As young college students, some forty years ago, we were on one of our old house adventure drives between southeastern MA, RI and CT. What used to take two hours to get from college to home now became four or five as we detoured endlessly in our effort to “discover” every old house on our route – to admire, to learn from, and perhaps to find some derelict we could fix. On this day, we wound our way up some forgotten back road lined with moss covered stone walls, overhung with mature maples. Their leafy arms arched over the road from both sides, blocked out the sun and created one of those sepia scenes in an old daguerreotype. There were no homes, no development, just woods. The kind of place where you feel you’ve stepped into the past, because nothing has changed, it’s as it always was. We hoped to find an old saltbox, or simple farmhouse or cape at the end. If someone lived there, maybe they wouldn’t mind our stopping by to admire it. They might even offer to let us in, to share their “labor of love” as so many called it.
And then we came to the end. It was a little clearing, overgrown with bushes and vines. The sun streamed through the trees in a biblical light. There it stood, directly in front of us, a grand stone chimney, some thirty feet high, fireplaces exposed up to the second floor with no way to reach them. The bones of the old frame struggled to outline where the house used to be. The rest of it, from floor joists to ridge pole, had collapsed into the cellar hole. Girts, purlins, sills, and summers stuck out of the earthen pit like a grand carcass, licked clean by the twin vultures of neglect and time. Squirrels scrambled along the fallen joists, birds scattered to the top of the chimney, where surely bats slept within. Saplings sprouted in the damp, dirt basement, weeds and vines emanated from every crack in the foundation stones, and a giant walnut tree spread above, dropping its walnut harvest for the creatures that scampered everywhere. The scene was bittersweet. Another piece of history was lost, but in that loss, nature was reclaiming her own.
So many houses have been lost to neglect, in our own back yard, in our own historic neighborhoods. The only way to view them now is in books or historical archives. We regret their loss, but we can’t always blame the owner for it. A neighbor, who had lived through the depression, pointed out to me that during that difficult time people just didn’t have the money to fix up these old places. Sills rotted, houses leaned, roofs decayed. What was one to do?
We can only do our best. Maintenance is an issue with anything made of wood and exposed to weather. Our early homes need a lot of help, more than new ones, but they’re worth it. If we keep them oiled and painted, and repair or replace anything cracked or broken on a regular basis, if we care for them, they will last another two hundred years. But abandoned, there is no hope, unless adventurers like us continue on our prowl to find them in time to save them from the compost heap.