"Quality Does Win" was the slogan for the L. Burg Carriage Company in Farmington, Iowa, back before the turn of the century -- the 20th Century, that is.
On their first date, Dawn Sirois and Scott Butler discovered that both of them had always wanted to live somewhere that wasn't a house, they both liked antiques, and they both wanted a studio to work in. Marriages have, after all, been made on much less. But for Sirois and Butler, it was the beginning of dreams come true.
After their marriage, they looked in Fort Madison at old homes to live in, but like the three bears they couldn't find one that was just right.
Then Scott found an old factory building in Farmington on the internet. "We'd drive out to look at it and just walk around and dream," recalls Dawn. Listed on the National Historic Register, the building had had the chimneys rebuilt and the outside restored. Alas, the asking price was too high, so the Butlers just drove and dreamed. But this was a dream that was meant to come true: They finally put in a bid and it was accepted.
They purchased the building in 2000, began working on it, and actually moved into the massive stone building in June 2001. Well, sort of moved in. They had one room on the second floor with the floors and walls refinished -- they camped out there, working on the rest of the second floor every night, weekend, and holiday.
Dawn Sirois Butler writes and develops programs for the before and after school program for the Keokuk School System. Before taking that position a few years ago, she was an art teacher in the Fort Madison School District for over 20 years. She loves to paint -- anything: Canvas, rocks, furniture, you name it. Scott Butler, a native of Fort Madison, is a design specialist at Building Materials in Fort Madison who loves to do restorations and has been collecting architectural details for many years.
The building these two talented visionaries saw as a dream-come-true, most of us would have seen as a wreck of a money-pit if not a nightmare. It was filled with years of junk and debris, the walls and floors were a disaster. There were no amenities in working order.
In 1865, Louis Burg left the family wagon factory business in Burlington to build his own factory in Farmington. The Burg family had been building wagons and buggies in Bavaria for generations when Louis' parents and children immigrated to the United States and opened their own factory.
"There were a lot of Bavarians in this area at that time," says Dawn. In fact Franklin, Iowa was founded by Bavarian immigrants many of whose trademark cut-stone houses still stand. Louis Burg wanted to build a fine stone factory like the one his grandfather had built back in the old country. Besides coming from a successful family business, Burg had also married Cornelia Boehme. "Cordelia's father, Anton, had been a mercenary in Napoleon's army. One of the few to make it back from Russia," says Dawn. She and Scott speculate that the loot he brought home or his military pay-off paid for his journey to Farmington where he built and owned a bank, which still stands today.
Anyway, The Louis Burg Carriage Company was completed in 1878. Two stories tall, each floor has 3,500 square feet. The brick and stone walls are 24-inches thick on the ground floor; 18-inches on the second. Having lost a factory to a fire, Burg had the ceiling/floor between the two floors made of brick also. The carriages were constructed on the main floor and hoisted up to the second floor for painting and finishing. Steve Butler discovered an original archway behind a newer wall, the arch and floor still had paint and varnish stains on them. "We'll leave it that way," says Steve. The Butlers like the old stains for their authenticity and the history they tell.
A wealthy man in 1890, Burg and his family picked up everything and moved to Dallas City, Ill. "We think his sons pressured him into building those new horseless carriages," speculates Dawn. "One of the Burg automobiles was in parades around here in the '70's," says Scott. "I'd love to know where it is." The new Louis Burg Automobile Company was built on the banks of the river where "Johnny's Supper Club" used to be in Dallas City. The sandstone Burg Mansion still stands downtown. But the Burg auto didn't stand the test of time. "I've heard they were souped up so much, they shook the parts off," laughs Scott.
The factory was completely open on both floors, but when the Grimm sisters bought the building from the Burgs, they turned the second floor into three apartments. The Butlers knocked out the walls separating the apartments but kept some of the rooms at the back of the building as bedrooms for their visiting children (each have two children from previous marriages) and guests. "A lot of people have stopped here who lived in one of the apartments in the 20's, 30's, or 40's," says Dawn. "They always remember it as a nice place to live."
Over the decades the first floor was everything from a fish market to a funeral parlor. Someone built an airplane in it. The Butlers use the first floor as a music and art studio as well as a home for an enormous stuffed grizzly bear Dawn's father bagged in the '60's. "I'm the only one in the family with a house that has ceilings high enough for him," Dawn admits. The bear looks quite content in his new home -- he even gets decorated for holidays. There's also a large workshop on this this floor as well as Burg's small brick-floored office which Dawn, an avid gardener, plans on making her potting room.
On the second floor the couple has completed a living room, dining room, kitchen, several bedrooms, a bath, and a laundry room. All the floors shine after hours and hours of sanding and finishing. The walls are smooth plastered, some glazed, some papered.(Scott's not exactly pleased with the layout of the kitchen, but that's his job after all, so he's bound to want to make changes here and there.) The finished rooms are furnished with antiques the Butlers have collected. The bedrooms, however, reflect each child's individual taste.
The work the Butlers have done on what they call "The Old Buggy Factory" shows their eye for detail and perfectionism. The old Bavarian stonemasons would approve of what has finally become of their building. Though much work remains to be done, these two dreamers see only the potential in their rather large, stone sleeping beauty.
"There's strength in this building," reflects Dawn. "It's the quirkiness of it we just love."