LA CROSSE, Wis. (AP) – Two months ago, Bill and Linda Spietz came upon a beautiful story shrouded in mystery – a house built in a day for a needy family in La Crosse.

Only the house itself was nowhere to be found.

“Not being able to find the house is driving me crazy,” Linda Spietz said.

She spoke just hours before the mystery was solved one recent afternoon. After weeks of research and legwork, Bill and Linda discovered the special house located on Cottage Grove Avenue in La Crosse.

Their investigation began with a set of photos – excellent quality and well-preserved – that belonged to Linda Spietz’s grandfather, Raymond Bice. The photos were taken at two-hour intervals and chronicled construction of a house in what was then the town of Shelby, the La Crosse Tribune reported.

The photos triggered the couple’s curiosity.

“Because we had the pictures in the family, we thought, ‘Why not do a little research and find out what happened?’” Bill Spietz said.

The research led them to a Jan. 19, 1930, La Crosse Tribune story retrieved by UW-La Crosse’s Murphy Library.

The story describes how the Greene family – a mother, father and their five children ages 9, 8, 6, 5 and 2 – lost their home in a late 1929 fire and had it rebuilt less than a month later by volunteers organized by the local American Legion and Legion Auxiliary.

The article says “near-zero weather didn’t make a difference – it might have been a balmy June day as far as those intrepid carpenters and hustling legionaries and auxiliary women were concerned … no word of complaint or confusion, rather a smile and the constant ‘tack, tack, tack’ of the hammer as the building fairly grew before the eyes of spectators.”

The story estimates more than 10,000 people visited the site during the day and that “all afternoon the boulevard and State road were choked with bumper to bumper traffic.” Visitors “left upwards of $100 to swell the fund of cash needed for materials.”

Bill Spietz said the lumber was provided by Bice, who co-owned Bice-Olsen Manufacturing Company with his brother-in-law.

Bice isn’t mentioned in the story, but Linda Spietz said it’s clear that her grandfather was on the scene. The company built more than 400 homes in the La Crosse area from 1924 to 1980, and Bice-Olsen was perhaps the only business in the area that could supply a sufficient quantity of lumber on such short notice.

“Grandpa probably had some of his people there to coordinate,” Linda said. “You’re not going to have just a group of volunteers do that.”

Bice’s 98-year-old son, James Bice (Linda’s father), was a youngster at the time of construction. He said his father’s involvement was consistent with the character of man who was “always a pretty busy guy.”

“I was 7 years old and I was hearing a lot of talk, but we lived on the north side, so I never went by the house,” James Bice said. “He and my uncle were in the business and decided to do it – it was a nice gesture.”

James Bice believes it may have been the last home construction project his father supervised for a long while. The stock market crashed in October 1929, and the home was constructed during the early days of the Great Depression. He said his father shifted the business to renovation work after the crash.

“Nobody was building houses in the 1930s,” James Bice said.

Raymond Bice went on to become president of the La Crosse Area Chamber of Commerce and serve in the state Legislature for 22 years.

Linda Spietz described her grandfather as a “gentleman” and a “Renaissance man,” who enjoyed everything from hunting and fishing to writing to performing magic tricks. He died in 1994 at the age of 98.

The Tribune article says the Greene family moved into the house the same evening it was finished. A Tribune photo shows the Greene family sitting down for dinner with many of the volunteers crowded around the table.

Census information collected by Bill Spietz shows the family of Fred and Cora Greene residing on Washington Avenue in the town of Shelby in April 1930, and it’s unclear if that was their address before moving into their new home. Bill Spietz suspects the house may have been rebuilt on the same site where the original structure burned down.

“You can tell by the pictures that Ray has given us that it’s built on concrete blocks,” he said. “The house went up pretty quickly. Not too many homes are built like that.”

The 1932 La Crosse city directory lists a Fred and Cora Green (no “e” at the end of the surname) residing at 2716 Cottage Grove Ave. with the structure valued at $1,000. Census information shows Fred and Cora had two more children and moved to Milwaukee sometime before 1940.

As it turned out, tracking down information about the home’s construction was easier that tracking down the actual house.

The article says the house was constructed at the corner of “Twenty-sixth and Johnson,” but Bill and Linda discovered the intersection no longer exists. The newspaper article made no mention of a Cottage Grove Road.

“We didn’t see any semblance of an old house,” Bill Spietz said. “We’re sitting on the side of the road going, ‘hmmm.’”

Bill thought the structure might have been torn down and rebuilt, but the couple never stopped searching. He and his wife used a pair of guideposts from the photos – a bluff in the background and a small hill east of the structure – to narrow the scope. Bill noted that the Tribune photographer from 1930 appeared to be shooting downhill.

“We were about a block off,” he said. “We decided to just go one more block on Cottage Grove. When I pulled up, I could tell immediately.”

The house is located at the end of Cottage Grove Road, where it dead-ends at a railroad.

“We came down over the hill, and I felt like this was the right place because of the camera angles,” he said. “When I looked at the roof line, it matched up. The chimney matched up, the hill right behind it matched up and the size of the house matches up perfectly.”

The house is unoccupied, and he believes an addition was built based on the pattern of cracks in the foundation.

Bill Spietz said he and his wife thoroughly enjoyed their research project. Linda Spietz gave her husband credit for his persistence.

“He’s been the digger,” she said.

Bill Spietz expressed “a sense of pure satisfaction” upon finding the home.

“To me, the fun part is trying to find little unique variables that match up,” he said. “It has taken a couple of months of searching and not finding it – and we almost gave up – but we found it today.”

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