Archive for Wednesday, April 17, 2002

Leaving a paper trail

April 17, 2002

Rays of morning sun highlight her strawberry blond hair as Helen Terry climbs a ladder in the bathroom of a new home in Springdale that she and her daughter are wallpapering.

Terry stretches precariously over the bathtub to reach the wall, but her feet are steady on the ladder's rung. To the observer, she's agile as a teen-ager.

Patti Pietras hands a roll of damp wallpaper to her mother, Helen
Terry, as they finish applying wallpaper to the bathroom of a new
home in Springdale.

Patti Pietras hands a roll of damp wallpaper to her mother, Helen Terry, as they finish applying wallpaper to the bathroom of a new home in Springdale.

But the McLouth senior citizen who is 79 going on 80, says she doesn't always feel like a teen-ager.

"When I go home at night I know I've worked," she said.

Terry estimates she climbs a ladder "about a hundred times a day."

As she speaks, she deftly spreads the damp paper on the wall, then tamps it with a cloth before swishing it with a wide soft-bristled brush to remove air bubbles. Then, taking scissors and a knife from her carpenter's apron, she trims the paper. For Terry, this is all part of her everyday work work she readily admits she enjoys.

"I have to or I wouldn't be doing it," she said.

And, Terry has no plans to quit.

"I had cancer seven years ago, I'm a cancer survivor now," Terry said. "So I figure I'm going to keep going as long as I get to."

Her bout with colon cancer was detected early enough that she didn't have to undergo chemotherapy, she said.

Word-of-mouth advertising

In the next room, Patti Pietras measures and cuts strips of wallpaper and dampens them. Patti, who has lived in the Springdale area all her life, has worked with her mother for 18 years. Before that, Terry worked with her sister-in-law for 16 years.

Terry has long lived in the area. When raising her children, the family lived on a dairy farm between Easton and Springdale. After her first husband died, she married again, and in 1968 moved to McLouth.

After she and her sister-in-law volunteered to hang wallpaper for her new mother-in-law, neighbors asked the women to hang their wallpaper.

Word spread and soon the women realized they had started a business of their own. Then a paperhanger in Oskaloosa retired and asked the women to take over his customers.

In those days, most of their work was on old houses.

"When I first started, no one ever put up wallpaper in a brand-new house," Terry said, recalling the days of lathe and plaster. "Back then, wallpapering was what people did when the house's shape was too bad for painting. We worked on old houses that needed paper to hold the house together literally."

But now, the women commonly put wallpaper in new houses because homeowners now tell them that wallpaper warms up a room makes it seem homier, Pietras said.

And, they have tackled large projects, such as helping with the renovation of century-old homes, applying Victorian wallpapers and embossed ceiling papers that give the room an old-fashioned tin-ceiling look.

And, contrary to old times when wallpaper was often used in an effort to make old homes look new, Terry said: "Some of the owners of new homes are having paper put in to make new homes look old."

When the style changes

Despite today's generation of do-it-yourselfers, the paperhanging business is strong. The women paper and paint homes across the area, including Leavenworth, Jefferson and Douglas counties.

Nowadays, Terry said, homeowners tend to replace wallpaper every 10 to 12 years, although Pietras said she likes to replace hers when styles change, every four or five years. When Terry started in the business, people changed wallpaper more frequently, she said, because wallpaper then, unlike today's vinyl papers, couldn't be scrubbed.

"Thirty years ago wallpaper sold for a dollar a roll and I charged a dollar a roll to put it up," Terry said. "In the old days some people put up different paper every year."

On to the next job

Terry climbs down from the ladder in the new house which she and Petras have just finished papering. She begins putting her tools away.

Tomorrow will take them to a different house in a different town.

Terry, who realizes the uniqueness of being a full-time wallpaperer, has seen more people leave her profession than enter it.

"At one time there were four of us who used to work together," Terry said. "They're all retired but me."

Commenting has been disabled for this item.