By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, June 16, 1945.
“Come on,” cried Jimmie Frise excitedly. “Let’s get going!”
“Where, what’s up?” I responded, rising.
“I’ve got a bargain,” declared Jim eagerly. “It’s one of …”
“Whoa,” I said, sitting down again. “You know what we’ve agreed on about bargains.”
“But this is a sensation!” cried Jim urgently. “This is one of those pre-fabricated wartime houses. It originally cost over $700 ….”
“Now, Jim,” I cut in. “What the dickens would we want with another house. And a wartime house!”
“The most perfect little summer cottage,” gushed Jim, “you ever saw. It cost over $700. It has only been lived in a year. And we can get it for $200.”
“We’ve got a cottage,” I reminded him.
“But $200!” expostulated Jimmie waving his arms. “Why, it’s a give-away. We could buy it and have it sent up to our summer place and we could either erect it as an annex – our families are increasing – or else tow it up on a scow to one of the inland lakes where we go bass fishing. Set it up there, and instead of having to drag ourselves back and forth, back and forth, we could go in and spend a whole week on the fishing lakes …”
“Jim,” I counselled sagely, “you know what has happened to us with every bargain we ever got. There is no such thing as a bargain. Everything has its true value. Or its true worth. And if you get it for less than its true worth, either there is something wrong with it, or else….”
“Just a minute,” interrupted Jimmie. “This isn’t a bargain in the sense that all those other bargains we’ve bought were. This is a war and peace bargain. The world is full of them right now. In fact, for the next couple of years, there are going to be some of the greatest bargains we ever saw. And this portable house is one of them.
“Mmmmm,” I demurred.
“We’ve got to step lively,” cried Jim agitatedly. “If we don’t grab it, somebody else will. I’ve seen it. It’s wonderful. Simply wonderful. A swell little four-room cottage, painted cream and red. It all comes apart. Most of it is bolted together. Only a few nails are used in setting it up. It goes together like a jig-saw puzzle….”
“I don’t like puzzles,” I put in.
“Now, don’t be stupid!” snorted Jim. “This is the chance of a lifetime. A mere $200. That’s $100 each.”
“It can’t be much good,” I stated firmly, “if you can get it for that. It is probably junk.”
“I tell you I have been out to see it,” declared Jim. “This family has been living in it a whole year. Right through the winter. And it was as cosy as any brick house they’d ever lived in. He’s one of these war workers and he is going back to his own home town now. I met him at lunch, and he was telling me about it.”
“Who is he?” I inquired.
“Just a guy I met at lunch,” said Jim. “We got to talking about the war being over and he said he was through with his war job and was returning to his native town. Then we got talking about the effect of the war ending. And he spoke of this little house he’d bought.”
“You’re so gullible,” I protested. “Just because a guy says it is a bargain, you get all excited.”
“But it is a bargain,” insisted Jim. “A real wartime bargain. Boy, we’re in on the ground floor. While everybody is waiting for the War Assets Disposal Board to decide what to do with all the war material, we just grab off the one thing we want. An annex to the cottage. Or a little fishing cabin away off the beaten track. A little cabin hidden in the wilds…”
One Problem at a Time
“I admit,” I said cautiously, that the fishing is pretty well shot at the cottage. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to have another little cabin in on one of those lakes back in the bush. …”
“Ah, now you’re regaining consciousness,” exclaimed Jim, genially. “Besides, with the kids growing up and filling the cottage with young folk, there will be plenty of times from now on when we’ll be glad of some little hideout off by itself.”
“A hundred bucks,” I mused, “Then there’ll be the cost of dismantling it.”
“Dismantling it?” laughed Jim. “Why, the two of us can take it all apart on a Saturday afternoon!”
“Well, then,” I pursued, “there’ll be the cost of having it transported by truck up north. Then the cost of getting Joe Neault or somebody up there to haul it by scow up the river. It isn’t going to be easy to manhandle those big sections through the bush to the site we choose on one of the lakes.”
“Aw, let’s face those problems as they arise,” said Jim, signalling me to get my coat on. “The big thing is, to get it while we can. Let’s go right out now and see the cottage. He gave me the key.”
Jim held a key out.
“Some key,” I remarked. “It looks like one of those skeleton keys you buy in the five and ten.”
“It’s a cottage key,” explained Jim. “Paid $20 for that key.”
“You what?” I inquired, pulling on my jacket.
“I paid the guy $20 for the option,” said Jim. “But I knew you’d come in on it as soon as you see it.”
So we drove right out to see the place. It was in the suburbs, a mile or so beyond the city limits in one of those very temporary residential mushroom regions that have grown up in the vicinity of the big war plants. The road into it was one of those ready built tarmac paths, good for a season. Half a dozen other little cottages were scattered along the road over the field.
“They certainly look worth more than $700,” I admitted as we walked in.
“Wait till you see inside,” assured Jim.
All the other cottages in the row were occupied, but ours was vacant. The neighbors watched us curiously as we stood examining our new purchase from various angles.
“It’s a beaut, Jim,” I confessed. “So substantial.”
“Now do I know a bargain when I see one?” gloated Jim. “You should thank me for letting you in on it. I might very easily have nabbed this for myself.”
Tackling the Job
We entered the cottage. There was a small front living and dining room combined. Two little bedrooms and a kitchen. It was tidy and beautifully kept. Whoever left this little house was a good housekeeper. She had left it spick and span, instead of in the usual mess vacated houses are left in, with old rags and bits of clothing and wire hangers strewn about.
“Jim,” I announced, “I am certainly in this with you. I congratulate you. I’ve seen you make worse bargains.”
“You write me your cheque tonight,” said Jim. “The guy is going to give me a call a week from today. He’s gone to his home town, Cannington or something. I forget. My option is good for a week. He’ll pick up our cheques at the office.”
“Swell,” I said. “But have we much time to waste in getting it up north? I suggest–“
“What’s the matter with tonight?” demanded Jim. “He said it shouldn’t take us more than four hours to dismantle it. Suppose we arrange for a cartage company to pick it up tomorrow. We can take it all apart tonight, pile the pieces here and arrange with the neighbors to keep their eyes on it. By tomorrow night, it will be up at the landing, and we can wire Joe Neault to take charge of it and scow it up to the cottage….”
“Well, it’s a little sudden,” I protested, “How about tomorrow evening?”
“Do you realize the date?” asked Jim. “The family will be moving up to the cottage next week. No. Let’s do it tonight. Let’s have this whole thing up at the cottage before our families find out about it. You never can tell what the reaction might be with our wives and kids. Maybe they’ll want it as an annex, right behind the old cottage.”
I could see this beautiful little cabin hidden amid the balsam and birch groves of Beaver lake or Green Grass lake. There is a point on Wolf lake where Jim and I have camped for 30 years past. How wonderful it would be to have a little private hideout on that rocky point of Wolf lake!
“Okay,” I said.
So we drove home and quietly got on some old pants and shirts, and unobtrusively collected a bunch of hammers, wrenches, screw drivers and crowbars for the dismantling job. After a hasty supper, we drove full belt for the suburbs.
First, we removed the doors, front and back.
One of the neighbors strolled across.
“Taking her away?” he inquired.
“Just bought her this afternoon,” said Jim, already working at one of the main nuts of the bolts that held the main structure together.
“What happened to Mr. Matthews?” inquired the neighbor.
“Who’s he?” inquired Jim.
“I understand he had bought it,” said the neighbor. “He’s been out every day for the past week with his wife. I understood they were moving in today or tomorrow.”
“Must have fallen through,” said Jim, starting on another nut. “The former owner gave me an option on it today.”
“Gee, I’m sorry,” said the neighbor. “Matthews was a nice guy. And besides, we hate to see the street starting to break up like this. It’s been a happy little community.
“Too bad,” said Jim, unscrewing.
“We’re taking this,” I explained to the neighbor, “up north. It’s going to be a fishing cabin, a hideout. Away back in the bush.”
“Well, they’re swell little houses,” said the neighbor.
“You’re telling us,” said Jim.
So we went to work. There is this to be said about a portable house. It is not quite so portable as it sounds. And when they put one up, they put it up to stay.
The nails were all very firmly driven home. The nuts or the bolts fastening the beams and stringers together were very tightly bound home.
We took off the outer sections of wall first. These were large sections, firmly plated with shingle-style planking. Then we removed the beaver board lining from the uprights of the house. We piled everything very tidy in a neat workmanlike stack. And I discussed with the neighbor who was hanging around the matter of keeping his eye on the pile overnight until our transport truck would call for it. Their office had been closed when we called at supper time. But we’d get them first thing in the morning.
In about two hours, long before dark, we had succeeded, working like beavers actually, in getting all the front and one side wall divested of both the outer shell of plated planking and the heaver board lining. The frame now stood revealed, with the two sides out. And a fine sturdy frame it was.
“Jim,” I said, as he loosened a window sash and lowered it to me, “I can hardly believe a house like this cost only $700.”
“The wartime prices people,” explained Jim,” kept everything down to a minimum. That’s what I was telling you. These war bargains are lollapaloosas.”
“Lollapaloosa!” I cried. “That’s what we’ll christen her when we get her up to Wolf Lake.”
Jim paused on the ladder as he lowered a section of beaver board and gazed over my head.
A moving van was slowly wobbling off the pavement and coming in our tarmac road.
Ahead of the moving van, running from a car they had parked out on the main road, came a man, and a lady dressed in red.
Moving van and runners arrived together. “Hey!” gasped the man, breathless from the run and waving his arms angrily.
The lady came around him and snatched the window frame from my grasp.
“You … you…” said the man.
Jim came down the ladder. The man rested himself against the pile of building material and the lady, breathing tumultuously, went over and tried to set the window sash back in the empty wall.
“You thieves!” finally gasped the man. “You burglars! Stealing a house!”
“Stealing?” demanded Jim haughtily. “I beg your pardon. I bought this house today.”
“It has been mine,” gasped the stranger, “for two weeks.”
“I bought it,” asserted Jim, “from the former owner at noon today.”
“Former owner?” cried the man. “What’s his name?”
“I forgot to take a note of it,” said Jim. “I paid him $20 for the option….”
By this time, a dozen of the neighbors, both ladies and gentlemen, had gathered. They were greeting Mr. and Mrs. Matthews warmly.
“The former owner,” shouted Mr. Matthews, “is that factory over there.”
“Then, who,” demanded Jim indignantly, “was the man I paid $20 to, the man who brought me out here this noon, and gave me this key….”
But I was already putting my coat on.
“Oh, no, you don’t,” said Mrs. Matthews, seeing me. “You stay right here and put it together again. You can’t do this to us.”
Which was quite right. After all, this was no worse than most bargains Jimmie and I have encountered in the past 30 years.
When everything had cooled off and we had explained to Mr. and Mrs. Matthews about the stranger Jimmie had met at lunch, there was some sympathy for us, but not much. Because Mr. Matthews pointed out that even people with lame brains could have seen that this house was worth more than $700 and by no stretch of the imagination, not even believers in the Irish Sweepstakes, should have imagined that they could get such a house for $200.
It was still an hour to dark. And with all the neighbors and Mr. and Mrs. Matthews helping, we got the beaver board back on and the wall sections and the windows. In fact, the moving van boys, after they had moved in most of the furniture and stuff, lent a hand with the doors; and it was just black dark when the Hydro man for the township arrived and turned on the Matthews’ electricity. And on their electric stove, the Matthews made tea for all hands including Jimmie and me.
And when we got in our car to drive home, the first thing Jim said was:
“Now, about this $20 I paid this guy at lunch.”
“Nothing doing!” I cried emphatically.
“After all,” said Jim, “it was on behalf of the two of us I paid it. You were only too eager to get in on it, once you saw the house.”
“That’s different,” I said. “I wasn’t taken in by any confidence man. I’m no sucker.”
“Okay,” said Jim, grimly. “Never mind. I’ll get that $10 out of you some other way. And you’ll never know I got it.”
And we explained to our families that our tiredness and blisters were from helping an old friend build a dog kennel.
Editor’s Notes: $200 in 1945 would be $3275 in 2022.
The Irish Sweepstakes was a lottery that ran from 1930-1986, and was large in the popular imagination at a time when lotteries were illegal in North America and Britain before the 1970s. It was supposedly for raising money for Irish hospitals, but was more of a scam where it made the organizers rich.