Petersen house
The former nursing home wing extends to the left of the original farmhouse. Photo by Mark Champion


house scaled e1593809441695 - Elmwood family transitions to empty nest after raising 12 in a former nursing home
The former nursing home wing extends to the left of the original farmhouse. Photo by Mark Champion

In Elmwood, two parents are dealing with the transition to an empty nest after raising 12 children in a building that used to house the elderly: a nursing home.

Beth Petersen, 61, and Murray Petersen, 64, are the parents of what they call “not a normal family.” They raised four girls and eight boys in a sprawling complex of rooms and hallways on just under an acre of land that around the mid-1900s operated as a nursing home. 

The Petersens’ decision to move into this disjointed collection of rooms in 1994 was spurred by the fact that they had eight children, and ended up with a total of four girls and eight boys. Today, they range from 20 to 39 years old, and all but one is moved out. The youngest, Ethan Petersen, is the only one left at home. 

With so much space and so many young minds, the opportunities were limitless. The basement under the nursing home wing was at one point a do-it-yourself roller rink and morphed into a vast living room for the older children to watch movies the younger ones couldn’t, Beth Petersen said. The bashful boys in the house would forego the stairs for a trip dropping down the dumbwaiter shaft. Hide-and-seek games were waged at a colossal scale. 

All the kids were homeschooled, and the living room at the front of the house served as a classroom. But for the recently married 21-year-old Janna Baker, nothing beat the backyard pool.

“We set up a pool every summer, and I think I pretty much lived in it for 12 years of my life,” Baker said.

A slow return to vacancy

But today, the house is far quieter. The roller rink is filled with project wood and tools. The dumbwaiter shafts sit undisturbed, and no one is folded up with a finger over his mouth, peering at his or her sibling in the cupboards of the nursing home wing. 

“This has just become storage when the kids move on, move out,” Beth Petersen said of the house. “It just has become the catchall.”

nursing home wing scaled - Elmwood family transitions to empty nest after raising 12 in a former nursing home
The nursing home wing of the house acts mainly as storage for things like these books that were used for homeschooling. Photo by Mark Champion

After being homeschooled, Ethan Petersen went to Southeast Community College at 16 and received an associate’s degree in electrical engineering technology. Now, he’s looking at other colleges. 

Beth Petersen said she homeschooled her children because she wanted to know who her kids were and wanted to have a say in building their belief system. She said parenting a dozen children was not easy, but now that her kids are living independently, she felt like they did their job.

“It’s a hard job,” Beth Petersen said. “I see some people, and they have their two, and they’re off, you know, floating on cruises and doing other stuff, and I’m having the next two and then the next four and six and eight and 10. But it was a good job.”

After the nursing home closed its doors in the 1970s, it sat empty for 10 years until the Barnhardt family purchased the house, remodeled a bit and sold what Beth Petersen describes as “5,000 square feet of oldness” to the Petersen family. 

Since moving in 26 years ago, the Petersens have made the space their own, but not without a few not-so-friendly reminders of the house’s history. Even though a little girl with black hair in dark, Victorian clothing was seen by two of Beth Petersen’s daughters haunting their closets, the Petersen flock still packed the home with as many adventures as would fit. 

The household cat, Sean, has weathered the last 10 years of the house’s happenings. Josiah Petersen, one of the 12, bought Sean as a kitten a little more than 10 years ago as a gift for his girlfriend. His girlfriend and the cat “didn’t bond,” and so Josiah took him and hid him in the nursing home wing, unbeknownst to the pet-averse Murray Petersen. Ten years later, Sean hides in plain sight, meowing until someone pets him.

“Now he just comes and goes as he pleases. He’s got a pretty good life. (Josiah) moved on and married the girl, who still didn’t want the cat,” Beth Petersen said. “So like I said, they leave their junk here. We still have it.”

A two-story home with stories to tell

Long before the house was known for hosting a family that needed a 15-passenger van to get around, it was known as the Ebeler Nursing Home. Oscar Earl Liston, a doctor with an elderly patient who needed extra care, contacted the Ebelers, who were living in the home in the early-1900s, according to the Petersen’s neighbor Eugenia Bornemier. 

Ernest Ebeler, who worked at the local lumberyard, and his wife, Mabel Lee Ebeler, took in the patient, and eventually took in so many more that they hired local people to help build another wing onto their foursquare, two-story 1888 farmhouse. Bornemeier used to play with Ernest and Mabel Lee’s youngest daughter, Barbara Ebeler, when the house was a nursing home in the late 1950s. 

“It wasn’t air-conditioned, and it was a pretty hard place to be in the summertime for those patients. I can remember hearing a bell ring for the meals, and I know there weren’t really any activities planned for them. They were just there,” Bornemeier said.

After the Ebelers closed the nursing home and moved, the expansive property was bought in the 1980s by a family who remodeled it before it sat empty for about 10 years. 

“No one really wanted the property,” Bornemeier said. “This was in the days of cults, and people were worried that a cult might try to buy that property because of the size of it and all the bigger space in there, and it was a pretty large amount of ground down there.”

From there, the Barnhardts took it over until the Petersens moved in 26 years ago. The history of the house is storied, but its future is in flux. With a widening child-to-room ratio, the excess space in the house creates a lot of extra work for the Petersens. Beth Petersen has considered moving, but she said her husband hasn’t.

“He’ll probably have to be carted out,” Beth Petersen said.

But even if its rooms sit filled with books, wood or a cat, the house is still filled with people at family gatherings. It’s mainly out of necessity, Beth Petersen said, because no other place is large enough to hold the 12 children and 17 grandchildren. 

“My children tell me I’ll never live in a home,” Beth said. “I’ve already lived in the nursing home, maybe I’ll get someplace else.”

I'm a senior advertising and public relations and journalism double major. I work at The Daily Nebraskan as the senior culture editor.