The city of Independence and the Vaile Victorian Society owe Rory and Jill Ritchie thanks for the countless hours, days, weeks and months they have spent cleaning out truckloads of trash, debris and clutter from 10 neglected rooms in the spacious basement of the majestic 30-room Vaile Mansion, resulting in the riddance of the historic home's biggest eyesore.
The labor-of-love project, which consumed most of the spare time of the dedicated Lee's Summit couple, might never have occurred had Rory, a board member of the Vaile Victorian Society and a volunteer at the three-story 1871 Victorian mansion, not decided it was time “to get a handle” on the unsightly basement and alleviate the mammoth problem.
“So with Jill's help, we started taking out stuff slowly – getting a pickup load and taking it to the dump in a certain order,” he explains. “Then, after I retired, I had more time and it turned into 'I wanted to get it done because no one ever got it done,'” he says of the monster cleanup. “It was always like, 'We will clean up a little piece of this room and move on. But four or five months down the road,” he says, “that little piece they cleaned up would be piled high with stuff. So that is when I took it upon myself to say, 'We need to clean this.'”
Rory and his wife, Jill, also a Vaile volunteer (and The Examiner's news clerk), decided the most realistic method of cleaning the filthy basement was doing one room at a time.
Says Rory: “You clean out the debris, rubble and stuff that is no longer needed and get it out of there so you have room to work on the ceilings, walls and floors. So we would take one room at a time and get it completely done to our satisfaction; then we would move on to the next room.”
With each room presenting its own challenges, Rory says it was necessary to plan what needed to be done, how to do it and in what order.
“You can't clean the ceiling without moving stuff off the floor first,” he explains. “You would be doubling your work. You had to plan each room separately and each one had its own distinct challenges.”
Then, of course, there were shelvings, skids and platforms that needed replacing. So using his carpentry skills, Rory built new ones at his home, hauled them to the Vaile in his pickup truck to use where needed – especially this summer when three to six inches of water flooded the basement. Since the flooding occurred after new shelving had been installed, nothing got wet, Rory recalls, explaining he built platforms using pressure-treated lumber so water would not hurt them.
“Had we waited and not done the cleanup until the last big rain we had a couple of months ago, everything in that lower area containing supplies, tents, antiques would have been under water.”
In some aspects, cleaning out the basement was like going on a treasure hunt. You never knew what might turn up that was of historical importance to the Vaile home and grounds – such as the artifact Rory found while cleaning a room whose cement floors were covered with rocks, dirt, rubble and other debris. In this pile, Rory found an encrusted object.
“I didn't know what it was,” he says, “so I started peeling the dirt off it and wiping it down; it was a sharp rock … and turned out to be an old Native American preformed knife blade … meaning that it was still in the process of being rubbed down; it still has an excellent shape and edge.”
Now on display inside the second-floor library, the artifact was found beneath the shelving with rubble, dirt and mud, he says, and had probably been there for decades.
“I was told after I found it that the Vaile had other Native American artifacts that had been found on the property over years and years, and had been donated to the Nelson Art Gallery. This may have been one of them.”
Another historical find – this one relating to Col. Harvey Vaile – was a wooden plank Rory found face down on the bottom of a shelf with the following hand-painted inscription: H.M. Vaile, Independence, Mo., via Mo. Pac . RR.
“That was the shipping address painted on this board that was part of a crate,” he says, noting the plank was used as the bottom shelf in the canned-food storage room. The artifact is now on display in the library.
Rory says his greatest satisfaction in eliminating the basement eyesore was “just knowing that you helped. You did something that really needed to be done that a lot of people were not able to do, such as hauling, lifting, having access to a truck. But getting it done and hopefully from this point on, keep an eye on it so that if we see clutter coming back, we can address that (issue) at that time. We don't want to see it get to the point where it was before.”
And let's not forget Jill's tireless efforts.
“Jill is the best helper anyone can ask for,” says Rory. “Had she not been the helper that she was, I would still be there. She came up with ideas and things that were good and made our job easier. You could not ask for better help.”
In summarizing their work, Rory believes that “for the situation we were in and the help that I had, I think we did the best job that could be done under the constraints we were under.”
-- Retired community news reporter Frank Haight Jr. writes this column for The Examiner. You can leave a message for him at 816-350-6363.