House of the Box Man
Freddy was our playground’s favorite bogeyman, though I know now he didn’t deserve to be. But for schoolkids at Milton Junction grade school in the late 50′s, the ultimate double dog dare was to tiptoe across the street and touch your saddle-shoed toe on the Box Man’s jungle of a lawn. It was a feat of bravery that could wipe out a month’s worth of recess transgressions.
By the way, any out-of-towners should take note that you won’t find the Village of Milton Junction on a map. Not any more. It merged years ago with its twin sister, the Village of Milton, into one seamless uber-Milton. But back then it was divided down the middle into two distinct towns, each with its own post office, main street, grade school, and antique train depot.
The Village of Milton also had Milton College and the famous hexagonal, grout Milton House. The Village of Milton Junction had a feed mill and The Box Man, otherwise known as Freddy Caulkins.
What made us think Freddy Caulkins was a bogeyman? Well, what other sort of person would live in a house completely filled with cardboard boxes from floor to ceiling so that every window was completely blocked ?
Rumors aboutwhat was in those boxes ran rampant, but there was no way to know for sure since Freddy never let anyone inside to find out. It wasn’t as if he lived in the middle of nowhere, either. His house sat on the corner of Clear Lake Road and Madison Avenue, the major thoroughfare that ran through the two towns. A new subdivision with modern ranch homes had sprung up kiddy-corner from his house, the school lay just across the street, and he had many other neighbors on both sides. The ladies from the Methodist church brought him casseroles and other care packages sometimes, but they never got much past the front door. They couldn’t have gone farther if they wanted to, since only a few narrow paths led from room to room. And they probably didn’t have much desire to investigate, since the house was unheated, unelectrified, and had no sewer or water. Not to mention the undetermined content of those boxes.
Freddy slept wrapped between sheets of newspapers and made it through the long Wisconsin winters without freezing to death by burning twigs and other refuse in a five gallon bucket. It’s amazing the whole place didn’t burn down around his near-frostbitten ears.
We never saw him leave the house, although we spent many a recess watching. He had an outhouse, a two-and-a-half seater (adapted from a scavenged 3-seater) in an old shed in the backyard, but he must have made his visits under cover of darkness. People did spot him occasionally, though, because once or twice a week he would walk 5 or 6 miles to Janesville in his tattered old coat and pants, often pushing his ancient reel lawnmower all that way so he could mow lawns for a few quarters. He’d push the lawnmower all the way back home that same day.
Madison Ave. view of the house after grounds were cleared
Often Freddy would buy a new 45 rpm record to bring home from Janesville, but no one remembers what kind of music he liked. What people do recall about Freddy is that he had a purple growth or tumor on his forehead, a big one, which he was always careful to cover with an old hat jammed over his straggly gray hair. The barber was a neighbor of ours, and my mother remembers him telling how Freddy would come in sometimes…not often….for a haircut, and that he would always tell Freddy he ought to have that growth removed. Freddy never did, though, and it just added to his mystique.
Of Like Minds… I got to thinking about the Box Man when someone sent me a Washington Post story on hoarders, people who pile up endless collections of material goods –and bads — until they are almost immobilized by their own possessions.
Author Sandra G. Boodman told of people psychologically akin to Freddy Caulkins, like 70-year old Patricia Edwards of Bethesda, MD, who quipped a true hoarder’s credo, “Discarding anything is a problem.” Obviously. Edwards keeps everything from old banana peels to empty Kleenex boxes, living ankle deep in refuse and sleeping in a 3-foot wide nest carved near the bathroom. According to Boodman’s article, hoarding is not well understood by psychiatrists partly because most hoarders feel they have no problem, and so don’t seek treatment. Most experts believe the phenomenon starts in childhood or adolescence, but becomes more of a problem as people age and have trouble taking care of their “treasures.”
When I decided to find out more about what made Freddy Caulkins tick, I asked Milton Courier editor Doug Welch if he could recall seeing any newspaper articles in his archives. All I could remember was that Caulkins died in the early 60′s, and that’s not a lot to go on. Not surprisingly, Welch said he had no idea where to start, so I resigned myself to a long afternoon of browsing old Milton Couriers on microfilm. I grilled my mother, too, but all she could remember was the auction of Freddy’s things where she bought an old, chipped flower vase. Her memory of what else was for sale, alas, had fled.
A few days later, though, Welch called me back with surprise edging his voice. “You won’t believe this,” he said. Turned out he had gotten it into his head to research the old Milton High School’s day of glory when it was chosen to march in JFK’s 1961 inaugural parade. He started paging through old editorials, and suddenly there was a headline on Mike Flaherty’s weekly column that read, “Freddy will be missed…..” Eureka.
Obituary of a Non-Conformist
Welch could hardly believe it himself, since I had just asked him two days earlier. The same paper contained an obituary which showed Freddy died Sunday, Feb. 4, 1961, in the Edgerton hospital after a short but unspecified illness. It read, “This week Milton Junction mourns the passing of one of its most colorful residents, Fred Caulkins. He will be missed, even though he lived alone in a once stately house now crammed to the ceilings with paraphernalia collected over more than a half century. We sincerely doubt that he ever had an enemy or even an antagonist. How many of us, who struggle so hard to conform to society’s demands, can say as much?” And that was true, according to the few people I could find who knew him.
Doug Welch recommended I call a long-time neighbor, Jean Kunkel, as well as the man who bought and still owns Freddy’s house, Milton businessman Hank Lukas. Kunkel moved into the neighborhood about 6 years before Freddy died, and often saw him coming and going on his solitary journeys. “That man wouldn’t hurt a soul,” she said. “He’d be in that house most of the time during the day.” At night, there were never any lights visible in the house, she added. Of course with the windows totally blocked, lights would be hard to see. And without electricity, any lighting Freddy had would be minimal.
“I don’t think he ever took his clothes off,” said Kunkel, “and he had a lot of little bundles of used kitchen matches tied together.”
Hank Lukas grew up in Freddy’s neighborhood, too, and had opportunity to observe him at closer range as a boy. “I used to work in my uncle’s hardware store downtown Milton Jct.,” said Lukas, who owned a men’s clothing store in town and now runs a car wash, “and when I went out back, sometimes Freddy would be in back of the grocery store next door.”
The grocer used to give Freddy older produce and bakery items, and Lukas noted this was probably his main source of nutrition other than what the church ladies brought.
“I used to speak to him,” said Lukas. “He’d say hi to me but not much else. He was definitely a recluse but a harmless one. He was just a very gentle man who was doing his own thing.”
Box Man's house today
Lukas remembers Freddy lived there with his mother until she died. Freddy was born in Janesville, according to his obituary, to Orson and Augusta Green Caulkins on Feb. 24, 1888. He was survived at death by his parents and two half-brothers, so perhaps it may have been that his mother married an older man with two sons. He had several other relatives, nieces and nephews mostly, all of whom had moved to California. At any rate, the Caulkins family would have bought the two-story, cream brick Victorian in Milton Junction and moved there from Janesville sometime around 1910.
It was known that Freddy did attend school in Janesville, added Lukas, because he had one friend, a man named Harry Wright who was a school chum of Freddy’s in that town. Freddy may not have gone beyond 8th grade, however, because none of the Janesville High School yearbooks between the years 1902 and 1907 contain any mention of Freddy Caulkins in any class listing. So unfortunately there are no old yearbook pictures to show us Freddy’s younger face, and Lukas doesn’t know of anyone ever photographing Freddy.
“I think it’s just that no one ever thought of it,” said Lukas. Harry Wright was blind from birth, and had his own home in Milton, with a loom in the basement where he wove rugs and cane chairs for a living. “When Freddy got sick and had to be hospitalized,” said Lukas, “he sold his house to Harry so he could pay the hospital bills. In the sale, he reserved the right to his lifetime use of the house. But he never made it back there to live.”
Afterlife of the Box Man’s House
Our playground’s-eye view of the Box Man’s house as it appears today. Harry Wright had no desire to live in his old friend’s congested dwelling, and he hired workers to clean out Freddy’s possessions.
“They spent a summer clearing it out,” said Lukas, “and took 200 truckloads straight to the dump. It was full of sticks and stones, whatever he could find. There might be a bundle of them he would tie together. He just kept collecting, filled boxes full and stacked them in there.”
Lukas remembers some of the items sold at the auction. “There was a huge record collection,” said Lukas. “He had a huge collection of old cylinder records and 6 cylinder record players.” Lukas bought the house not long after it was emptied, and set about turning it into a two-unit apartment building, clearing brush and debris outside and adding plumbing, heating and electricity within.
“It took me a year to finish the upstairs and I lived there for 2 years,” he said, “and then I lived downstairs for 5 years after that was finished.” The only personal possessions Lukas has of Freddy’s are a couple of old diaries which didn’t seem to be related to Freddy or his life in any way.
Of course, the story would be perfect if only it could be said that Lukas often heard Freddy’s ghostly footsteps on the stairs at night while he lived there, but Lukas said not only does he not believe in ghosts, but he never saw or heard the slightest hint of any spirit haunting the place during those years.
Jean Kunkel was one of the few people to attend Freddy’s funeral after he died in the Edgerton hospital from “a short illness.” She went with her mother to the simple service at the funeral home, and noticed one unusual thing about Freddy’s corpse. “The purple tumor was removed,” she said. “I don’t think he would have liked people to talk about it, either.” Whether it came off during Freddy’s hospital stay or was done at the funeral home, Kunkel didn’t know. But at least Freddy didn’t have to go to eternity with his lifelong source of embarassment still emblazoned on his brow.
Hank Lukas later summed up what probably should have been Freddy’s epitaph. “There was nothing wrong with Freddy,” said Lukas. “He was just marching to the beat of a different drummer.”
I especially like to think of Freddy with that peculiar drumbeat of his throbbing pleasantly in his head, keeping him company as he trudged along the highway to Janesville. Maybe that’s what kept him going. And the upshot is that there never was a bogeyman. Just a solitary, reclusive Box Man who preferred to live life on his own terms, no matter what the schoolkids across the way thought of him.I sure wish I’d known that then.
BOX MAN UPDATE!!! It was gratifying to find how many people do remember Freddy Caulkins, and a little shocking to hear what one reader had to say. I had gotten the impression that Freddy didn’t visit many neighbors, but Janice Pieterek wrote the following: “Hey, Linda, I was a teenager in the early 50′s. We would walk past Ray Briggs grocery store after 9 PM and we would see Freddie in there counting something. I asked Liz Gray the next day what he was doing and she said Ray would let him look through the pennies to get the silver ones. We lived on the corner of First and Crandall. We would see Freddie visiting Mrs. Paul. She lived on 2nd Street across from the Methodist church. She had lace curtains on the windows, but you could see through them. He wore a long coat like a military trench coat. I think his hat was a railroad hat, the blue and white striped one, but, it was so dirty that you couldn’t really tell. He had a large growth on his forehead. Mrs. Paul’s was the only place I ever saw him without a hat. That’s about all I remember of him for now.”
The thing that shocked me about this was that I happened to live in Mrs. Paul’s Victorian house after she died. My parents bought it from her estate in 1968! The lace curtains Janice talks about peeking through were still there. Freddy was in my own living room, and I never knew it.
And this came from Ray Gray, one of my classmates from the old Jct. grade school: “When I was a boy, Freddie Caulkins would come over to my grandma’s house and sit in the living room and he would sit in my grandpa’s big chair and rock while watching TV. Then my grandma would fix him a meal. If I could remember right, he was good friends with my Grandpa Gray. I don’t remember really ever talking to the old boy but he did have a big growth (tumor) on his head. He’d watch TV, eat a little sandwich and leave. We are talking like in the 50′s. I would just sit and watch him rock in the chair. I don’t remember if we ever talked.”
At any rate, I’m grateful to learn that Freddy wasn’t as completely alone as he seemed. And intrigued to hear that he wore a railroad cap and a long coat.
BOX MAN re-UPDATE!!! I continue to get mail and feedback…everybody loves Freddy. If only he’d known….One writer compared him to Edward Scissorhands. That’s apt in many ways, minus the tragic ending and hardware fingernails, of course. This came from Cheryl Roberts, Madison: “I have a vivid memory of the auction that was held and digging through a lot of old boxes. There were lots of bird eggs that he had collected. My mom bought a box of junk: there were keys in it, and a picture of an old man in a curly metal frame.”
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