Imagine it’s a late fall day in a just-established Lancaster city, apples harvested from a sprawling orchard ready to be pressed inside a brick outbuilding.
Would the area have been tinged with the sweet smell of cider, or might it have been a more pungent aroma wafting into the air as the proprietors distilled apple cider into vinegar?
David Gelatt and husband Kevin Peters, who call the possible cider house home some 200 years later, are still trying to figure that out.
Much of the early history of their two-story Sherman Street house has been lost. They can’t trace its specific use prior to the 1920s, when it appears the outbuilding-turned-home first became a stand-alone property with its own documentation.
But the Vinegar House moniker has stuck, no matter what kind of apple-based goodness was made inside all those years ago.
Old vinegar house
“All we knew when we moved in (11 years ago) was that some of the neighbors said, ‘Oh, you bought the old vinegar house,’ ” Gelatt says. “I wish now we’d asked more questions.”
Many of the original neighbors have since died or moved, but that hasn’t stopped Gelatt — an avid family genealogist — from trying to trace his home’s roots. He’s scrolled through e-films, leafed through old paper records with the county’s recorder of deeds and consulted insurance maps at the suggestion of LancasterHistory.
Gelatt believes the structure likely dates to the late 1700s or early 1800s, but so far, he’s only traced its lineage to 1845.
An 1886 fire map shows the property with an “X” on it, designating it as an outbuilding connected to 39 N. Plum St., owned then by a C.O. Stunhouse.
From the 1880s through the early 1900s, John Butz Jr. and his wife, Ada Adelaide Steinheiser, lived in the house with their five children — in what is, even with an addition, about 964 square feet of living space.
In 1938, newspaper records show the house had its own address as it was sold by three couples to a new owner for $1,250.
Gelatt and Peters have patched together a rough timeline of events before and after that through family histories and chance encounters. The Butz family, for instance, noted the neighborhood was “full of distilleries,” possibly lending credence to the vinegar theory.
Former Lancaster school board member Randy Carney lived there with his grandparents in the 1950s and shared a series of black-and-white photos taken outside the home. He also showed the couple doors and a wall that had been changed — including a door added to create a study. It was in that area that Carney’s grandmother positioned her bed, and that’s where she died one Easter Sunday, Gelatt says.
Essence of centuries
After all these years, it’s almost as if the home’s historic features — original wood floors and beams, horsehair plaster walls likely added whenever the building was converted to a home — hold the essence of centuries of residents. Fortunately, a site visit by a paranormal team didn’t turn up strong evidence of lingering spirits, despite the fact that an earlier resident killed himself in the kitchen.
“I am always looking around trying to imagine the people who lived here through the years,” says Gelatt, whose research turned up several residents who ran afoul of the law. Researching the inhabitants allows him “to get a sense of who they were and how they contributed to the city of Lancaster.”
Of course, he and Peters still wonder about their home’s earliest contributions to the city and any orchard-based business. They are left to guess about several unique characteristics, including a 4-by-8-foot section of second-story flooring that lifts out. The current residents think it could have accommodated the top of a conveyor belt used in processing apples. They also found long-abandoned canning jars in basement crevices — with the contents so old it was impossible to discern what they were.
“We know from the interior architecture that this wasn’t always a house,” Gelatt says. “There are just a lot of weird things.”
Other oddities include a knob-less door next to the attic stairs that hid an ancient pulley system and a hidden cupboard in the living room. Then there is the home’s unusual natural light.
“My favorite thing is that it’s a single building, and we’ve got a 360-degree view from the inside,” Peters says.
The couple continue to pay homage to the history of the Vinegar House, whether the Christmas enthusiasts are recreating history with a canning-related decoration theme or using items from the apple tree they planted their first year to create wall art and plant hangers.