An Artist, A Cowboy & A Very Big Fish (Part Two)
On the first episode of HomeTown Takeover, Erin and Ben began their six-episode revitalization series with Shellie and Wade Whitfield, local Wetumpkians and owners of the famous Big Fish House. Shellie serves as the Director of the Chamber of Commerce and works as a full-time artist in Wetumpka. Although the house was Tim Burton's movie-set, it became an answered prayer to a family looking for a place to call home. Shellie tells the story best. Read Part One here.
We arrived in Wetumpka the next evening. Keys in hand, we walked up to the front porch and opened the door to the house that we had always dreamed of.
Only to discover that it was absolutely awful.
Everything about it was horrific. It was dark, the drywall was rotten and falling off the walls and ceiling. The old, dirty kitchen appliances were sitting in the dining room with doors hanging on by screws. The smell of the house is something I'll never forget. It was like hot, dirty, wet band-aids.
We went to the hotel, I crawled into bed and cried myself to sleep.
The thing is, I am an artist. I can see the potential in anything, but even I couldn’t see how to make that house a home for my family. No wonder it had sat empty for nearly sixteen years.
The next morning we headed back to the Big Fish House, and we sat in the rockers from the movie that were still on the front porch. It was a new day. The sun was shining, and I had finally stopped crying. We sat and looked over the downtown and asked ourselves, "If we prayed for a house with character and it was the exact dollar amount that we asked for... should we refuse and tell God that it's just too hard?"
We made the phone call to California, and told the guy we wanted the house.
Well, we did not actually want the house, but we knew what this house could be. Let's face it, someone had to do something with it, because it was a rotting old house. Apparently, God wanted that someone to be us.
Back in Colorado we started packing and trying to get the kids excited about the move. We told them we were moving into a real-life movie set in a great little southern town. We packed up the truck, said goodbye to our extended family and friends and headed south toward Wetumpka.
After three days of driving in the summer heat, we pulled into our new hometown. The kids took one look at the little town with the boarded-up windows and their hearts sank. Things didn’t improve when we went inside our new house either. We opened the door and the sheer look of horror on their faces broke my heart. They said, “Mama, please don’t make us live here!” What had we done bringing our kids into this mess? We went to the hotel that night, and again, I cried myself to sleep.
We started cleaning, unpacking and trying to make the best of the situation. We talked non-stop to the kids about our plans for the house in hopes of lifting their spirits. It was horribly hot, and we weren’t yet used to the southern summer climate that felt like hell’s front porch. We only had one bathroom, and it had a rotten window that was falling into the shower. Gross, moldy stuff would stick your legs every time you used it. There were lizards inside the house due to the gaps around the windows and the ceiling gushed water when it rained. The kids hated the house, and it wasn't long before we did too. The overwhelming feeling of defeat was too much to bear.
That afternoon, there was a knock on the front door. I opened it, completely aware that I must have looked and smelled like I had been unpacking boxes in the middle of summer. I was just too tired to care. There stood a beautiful woman who greeted me with a “Hello! Welcome to Wetumpka. I am the Mayor’s wife, and we heard you are an artist. I want to invite you to come to an art exhibit tonight."
I accepted the invite, because I had to do something to get out of that house. I jumped in our creaky shower, went through boxes as fast as I could to find something presentable and went to my first event in Wetumpka.
That night felt like the entire town embraced us. We got invited to every single church and event. The community cared about our family and knowing that was like a big warm hug. We weren't alone after all. That love was enough to help us make it through, and it has been like that ever since.
As months passed, we slowly found our way. We got the house cleaned up and to the point that we could we start construction. The boys started school and loved it, which made things so much easier. I decided to open an art studio, because there wasn’t an art program in our elementary schools where I could teach. (That story is another walk of faith, which I’ll share at another time.)
Working on the house was a slow process. Every time we started a project, we ran into dozens of unexpected setbacks. Wade has a background in construction, but it was still so difficult at every turn. Out of pure desperation and sheer frustration, I emailed Tim Burton and countless home renovation magazines hoping they would send in the calvary and help us somehow. At the rate we were moving, we would never get the house completed.
Fast forward one year later to Ben and Erin Napier’s quest to find a small town to renovate. When our Main Street Director, the Mayor and I heard about the show, we decided to make a video and submit it. Then we waited and prayed and waited and prayed (and binge-watched Home Town.)
It turned out that Ben and Erin saw the same potential in Wetumpka that we did. Producers began calling and emailing incessantly. We were about to learn how much work it would be to create a television show, but we thought were up for the task. *Insert worldwide pandemic here*
I was fortunate enough to work daily with the production team from RTR Media because of my role with the Chamber of Commerce. While I was aware that Ben and Erin were coming into town to start filming, I was not aware that they were going to show up at our house and tell us they wanted to help renovate it!
If you have seen our episode, you witnessed our full, unbridled emotions when Ben and Erin told us they wanted to help us. So many tears of gratitude were shed in our driveway. Also, is there anything more beautiful than two big sweaty guys hugging? Ben and Wade were the best of friends from the start.
One of the most memorable moments of HomeTown Takeover was when Erin walked up the steps for the first time and saw the house. Big Fish is her all-time favorite movie, and she'll tell you she's seen it hundreds of times. She stood on the walkway and told us it was like a dream come true to renovate her favorite house from her favorite movie. When they walked into the house, the smile faded away and they said, "Wow, this is far worse than we imagined." No kidding!
We knew that the HomeTown Takeover would change Wetumpka, but we didn’t understand how it would change or what to expect. An incredible team of people from all over the U.S. arrived with cameras, microphones and headsets, and we all became instant friends. It is hard to imagine a bunch of people from California fitting in perfectly in Wetumpka, Alabama, but that's exactly what happened. We quickly got used to having camera crews in our streets, drones flying overhead and seeing Ben and Erin taking Helen to Frios for a popsicle. It was very easy to love them, and for some reason, they really loved us back.
Knowing Ben, Erin and their team made it very easy to walk away from the Big Fish House and let them work their magic. We knew they were on a mission to do amazing work for our town, and they cared about our family and home. Ben and Wade have a lot in common and Erin is an artist like me. They took time to get to know us, to find out what we liked and plan the vision for our home. It was very easy to trust them, because they are some of the best people we've ever met.
Fast forward ten weeks. There are no words for how it feels to open the door of your house on reveal day. Ben and Erin don’t just renovate houses to make them trendy. They create a customized home for the people that actually live there. In our house, the gallery wall along the stairs was full of framed photos of my kids working on the house. That moved us to tears!
The dining room was breathtaking. I'm just baffled that Erin sat in front of a computer and went frame by frame in Big Fish to capture the original wallpaper design to have it recreated.
Who does that?! Erin does.
They perfectly maintained the historical integrity, kept the movie history of the Big Fish house and still made it feel like it was ours. I've always believed that a home should be like a photo album and tell the story of the house and the people that live in it. The Big Fish House now tells an even happier story, thanks to Ben and Erin.
Our entire city has been affected by HomeTown Takeover, not just the properties that were chosen for the projects. The change has created a movement of sorts. It's hard to find the block full of brightly painted front doors, because everyone is painting their doors now.
What happened here wasn’t new construction or flashy backsplashes. HomeTown Takeover brought people people together for the greater good. I truly believe that Ben and Erin have created a ministry for communities. Together, Wetumpka can do great things; it even says so on the mural that Erin created for us.
I could thank Erin and Ben for countless things. I am grateful for their help on the iconic Big Fish house, but I am also grateful for the way they've elevated Wetumpka through the arts. Now I walk to work and see our little town full of people from all over the country supporting our shops and restaurants. Our town is alive and feels electric!
After a crazy year of making a television show during a pandemic, I am most grateful for the life-long friendships that were forged when some amazing people came to town and changed everything for the better. They will always be one of the very best parts of Wetumpka’s story, and my story as well.