Tag Archives: The Ark

Built To Last

South Lawn And Barn

March and April are the best time to shop for a home. You really get to see it at it’s worst. By summer all the winter’s mess has been raked, flowers are growing, Hostas skirt foundations. The mud room is swept, the gentle breeze wafts through window screens, and the paint on the porches may have seen a touch-up. September is the worst time to shop for a house, because you’re already inebriated with fall and everything looks prettier. Not to mention the present owners have had all season to spit-shine the place. By October, trees are starting to get bare and you remember to think about things like heat and drafts, and sellers may be anxious to escape before the onset of winter.

I first saw The Ark in July or August. We closed on September 11th, before it meant anything else, in 1985. Jake was a farmer. His wife Joanna had passed and it was down to him and the turkeys. It was a big house, and an old one. I was twenty-six, and optimistic as well as capable and ambitious. It was a tough winter, and we lived paycheck-to-paycheck, sometimes buying five gallon cans of kerosene to keep the furnace on ’til payday. Between seasons, heating with those catalytic kerosene heaters that were really popular then.

So, the first spring in The Ark was as welcome as the surprise daffodils on the south side. Who knew they were there? Shortly after, the lilacs bloomed. When I say the lilacs bloomed, you must imagine hundred-year-old lilacs, lining the road frontage and growing in great hedges around the shed. Fifteen feet tall, full and lush with flowers that perfumed the whole yard. Only the peonies of June would out-smell them.

I didn’t know the water table was about a foot higher than the cellar floor. I didn’t know much about wet cellars, as my parents’ house was dry as a bone. What a shock to discover the water so deep it flooded the burner for the boiler and the water heater was submerged by a foot. I was broke, and still weaning from my folks, so I drove up to their house and grabbed the sump pump my dad had in the basement. Not entirely sure why, as there was never as much as a drop of water in the basement of that house. I grabbed the pump and flew home, stuck a pool hose out through the basement window, and began the 34-year battle with the water.

I’ll tell you a story about how things were made in the old days. I may sound like an old man talking about bygone times, but then I’m an old man talking about bygone times. I ran my dad’s pump for a couple of years until one spring when I spent some of the tax return money and bought my first, very own, brand new sump pump. It even had a float so we didn’t have to flip the cellar light switch to turn it on and off, as was the case hitherto. I chucked dad’s pump on the cellar shelf.

Within two years, the pump made some funny noises but wouldn’t move any water. I pulled it up out of the cellar and dismantled the bottom part and found where it was plugged up and jammed with sediment. Cleaned that out and put it back to work for another year. One day, I opened the cellar door to check, and there was a foot of water down there, flooding over the bottom step of the wooden stairs that led from the pantry. The pump had failed. All the tinkering could not make it come back to life, and so I threw my dad’s pump into the sump, crossed my fingers, and plugged it in.

Vzzzzzz- Whoosh! That pump came on sounding like it was brand new, and it cleared hundreds of gallons out of the cellar in a matter of hours. I cobbled together a float switch and ran the pump’s power through it so we didn’t need to control the pump with the light switch. I suppose I should try again for a modern update before this ancient pump fails. Let’s see, my dad already had the pump, and had lived in Broadalbin for twenty years or so. Let’s guess it was ten years old when I “borrowed” it. Now add the 34 years I’ve been at the Ark, and we can guess this pump must be 45 years old or more. Maybe I should wait ’til it dies, if ever.

I ran the pellet stove for about eight years, during which I replaced a couple of components. Routine failures one might expect. An igniter (or two), the room blower fan, which failed around the five-year mark. Inside a pellet stove is a nasty environment for electronics and motors. High temperatures and a lot of dust. Clingy acidic dust. So at the beginning of year eight I did one of those decidedly-unlike-me things, and I replaced the working convection blower with a new one as a form of anticipatory maintenance. Year nine I fired it up, and within a few weeks, the one-year-old combustion blower failed. It would not surprise you, I’m sure, to hear I cleaned up and stowed the “old” working combustion blower as a backup. It’s still running.

There was a time when people wanted to build things that last. Like L.L.Bean and his original guaranteed-for-life policy. Even that has changed. Like Craftsman tools which were guaranteed for life. I had a Craftsman router fail (a long, long time ago), and when presented at the store it was summarily replaced with a brand new one. Now Craftsman is just another brand, sold at Home Depot.

The Town Of Sharon has a few snowplows. We still have the big Oshgosh plows. I don’t think Oshgosh is in business any more. But their trucks are still going. Still plowing Engleville Road each winter. Some things were built to last.

Oshgosh B’gosh

The Oshgosh #13V is from 1959. So am I.
I guess I was built to last, too.

 

Take care and keep in touch,

Paz

The Ark: Windows

From My Window

 

All of the windows in my 113 year old farmhouse are original, except for the one new triple-track aluminum deal in the kitchen that looks out onto the driveway. Much of the glass is original, too. “Albany glass” they call it around here, but in other parts of the country it probably has other names, or perhaps the name of the town where the glass factory stood. The old glass has ripples in it, actual wrinkles you can feel with your fingers as they pass over the otherwise smooth glass. And bubbles. In some places, quite a few tiny air bubbles, and in other places, individual larger ones. I’ve had to replace a few panes of glass during my 34-year tenure caring for the Ark. It always makes my heart ache a little when I must break up and throw away this antique glass.

The lifting and latching of the windows brings a mixed bag of the original workings. A single spring-loaded latch is in the center of each lower sash. On some windows, the ancient cast iron pieces within have cracked and broken off, and the latch does nothing at all. These windows get propped open with retired curtain rods. On a few of the windows, the latches still work. Most probably had window weights concealed within the window frame. A rounded length of iron about the diameter of a cigar, usually about a foot long. These were originally attached by sash cord, long since decayed within its wood confines. The window weight would offer a counterbalance, an assist to lift the window as well as a resistance to slow the sash’s descent.

They are as inefficient as one would expect an original 1906 window to be. Pretty sure I have actually seen tiny crystals of snow driven through them in the height of a winter’s blizzard. In the frozen season, condensation on the inside of the windows often freezes on the glass. Whenever we see this, we call it “Zhivago glass”, as it reminds us of the scenes in “Dr. Zhivago”, when he and his charges are holed up in Siberia. Giving it ringing names and associating it with the stark beauty shown in the movies helps distract us from the fact that the window is no better than the one Zhivago looked through in 1890.

 

Juney

 

The windows are large and ornate. Houses don’t have large and ornate windows anymore, just vinyl rectangles. The tops of the windows out front are rounded. 10 round-top double-sash windows frame the coffin doors, with two round-top lights of its own. (“Coffin doors” refer to the main entrance at the front of the house. ((We call that “the dooryard” around here)). One door is used most of the time, the one with the doorknob. The other side of the double door was intended to be opened to bring a coffin into and out of the house. When it was built, this is the way funerals were done in the sticks.)

We had a sales person call on us to pitch us custom vinyl replacement windows. His first shock was the sheer number. For living spaces alone (excluding the “attic” windows) there were 18 of them. He measured and calculated. Were we sure we wanted them the same size? “100 united inches” I think was the term. Surely we would want a standard, smaller vinyl rectangle? Less expensive and more energy efficient. He choked a little when quoting the price (more than twenty years ago) at $18,000!

Okay, last thing, window guy. You know your custom windows that are made-to-order to fit the openings in my home? Well, will the ten out front have the same rounded tops? Well, not exactly, window guy says. We could fashion a mask for the outside that evokes the shape of the round top. Nope. Stop right there.

 

The Coffin Doors

 

There is a tremendous beauty in these windows. Like most things I love, their inherent beauty is the attractant. Not efficiency. In the fall, I make my rounds to each one. A couple of screws jammed in the sides will hold the lower sash tightly against the upper. Then rope caulk is applied to the gap. In the spring, I visit each again, removing the caulk and the screws. Flinging them open, however briefly, symbolically putting winter to bed.

I could have had eighteen modern, efficient vinyl rectangles in these places. A lower heat bill. No need for rope caulk.

In June I will go upstairs and open the front and back windows in the center hall. This is the official start of summer for me. Breezes will move through, and birdsong. And the smell of the rain, and the sound of the neighbor’s birthday party across the road. The rumbling of summer thunderstorms, the voice of the wind in the leaves of the great maple trees which tower over the two-story house. In spring, the sound of the robin leaping from the nest it has built atop the window frame. In August, the smell of the third cutting of hay, drying in the field adjacent. The smell of the diesel tractor crawling up the road with a wagon of hay bales stacked impossibly high. The sound of lawn mowers and dirt bikes and dogs barking.

 

Windows go both ways

 

In the peak of the summer heat I will go upstairs to fetch something. At the top of the stairs I am met with a unique fragrance. It is the smell of a very old house. Century-old wood. Horse-hair plaster over hand-cut lath. Ancient wallpapers. It smells of all the things it has always smelled like, and not unlike the attic of my parents old farmhouse. I can’t know how much longer I will be in this house, or in this world. But I know in the meantime I will delight in that old familiar smell of an old, old house owned by old people. Unchanged but for those few places where it was deemed absolutely necessary. And my kids and grandkids will share this experience. This smell. This old Ark.

And until I go, you will not smell vinyl. You may be a little chilly in the winter. And you can look out at ancient trees which are as old as the wavy, bubble-filled glass you are looking through.

 

Take care, and keep in touch.

 

Pazlo