Friday, January 30, 2009

Meeting Martha Ballard

"Martha Moore was born in 1735 in the small central Massachusetts town of Oxford, but the real story of her life begins in Maine with the diary she kept from age fifty. Without the diary her biography would be little more than a succession of dates. Her birth in 1735. Her marriage to Ephraim Ballard in 1754. The births of their nine children in 1756, 1758, 1761, 1763, 1765, 1767, 1769, 1772, 1779, and the deaths of three of them in 1769. Her own death in 1812.

The notice of Martha's death in a local paper summed up her life in just one sentence: 'Died in Augusta, Mrs. Martha, consort of Mr. Ephraim Ballard, aged 77 years.' Without the diary we would know nothing of her life after the last of her children was born, nothing of the 816 deliveries she performed between 1785 and 1812. We would not even be certain she had been a midwife." --from Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's A Midwife's Tale

For 27 years, Martha wrote in her diary, for a total of 9,965 entries. "When Martha's great-great grandaughter Mary Hobart inherited the diary in 1884, it was a 'hopeless pile of...unconsecutive pages.' Remarkably, however, it was all there. Mary Hobart organized the pages, and had them bound in hand-made linen. In 1930, she donated the diary in two fat bound volumes to the Maine State Library. For fifty years, the diary sat in a vault. Some historians looked through the diary. But they dismissed it as being filled with trivial detail. When historian Laurel Ulrich first saw the diary, she was awe-struck. She'd never seen so much in a woman's hand from the period. Initially, she thought it would provide her with information for an interesting summer project on women's work. She had no idea the project would take eight years of her life." (quote from DoHistory).
Ulrich, who was then teaching at the University of New Hampshire, eventually wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard Based on Her Diary, 1785–1812. A Midwife's Tale was later developed into a documentary film for the PBS series "The American Experience," with Ulrich serving as a consultant, script collaborator, and narrator (Wikipedia).
Besides being a midwife, Martha was a housewife of the 18th century. I first read Ulrich's book in the old kitchen of our 1770 colonial home in New Hampshire. Martha cooked her family's meals in pots hung from metal cranes over an open fire. She spun the wool of the sheep she raised to make yarn. As I read about her life, I could look up to see our own old kitchen fireplace, with cranes and pots; I sat near the spinning wheel that I used to spin the wool and mohair from the sheep and the angora goat that I was raising.
I cannot tell you how deeply that book affected me, living as I was in a house so similar to Martha's. I wrote to Dr. Ulrich to let her know how much I enjoyed her book and how I "lived" it with Martha. She was kind enough to send a reply in her own handwriting.
If you would like to know more about Martha and her life there is an excellent web site hosted by the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. The site is devoted to "piecing together the lives of ordinary people in the past," using Martha Ballard as their case study. It is called DoHistory.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Gladys Taber and Stillmeadow

I found this photo of the Stillmeadow house in Google Images

I came across my first Stillmeadow book by Gladys Taber while we still lived in Washington state. I read how Gladys and her friend Jill wandered the back roads of Connecticut weekend after weekend, looking for a country place where they could raise their children and dogs. I often thought of how they waded through knee-deep snow up the driveway of the ancient house that was to become their Stillmeadow, little realizing that years later our family would slide across an icy driveway to find our own bit of history in our own antique colonial house. I remembered Gladys' description of the old wavy glass in the small-paned windows of her late 1600s house, especially when I looked through our own wavy glass in our late 1700s home. Gladys' house, when she found it, had wide pine floors patched with flattened tobacco tins; our house came to us with graffiti-laden walls.

When we first moved to New England from Washington, we headed for the local library--Beez to find some fiction while I took a look at the books by Gladys Taber. He found me there, sitting in an armchair and gulping back sobs, holding the latest Stillmeadow book. It had an introductory note by Gladys' daughter, explaining that her mother had passed away just before the book was scheduled for publication. When he understood that my friend Gladys had died, he took me home and gave me a cup of hot tea. I felt like I had lost a member of my family.

Over the years I collected as many Stillmeadow books as I could find in used book stores. Now, with the Internet, I would be able to put together a similar collection in an afternoon and have the books delivered to my door. For some reason, when we packed to move from New Hampshire to New Mexico, I gave away all those books to lighten our load. I'm sorry not to have them now.

Here is a list of books by Gladys Taber, including the books about Stillmeadow. I found the list on this website. (Note: Sorry, that website is no longer there as of 4/14/10).

Lady of the Moon (1928)
Lyonnesse (1929)
Late Climbs the Sun (1934)
Tomorrow May Be Fair (1935)
The Evergreen Tree (1937)

Long Tails and Short (1938)
A Star to Steer By (1938)
This is for Always (1938)
Harvest at Stillmeadow (1940) -The First Stillmeadow Book
Nurse in Blue (1943)
The Heart has April Too (1944)
Give Us This Day (1944)
Give Me the Stars (1945)
Especially Spaniels (1945) New Edition (1949)
The Family on Maple Street (1946)
Daisy and Dobbin:Two Little Seahorses (1948)
Flower Arranging for the American Home (1947) New Edition (1948)
Stillmeadow Kitchen (1947) New Edition (1951)
The Book of Stillmeadow (1948)
Especially Father (1949)
The First Book of Dogs (1949)
The First Book of Cats (1950)
Stillmeadow Seasons (1950)
When Dogs Meet People (1952)
Stillmeadow and Sugarbridge (1953) with Barbara Webster
Stillmeadow Daybook (1955)
Mrs. Daffodil (1957)
What Cooks at Stillmeadow, the Favorite Recipes of Gladys Taber (1958)
Spring Harvest (1959)
Stillmeadow Sampler (1959)
The Stillmeadow Road (1962)
Another Path (1963)
Gladys Taber's Stillmeadow Cookbook (1965)
Flower Arranging (1965)
One Dozen and One (1966)
Stillmeadow Calendar (1967)
Especially Dogs...Especially at Stillmeadow (1968)
Stillmeadow Album (1969)
Amber: A Very Personal Cat (1970)
My Own Cape Cod (1971)
My Own Cookbook: From Stillmeadow and Cape Cod (1972)
Country Chronicle (1974)
The Best Of Stillmeadow (1976)
Harvest of Yesterdays (1976)
Conversations with Amber (1978)
Still Cove Journal (1981)
Reveries at Stillmeadow

Monday, January 26, 2009

How to Become a Gypsy

Before we moved to New Hampshire to find our antique house, we lived on the other side of the country in a little Craftsman cottage in Washington state. We were halfway through a twenty year mortgage with payments of $170 month(!) when a new neighbor moved in. Fate is so fascinating; if this man had never become our neighbor, we might have missed all of our New England adventures.

When R. and his wife arrived, we welcomed them in neighborly fashion with fresh-baked cookies and offers of whatever help they might need. They were nice enough at first, but then things started to change. They got a dog, a cute little female, but instead of treating her with kindness R. would tie her on a rope out behind the house and yell at her. Since he never bothered to get her spayed, stray male dogs, naturally enough, started coming around. Here's the thing--R. would sit on his back porch and shoot at them. 

Our yards were separated only by some wire mesh stock fencing, as we all raised various farm animals in those homesteader-wannabe days. There was that man, shooting a gun just yards from where our small children wanted to play in our backyard and not too many feet away from my little herd of sheep and goats. Reasoning with him didn't help--he would just get excited and start yelling at us, and that's never good a good thing when the yeller is holding a gun. 

What did we do when faced with an increasingly crazy-acting man armed with plenty of guns and ammunition? Why, we did what any librarian's family would do--we got a book. We found the very book that turned out to be the key to our future, one called Safe Places for the Eighties. Yes, as I'm sure you recall, back in those pre-Internet days we needed a book to look up criminal statistics for the United States. Safe Places was perfect for our gypsy selves--we could look on a map to find the points furthest away from R., then check out the town descriptions along with cost of living, crime, weather, and education statistics. 

After all of our research, we settled on New Hampshire. It sounded nice and historical, it had snow, I had visited there as a child and remembered lots of green trees and hills, and it was located halfway between our respective relatives in Maine and Connecticut. Reading up on the various little towns around the state, we took our road atlas and stuck a pin in an area that was pretty equidistant from the three major cities of Portsmouth, Concord, and Manchester. We figured that we could find work somewhere nearby; somewhere that was commutable. I have to admit that once the pin was stuck in the map we looked for the nearest town with the coolest name, and that is how we found a place called Deerfield Parade. 

I hope you are paying attention. You need to understand this method if you really want to become a gypsy. You pick a cute town name on the other side of the country, put your house on the market, and then, and only then, take a quick trip by plane to check the place out. We did so, somewhat surprised that our springtime wardrobes were entirely inadequate for the month on April in New England. (My little cloth Chinese shoes--a color-coordinated pair for every outfit--were a bust in the snow that was still on the ground). You dash back, pack up and take an enthusiastic road trip cross country and--miracle of miracles--find jobs and a place to live and schools for the kids with no problems or stress at all. 

I find myself shaking my head at our younger, carefree selves. 

Two notes of interest: Years later, after we were well settled in Candia, we found that old road atlas with the pin hole in it. The Gypsy Method had turned out to be a good one, as our new hometown was just next door to a town called--Deerfield Parade.

About R's dog: One day, a couple of months before we moved away, R. was away for the day and we watched--cheering her on--as his little dog struggled up and over the chain link fence of the tiny pen that R. had eventually constructed to keep her in. She took off running across the hills and, as far as we know, was never seen in our neighborhood again. R. came home later and pounded on our door, demanding to know if we had seen her. We denied all knowledge of anything. 

I think his wife later did the same thing. I hope he never found her either.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Upstairs Lady

Note: This is the final post of the series, The House on High Street; Living in an Antique Colonial House. All the posts in the series are indexed here.

While we lived in our old house our town started having an annual Old Home Day--a time when current and former residents of the town could get together and picnic and play games. The parade went right down High Street in front of our house, so we always had an excellent view. 

During one of those first years a tour of the old homes in the town was offered, narrated by a man who had lived there all his life. I loved his stories--he told of two sisters, living at a crossroad in two houses right across from each other. Somehow there was a family argument and the women vowed never to speak again. They lived in those houses for the rest of their lives with never a word spoken between them. 

I was especially delighted when our little tour bus stopped in front of our house. The tour guide told of a woman living in the house during the 19th century who, for health reasons or for some more esoteric motivation, never came downstairs. She simply lived upstairs for all of her life [just as Mrs. B lived only downstairs much later], which probably made things quite difficult for her family.   She kept her friends, however, and they would come to visit her in the summer and picnic on the front lawn, sending delicacies up to her via a basket and rope as she sat in a chair by the window, joining in on the conversation. 

I like to picture her in what became, well over a century later, my bedroom. It had a sweet little white fireplace with a small crane just the size for a tea kettle. The floor was painted a lovely apple green that made me feel cheerful every time I looked at it, and the walls were papered with a delicate floral design. There were three windows that let in lots of light through the old wavy glass--two looking out onto the High Street, and one facing out over the garden and our sledding hill. 

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Hattie, Josiah, Sophia, and Abigail

This is part of the series, The House on High Street. The entire series is indexed here

I wanted to know more about our antique home, so I went to our local library where I found the most amazing book. It had been published in 1900, and the library was lucky enough to have three copies, all bound in fine red calfskin. Here is the incredible thing about that book--each copy was handwritten, and each illustration was an original watercolor done right there on the page. If you compared the three copies, you could see that the illustrations differed a bit from copy to copy. I always felt honored to handle it. 

The book* was called Candia; A Brief History with Notices of the Early Families. Each copy was written and illustrated by Thomas Lang. In it I found information about our house. It had been, as the brass plaque by the front door indicated, built "around" 1770 by Dr. Timothy Kelley. All the families that lived in it from that time through the 1800s were listed. By checking under each of those family names, in turn, I was able to piece together an idea of many of the people--the Josiahs and the Hatties and the Abigails, Freemans, and Sophias--who had walked those old floors before us. 

After Dr. Kelley moved away from town in the early 1800s, the Peter Lane family, which eventually included nine children, lived there. I used to walk from room to room, picturing how the Lanes might have set up their sleeping arrangements. Perhaps, as one of our children decided to do for a while, some of them even slept up in the attic, alternately roasting and freezing. 

Josiah Shannon, who lived in the house after the Lanes and a Sargent family (names still common in the town in the 21st century), was a deacon at the Congregational Church just up the hill from 1820 until his death in 1859. His family was known for its "sterling patriotism, as manifested by their long service in the Continental armies." 

Around the middle of the 1800s a minister, the Reverend E.N. Hidden, lived in the house with his family. His two daughters must have been accomplished young ladies, as he bought them the first "pianoforte"  in the town. He had it shipped up from Boston and placed in their drawing room--our Pretty Room.

*Many thanks to Smyth Public Library librarian, Jon Godfrey, for providing copies of pages from the "library use only" book.

Friday, January 23, 2009

The Captain's Staircase

This is part of the series, The House on High Street. The entire series is indexed here

The front staircase was one of my first projects because, as you can see, it was in such a frightful condition. Poor little staircase, it just cried out for help. There were big pieces of the old horsehair plaster broken and missing. Everything was covered in graffiti. That big swath of white stuff was either an attempt at plaster repair or, perhaps, someone had just painted over some particularly offensive gang tag. 

I tried painting over the things that were written on that wall, but they kept bleeding through the paint. It turned out that the B children had used not only pencil and pen, but markers and lipstick, as well. The paint store people supplied me with a product that was guaranteed to stop the bleeding through, and I was finally able to finish repairing and painting the wall.

Please forgive the layer of dust on the banister in the first photo below. At the time it was taken, there was still plenty of sanding going on. 

It's possible that if I had it to do over again, I might not have done all that amateurish stenciling. But think about this--it was the 80s, and I'm sure that if you remember those times, you can picture the way we were dressed then and how we did our hair--so we really didn't know any better. 

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Keeping Room

This is part of the series, The House on High Street. The entire series is indexed here

The keeping room, now the kitchen and eating area, stretched across the back of the first floor of the house. This photo of the fireplace gives you an idea of the general condition and very frightening color scheme we found when we bought the place. Just across from this fireplace was the old stove where I watched the invisible Mrs. B's strange brew simmering during one of our shouted conversations. (Have I mentioned that I'm a librarian? Librarians really don't like to shout). 

Here is a corner of the kitchen we ended up with. Pardon the clutter--this photo was taken on a busy day. Because there were seven doors (pantry, bathroom/laundry, Pretty Room, cellar, mud room, back door, old kitchen) opening into this rather large room, we had to work some to figure out how to place everything. We ended up by removing the two old long, low windows on the wall to the right and replacing them with a shorter, wider, and more energy-efficient window over the sink. 

That window looked out over a stone wall and into the woods, and as I worked there I was always watching for moose, deer, or wild turkeys. 

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Old Kitchen, Before and After

This is part of the series, The House on High Street. The entire series is indexed here

Here is the old original kitchen, with its fireplace, andirons, and cranes (hard to see in this poor quality photo, which is a digital photograph of an old print that had been taken in pre-digital days. Clicking on it helps show some blurry details). We had removed almost all the layers of the old wallpaper from the walls at this point, and were starting on plaster repair to the walls. To the right of the fireplace opening, you can see the little door, formerly wedged in over the opening to the beehive oven, and now just leaning up against the oven. 

Here is the only "after" picture I am able to find right now, taken from a newspaper article about the play that was written about the house as a stop on the Underground Railroad. That's the new owner with his banjo. This man loves the Kelley House so much that he has vowed that he will live there until he dies. 

The pot hanging from the crane was one that was found behind the little door. 

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Before and After

This is part of the series, The House on High Street. The entire series is indexed here.

Here is the Kelley House in 1987 when we first lived there; the sweet-smelling Maine Auntie's rose is in the left foreground. What you can't see in this photo is that paint is flaking off everywhere. 

Here is the house after the new paint job, which the whole family worked on. We scrubbed, we scraped, we brushed, we cleaned, we put on two coats of quality paint. No one fell off a ladder, although there were some close calls. I was stung on the upper lip by a yellow jacket, which the whole family thought was very funny. Our sense of humor was starting to degrade. 

What you can't see in this photo is that the paint is just about to start flaking off again.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Bumps in the Night

This is part of the series, The House on High Street. The entire series is indexed here.

The spooky back hall

Living in a very old house is good for your nerves--if they don't get absolutely shot by the goings-on, they just get stronger. Night time was especially interesting for us, and we had some odd experiences that first summer on High Street.

I already wrote about this first incident in a post last year called Beehive Ovens but, because this is my blog and I can do what I want with it, I'll just tell you again. Feel free to skip this part, if you've already read about the incident of the great crash in the night.

We were charmed by the four fireplaces in the Kelley House. Each of the fireplaces had a metal crane, hinged at the side of the firebox so that they could be swung out over the hearth. You could hang your iron pot, if you had one, on the crane and swing it back over the fire.

The biggest fireplace of the four was in the old original kitchen, the room to the right of the front door as you faced the house. Next to the fireplace opening was a small wooden door, covering what we supposed was a box for holding firewood. We struggled to pull that door open but just couldn't budge it. Several weeks after we had moved in, we heard a great crashing downstairs in the middle of the night. Because so many other "interesting" things had already happened to us since moving in, we chose to pull the sheets over our heads and wait until morning to investigate.

The next morning we cautiously came down the narrow curving "captain's staircase." We were amazed to find that the little door, jammed so fast the last time we had seen it, was now all the way across the room and up against the opposite wall. It was just as though the house was inviting us to look at what the door had been concealing.

What we saw were two openings, one above the other, built into the brickwork next to the fireplace and running back along the depth of the great chimney. The top opening was a much-coveted beehive oven and the bottom one revealed a storage space with all the old iron pots to hang on our empty cranes! We were thrilled to find that we owned a further bit of history. Research at the local library (in those pre-Internet days) showed that the Colonial housewife would build a small fire in the oven, close it up with a hinged iron door until the whole thing was thoroughly heated, rake out the coals and brush out the ashes with a long turkey feather, then do her baking. A good oven could hold as many as 17 pies, and could certainly bake up a quantity of bread and baked beans.

We searched around the property for years for the missing iron door to cover the oven but we never found it, although the hinges were there

On another night later that summer, I was awakened by what sounded like someone getting out of bed in the attic (we had no beds or family members up there), walking across the floor, and coming down the attic stairs. The footsteps stopped at that point. I was lying there, thinking about what I had heard, when I realized that Beez was awake, too. Whispering back and forth, we confirmed that we had both heard the same thing.

And then we heard it again.

As good parents, we knew that we needed to get up and check on the kids, but neither of us (I'm ashamed to admit) was very eager to do so. After a lot of poking and shifting around and a whole lot of "you go first," and "no, you go first" that made us sound like two of the Three Stooges, we managed to make the rounds with the flashlight, finding all the children safely in their beds and fast asleep. With a minimum of jostling and shoving to get through the doors and back to the bed, we hopped in and pulled the covers up over our heads--a common response to night time adventures that summer.

And then we heard it again.

We knew what we had to do and we weren't happy about it. We had to check the spooky back hall, because that's where the attic stairs were and that's where the sound was coming from. We went back into Two Stooges mode, stepped out the back hall while jockeying for position at the back of the line, and the flashlight went out. Mad scramble, back to bed, heads back under the covers.

And then we heard it again.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

A Hiding Place for Slaves?

This is part of the series, The House on High Street. The entire series is indexed here

A center-chimney colonial home is, because of the way it is constructed, filled with good hiding places. To understand why, you must first travel in your imagination to the cellar, where you will see the base of the huge central chimney. I tried very hard to find a photo or diagram of one of these chimneys, with no luck, so we will have to use the imagination method.

Back to the cellar--a good part of it is taken up by the base of the chimney which, amazingly, is about 10 feet by 10 feet square. I don't know anything about engineering, but this chimney supports a number of structural beams and is thus necessarily large. The base is built with a big arch, further strengthening its load bearing capacity (I'm on shaky ground here--please comment if you know more about colonial chimney construction than I do). 

Now, picture the chimney where it comes out of the roof of the house. It is probably no more than 2 feet square at this point, and if you were to stand on the roof and look down its center, you would see that four separate fireplaces have flues built into it.

Given that the chimney is surrounded by square rooms of equal dimensions, and since it is reduced in size between the cellar and the roofline, you will begin to see that there must be a number of spaces around it not visible from the rooms built next to it. Our children found one right away when they noticed a small triangular opening under the attic stairs. It was too little for any adult to enter, which added to their delight when they found that by wriggling through, taking an immediate left and crawling up over a half wall, they discovered a tiny "room." The first one through into the little room screamed and backed out hurriedly, as she had seen a sweater hanging up in there that made her think she was seeing a person. Obviously, the "B" children had used these hiding places, too.

Downstairs in the original kitchen, one of the square front rooms, there was a door to the left of the fireplace that led into a sort of small storeroom. Not visible from the storeroom doorway, however, was an area to the right that was located between the back of the kitchen fireplace and the back of The Pretty Room fireplace on the other side of the house. Several adults could fit in that space. 

The third hiding place that we found was under the floorboards in one of the upstairs front bedrooms. There was a tiny closet in this room, a rarity in such an old house, and one day I noticed that one of the boards in the floor looked a little "off." My son obligingly lifted the board, crawled in, and soon found himself behind the mantel of the keeping room fireplace downstairs. 

The kids, as you can well imagine, had a wonderful time showing these secret spots to their friends. One day there was a line of kids at the door, on their way home from a baseball game across the street at the park. They were apparently waiting to come through for a tour being given by one of the boys. Imagine our embarrassment when we found out that a cache of Playboy Magazines belonging to one of the older "B" boys had been found in a secret room, leading to added interest in the tour being given that day!

These secret places in old colonial homes give rise to stories about the Underground Railroad, a secret network of homes with hiding places where slaves were hidden on their way to freedom in Canada. After all, there are plenty of places in such a home to hide people out of sight. However, anyone who lives in an old New Hampshire town would know this about the houses in the neighborhood, making the hiding places not so secret after all. So, we were never able to document any real historical background to the rumors about our particular house being used as a hiding place for runaway slaves traveling north. 

There was actually a play written by a local teacher that was inspired by the stories surrounding our house. 

Saturday, January 17, 2009


This is part of the series, The House on High Street. The entire series is indexed here

We were concerned about the old boiler in the cellar. We had never owned a boiler before, but we understood that it heated the water that circulated through the baseboard radiators all through the house. Cold air was pulled into the bottom of the radiators and moved across hundreds of soft little metal fins which quickly heated it. The heated air circulated through the room, making it quite cozy, and all was done in a reasonable and fairly efficient manner. Well, it would have been an efficient system if our house had any insulation, but that is another matter altogether. 

The thing about that boiler was that it was so old looking. We weren't sure of its condition, and we wanted someone to inspect it, clean it (if that is what one does with boilers), and explain its workings to us, and we wanted all this done long before we would need any heat. So we called up Al, who was in the business, and were expecting him to arrive the next day. 

I was dreaming about cowboys. A lot of cowboys, a whole posse of cowboys. They were galloping, galloping, galloping, and they were getting closer and closer. I looked around for something to hide behind, because I didn't want to get trampled. 

I woke up from my dream. Hey, the cowboys were still here--the bedroom noisy with a metallic banging that was increasing in speed and volume. Beez was sitting up, trying to figure out what was going on. And then we noticed the smoke...

While I called the emergency number for the fire department from the phone located near the cellar door (almost right above the fire, although I didn't know it at the time), Beez organized the troops for immediate evacuation. Kids up, dogs leashed, cats crated, bird cage in hand--all were loaded into the cars that were then moved out of the driveway and harm's way. 

We sat there waiting, looking up at the smoke coming out of the windows of our house. We waited, and waited. Hey, that firehouse was right around the corner, less than a quarter of a mile away. Why didn't we hear any sirens? I scampered back into the house to phone again, wearing an elegant outfit of nightgown, old skirt, and barn boots. When I got through to the dispatcher, she kind of shouted at me--"Where are you calling from?... What, you're inside the burning house?... Get out of the house right now!!" She also reminded me that, although the firehouse was very close by, it was manned by a volunteer brigade and they would be with us soon. 

Of course. I had always lived in more urban areas, where the firemen lived at the firehouse, or something like that. Here, in rural New Hampshire, they slept at home and had to jump up, get dressed, kiss their wives or husbands good-bye, stick a flashing red light onto the roof of their pickups, drive to the station, and get the fire truck. Then they could turn on the sirens so I would know that they were coming. 

When they arrived, they were calm and efficient and organized and they got the fire out right away. Here is what had happened: That old boiler, which also heated our hot water supply, had one weak leg that had almost been rusted through. The leg collapsed, the thing that squirted the fuel kept squirting it, only now under the boiler. The boiler itself caught on fire, the fuel kept squirting, and the water was superheated and came rushing through the cold radiators, making the metal expand suddenly and causing the clanging cowboy noise. They were known ever after as the Cowboy Radiators, I have to say. 

If I had understood the system and had realized where the fire was happening, I could have opened the cellar door, reached in along the wall at the top of the cellar stairs, and turned off the emergency switch that controlled the burner. Of course, I might have added oxygen to the fire by doing so. That meant that the emergency switch needed to be moved to the other side of the door--just another item on our immense "to-do" list.

The damage was minimal--the old bulky boiler had simply destroyed itself, leaving us with a smoky house that was soon cleared out by the fire department's big fan. And here's the good news: The insurance company considered the whole incident an act of the boiler gods, and replaced the burnt-up boiler for us with a nice new tankless hot water system. Just think, if the boiler's leg had held up one more day, we would have paid for a new one ourselves, because Al would certainly have recommended replacement. 

The wonderful firemen stood around the cellar after all the excitement was over, swapping stories about the Kelley House. They told us an amazing thing--this house was rumored to have been a stop on the Underground Railroad back in the Civil War era. 

Friday, January 16, 2009

Meeting the Laundry Ghost

This is part of the series, The House on High Street. The entire series is indexed here. 

If we were delighted to own an old house with wavy glass and four fireplaces, we were thrilled to have one with four staircases.  There was the steep captain's staircase at the front of the house that led up to the front bedrooms, the straight stairs behind the kitchen that led to the warren of little rooms in the "back hall," the stairs down to the dirt cellar, and the attic staircase. 

Now, as you may recall, our bathroom/laundry room was torn out that first summer, pending repair to its underpinnings. This meant that I could choose between driving eight miles each way to a crowded laundromat or I could stay at home and do the laundry by hand. I've never liked laundromats; and so I found myself wringing out sheets in the kitchen sink early one July morning. 

The attic, it seemed to me, would be the perfect place for drying clothes. It had never been insulated--in fact, you could see the nails that held the shingles in place poking right through the wooden ceiling. This meant that it was cool in the morning, and just like an oven on a summer afternoon. Beez and I hung clotheslines from one side to the other, and I was in the laundry business. 

I carried my laundry basket up the back stairs, through the back hall, and up the attic stairs, accompanied by my loyal dog, Red Rachel. I had just pinned up eight feet or so of various articles of wet laundry, when I paused to admire the view of our barn out of the old gable-end window. When I turned back to continue with my work, I was surprised to see that everything that had been pinned on the line was now lying on the floor. The interesting thing, to me, was that all the clothes pins were still in place on the clothes line. Rachel, oddly enough, was halfway down the stairs, whining and looking anxiously back up at me. 

Vaguely wondering what might have caused my wet clothes to all fall off the line simultaneously, I hummed a little hum, picked them up, and began the work of shaking off the attic dust from each piece and re-pinning it to the line. This time I was sure to firmly peg everything into place, while glancing back over the line to be certain things were staying just where I had put them. 

Now, I think that I am more practical than imaginative, and so I hope that you will believe me when I tell you what happened next. Right there, before my eyes, all the clothes on the line jerked up and then fell down to the floor again. The pins all remained in place on the clothes line, just as before. Rachel was now at the bottom of the stairs, barking at me in a warning sort of way. 

I felt a little tingle up the back of my neck and across my scalp. I gathered up all my poor laundry, putting it back in the basket and heading toward the stairs, while saying, quite clearly, "I think that I won't hang this laundry in this attic. I'm going to take it downstairs right now. Good-bye!"

You should also know that my good dog, Red Rachel, although she accompanied me everywhere else during the day, refused to ever go up the attic stairs again. 

Next: Fire!

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Strangers in the Bathroom

The House on High Street, continued. The entire series is indexed here.

Early one morning that first summer, I was standing in my bathrobe in the kitchen, drinking a cup of coffee and moodily kicking at the kitchen floor "hill" with my slippered foot. Suddenly, the door of the bathroom right next to the kitchen popped open and a strange man stuck his head out. "Mahning, deah," he said in a lovely old New Hampshire accent, "Could I trouble you foah a bandaid? My pahtnah heah has cut his fingah." 

It's a measure of how life on High Street had already changed us that I didn't even scream, although I instantly thought of that old TV commercial where the lady opens her medicine cabinet and finds a talking head inside, making some sort of pharmaceutical recommendation. Nope, we were getting used to workmen just showing up all over the place, and on their own schedules. The two in our "bawthroom" that day had arrived before dawn and, not wanting to trouble us, had just climbed in through the window that they had punched out the previous day, prior to breaking up our bathtub and tossing it out (just like the "B" family had tossed out their belongings). 

What was once a birthing room long ago had been turned into a bathroom early in the 20th century. I always thought that it was large enough to hold a dance in. Good thing, too, as it was our only bathroom, and contained the connections for the washer and dryer, as well. However, the bank was having its way with us and, according to our agreement, the bathroom floor was being torn out immediately so that the beams underneath could be replaced. The fixtures were old and leaky and were being replaced as well. 

Our facilities that summer were unique, and segregated (unfashionably, I suppose) by gender. The girls were to use the porta-potty that we had put in one of the warren of tiny rooms in the upstairs back hall. The boys were sent out to the woods, although in some instances were allowed use of the porta-potty, especially when they complained about mosquitoes. Showers were taken in the warehouse shower several miles away at Beez's place of work. We would line up with our towels and shampoo, and the head of the family (whoever it was that day) would be responsible for running the timer and calling out " 'Nuff water!" after four minutes.  

Back to the bathroom. Once bandaged up and functional again, our workmen continued tearing out and ripping up. There was quite a stir later that afternoon when they opened the bottom of the exterior wall to get at the bad beam. As they later told us, more than a dozen snakes leapt out, causing all the workmen to run away. They eventually came back (the workmen, not the snakes, I hope), but not before telling their various relatives and friends around town about their experience at our house. 

As stories will do in small towns, this one made the rounds. Weeks later, at some community supper, an acquaintance asked me if I had replaced my clothes dryer. I was puzzled as to why she should think this was necessary, but everything became clear when I heard how our "14 snakes in the wall" story had morphed into a tale of  "a 14-foot rattler found curled up in the clothes dryer."

The following winter I was standing on a ladder in the bathroom, getting ready to make some repairs to the old-fashioned horsehair plaster--a new talent that I was fast developing. I noticed some almost transparent material packed in behind one of the broken hand-split lathes. Carefully drawing it out, I excitedly called to Beez that I had found some kind of antique insulation. When he trotted up to share in my discovery, I had just about pulled the whole fragile object free from the wall. We were horrified to realize that I was holding a snakeskin in my hand. Apparently the bathroom snakes had been using our wall for a long, long time, and they had crawled up at least a good six or eight feet above ground level. 

I decided, pretty abruptly, to quit work for that day and hopped off the ladder, leaving my tools behind. It was time for a nice sherry beside the fire in The Pretty Room. Maybe it would help me to forget.