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12-11-02: Rockford family traditions on tour
About 300 people take Christmas walk

Standard Correspondent
    ROCKFORD - The portrait of Rozann Sutton smiles serenely in Steve Powell's dining room. She is his great-great-grandmother, and she should be smiling; he has gone to great pains to make sure that she feels at home.
    Powell's restored 19th century farmhouse on 707 east of Rockford was one of the homes open to the public during Rockford's ninth annual Christmas Walk last weekend. Approximately 300 people came through the house, Powell said, and what they saw was a home that had been rebuilt with tender loving care, inch by inch.
    Powell, 48, bought the home in 1982. He had grown up across the road from it and had always admired its lines. But when he bought it, the house was a mess.
    "Don't ever let them tell you that they built houses better in those days," he said.
    The floors were sagging. The plaster was falling. The roof had to be replaced. The old gentleman who had lived there alone for years before his death had never expected the house to survive him for long.
    "I think he fully expected the next owner to come along and bulldoze the house," Powell said.
    But that was the last thing that Powell wanted. He went to work with his father, Jack, an accomplished carpenter, and his brothers. Together they gutted the old house and put it on a new foundation. Powell removed the old wood floors, re-laid the planks, sanded and refinished them. He painstakingly found period woodwork and hardware for all the rooms.
    "Basically, we took everything out and put it all back in," he said. "But the idea was you would never know that."
    It took years of hard work, done piece by piece as Powell, who works at Tu-Way Products in Rockford, could afford it. He's been living in it for the past 10 years, but it wasn't until last Wednesday, as the deadline of the Christmas Walk loomed, that he finished it < as much as such a labor of love is ever finished.
    "My niece came and helped me hang the living room valances on Wednesday," he said.
    There's nothing like the knowledge that the whole town could be coming through your house, he said, to motivate you to finish a home improvement project.
    For Powell, the project became so much more than wiring and plumbing. A long-time collector of antiques, he scoured the countryside for furnishings that would match his house. He haunted auctions, garage sales and antique stores - and he wasn't above taking handouts.
    "Whenever anybody would ask, ODoes anybody want this old thing?' I'd take it," he said. "Chances are I'd find a use for it here."
    Powell has turned it all into treasures. His dining room table is set with glassware that matches the pieces his great-great-grandmother once used. In the kitchen is a shelf full of family pieces, modest but meaningful to him, like an old teapot his grandmother used to heat water for his grandfather's coffee.
    Upstairs in his sitting room, the toys under the Christmas tree were his when he was a boy, including a little red rocker that was a gift to him on his first Christmas. Many of the ornaments on his tree came from his grandmother.
    Powell keeps that history at his fingertips, but he had no interest in living in a museum. His house is warm and welcoming, drawing visitors from room to beautiful room.
    "You want people to know that you live in it. It can't just look like something out of a picture book," he said. "I like antiques, but it has to be something I can live with and use. Unless it's an old family piece, it can't just sit there. I wanted a little bit of formality in the house, but not so much that you're afraid to touch anything."
    The people who came through his house last weekend seemed to appreciate that, he said. They listened to the stories about his family pieces and marveled at what he'd been able to accomplish, to bring an old house back to life and in doing so, to make a home for himself.
    "I always knew I wanted a place like this," he said. "I always wanted a house where you would walk into it, and it would feel like home."


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