As we settled in to the old farmhouse and our new lives slowly took shape, we began to uncover the sensibilities and personalities of the farm and its former owners. Their stories were enshrined around us and we uncovered them like archaeologists, one tiny fragment at a time.
Some stories came from pictures. A stranger stopped by one day and gave us a set of old black and white photographs she had taken during a time when the farmhouse was abandoned and in a state of disrepair. The images showed where chimneys had once been, and where various outbuildings had previously existed. When we moved in, one of these same photos – a stately picture of the front of the farmhouse in its earlier days – was hanging on the refrigerator as a welcome. She must have shared these same photos before.
Some stories came from neighbors. Mark, our neighbor to the south, told us how the old bank barn burned down not long before we moved in. It had been in poor shape and was taken down by the fire department in a controlled burn at the request of the previous owners. Only its stone foundation now remains. We’d assumed it had succumbed to time, and were a bit uneasy knowing it had been destroyed on purpose. Surely some parts might have been saved? We found old metal stanchions and pulleys, a gnarled hay catch, an old whiskey bottle, and clumps of melted glass buried in the foundation along with portions of charred timbers. We salvaged what we could to atone for past transgressions.
Some stories came from artifacts, like the killing cones nailed to the fence posts along the pasture. It was quickly evident that someone back in the day had raised chickens. We found feed pans and water dishes used to care for young chicks. But the cones made their ultimate fate clear.
Some stories helped us make sense of what was left, and some turned our preconceptions on their head. We heard about the man who restored model T’s, which helped us understand the 50 gallon drum of oil that was left in the outbuilding. We learned that the sliding barn door in the kitchen wasn’t lovingly salvaged from the bank barn as we’d assumed, but was an actual working barn door put there long ago when a somewhat unconventional farmer kept his cows in what is now our kitchen.
And some stories were downright mythic. Bob Weaver – no relation to that Weaver down the road, we’re told, he apparently hates that guy – told us about the fatal day when the farm was partitioned off and sold. The farmer was a genuinely nice guy, and had died suddenly, too young. When they went to clean out the house, which was in desperate need of repair, the family found hundreds of thousands of dollars hidden inside. He had saved every penny he’d ever earned, and never spent a dime. The wife bought herself a Packard after that, and paid cash. When she passed away, legend has it that car went for more than the house did.
The back forty revealed an old seed spreader, a clawfoot tub, a clunky grill, and a tractor with no wheels and no engine. The seed spreader is rustic and beautiful with metal wagon wheels and a rusty patina, the sort antique collectors pine over. It sits in the meadow, and in the fall when the fields turn from gold to white, it looks like agrarian history enshrined.
The clawfoot tub was likely in the farmhouse at one time, during the early days of plumbing. It is cast iron and terribly heavy – how they got it to the meadow, we’ll never know. We think they may have used it to water livestock not long before we arrived – rumor has it that the previous owners bred cattle. Mark told us the story of how their bull escaped the electric fence one day and they had to chase it down the road. He laughed a good belly laugh at the memory.
They were a married couple, both engineers with two young children, who quickly divorced and moved to the suburbs. Not exactly the cattle-raising type. We found all sorts of suburbanite fair in the attic after they left – oddly scented candles, outlandish martini glasses, tacky holiday decor, and no less than five air conditioners. I suppose if I had wanted a scented candle–martini–air conditioned suburban life and wound up chasing a bull instead, I’d have wanted a divorce too.
Alan dragged the grill and the tractor to the side of the road and carefully painted a piece of plywood to indicate their price: FREE. Within 15 minutes, everything was gone. We don’t normally get many cars on our road, but around here people have a sort of sixth sense when it comes to one man’s trash and another’s treasure. Just as the first truck was pulling out, another came around the corner to discover that in the time it had taken him to change directions, he had missed out. They even took the sign, Alan said in surprise. It was a nice piece of plywood; he’d meant to use it again. I noted that it had said “free”, after all – you really couldn’t fault anyone for misunderstanding.
Items are so rarely stolen out here. People just don’t take each other’s things until they’re allowed to, but then they take it all. When we had our pond dug, the mountain of dirt removed from the ground festooned the center of our property for over a year before finding its new owner – Mr. Weaver, no relation to that other guy – but once it did, it was done and gone in a backhoe minute.
Back in the city, the list of items we’d had collectively stolen was long. My daughter’s first bicycle. Some hand tools. Alan’s car. His wallet. A Buddha statue from his garden. A Buddha statue. Really. Mixed religions aside, I’m pretty sure that is the definition of bad karma.
When we were clearing out the orchard, Alan discovered a bunch of radiators hidden among the weeds. They must have come from the farmhouse when the boiler had been installed, back a decade or so ago. The heating system had been incrementally modernized since the house was built, baseboard heaters replacing the radiators which likely replaced a fireplace back in the day. They were beautiful – and heavy – and Alan couldn’t bear to get rid of them. He asked if I had any creative ideas on what to do with them. I am pretty sure Pinterest was made for moments like these, so I suggested it. But he brushed it off, insisting that Pinterest was for girls.
He stacked them neatly near the outbuilding for over a year before their true purpose emerged. One day it came to him in a flash of artifact inspiration: he put a thick wood barn door on top of the tall radiators to make a table, and placed the shorter ones around the outside, a wood plank on each, to use as seats. The Radiator Bar was born. He posted a picture on Pinterest, throwing girly stereotypes to the wind.
As we settled into our new home, my dad was clearing out his. He had reached retirement age, the children had long since moved out, and downsizing was on his radar. He took all the bits of flotsam he had collected over the years and methodically started selling them or giving them away.
He found a receptive audience in Alan, who took each item with interest – a new artifact to add to his collection. There were fruit crates and hand carts, and numerous tools of various ages: an old iron nail puller that had been my great-grandfather’s, a hand concrete edger that someone had used to repair a sidewalk block, a heavy log splitter that my dad had used to split firewood for a wood stove we had during my childhood. There was a section of wooden paint scaffolding, several wire carpet beaters, and a tiny carved wooden matchstick box with a sliding lid and dovetail joints. Everything was either beautiful or useful, and easily passed the William Morris threshold test. They all fit right in on the farm.
I want to build an outhouse, Alan told me over the phone one day. I tried to not feign interest, even for a moment – any hesitation might be seen as acceptance. Alan was quick to make decisions, and this one I felt must be nipped in the bud. Not a chance, I said, in a rare moment of foot-down-putting. My mind flashed back to the previous owners and their cow. I wasn’t sure how that had all come about, but I didn’t want to risk a suburban divorce on an outhouse.
He insisted that I see the picture he’d discovered on Pinterest. It’s beautiful. No, really! He made me promise to at least look before saying no. His description wouldn’t do it justice. He knew enough to know that there wasn’t really any way to put a commode in a positive light, and his best strategy was to stop talking. I am not a fan of outhouses, nor port-a-potties, nor any other similar devices. I was lucky enough to be born in an era of indoor plumbing, and I embrace it wholeheartedly.
He pulled up the picture when he got home. He was right; it was beautiful. If you didn’t notice the lid, you would have never guessed its true purpose. It mostly looked like a rustic sauna with a toilet seat in the middle. I admitted my error. He set out to building one.
He researched the practical aspects of vents and bio-composting, and dug an appropriately deep hole behind the outbuilding. He framed it with 4×4’s along the bottom and 2×4’s on the sides, and sided it wide hemlock planks leftover from my studio. He inset two old wooden windows he’d found in the basement, one on each side, and hung a flannel shirt across each as a curtain. He made a bench across the back and sanded it smooth, then cut an oval into the center and attached a toilet seat.
He stained the exterior with some of the leftover oil from the 50 gallon drum – it turned the wood a rich, espresso brown and seemed a fitting homage. He strung a strand of small globe lights across the inside, and they filled the space with a warm glow. The cross-braces of wood doubled as tiny shelves, which he filled lovingly with small items he’d found in the old bank barn and artifacts from my dad, much to my dad’s delight.
By the time he’d finished the outhouse, a Pandora’s box had been opened. He saw Pinterest pictures of outdoor showers – wouldn’t the old claw foot tub be perfect for one? And tiny shed cabins, which so closely resembled the old horse shed that it simply must be converted. And most of all, recycled window greenhouses, which he coveted terribly – the icing of the Pinterest cake.
He put out a call for old wood windows, and suddenly everyone he knew had them, and were more than thrilled to get them out of their attic/ basement/ garage. He found a beautiful old wood door with a glass window at an antique store, and a massive 24-lite window that had been salvaged from an arboretum. The more people he told about his greenhouse, the more the windows piled up. Pretty soon he had an entire side of the outbuilding covered with stacks of them.
We used a few here and there along the way – a couple storm windows and a door went into our main chicken coop, and a few became cold frames – as we waited for the right moment. But mostly they were hoarded for his most glorious of projects, the one that would protect his tender seedlings and extend his growing season: his greenhouse.
We tossed around a few locations, but the right one sang out like a Hallelujah chorus: a space just to the the side of our garage. It was right off the house, the concrete floor was already level, and it had a water faucet and an electrical outlet at the ready. And most importantly, it was in full sun all day long. We learned just how much sun it received as we tried to build it during a hot stretch in late September. Whether we started early or worked late, we could only handle 20-minute chunks of labor before broiling under the magnified sun. We finished it in bits and pieces over the course of several weeks, and it was chippy Pinterest-perfect once it was complete.
As we settled in that winter, we talked of all the ways the farm was becoming our own. It was shifting to reflect our sensibilities and personalities, which were layered onto those of the previous owners like the layers of archaeology in a distant land. This was our land, but only temporarily. Eventually it would be passed down to someone new, who would uncover its stories and history, just as we had. It is a humbling thought to think that the buildings we leave behind – the chicken coops, the studio, the greenhouse, Buck’s shed, and whatever else we build in the future, will be here for as long as life lets them, and eventually be gone, leaving only artifacts in their wake. Returning to the earth, through reverence, or perhaps neglect, just as someday we will as well. Like the farm, we can only hope to spend our last days being cared for and honored, and remembered thereafter. Until then, we do our best to honor those now gone, enshrined in the artifacts around us.