The huge old maple tree in Diana Cockrum’s Villa Ridge yard provided shade and housing for birds and squirrels for more than 75 years.
And when Diana heard it was dying, she was heartbroken.
There was no consoling Diana, her husband Paul said.
“I thought she was going to chain herself to the tree when I said it needed to come down,” he said.
“I cried and cried,” Diana said. “And when they put the saw into it, water just started coming out. I looked at my husband and said, ‘She’s crying.’ ”
Then Paul made Diana a promise.
“I said, ‘If you let me cut the tree down, then I’ll make you something’ (out of the stump),” he said.
So the tree came down, but Paul was slow on his promise.
Then last summer Diana hit five numbers in the Missouri lottery. She won $610 and gave it to Paul.
“Now you can make me something,” she told him.
Paul was going to build a tree house at first, Diana said, but that would cost more than they had saved.
So he went to work sawing and measuring and cutting boards and in about a week he made something magical — an “elf house.”
The tall stump of what was once the grand “Old Lady” now sports an A-framed roof with a stove pipe coming out one side for the make-believe fireplace inside that keeps the elves warm at night.
And no elf house would be complete without tiny little steps leading to a tiny little door and tiny little stained glass windows that Paul got from a friend who worked as a stagehand at the Fox Theatre in St. Louis.
At dusk, the windows come aglow in a kaleidoscope of colors.
“As soon as the sun goes down, it’s an amazing thing,” Diana said.
Two gnomes are placed among the huge roots of the tree, stoically standing guard alongside the elf house, and “Lulu” the cat likes to sit on the porch.
The door doesn’t actually open, but “if you are an elf, then you can go in,” Diana said. “It’s magic.”
Men react differently to the elf house than women, and there’s an age group that doesn’t react at all — “the 30-somethings,” she said.
“I don’t know why, but they just don’t seem to have any reaction to it,” she said.
Diana said there is something about the elf house that can turn the toughest of men into sap.
“A friend of ours came out to see it,” she said. “He is short and stocky and one of those grumbly guys. When he came around the corner and saw it, he went ‘Oh! Oh! Oh!’ and started flapping his arms up and down. Then he pushed me out of the way and said he had to get a picture.”
There are other magical things in the Cockrums’ yard, including two “bottle trees,” fashioned from old blue, green and clear bottles.
“A bottle tree sucks up all the bad spirits in the garden into the bottles at night,” Diana said.
There is a flower garden in the back with a scarecrow named “Harry” standing guard, and Paul made a life-sized “Tin Man” they call “Rusty” to keep Harry company.
Like in the “Wizard of Oz,” the Cockrums put faces on some of the trees and Diana painted steppingstones yellow to make a “yellow brick road, that leads to her screened in patio where she said she likes to sit and read.
“We’ve thought about making a cowardly lion,” she said. “But until then we have ‘Lulu.’ ”