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.
Finally I have found a blog that has what I want….pictures and stories about old houses! Thank you! I am loving your
wit and thrilled to see some authentic photos of both the old and the restored and even the reproduced.
My husband and I own a circa 1724 cottage on Cape Cod. Although this house has both drained our bank account and our energy, we wouldn’t have it any other way. Such a soul in this old house…we feel it everywhere. And…even though our friends and family chide us sometimes about biting off more than we can chew, we can’t seem to keep any of them away.
Thanks for feeding my insatiable need for insight into another old house owner’s life.
Thank you! Nice to meet another old house lover – who gets it, and no matter what, can’t do without it. Once you’re smitten, nothing else will do When you love history, and wish you could live in it for just a day – well it’s the closest thing we have to a time machine! Inspiring just to walk the same floorboards, use the same doors and hardware, and take shelter under the same timbers our ancestors logged from this new land. That they are still standing, and still loved, is testament to the sincerity of their purpose and quality of their labors. And we can feel that every step of the way through our restoration, right? Scraping paint out of hand planing, following the original woodworkers marks, maybe revealing an initial here, or a design there? Wondering how a doorway got so crooked, yet the joinery is still so tight….It’s exciting, right? The marks of their lives are everywhere. I call living in an old house an experience. We are not just living in a house, we are on an adventure, and it’s quite an experience.
A cape on the Cape, and from 1724 – I bet the history’s amazing. Would love to see photos – but I realize I’ll have to set up an email account here for that. Will work on that.
Thanks for visiting!
I SOOOO enjoy your blog here. I still have much to read, but I can’t get enough of your restoration experiences and your love of what I love, very old New England homesteads!
I recommend to many to stop in here as your writing so well explains how people like ourselves feel. It’s very hard, if not impossible to translate that to someone who has not that passion.
I started restore my own house, new compared to yours, 1790 cape, about 15 years ago. It was not the main reason but during that time my marriage feel apart and I was left to do this alone while raising my two children. I burned out and had to just go onto other things for quite a few years. My kids, not both in their early 20s, have never lived in a finished home! Uggg, I have always felt so bad for them about this. Well, after maybe 8 years I’m back! And with a passion, almost stronger then ever. I just can’t wait till winter breaks and I can finally get that last sill in that I mortised over three years ago! Then onto my favorite room, the pantry! Thanks for sharing your heart here. I so enjoy it!
Thank you, Greg – nice to hear from kindred spirits. Understand about the kids – same here – they never knew a “finished” house either – but they’re none the worse for it! If nothing else they at least learned a lot about patience, perseverance, and hard work. Good luck with your project – even if it takes a lifetime, it’s worth it.