Serendipity. (noun) A fortunate happenstance or pleasant surprise.
At some point around the early part of the nineteenth century, somebody built a small house and a barn on thirty acres of land, in a rural New York town that was itself, newly formed in 1822. The foundation of the house was laid with fieldstones of irregular shape and size, at a depth that was barely enough to get below the frost line. The modest house above this dank underground space was enough to protect the family from the elements but not much more.
There were two stories to the house; the upper level being smaller than the lower, and there was no electricity or indoor plumbing. The galley kitchen was small since the only amenity available was a wood-burning oven and some counter space for preparing food. The water was drawn from an outside well, and the bathroom was a wooden outhouse, which was placed somewhere near the back door. The living and sleeping rooms were divvied up out of whatever space was left. I doubt the person who built the house had skills much above whatever was required to saw wood and pound a nail, but in spite of this, the house has stood tall just shy of two hundred years.
At some point—I don’t know when—an addition was tacked on, which contained an eat-in kitchen and bathroom, bringing this crooked old farmhouse up to the modern standards of the day, although it still lacked any meaningful insulation, and the electrical system was woefully haphazard.
Next to this house stands a barn, and in stark contrast to the house; the barn is straight and true. Credit must be given to the massive beams that hold it up, these being timbers that are so thick and so long, it would be almost impossible to replace them today. Trees simply don’t get that big anymore.
I bring this up because as fate would have it, we own this combination of architectural relics, and for a curious person such as myself, I’ve always wondered what went on here before we came upon the property. This was the home base for our family building business for thirty-five years. Our office was carved out of a corner of the barn, while the farmhouse was rented to a variety of tenants. This arrangement worked for a long time until we moved the office into the house, which was a vast improvement over working out of a barn in the winter. Plus, it had a bathroom, which everybody greatly appreciated.
A few weeks ago, I was showing the barn to my son-in-law, and we both remarked on the basketball hoop that was nailed to sections of planking, which was then attached to an inside wall on the second level. We were trying to imagine the kids who hung around in this barn shooting hoops. With no lights, the large, sliding barn doors would have to be left open otherwise it would have been quite dark inside.
Well, about a week after the basketball hoop conversation, I was finishing up mowing the acre or so of grass when a car pulled into the driveway. A man that I guessed to be slightly north of eighty stepped out and began to walk towards me. I met him halfway, and we shook hands as he introduced himself as Charlie.
“My parents used to own this place,” he said. His parents were the ones who sold us the property, the bulk of which was subdivided into streets and housing, but we kept the barn, the farmhouse, and a piece of the land in place, even though it sat on two prime building lots.
We talked a bit about trivial matters until he finally asked the question that had been bubbling inside of him since he pulled into the driveway. “Would you mind if I had a look inside the barn?” he asked. “Sure,” I said, and unlocked the door, and turned on the lights. We had the place wired for electricity years ago, and the ceiling lights lit up the barn like a gymnasium. Charlie and I walked around for a bit, and then he asked if he could call his brother, George, to come out and have a look. I eavesdropped a little on the conversation.
“You’ll never guess where I am,” he said. “Standing inside the old barn. Uh-huh. Ten minutes? OK, I’ll ask.”
I still had enough to do outside, so I said sure.
While he waited for George, Charlie filled me in on a few of the details of his time there. His mother bred and sold collies in the area that we had been using for our office. At one point, when I was cleaning things up, I found an old sign for pedigree collies. I couldn’t remember if I had saved it or not, but I told him I’d look when I had a chance.
The other side of the barn was used for pigs, and the back section was for horses. A long panel was cut into a dividing wall and secured on the bottom with drop hinges. There is still a chunk of wood held loosely in place with a long screw above the panel, and when turned, the panel flopped down, which gave easy access to feed the horses. Right above the horse panel is where George and Charlie had painted their names. Charlie’s parents bought the farm in 1948 when he was ten or so, and the two brothers had monogrammed the wall in a tidy cursive shortly after that.
I asked about the basketball hoop, and he told me that they used to play year ‘round. He also told me how his brother had hurt his ankle on the large rock that is still outside the barn. The rock was used as a base guide for the sliding barn doors, and one day after playing basketball, George had zigged when he should have zagged, hit the rock, and sprained his ankle.
When George showed up, they walked through the barn together, swapping stories with each other as I waited outside. I unlocked the farmhouse and invited them to go inside when they were done in the barn. I was loading up the lawn tractor on the trailer when they walked from the barn to the house.
The small space upstairs was their shared bedroom, and the homemade plywood kitchen cabinets (which were built by their father) were still lined with the same shelf paper his mother had put down close to seventy years ago. I tried to imagine what it would be like to walk through the home in which I grew up, as the brothers wandered around their old home. They didn’t say much, as they took their time absorbing the memories of past Christmases, family dinners and birthdays.
Almost an hour had passed since George first showed up, but before they left, they both filled me in on how things used to be in their old neighborhood. Their house was one of only six houses on the mile-long street, all of them fronting small farms. These were commonly called gentleman’s farms, as the farmers also worked day jobs. I listened to every word, and before they left, I snapped a picture with Charlie’s Samsung of the two brothers in front of their childhood home. They were beaming from ear to ear.
In the end, they both got into their cars and drove back to their homes, which were not too far from where they grew up. I stepped up into my truck, sat still for a minute, and tried to figure out how to tell their story. The more I thought about it, the more I thought I’d leave it as simply as it was told to me.
So many of these old homes hold a history that will never be unfolded. Not all of these houses are architectural marvels nor will they ever be placed on a historical registry. Most of them are humble houses that appear to have nothing special to say. That would be wrong.
On that particular day, at that random time, I went over to mow the lawn, but in the end, I learned a small piece of what happened in a nondescript little white house that was built so long ago, and for that, I am grateful.
Since this story was written two years ago, we have sold the property, and as it turns out, to someone we know. He owns a construction company and was anxious to have a barn and some land to store his equipment. The house will be rented.
We put ads on Craigslist last fall and sold some of the supplies that we had, but most of our mismatched collection was donated to a local charity. Mrs. G. and I were glad to see it all go to someplace that repurposes everything for new owners.
During the three weekends I sat there, people came by to see the old place, and even Charlie stopped in to say good-bye. When I turned the key one last time, I was relieved. Old houses can be a burden.
New chapters, right?
As it turns out, the new owner has gutted the inside, added a modern bathroom on the second floor and pulled out the old dog-eared cedar porches and replaced them with pressure treated wood. The house looks better, but in the process, it has lost some of its character. The old cabinets went in a dumpster, along with the linoleum and flowered wallpaper, all of it dating back to the 1940s. If I’m being honest, it’s a vast improvement but a part of me will miss the old farmhouse. In my head, that’s what it will always be.
I’ve been invited to go back and take a look once the remodeling is done, and I probably won’t. It served our needs the way it was, but it was time for a new generation to take over; to make it their own, and I’m hopeful that these changes will help keep the old bird standing for another two-hundred years.