Thanks for Asking | Feb. 17, 2011

our local jack-of-all-facts tells you how it is

Frank Smoot |

What’s the story behind the “fake house” across from Northstar Middle School on Abbe Hill Drive? I’ve heard it’s city-owned and covering up some sort of eyesore. Is this true? There’s no mailbox, but do you think Santa delivers there?

Thanks for asking! You are obviously a very observant person. It is indeed a fake house.

The building stands at what would be 2550 Abbe Hill Dr., if it had an address outside, which it doesn’t. It’s a tidy 1978 brick-faced ranch-style with brown trim, matching mini-blinds in the windows, its sidewalks and driveway spotlessly shoveled. Neat as a pin.

But if you could go inside, which you can’t, you’d find no bathroom, no kitchen, no bedrooms, no spice- or gun-racks. You’d find three massive pumps.

You see, according to Brian Amundson, public works director, “A municipal water system is supposed to provide water at a pressure ranging from 35 to 100 pounds per square inch (psi), and most plumbing fixtures are designed to operate in this range.”

Because we’ve got ourselves a hilly city here – it’s almost 400-foot up from the Eau Claire River (elevation 760 feet above sea level) to the top of Abbe Hill (elev. 1150) – we gotta have different pressure zones in the water system to stay in the 35-100 psi range.

(There’s arithmetic involved, apparently. “A 2.31 foot high column of water,” says Brian, “equals 1 psi at the bottom of the column. Or, calculated another way, if you put water in a 100-foot-tall column, and the top is open to the atmosphere, the pressure at the bottom of the column will be 43 psi.”)

To accomplish all this arithmetic, and deliver your water, the city needs what historians quaintly call “pump houses” and what engineers accurately call “booster stations.”

The three pumps inside 2550 Abbe Hill Dr. push water up the hill in a 12-inch water main running behind North Star Middle School to a million-gallon storage tank on the ridgeline at the north end of the Princeton Valley development.

“We’re a pretty quiet neighbor,” says Brian. “No loud parties I’m aware of, and we mow the grass and shovel the sidewalk.”

City Councilman Dave Duax mentioned another fake house/pump house/ booster station at Damon Street and Hwy 93. (Heck, far as I know fake houses blanket the city.)

Does Santa deliver to 2550 Abbe Hill Dr.? No, I’m thinking it’s so much better, actually. Santa lives there and delivers water to all the good boys and girls from Abbe Hill to Princeton Valley.

Somebody called me and said he’d read on the internet that the first snowman ever made was made in Eau Claire. Could it be?

No, it could not. I’ve heard that rumor, too, and one hack even wrote, “It’s a well-documented fact” and gave specifics (that it was made by Vernon Paul and his 9-year-old daughter, little Yetty Paul, in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, in 1809). First of all, no Europeans were living in the whole Chippewa Valley in 1809 – before, yes; afterwards, yes; but not in 1809. Second, I’m sure people have been building snowpeople as long as there’s been people and snow. A researcher and writer named Bob Eckstein found the earliest-known illustration of a snowman in the margins of a medieval devotional book called The Book of Hours, dating from the 1380s. And I’d guess that’s probably 30,000 years into the snowman era.

Got a local question? Send it (17 S. Barstow St.) or email it ( and Frank will answer it!  Frank has lived in Eau Claire for most of the past 43 years. He is an editor and researcher at the Chippewa Valley Museum, which is open all year just beyond the Paul Bunyan Camp Museum in beautiful Carson Park. You should go there.