There was no one quite like Frances Gabe.
The New York Times honored the longtime Newberg, Ore., resident today with a somewhat belated obituary. She died in obscurity on December 26, 2016—her death originally noted with just a few lines in the Newberg Graphic. She was 101 years old.
But Gabe was once known around the world. An iconoclast and prolific inventor, Gabe became famous as the inventor of the self-cleaning house—a whopper of a patent spanning 68 separate inventions.
The floors of her house slanted ever so slightly toward corner drains, paintings were covered with plastic, and sprinklers were mounted on the ceiling—meaning the dining room table had to be coated with stone and resin.
As she told the NYT in 2002, "I asked God to give me a big job. He gave me a Lollapalooza." She also appeared on Ripley's Believe It Or Not and the Phil Donahue show—and, notably, in Chuck Palahniuk's deeply personal and off-kilter guide to Portland, Fugitives and Refugees. Erma Bombeck said her face should be carved on Mount Rushmore.
We checked in on Gabe's house in 2013, only to discover that Gabe had sold her house and moved to an assisted living facility—and that her devices, no longer functional, had been dismantled. The house's new owner was considering making the property into a winter sanctuary for bees.
But Gabe herself remains one of Oregon's most interesting figures—and as far as we know, her autobiography remains unpublished. (Excerpt: "'I'm not eliminating homemaking, mothering, wifehood, only dirt grubbing. Scrub-a-dub ladies, enjoy your janitoring.")
Here's few choice paragraphs of the excellent NYT piece on Gabe, which bears reading in full:
More than half a century ago, incensed by the housecleaning that was a woman’s chronic lot, Ms. Gabe began to dream of a house that would see to its own hygiene: tenderly washing, rinsing and drying itself at the touch of a button. “Housework is a thankless, unending job,” she told The Ottawa Citizen in 1996. “It’s a nerve-twangling bore. Who wants it? Nobody!” And so, with her own money and her own hands, she built just such a house, receiving United States patent 4,428,085 in 1984. In a 1982 column about Ms. Gabe’s work, the humorist Erma Bombeck proposed her as “a new face for Mount Rushmore.” Yet her remarkable abode — a singular amalgam of “Walden,” Rube Goldberg and “The Jetsons” — remained the only one of its kind ever built. The reasons, recent interviews with her associates suggest, include the difficulties of maintaining the patent, the compromises required of the homeowner and, just possibly, Ms. Gabe’s contrary, proudly iconoclastic temperament. “She was very difficult to get along with,” Mr. Brown said, warmly. “She had an adversarial relationship with all her neighbors and she didn’t do anything to discourage it.” Perhaps it was the cement mixer residing permanently in Ms. Gabe’s yard that inflamed the neighbors so. (It was essential to her house-building enterprise.) Perhaps it was the series of snarling Great Danes she kept. Perhaps it was her penchant, at least in her younger days, for doing her yard work in the nude.