in because they love how charming it is. The place is so self-consciously quaint that you feel like you're on a movie set about a small town, tidy with just enough dilapidation around the edges to be rustic.

The parade moves past the old town hall, the one shop across the town's only intersection to the cemetery, then turns around for another pass. The theme for the parade this year is We Are Freedom. When I marched in the parade as a kid, the theme was Freedom of the Press. I dressed as a radio reporter and pretended to interview the spectators, an irony so bizarre I don't really know what else to say about it.

[CLOCK CHIMING]

That afternoon, I check into the only place to stay in town, a bed and breakfast called the Freedom House. I'd been concerned that some distant relative of the Nasons might own it, part of the rough crowd. I shouldn't have worried. The owner's a New Yorker. There's Princess Di memorabilia in the library. And my room's painted bright pink.

Patrick Nealy

In fact, it's been called the Ooh La La Room. I've had some people from Paris here, came in and said, ooh, la, la. But anyway.

Adam Beckman

Patrick Nealy is part of the new breed in Freedom. In the five years he's lived here, he's had the B&B meticulously restored. Antique toiletries and bottles of talcum powder line the shelves of the washroom. On a hallway table, silk gloves rest on top of a purse next to a pair of opera glasses. His things are just like the stuff in my box of Nason knickknacks, only better quality.

Standing there with a dirty little wooden box under my arm, I feel sort of pathetic. And when Patrick starts talking about how people can create instant ancestors out of old junk, it doesn't make me feel any better.

Patrick Nealy

I've pieced together histories through photos. We've come up with photographs. I have a number of instant ancestors in this house that I've kind of-- to create the ambiance. And in a few instances, I've tried to trace whatever I could about them.

Adam Beckman

Patrick's learned a lot about the history of the town. So I ask him about the Nason house. He doesn't know anything about it, but he does say that a Nason cousin named Rachel Mulvy once owned this very building and that she lived here, and died here.

Patrick Nealy

I think that Rachel's still in the house. I've had a few guests tell me they've heard someone walking on the second floor. So I don't know that you'll hear it, but I mean, I've heard people down at the end rooms-- I usually don't tell them, but she was a little old lady. So you might hear little slippered feet. And we've had a few things with lights, light bulbs suddenly breaking.

Adam Beckman

I have a couple of days to kill before my meeting with Samantha. And at breakfast, Patrick suggests I talk to a few locals who might have known the Nason family. The first one on his list lives right across the street.

Gail Holmgren Bickford

Well, my name is Gail Holmgren Bickford. I came here at the age of six months with my parents and have spent most of my summers here. What else would you like to know?

Adam Beckman

Do you remember-- do you remember the Nason family?

Gail Holmgren Bickford

Of course. They were scruffy little kids. They were always kind of disheveled and half-dressed, and needing to be washed. They were real-- what do you call it, from the-- the ones who went across on the covered wagons and never got to school?

Adam Beckman

Really?

Gail Holmgren Bickford

Well, I guess maybe they did go to school, but I think they went barefoot. They were sort of scary to go by there. If we walked to the beach, you went pretty fast to get by that house.

Adam Beckman

Why?

Gail Holmgren Bickford

I don't know exactly. I think the firemen burned it down for a practice session.

Adam Beckman

What was their status in the town? Were they ostracized?

Gail Holmgren Bickford

I don't know. I don't know anything about that. And I don't know the whole family setup, but one of them was into race horses and made quite a lot of money, I think, in race horsing.

Adam Beckman

I asked Gail if she thinks financial hardship brought the family down, but she can't confirm anything.

Gail Holmgren Bickford

About 1940-something, they build a bypass so that the main Route 25 did not go through town anymore. And then the town began to die out. There was no reason to come to town. And then the stores lost business. And they began to close up one by one. I have no idea whether that's what hit that family, but there may be somebody around who knows.

Carol Chase

Nason, sure. Brought up with them.

Adam Beckman

Carol Chase was the fire chief in Freedom about the time the house was burned. I find him sitting on his porch on a road outside of town. He's 92 years old and hard of hearing, but he does remember the fire.

Carol Chase

We just lit it with a match, newspaper and a match.

Adam Beckman

Was the house empty, or was it full of stuff?

Carol Chase

Nobody lived there.

Adam Beckman

Why did you start a fire?

Carol Chase

Why?

Adam Beckman

Yeah.

Carol Chase

Well, they wanted it burned.

Adam Beckman

Who wanted it burned?

Carol Chase

The people who owned it. That's about all I know about Freedom. People mind their own business.

Adam Beckman

He looks away from me as he says this, and I take the hint. Later that day, I learned he's related to the Nasons by marriage. In fact, he Samantha's grandfather. I spend some time worrying over why he never mentioned this.

Man

[GLASS CLINKING]

Adam Beckman

That afternoon, I go to a junk shop on the outskirts of town, discarded appliances, clothing, and a surprising number of old family photos. The owner, John Woodard, salvages most of this stuff from traumatic moments in people's lives, a divorce or a death, or when they move from a house to a retirement home. As it turns out, back in the mid '70s he got a call about the Nason house.

John Woodard

They were getting ready to knock down that house. And a guy called me up. And he said, gee, you ought to come over. He said, there's boxes and boxes of old whiskey bottles with paper labels and all this stuff in there. I got 10 or 12 boxes. I've sold them over the years.

Adam Beckman

Do you remember if there's anything in here that you got from the house, the Nason house?

John Woodard

If I still got some that have labels. One more spot. Let's check down here.

Adam Beckman

John walks me out past aisles of discarded family possessions to a barn filled with hundreds of bottles.

John Woodard

Yeah, see, something like this. Pickwick Ale bottle, probably from about 1920, in the '20s.

Adam Beckman

I'd taken a Pickwick Ale bottle opener from the Nason house and used it all through college. It was the one relic I'd kept for myself when I packed up the Nason stuff.

Do you remember where in the house you found that?

John Woodard

These were upstairs. They were upstairs in some boxes. Of course, the roof had fallen in on part of it, if you remember. And the upstairs was-- it was one of those you said, is it really worth taking a chance getting those boxes down from upstairs? But we did.

Adam Beckman

John hands it to me. It's got the same veneer of rust on it that everything in the Nason house had.

John Woodard

This is $5.

Adam Beckman

He gives it to me for free, for my project, he says.

I'm supposed to meet Samantha, my internet Nason contact, at the B&B at 1 o'clock. And she shows up 15 minutes early. A red pickup truck tears into the lot in a cloud of dust, and a tough looking woman in a flower print dress gets out and slams the door. Samantha's young, in her 20s. She's made up, hair tied back in a bow, but her demeanor is all tomboy.

Samantha Thurston

Well, I talked to the family yesterday, to actually Allen Nason. He's the one that I'm closest to out of the whole family.

Adam Beckman

We talk, and it's like we've been living in parallel worlds. Samantha's been looking for clues about the family's history for 10 years. She tells me she's been scouring graveyards and reading through public records, trying to construct a family tree. She began her search when she heard rumors that she had Native American ancestry. She decided to find out if she did to get financial aid for college. Before long, she'd figured out her grandfather was, in fact, an illegitimate child of Ernest Nason, one of Bertha and Jesse's kids, although her grandfather was not the person in that letter my mom had remembered all these years.

Samantha Thurston

And they have a lot of hard feelings in the family as it is.

Adam Beckman

Samantha's family, hearing what she was uncovering, wasn't too keen on her research project and didn't cooperate.

Samantha Thurston

It was like, go to hell away. I don't want to talk to you about this. It's none of your business. Well, it is. It's my heritage. It's my history.

Adam Beckman

I left my box of stuff from the Nason house upstairs in the Ooh, La, La Room. I wanted to give it to someone in the family, but I wanted to be sure it would go to someone who'd care. As we talk, it becomes clear to me how much it would mean to Samantha. So I bring it down and put it on the floor in front of her.

Samantha Thurston

Wow. How do I get this open?

Adam Beckman

It opens on the-- like that.

Samantha Thurston

Oh, neat. Oh my goodness. You even got papers. Oh, wow.

Adam Beckman

Yeah, that was probably one of the first things we found when we went in the house.

Samantha Thurston

Oh my goodness. Ain't that neat? I can't believe this. This is unbelievable. You have no idea what you've done.

Adam Beckman

She opens an envelope with her great-great-grandmother's name handwritten on it. She handles it incredibly gently. I watch as she lets the contents fall into her hands. It's a bunch of tiny recipes cut out from a newspaper.

Samantha Thurston

Oh my god. And you know what? I never even knew them. Oh, my. That's so cool. Oh, my goodness. I hope they appreciate it as much. I really do.

It's actually a blessing that you had gone into that house during that time period. Because once it fell in, everything was scooped up, thrown in a dump truck, and taken to the dump. And all the memories, everything that they left behind that should have been divvied up so that it could've been passed down, was all lost. So it actually was a good thing that you were a nosy little boy. [LAUGHING]

Adam Beckman

Samantha didn't know much about why the Nason house had been abandoned, but she told me a man named David Buzzwell, who lives across the street from where it once stood, might have some answers. On the way up to his house, I noticed a sign. "Trespassers will be shot. Survivors will be shot twice." David's sitting on his front porch with his friend Mabel Davis.

Mabel Davis

How does it happen you want to know about the Nasons?

Adam Beckman

When I was a little boy, when I was about 11 years old, I was in a summer camp here. Once we get talking, I realized the trespassing sign is David's idea of a joke. It's Sunday afternoon, and they're drinking Mudslides. Do you remember that house?

Mabel Davis

Of course I do, honey. Been in it many times.

Adam Beckman

Oh, really? When the Nasons were living there?

Mabel Davis

Yeah, Mr. and Mrs. Nason were living there. And I can see Mrs. Nason now taking out a can of biscuits. Honest to god, I bet that pan was that big.

Adam Beckman

Mabel's arms are spread wide as she says this. The image is pure Norman Rockwell. And frankly, it's a relief.

Adam Beckman

And what were the Nasons like?

Mabel Davis

Well, they were wonderful people, really. How would you say about Jess? All of his kids worked and worked hard.

Adam Beckman

Both Mabel and David knew the Nasons and had been in their house. But David, like me, had only been inside after it was abandoned.

David Buzzwell

Oh, it was full of treasures, old parlor sets, Morris chairs, advertising cans. The place was just packed with stuff like that. They were pack rats, anyway. They collected everything, everything.

Adam Beckman

Why would they just-- why would they just leave all that?

David Buzzwell

Don't ask me. Just the way they were.

Adam Beckman

I would think the grandkids would want to--

David Buzzwell

Didn't worry about it.

Adam Beckman

Didn't care about her?

David Buzzwell

No, none of them.

Adam Beckman

Why not?

David Buzzwell

You know young people are. They don't care about old things today.

Adam Beckman

Dave and Mabel tell me that Bertha died in 1968 and Jesse soon after in '69. And then things fell apart in the Nason family.

Mabel Davis

When Jess died, one of the children was in charge.

David Buzzwell

He was made the executor.

Mabel Davis

He was the executor, yes, of the estate. And there were some that were very, very put out.

David Buzzwell

They had to sign off and give him the authority to dispose of it. And some of them were not doing.

Mabel Davis

And some would not do it.

David Buzzwell

No. That is correct. It's a terrible thing to say, but as they died off one by one by one it made it easier, but it wasn't even settled when this person who was in charge settled the estate. He had died, and still it was left.

And then the widow was paying the taxes all these years. And she said, well, I'm not going to continue to pay them. Let them go. I mean, I think there were one or two of the family left. And they didn't want to pay them.

Mabel Davis

No.

David Buzzwell

So she said, to heck with it. I'm not going to. So the town took it for taxes.

I finally went to the town. And I said, that's a fire hazard. I built a new house here. People over there are poring around. I said they could step on a nail, a glass, a wire, and sue. It's not posted. So I said it ought to be burned.

Mabel Davis

I was at my daughter's. And I was in her kitchen the day they were burning that. We could see the flames and everything.

David Buzzwell

Oh, yeah, I remembered. I remember the fire department coming and burning it.

Mabel Davis

Yeah.

David Buzzwell

I had communicated with Mr. Thompson. He said to me at the time, will you arrange with the fire department to burn it at a practice session? And I will give them $1,000 donation, which he did. And I said, thank god, because it was an eyesore. And people were in and out of it all the time.

Adam Beckman

Was it still full of stuff when it burned?

David Buzzwell

There was a lot of junk in there, yeah.

Adam Beckman

Now the Nasons also had a store in Effingham Falls. There was an old--

Mabel Davis

Oh, yes, they certainly did. Jess and Bertha had the store right--

David Buzzwell

It wasn't Effingham Falls.

Mabel Davis

No, it was still Freedom.

David Buzzwell

Freedom.

Adam Beckman

What do you remember about the store?

Mabel Davis

Well, I know it did quite a business. It sold a lot of beer.

David Buzzwell

And they had candy.

Mabel Davis

Oh, yes.

David Buzzwell

There was a glass showcase.

Mabel Davis

And they had groceries. They had groceries.

David Buzzwell

And that store was just packed with everything. You could hardly get through.

Mabel Davis

Well, that's how Jess was.

David Buzzwell

Yeah.

Adam Beckman

Jess was like that, he just had a lot of stuff?

Mabel Davis

Well, he was a keeper of everything.

Adam Beckman

Do you remember when it closed or why?

David Buzzwell

They both died. And none of the kids wanted to run it.

Adam Beckman

Why would a family leave all their things, these precious things, not of value, but of great emotional value?

Mabel Davis

No, no, but a sentimental value.

Adam Beckman

Yeah.

Mabel Davis

I've never really thought of it, but it seems rather tragic in a way. I mean, that was a large family. I mean, how well do you know people? How many of them were interested in knowing?

Adam Beckman

And so the house and the store were abandoned because the kids didn't care. In some ways, this was bleaker than anything I'd imagined back when I was 11. I'd assumed a murder, or an illness, or an accident caused the Nasons to leave all these things behind, something out of the family's control. But in fact, it was the opposite. The family made it happen. They didn't care about the stuff, or they just didn't care to remember.

David Buzzwell

Too bad they weren't here to tell you. They were characters, weren't they?

Mabel Davis

Yeah.

David Buzzwell

Nice people, but they were a breed that's hard to find.

Mabel Davis

Well, they were the old school, David.

David Buzzwell

Yeah, that's right. They made everything do.

Mabel Davis

Yeah. But didn't everybody then? Those were the good old days--

David Buzzwell

Yeah, no kidding.

Mabel Davis

--when we had everything but money.

David Buzzwell

Yes, I guess so.

Mabel Davis

You better believe you did.

David Buzzwell

I had a swimming pool and a Mercedes.

Mabel Davis

Well, of course you would, and a place for a pony.

Adam Beckman

Members of the Nason family who declined to be interviewed on tape confirmed the story Mabel and Dave told me. Jesse and Bertha Nason lived in the house until 1946. That's when they opened a store near Effingham Falls and moved to the apartment above the store. They took what they needed and left the rest in the old house, using it as storage and keeping open the possibility that they'd move back someday.

When Jesse and Bertha died, the fight over the estate began. Immediately their kids-- there were nine of them-- locked up the store until it could be resolved. The house stayed pretty much as it was.

After 11 years, the fight was settled. The property was auctioned, the money was split, and the buildings were razed to the ground. I asked an elder Nason why they didn't clear out the precious things in the house. And she said, what precious things? It was full of crap. And I mean crap.

As for the woman in the letter that my mother was never able to forget, no one knew anything about her or her baby. David and Mabel told me this just figures in a little town like Freedom.

Mabel Davis

Are you kidding, honey?

David Buzzwell

It's a "Peyton Place."

Adam Beckman

Explain that. What do you mean?

Mabel Davis

It's just like every other town.

David Buzzwell

Yeah. There's nothing different. There are all of these little--

Mabel Davis

No.

David Buzzwell

--skeletons in the closet and bedroom affairs. Yeah.

Mabel Davis

Things would happen like in any typical, old town. Right?

David Buzzwell

Yeah. It's all by gossip.

Mabel Davis

It's all--

David Buzzwell

Yeah.

Mabel Davis

Yeah.

Adam Beckman

In retrospect, I know it was a little much, my obsession with the Nasons as a kid. I found this stuff in their house precious, so I assumed they would too. But of course, the relics in their house weren't about my life. They carried no memories, good or bad. It's possible that for the Nasons, they were reminders of an inheritance dispute or other disputes that they'd just as soon forget.

When I was talking to my friend David about the Nason house, he told me this story. His wife's father had recently and suddenly died and left behind a house that no one in the family wants. So David and his wife, Susan, now find themselves involved in figuring out what to do with it.

David

I feel like it's on the cusp of being abandoned. No one's living there. It's ripe for being vandalized. And what do you do with a house like that?

And now, it's strange. I mean, it's tied up in this weird world of legal probate where you can't really do anything with the property. You just kind of have to maintain it until some future court date. The property's become a ball and chain.

And Susan said an interesting thing, was, gosh, I wish that house would just burn down. And I thinking, gosh, well, why would you wish the house to be burned down? It's partly-- there's a lot of memories tied up in the house and emotions tied up between her and her dad, symbolized by the house. But something about it seemed relevant.

Adam Beckman

I wanted to show Samantha the spot where the house had once stood. So in the early evening, we walked through town and onto Loon Lake Road. We crashed through the bushes for a while, hoping that we could find the old foundation or something. But there wasn't a trace. In fact, the very land where I remember the house was gone. The soil had been hauled away weeks before by bulldozers constructing part of the new Freedom Elementary School.

Yeah, I mean, I'm pretty sure it was right in this flat spot. This is all new. Think it's through there.

Samantha Thurston

Because you have the stone wall.

Adam Beckman

Later, when I was packing to leave town, I found a small scrap of paper on the floor that had fallen out of the box of Nason stuff. There wasn't any writing on it, but I actually hesitated at the trash can. It's not that I missed my box of clues. I'd felt relief handing them over to Samantha. In fact, I actually felt lighter. But I was glad to have a remnant, however small, of the Nasons. So I took the scrap in my bag.

Ira Glass

Adam Beckman. In the years since we first broadcast this story, Adam worked as the cinematographer and co-director for our television show. It's streaming many places online. Three of the people that Adam interviewed for this story have died since it first aired, Gail Holmgren Bickford, one of the Freedom locals, Carol Chase, the former fire chief, and Mabel Davis, the woman that Adam talked to on a friend's front porch.

[MUSIC - "AMONG MY SOUVENIRS" BY THE CAROLINERS]

Credits

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Wendy Dorr and myself with Alex Blumberg, Jonathan Goldstein, and Starlee Kine. Senior producer for today's show is Julie Snyder. Additional production help on the rerun from Aviva DeKornfeld, Jarrett Floyd, Katherine Rae Mondo, Stowe Nelson, and Matt Tierney. Special thanks today to Carol Ford, Madeline Eldridge, Ron Beckman, and Jason Bittner.

Our website, thisamericanlife.org, where you can stream our archive of over 650 episodes for absolutely free. Or you can download as many episodes as you want for extra convenient listening with the This American Life app. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.

Thanks as always to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia, who is fascinating. He describes one of his typical weekends this way.

Adam Beckman

A teenage daughter returns late from a dance with a rose. She pins it to the mirror and hangs her dress in the closet. And then something horrible happens.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.