Saturday, September 28, 2013

Sometimes, The Walls DO Talk!

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We’ve all heard the old expression about how “if the walls could talk, the stories they’d tell.” Well, when an old house gets remodeled, a few things may become apparent that weren’t known before. A case in point was the old farm house where I was raised. The first story concerning the farm was that it was originally covered with beautiful, huge pine trees. In my part of the Ohio Valley, the original climax forest was often a mix of white pine and white oak, with a spattering of other species sprinkled throughout. Two types of southern yellow pine (Virginia and shortleaf) were also present in places where the Indians had once burned to make grazing for deer, elk and the now extinct woods buffalo. An occasional pitch pine or other variety was sometimes found, as well. Seeing as it was a hill farm, in my mind’s eye, I’d always pictured big flat-topped white pines growing on our land before it was cleared, with a few ancient white oaks mixed in, especially in the hollows. Another story concerning the place was that the old house had been started the last year of the Uncivil War and finished the following year. The accuracy of those stories would eventually come to light.

After my father passed away in 1984, my mother had her son-in-law install city water in the old home and had the two front downstairs rooms remodeled. The folks had done without running water for nearly 20 years after the old well silted in and they’d been forced to haul water from the spring at the family’s other farmhouse in the valley and from my maternal grandparents spring, a mile up the road. The city water was a great convenience to my mother as she approached old age. (She moved to town about 2006.) Part of that remodeling involved tearing the old plaster and lath from the walls, shimming everything square and plumb and installing drywall. In what had once been the family sitting room (as opposed to the parlor, which was saved mostly for company), a place was encountered where something must have fallen against the wall and had broken two short pieces of lath near a window. Rather than remove the two small pieces of lath, they simply stuffed a wad of newspaper in the cavity to hold the plaster until it dried. On that piece of paper was an interview with a Mr. Grant, stating that his son was considering running for president. Grant was elected in 1868, and would surely have known before that year whether he was going to run or not. I figure that dated the plaster work to 1866 or 1867, so that pretty-well authenticated the old story about the age of the home.

A few years later, my mother received a small inheritance from her father and chose to use it to replace the decrepit rear ell of the old house. My wife and I helped her tear down the rear ell to save money that would have been spent on demolition, thus freeing more money for the rebuild. That was when I learned that all the framing was yellow pine, NOT white pine, as I had suspected. It seemed to be about an even mix of Virginia and Shortleaf Pines, which I deduced by looking at the bark. Since an old drawing shows most of this area as still being woods in 1871, I’d guess that the house was built with timber taken from the farm as it was cleared. So much for white pines and white oaks! Yellow pine was often considered an indicator of poor soil, so the farm may not have been considered a prize in its early days. It may also have meant that the hilltop flats were part of the areas burned off by the Indians in the distant past.

Another thing I noticed was that there was absolutely no bark-beetle activity under those pieces of bark which still clung to the corners of a few beams. That meant the timber had been cut AFTER the first heavy frost of the year, which would have killed off that year’s beetles. Remember that the house was supposed to have been started one year and finished the next? Well, it was pretty unlikely they would have done much plastering after frost, for fear of their plaster freezing before it dried. So it WAS, no doubt, started one year and finished the next. A couple places Where the post and beam connections had failed, showed that yellow pine, regardless of how perfectly the mortises and tennons were cut, was not adequate for use in sizes as small as 4x6 inches. That leads me to think that the carpenter was used to working with oak, which MIGHT have worked, even at that small size.

A very elderly cousin had insisted one time that she could remember when the back was built on the house. That would have made it during the First World War or so, and I knew better; but why argue with your elders? When I tore down one wall of the ell, I found that the main floor beam on that side was a hand-hewn piece of chestnut, not sawn oak like all the other main floor beams in the house. What that told me was that my granddad had some of his rig-builders repair that part of the house when he bought it many years ago. They were accustomed to hewing out the base timbers they needed, rather than buying sawn timbers. I never told my cousin that she was merely remembering a repair; she might not have believed it anyway.

In the kitchen, the back room of the ell, the plaster showed some smoke staining beneath the wall-paper, which had been added many years later. When we ripped down the ceiling, so did the ceiling joists and the bottom of floorboards for the attic room. In that same room, a thimble for a stove pipe entered the chimney. The chimney was actually for the fireplace in the dining room on the other side of the wall (such an arrangement would be illegal today). The smoke stains on the ceiling joist were heaviest over the area near the thimble. Also, several square nails had been driven into the sides of the ceiling joists in that area, and even the tang from a broken file. My guess is that they got the kitchen walls plastered before cold weather and lived in that one room the first winter. The nails over the stove area would have been to hang their pots and pans on.

One other thing I learned at that time didn’t come from the house itself, but from a photo-copied page of some book or pamphlet. It told that a water-powered sawmill had been added to the gristmill already existent at the entrance of the next stream up Waddington Creek from the old house, about 15 years before the house was built. No doubt, the lumber for my boyhood home had been sawn only about a half-mile away and within sight of the back door. If you pay attention, and live long enough, you can learn a few things. © 2013
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12 comments:

Chickenmom said...

Fascinating story! Do you have any pictures of the "before" and "after"?
(I think all of us take running water for granted, by the way)! Our well is deep and I don't even know how we could even manually pump it out.

Gorges Smythe said...

I might have a before, Cm, I'm not sure about an after. There's a handpump made that can pump from wells up to 200 feet deep, I think. It seems to me the word "buffalo" might be in the name. Otherwise, you might be able to find it by googling "deep well hand pump."

Warren said...

Probably b/c of just losing my dad, I'm feeling a bit more sensitive to peoples' stories and memories. Often they are tied to physical items, such as books and tools (two important items to my dad), houses, and farmland. Just walking into dad's house gets me nostalgic.

This piece was moving. As I was reading your words and the historical details, I was substituting them with my own! Good piece.

WB

Gorges Smythe said...

Glad you enjoyed the article, Warren. I've been ridding out some of my stuff, and nearly every piece of stuff and evry paper have a story, so I know what you mean.

Mamahen said...

Love "hearing" about the history of your home....when mom n dad bought homevI grew up in, they were told it was overva hundred years old then.. (1955) but as I have said it burned with out anyone ever digging into the history :(

Gorges Smythe said...

That's a shame, Mh.

Ralph Goff said...

Interesting bit of house history you have there Gorges. I live in my grandfather's "Eaton house" built about 1920. Found some writing on the wall under the original siding a few years ago. All it said was "the Iowa kid". A mystery.

Gorges Smythe said...

I'd say your ancetors had a little transient help building, Ralph. (Or maybe he was just a vandal.)

Gorges Smythe said...

I'd say your ancetors had a little transient help building, Ralph. (Or maybe he was just a vandal.)

Mamahen said...

Yes it is! I was to young to think about those things at the time, and I guess Dad was more concerned with getting electric and water into the house for his family, than to think about what went into the building of the home :(

Lady Locust said...

What fun info. to have and know. Hope the 'scrap' of paper that was stuffed in the hole with the statement by Mr. Grant is still around.

Gorges Smythe said...

It is, LL.