Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Bennett House

As a newcomer to both this area of the country and to farming, I have found it a particular pleasure to hear our elderly neighbors talk about their pasts. Having an intellectual understanding of the transition from a largely agrarian to an industrial to a post-industrial (whatever that means, exactly) society is one thing, but talking to a man who remembers the arrival of tractor powered agriculture is quite another. I find some of the information relevant to my ambitions going forward, as when learning about the measures taken in the past to put up food for the winter, while other stories, though less applicable, perfectly evoke a time in this specific place - childhood games of Cops and Robbers played on horseback around a waterfall, or driving deer the length of the valley the first day of hunting season. Throughout these stories names crop up, of wives, friends and acquaintances who have passed away, and I am struck by how ephemeral, incomplete, and easily lost this sort of modest history is.

To an extent the landscape mirrors this cultural legacy, tired barns with their sagging roofs and houses with walls made of peculiar round stones held together by thick bands of mortar, a building style I have not seen elsewhere. On our farm we have two old barns, the house we are living in and, until recently, another small house house. In considering the future of these buildings, it is difficult to know how to balance practicality against nostalgia, the anticipated needs of the future against these physical conduits to the past.

We know that the hops barn was used for drying hops back when Central New York was the main source for that crop in the country, and that it was later converted into a shop and storage space. The large barn - made of one very old section and one more recent - held a tie stall dairy with hay storage above. The house we are all living in has undergone endless modifications over the decades. The kitchen used to be the woodshed, and at one time there were two separate, unconnected second floors. These three buildings are in varying degrees of health, and in the future we will have to decide whether to attempt to repair them at a steep cost or tear them down.

But the small house across the street, known as the Bennett house, presented no such difficult choice. Though the Realtor who sold us the farm claimed the prior owner had determined that the structure had "good bones," a conclusion he supposedly reached after climbing up to the second floor and jumping up and down, it was obvious to us from the hole in the roof and the extensive rot throughout that we would need to scrap it.

Last weekend my friend Ivan came up, intent on demolition. We started by throwing out the scraps of corrugated roofing, the remnants of an old vacuum line and the other bits of metal, as well as the sheets of plastic and other bulky trash that had accumulated over the years.

We next began tearing the splintered clapboard siding off, revealing the wide planks beneath.

Though hardly pristine, these boards were hefty enough to mill into quality lumber, so we set about removing and stacking them to the side.

Destroying the interior lathe and plaster wall was dusty, dirty work, but it was gratifying to scrape away this moldering skin to expose sound lumber beneath.

We removed more and more of the siding, revealing the frame. The timbers were hand-hewn, and the design was very simple. The rafters, with no ridge beam and no poles over the bents, would never be up to modern building codes, though that hadn't stopped the house from standing. Unfortunately, half of the frame was almost completely rotten. At one point the bones had certainly been good, but a decade or two of constant water damage had taken their toll.

Ivan left after two days, having helped remove all the exterior siding and a good bit of the interior lumber. On the third morning Edmund and I went to finish up, and he noticed that the frame had started to list on the rotten side - it appeared the thick siding boards had been playing a structural role. We debated whether or not to continue working on the first floor, and in the end we did, albeit only on the side where the supports were still sound. By lunch we had removed all we wanted, and a cold, driving rain had started to fall.

Inside, before we sat down to eat, Edmund said he did not expect the house to stand through the night. As he spoke he looked out the window and saw that it had in fact already collapsed. None of us saw it fall, so we do not know whether we would have had time to get out. Regardless we felt lucky that our nascent farming careers were not squashed.

From this wreckage we tore out a good stack of rafters and floor joists, as well as the last bits of interior wall. All that remains now is a whole lot of cleaning up.

Hidden beneath a section of plaster on the second floor Ivan and I found some flaking bits of newspaper pasted to the boards. They were too torn up to read the columns, but the date, 1859, was legible. While taking down the building was the only thing to do, and while I do not feel sad about it, I nevertheless have a sense of awe at putting an end to a structure that stood at the start of the Civil War and kept standing quietly at the bottom of a hillside pasture ever since.

We know a little about it. At one point the house, along with 27 acres, was its own farm, and more recently it served as housing for hired hands and their families. Though it had running water and electricity, it never had a bathroom. The windows were single pane, and the walls had no insulation at all. I wonder if its owners and occupants were content, and I wonder if I would be in such modest circumstances.

I try my very best to do away with any illusions that the past was in any way perfect, but I also do not hold to the idea that all or even the majority of changes have been for the better. For several years, but particularly since moving to the farm, I have been interested in the question of how to properly live in a place. Much of this involves looking forward and planning, as we decide what animals to get and how to manage them, what infrastructure to focus on and where to put it. But I hope to be aware of what has come before, and to give the past particular to here the consideration it deserves.



  1. "Having an intellectual understanding of the transition from a largely agrarian to an industrial to a post-industrial (whatever that means, exactly) society is one thing, but talking to a man who remembers the arrival of tractor powered agriculture is quite another."
    - great piece of writing Garth!
    Really enjoyed this post, all of the pictures were especially cool, getting to see step by step how the house was deconstructed. Anything specific that the salvaged lumber will be used for? On an unrelated note, as a lover of ceramics and former practitioner, I really dig Normandy's work. I mean, REALLY dig it!
    Best, Phil

  2. Phil- I am so glad you enjoyed it. I really enjoyed it too!
    As far as the boards go, we are talking about using them for flooring. Many of them are in reasonable shape and some of them are nearly 24" wide. That is a thing to behold. They are well seasoned to say the least. We will see how they plane out.

  3. Those wide planks under the clapboard siding - amazing. Certainly not the way homes constructed today. 2 ft wide?!!? Happy to see you are salvaging materials and not landfilling. You may not remember, but Vine had reclaimed wood floors. Score one for keeping (de)construction debris out of the waste stream

  4. I second that Rob! I didn't realize Vine had reclaimed lumber underfoot. That's great. Come visit us someday.

  5. Awesome post. Way to be diligent and take lots of progress photos. Only I wish there was a timelapse movie of the process.
    I've taken apart lots of things but deconstructing an entire building is something unique. I'm gonna come visit you guys soon.

  6. I'm still blown away by how little insulation that building had. It didn't even have an air gap of any kind in the walls. From outside in they went -clapboard siding, wide planks, lathe, plaster, wallpaper - for a grand total of about 3 inches thick. I would have thought the house fell below zero inside on windy January nights except that it was plumbed at some point. Granted, most of the pipe was in the basement where the earth could moderate the temp extremes somewhat, but still, the occupants must have gone through heaps of wood or coal trying to keep out the cold.

  7. Fascinating! I've been enjoying the blog in general, and really liked this post in particular. I've written a bit about the strange mix of ideas that demolishing a house brings up--it makes one think about transience and human history and, as you write, how we are to properly live in a given place. Thanks for making me think interesting thoughts this morning!

  8. I just can't even tell you how much I enjoy this blog. Every post is interesting and wonderfully thoughtful, thought provoking and articulate. Thanks so much.