Thursday, October 17, 2013

The House by the Side of the Road

The first thing you start to feel when in my brother's house is that you can't seem to get the layout of the house firmly in your mind.  It is two full stories over a full basement (of a sort), but it seems there are jigs and jags here and there. Which rooms back onto one another? Which rooms are above or below each other?   

It is surely a puzzle.  And which puzzle piece is precisely where? 

When my son and his friends, who have all spent numerous nights within the house for Family Game Nights, talk about the house they seem to have the same discussion.  I believe one intends to pee in each of the bathrooms, but how many are there? Six?  Or seven?  And both my son and his girlfriend have declared the existence of an upstairs room which it seems I have never entered.  With all the time I have spent in the house over the course of years, how can this be?

Built around 1854 and completed about 18 months later by the Severance family , it seems to have been built as a whole cloth.  It was sold shortly after it's completion to the Pipe family, who continually inhabited it for nearly 150 years. 

The house and outbuilding as part of a working farm passed out of the Pipe family's hands and into the hands of a neighboring farmer, who, coincidentally, is my third or fourth cousin.  We share forebears, our great-great grandparents, who along with their grown children, daughters and sons and their prospective spouses, and my then eight year old great grandfather, migrated to the West— central Wisconsin.   (West merely being West in a frame of reference with Aroostook, ME and Topsfield, MA, being more nearly the center of the family's then universe.)

What drives people forwards at that point in their lives?  Mid-fifties, grown children, businesses,  so as this house was being built, my ancestors are moving West.

But I digress. 

My distant, but knowable, cousin separates house and outbuildings from farm acreage and sells them to a couple who operate the house and grounds as a bed and breakfast for a period of about ten years. 

This aspect of the house history is both good and bad.

The floor tells the tale.  These three areas of floor did not run contiguous in the same room or adjoining rooms originally.  They do today.  The floors are surface nailed, heart of (old growth) pine.
 To the good, things like modern plumbing, electrical, heating and air were added.  To the bad, a lot of chintz, floral wall paper, and re-muddling of some rooms occurred.  Actual rooms were cut up differently.  Doorways were moved.  Left completely intact: all the outbuildings and exterior house features.  Nearly all the floors in the house were left untouched with the exception of one bedroom in which a very thick carpet pad and carpet have been laid over the existing floor.  I believe the windows are all original as well, with the exception of a couple extremely drafty ones in the kitchen my brother has since replaced.  Also remaining, a service stairs and a curved staircase which would have curled over a guest parlor, with double french doors.  Or not.  I can not quite wrap my head around what the layout would have been there, as I know the walls in the room in which I am in have changed a good four feet.

Also to the good, during this period of ownership by the B&B couple, the house, along with its outbuildings, are granted National Historic Register status.  The house also gains an historian.  How many houses have their own historians?  The historian writes his Master's thesis on the house which is published in a soft-covered format by the nearby college, entitled "The House by the Side of the Road."  The primary thesis of this publication is the house was part of The Underground Railroad.


I paged through the publication quickly shortly after my brother and my beautiful SIL bought the house.  My brother having a degree in history from UW-Whitewater, and I, who, have always enjoyed history, poo poo the idea.  The historian promulgates his theory on the relationship of the basement layout to the first floor rooms, which I have to admit is confusing.

Confusing and mysterious, surely.  I cannot quite sort it out— a number of false basement walls, house footprint without basement beneath, and a lack of basement storm door.  For those of you unfamiliar with the idea, a basement storm door was often the typical entrance to a basement as it facilitated the storage of root crops during winter.  Potatoes, cabbage, carrots, apples, turnips, squash, and pumpkins were all stored in barrels of sand and straw and stored in root cellars.  Many early homes' basements served as root cellars.  Entrance from the basement to outdoors was expediently provided by doors opening directly to stone steps descending into the root cellar. Typically, too, no access to the basement from first floor rooms. 

Yet here is an an acknowledged historic house with good provenance as to construction built without this basement to exterior entrance.  Why? 
Where the formal parterre now exists was once a working vegetable garden.  Where the haunted trail runs once an apple orchard was maintained.  (It is badly in need of rejuvenation today, perhaps beyond help.)  Closer to the barnyard vigorous Concord grapes and hops were grown (and still grow) on the scaffolding of the wind mill, which far from being quaint, powered the pump drawing water for the grapes, hops, and livestock alike.

So as my universe has quickly contracted due to my injury  to four walls, a ceiling, and floor; each has become a larger part of my universe.  And now my attention is riveted on a small peculiar floor cut-out...

I have lived in or visited a number of very old houses here.  A lot of houses in the process of being modernized have various cut-outs in old floors.  Access is need for heating ducts, electrical, plumbing, you name it.  For the most part, this house has no ceiling light fixtures, clothes closets, or hallways.  For the most part this has not changed.  Added electric was fished through wall and up through access obtained through access from the basement. 

So why this peculiar cut-out serving no function, easily hidden by a rug?  (Small rugs are now an enemy and have been removed from my space.)  I puzzle at this cut-out.  It measures maybe 13" by 20".  I would hate to think of attempting to slip through such a small opening with my life depending on it. I also couldn't wear any of the clothes worn by grown women of the period either.  Slaves, I can imagine, were not overfed. How much room was allotted on the slave ships bringing them to this country in the 1700s? 

The basement area which lies beneath falls into an area at one time separated from the rest of the basement by a false wall (less than half of which remains, but which that the wall was indeed false is very clear).  The area in the basement separated by this wall is a space of maybe 6' by 10' and leading where, I am not certain.  The height of the basement floor is different there and seems to lead somewhere.  I was not curious to determine before my injury.

Now, with the exposed cut-out, and pictures of other spaces in my mind, I wonder where?  Is there a closed off tunnel running just a few yards to open in the apple orchard or a nearby outbuilding?  Was it Indians traveling nearby regularly that prompted this measure, or Abolitionist zeal? Were the rooms laid out purposefully to confuse the casual visitor?

Last night, beautiful SIL appeared at my door and asked if I were okay finding me rigidly sitting up in bed.  She had heard rhythmic knocking and feared I had some difficulty and could not page her on the phone (the "I've Fallen and I Can't Get Up"syndrome--now, not so much of a joke.). 

"No," I replied, "I'm just trying to find that sweet spot of a comfortable position."

"It's called ‘exhaustion'," she replies.  Yes, having spent three month on bed rest in each of her pregnancies, she understands what I am going through better than most.

"No, I wasn't knocking."  At which point she climbs the stairs to check on my nephews, confused by this house as to from which part a sound is actually originating.  Likewise, in this particular room, I am similarly separated from sounds in other parts of the house.  Does this strange sound transference also point to this truly being a stop on the very loosely delineated Underground Railroad?

If the walls of a house could talk, hmm?

What would be conclusive proof of a house's role in this part of our nation's history?  How much danger would someone perceive in the act of harboring escaped slaves?  I guess I have some time to ponder it all and to stare at the small cut-out in the floor of my room.

These white roses brought by one of my sisters are so incredible I keep thinking they must be fake, but no.

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