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The Olde Family Homestead

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Posted 12-31-2016 at 10:30 AM by Roy Sanborn

I grew up in Northern NH in a classic, white clapboard farmhouse that was built in 1799. It was said to be the second oldest house in our tiny little town of mostly modest year round homes, summer cottages, and grand old hotels. Our farmhouse had four rooms on the main level and four bedrooms upstairs. When we moved in there was an unfinished ell that was used for cold storage and a three story barn which obviously had held livestock at some point in the past. The house sat on a typical stone foundation with a dirt floor. As a kid it was kind of a dark and scary place and it, and the barn, had spiders the size of mice hanging of webs the size of bushel baskets. I think they were looking to catch small birds instead of flies.

The house wasn’t fancy,
but it was comfortable, despite the fact that initially there was no heat upstairs. The winters above the Notch can be bitter especially at night and I clearly remember the ice forming on the inside of the single pane window in my room despite my father’s annual ritual of putting on the old wooded storm windows. It wasn’t an easy process putting them up as you had to know which storm window went where. There must have been a secret numbering system involved there? I seem to recall that they weren’t hung on the house like you would normally do but rather nailed. I suspect was the reason for some of them being cracked. Screwing them to the house would have been a much better way to do it but this was long before portable drills.
Thankfully, oil was inexpensive back then and the old forced hot air system clattered away non-stop all winter. I don’t think the house was insulated at all and the warmest spot in the house was in front of the hot air register beside the downstairs bathroom. We did have a ¼ bath with a Victorian style pull chain toilet at the top of the stairs in broom closet which was more than claustrophobic but very convenient. For some reason along the way that disappeared and it became a linen closet.

Not long after we moved in, the unfinished ell section was remodeled into a combination kitchen, dining, family room area. I didn’t realize the significance of it, but this was my first exposure to what eventually would be the much heralded “open concept living area” everyone wants today. While the remodel did a lot to modernize the home and add to our living space it still retained the original old single pane windows so it definitely didn’t qualify as an Energy Star Rated home.

Our electrical system consisted of some old knob and tube and newer Romex wiring and a 100 amp fuse box out in the barn. There was many a penny used to rectify the blown fuses when all the Christmas decorations were switched on or that new toaster oven was turned on the same time as the coffee maker. God only knows why the family homestead didn’t burn to the ground.

Along the way the forced hot air system was replaced with a forced hot water system giving us some heat upstairs. And, as oil prices started to climb, the old windows were updated with double pane replacements and insulation was blown in where possible. But it wasn’t until the 70’s, after I had moved out, and the oil crisis hit, that the "all-nighter" wood stove arrived. By God, there was no lack of heat then! With the relatively low ceilings and what seemed like a full wheelbarrow load of wood in that stove temperatures peaked just slightly less than the surface of the sun!

Unfortunately, the TV was located at the same end of the room as the stove which meant you felt like you had to watch your favorite show in your underwear.
While the new found warmth was welcome, it did seem to create another issue. As a result of excessive heat loss through the ceiling and roof, glacier sized ice dams and icicles the size of small trees were formed on the eaves. It was actually pretty spectacular! On seemingly alternate occasions (usually around the holidays) the icicles would come crashing down and through the kitchen window or waterfalls would develop from around the window casings or ceiling.

The unheated barn provided shelter for the family vehicles from winter storms and a place to park the newest fad in the North Country in the mid 60’s winters; the snow machines. The upper level was used to store all the stuff of dubious value accumulated by my parents from years of attending auctions in other peoples’ barns. We never had one... It was also a place to play and great for indoor archery or pitching practice. But it seemed like the main purpose of the barn was to hang game from during hunting season; moose, bear, deer, and even a fox or two were displayed there to show off…but only if they were big enough to brag about!

The reason I bring all this up is that your old family homestead is likely indelibly etched in your mind, too. It helped define who you are as an adult, perhaps your taste in housing, and certainly should have given you some bits of wisdom about houses in general. Everyone has stories about their childhood home that are worth repeating. So, I’d like to hear about your family homestead. I bet you’ve got good some good tales to tell, so please, email, write, or call me anytime! We can compare notes…
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