Ghosts in the Attic

Updated: Oct 19, 2019

The attic of our 1720 former pub yielded a few treasures, mostly buried under mounds of hay and wood, or tucked in the space between the floorboards and the ceiling below. There were dozens of postcards and letters, dating from 1914 to 1958, covering the two world wars and the turbulent times between and after. Stamps bearing the faces of Emperor Franz Josef, Adolf Hitler, and Czechoslovakia’s second (and fourth) President Edvard Beneš captured this extraordinary turbulence in philately better than the most succinct essay.

History lesson in stamps - Hitler, Benes, Emperor Franz Josef

History lesson in stamps – 40 turbulent years

Many of the letters were army postcards sent to and from one of the building’s early 20th century owners, publican František Just (1862-1938), from his sons Antonin and František. Just, I am reliably informed, bought the pub in 1914.

We found half a dozen postcards produced in 1917 by the publican (“F. Just, hostinec (pub)”), featuring four local views in small, grainy panels. One of them showed local kids standing in the road in party gear; another showed the pub – our house – with a group of 10 people standing proudly in the doorway, kitted out in their serving livery. They were lined up on the highest of two now-absent steps. The figure on the far left, we assumed, was F.Just himself, smartly dressed, bearded, balding, hat in hand.

Bely village 1917

Village kids – labelled “Party” – from a 1917 postcard

Former owner František Just and staff outside the pub, c.1917

Former owner František Just and staff outside the pub, c.1917

We also found František Just Junior’s account books (he was a shoemaker), shoe-related correspondence and some of his shoe-moulds. There were hundreds of footwear requests and receipts. Some of these were moving – badly written pleas for shoes, from poverty-stricken families whose worn-out footwear would not keep out the cold and wet. Once approved by the local office that dealt with such matters, Just Junior would have been paid by the state to warm the feet of those poor people.

There was a death certificate from 1904, and a 1890s map of this part of the world, with the names Austro-Hungary and Prussia looming from the page like vast ghosts of a lost world. There were also school books from the earlier 1900s, ranging from handwriting practice to illustrated science experiments, along with 1890s textbooks that children would have carted to and from the (long gone) village school, just as Jan and Theo carry their dog-eared books today (some of them pre-1989 Revolution).

Musical Interlude

orchestrion barrel piano
The musical bit from an orchestrion barrel piano

I was particularly excited when we unearthed – or unhayed – three foot-long cylinders covered in pins, clearly the musical bowels of some ancient instrument. I wrote to the Musical Box Society of Great Britain, who identified the finds as the musical rolls of a barrel piano orchestrion, something I hadn’t even heard of before.

I googled the instrument and found a video of a reconstructed one in a Czech museum. It made the most wonderfully terrible noise, with the rolls plucking the piano keys, and with percussion instruments, mounted on the top of the device, bashing out a tinny rhythm. The one in the video was clockwork, but ours might have been a gravity-activated one (like a grandfather clock) – we had found weights which were probably parts of the machine. I also found the skeletal remains of the orchestrion’s keys, and the mountain of wooden frames and panels we had accumulated in the clean-up no doubt included bits of the orchestrion’s external bodywork.

I was only slightly deflated to learn that this wondrous rarity was to be found in nearly very pub in this part of the world. There had been an orchestrion craze in the 1890s and 1900s. Unfortunately, the Musical Box experts told me, there was no standard form, and the rolls tend not to be interchangeable, so it was unlikely that there would be a Czech, Polish or German museum eager to let my orchestrion rolls sing once again.

Death and afterlife…

But before I make it sound as if the attic was one big treasure trove, let it be recorded that 99% of the stuff up there was wood and hay, which was either bagged up and composted, shovelled into vast skips, or cut up for firewood; plus dozens of homemade besoms. Of the remaining 1%, 75% was simply rubbish dumped upstairs over a 100 year period. Of the utilitarian treasures, there were farming tools, barrels, scales, wardrobes, bed frames, sledges, a magnificent cradle, lots of 1950s crockery and glassware, an underfloor stash of lovely old bottles, and a box of chemistry beakers, test-tubes and phials.

19th century cradle

From cradle to grave – disinterred from attic rubble

There were dead animals too – a perfectly mummified cat, a wild boar skin, a stuffed stoat, a mummified duck’s head, and a white chicken wing, looking bright and fresh enough to have fallen off earlier that morning. The latter, along with some three iron-hooped wooden barrels, were found in a secret room beneath one of the floors. We were told this would have been an ice store back in the day.

Mummified cat under floorboards in attic
Magda and the pet cat

And there were also live animals. Beech martens had been resident here long enough for their ancestral droppings to be mummified, and their tarry poo and rank urine stained many of the ‘treasures’, many so badly be-pissed that we had to bin them. There was also a resident roost of cats, and the usual plague of mice (which have since moved out and occupied our living quarters, much to the fury of the dogs, whose attempts to woof them into submission are are ambitious but ineffectual).

As the attic floorspace cleared, it became clear that there had been a fire – or fires – at some point. (A local historian later told me that the last pub fire had been in 1903.) Many of the rafters and floorboards were charred, and one supporting roof beam was so badly fire-damaged that we would need to replace it completely.

In order to assess the state of the rest of the wood up here, Magda had to clear away several tons of clay tiles. The simplest option was to heave them from the window. They broke on impact, of course. When the last one was lying in its ruin, our neighbour Lada pulled up in his car and told us with a wry smile that old clay tiles are worth a lot of money, and that there were people who would pay you to let them remove the tiles and use them in… well, somewhere needing antique clay tiles, I suppose. It only sank in, then, that the tiles were part of the original house build, a once perfectly preserved gem of the 1720s, now a mound of clay fragments blocking our front door.

Something altogether more surprising emerged at our front door, too. When clearing the grass and rubble that had accumulated there, we uncovered three quarters of a gravestone, with an accompanying memorial slab. The latter had a faded motif of a grail and doorway; while the gravestone bore a name: František Just – Hostinsky z Bĕleho (Publican of Bĕlý) – 1862-1938. The stone was lying exactly where Just was standing in that grainy old photograph.

It seems he’s been here all the time.

František Just gravestone

Gravestone of František Just – outside our back door

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