Beginning on the barn II

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Back from the farm after a three-day trip. I worked on the east side of the barn, replacing siding boards that had come off under the last ownership. This is actually the side that requires the least amount of work and I’m trying to get it fixed up so I can say at least one side of the barn is “perfect.” I have to make four windows for this side however before I can finish up the siding work. My father built this lean-to onto the barn in 1950 to have room to feed a few livestock under cover. He put four windows in this side, the side that faces the road. I’m not sure why he went to all that extra work rather than just siding the whole thing.

He always did appreciate a good-looking barn however and I guess he wanted to pretty it up. Or as the old German farmers would have said, he did it “chust for pretty.” Over time the windows got knocked out by inquisitive horses, however. And the last farm owner didn’t help matters any with his active neglect of all the structures on the farm. I did manage to find three of the old window frames, but they’ve been chewed on by livestock and weathered and the mullions broken and the glass knocked out. So I think I’ll start from scratch and build some windows. They should dress up that side of the barn. The other reason to do the side of the barn by the road is I’d like passersby to know that there is some intent to fix the farmstead.

It was hot down there last week. Temperatures were still in the 90s. One always hopes that by September temperatures will have moderated in this part of the world, but that’s generally a hope not realized. My nephew-in-law came out with his skid loader and pulled a bunch of concrete plugs out of the ground. Much of the pipe corral fencing has been removed now but every where there was a fence line there is a bunch of concrete plugs. It’s no wonder these people went broke, with all the money they put into fencing and concrete. The person who bought all the fencing finally got it all removed and that improves the look of things generally and makes it easier to keep the weeds down.

Concrete is one thing we can’t do much with as we clean up the farm. Wood and metal can be recycled. But chunks of concrete have to be buried in a pit. There are already a half-dozen pits full of debris on that place and I hate to make another, but it may come to that. The other thing about concrete is that it can’t be manhandled. Chunks of any size require machinery to even move them.

The riding mower I fixed up last winter has done yeoman service this year. That’s a bright spot. My niece has been keeping up with the mowing. The mower, which I described on here last spring, was my dad’s, her grandfather’s, and she has fond memories of using it when she was a kid visiting the grandparents. I’m surprised it still runs, after all these years and being it storage for twenty-plus years, but it does.

There is water in the farmhouse now. We had a plumber crawl under the house and replace a corroded copper line. I haven’t tried it yet. Saving that for next time. There’s always a next time. And more to do.

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Second life for a mower

IMG_3097I’ve devoted a few hours this spring to fixing up my father’s old riding lawn mower which I hope will be a help in keeping the grass and weeds under control around the buildings on the farm. The mower, a 1975 Snapper with an eight horsepower Briggs and Stratton vertical-shaft engine, went into the storage shed in town the fall before my father died in 1994. It sat there for 22 years.

With memories of last year’s six-foot-tall weed patch on the farm, I decided to see if the mower could be resurrected. I wish I’d taken a picture when I opened the shed door. I first had to cut out dozens of tree sprouts that were in the way, then pry open the door. There it sat, just where my father had left it, not knowing (or, at age 92, maybe knowing) he wouldn’t be back on it next spring. The tires were flat, it was covered with twenty years of dust, the battery was corroded, and it looked to be in sad shape.

Out in the daylight, three of the four tires actually held air, miracle of miracles, at least long enough for two of us to roll it up a ramp and into the back of the pickup. Before unloading it at home I ran it through a carwash, dislodging some of the accumulated grime. Then, shoehorning it into my garage (I really needed more stuff in there) I took a good look at it. Pack rats had made a good-sized nest under the seat, but miraculously hadn’t damaged the wiring. Everything seemed to be there.

The next thing I did––and the smartest thing––was to call my friend Bill. Bill loves small engines, from mowers to motorcycles. He came over and we figured out a plan of action. It seemed clear the engine was going to need a new ignition switch. We couldn’t find the key for the old one and it seemed like it might be a good idea anyway to have some new wiring after forty years. And we bought a new battery. Then came moment-of-truth time. We checked and there was oil in the engine, after all these years. And there was no gas in the tank, which was a good thing, since deposits from old gas can plug up a fuel system pretty quickly.

So, a new battery, ignition switch, and fresh gas and we were ready. One hand on the ignition, and the other covering the open carburetor to choke it as needed, we cranked the old engine. It turned over a few times and then it roared to life. It was as if the intervening years had never happened. Well, that is, after the initial cloud of blue smoke dissipated. The old motor ran and ran well.

With that achievement, we turned to tires. I took one of the rear tires to a tire shop and had it sealed so it would hold air. The other one has been fine. But the two front ones were going to be a problem. They were so small—4.10 x 3.50—and the rims were so beat up, it was going to be hard to get them to seal. I just knew that every time someone wanted to use the mower, I could expect that one of those tires would be flat. So I traded them out for two new solid tires from Marathon Tire. They’ll make the ride a little bit harder, but they’ll never go flat. So now there are just two tires to worry about.

The blade came off easily and it polished up nicely. There’s nothing like a nice sharp blade. I put on new gas and air filters, but kept the old spark plug, which works fine. And I found the four grease points and gave them a shot of grease. So for a grand total of around $170 and a few hours this old mower that’s been in storage for two decades is back in service. And I had a little fun playing with it. I’ve mowed our suburban lot with it twice. It’s a little big for the job but it runs well and starts every time. What more can you ask from a mower? Now to get it back to the farm.

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Beginning on the barn

IMG_2954I started the repair of the hay barn this week by nailing two boards onto the north side. These fell off years ago, not too long after Mom and Dad sold the place. For years I couldn’t bear to drive by the old place, because it was obvious the new owners weren’t going to be tidy folk. On trips down there I’d park across the section and look at the barn thru binoculars. That was as close as I could stand to be. I witnessed the gradual deterioration of the barn, starting with the two boards on the north side. This lack of care galled me deeply and so when the barn came back into our possession it was appropriate that these two boards be the first ones to be replaced. There is lots more to be done, but this is where it starts. This barn is a living, breathing thing. Every sigh, creak, and pop tells me so. Even the way the light comes in through the cracks. It deserves a second life.

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The dark underside of old houses

IMG_2931Back to the farm this week for the first time since December. Spring arrived ahead of me. The forsythia was blooming and the elm trees were beginning to leaf out. It was a good week to be in the country. My mother planted the forsythia, or at least supervised its planting. Today she would have been 100. The forsythia almost didn’t survive the previous farm owner who let a hackberry grow up in the middle of it. Now it’s coming back. Mother would like that.

Last December I removed four rotted window frames from the farmhouse and rebuilt them over the winter. This week they went back into place. Small progress, but I’ll take it. They came from the upstairs bedrooms and the only reason they rotted is because Mom and Dad decided long ago to not put aluminum storms on the upper windows because that part of the house wasn’t heated after we kids left home. And so, given enough sun and rain, rot happened. A couple of them were almost beyond revival. But with several new wood pieces they’re good for another 100 years. And I learned two new skills––frame-building and glass-cutting. And now I’m on the hunt for storm windows to protect my handiwork.

The spring migration is underway. A flock of cedar waxwings, on their way to Minnesota and Canada, hung out in the elm trees all week. There was a good rain (the first since last fall) and the next day the waxwings were down bathing in a water-filled depression in the driveway. They are such sleek birds, black with a splash of yellow and with their rakish feather crests and black masks. They never say much and it’s easy to mistake them for grackles from a distance.

The grackles were back as well, and they made enough noise for everyone, chattering and holding forth in one tree and then another. Innocent bystanders were a couple of mockingbirds and a pair of phoebes, all migrants back home for the season. The red-winged blackbirds were also back. Nothing evokes my childhood forays into nature like the distinctive song of a red-wing.

I suppose the cedar waxwings have always come through here in the spring. But without binoculars, they are easily overlooked. All those years and I never knew what was over my head.

The bird diversity is helped by the current unkempt nature of the farm. The feedlots, with all that rich compost, have grown up in weeds, creating a seed fest and thick cover. Probably a couple dozen ring-necked pheasants have been sheltering there for the past several years. In addition many of the elm trees which my father planted in the thirties are near the end of their lives and they are home to woodpeckers and other cavity-seeking birds. It’s tempting to clean up the place by taking out the old elms and all the volunteer red cedars, and to fill in the depressions in the driveway. But then a flock of waxwings settles in a cedar and goes to work on the berries and then drop down to take a bath in the pools in the driveway. To paraphrase E.B. White, it makes it hard to know whether to smooth nature’s rough edges or savor it in its unkempt state.

When I wasn’t distracted by birds this week I managed to do a few things. For a year there has been a water leak under the farmhouse and we’ve had to shut off that part of the water system. The first step in fixing it would be to crawl under the house using a tiny access hole maybe two feet by 16 inches. Once under the house, there’s about a foot and a half clearance between the floor joists and the earth. It’s damp under there, the piping is old and corroded, and who knows what spiders live a foot away from your face. I got about halfway through the access hole and just couldn’t do it. Too claustrophobic. So I made a better way. In the floor of the house I cut a nice big hole which provides much easier access, and with more headroom. The leak turned out to be in a copper line. The best part of all this is that a plumber is going to be hired to do the actual work. But I made his/her job a fair amount easier. That’s the joy of an old, unoccupied house. You can do things like cut holes in the floor and not worry about making it pretty. The new hole also gives me quicker egress if I were to be cornered by a skunk. The floor joists are two feet apart, by the way. That helped. It’s still pretty nasty under there, a dark netherworld of corrosion and sewer smells and crawly things and rat poop. But now it’s easier to drop into that world to do what needs to be done.

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Thanksgivings past

In the early hours on holidays I often think back to other holidays. All of the Thanksgivings in the farmhouse, for example, with my mother up late the night before grinding the cranberries by hand and peeling sweet potatoes, then up before the rest of us to prepare the turkey and get it into the oven. This morning the farmhouse sits empty and cold. Is there any memory left in its bones of that long string of Thanksgiving celebrations––stretching back into the 1870s?

I think of the women who toiled in that kitchen––my mother, my grandmother, my great-aunt, and before them there were several tenant farmer wives––all no doubt anxious about how things would come together. All of them did everything over a wood stove for part of their lives.

Here’s a toast to them, and to modern ways. I love my Cuisinart which pulses cranberries in just a few seconds. And I love not having to kindle a fire in a wood stove. I like to remember and honor the old ways, but I don’t want to go back to them. There may never be another Thanksgiving in the old house. That’s okay. There’s been a good long run.

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Shade tree sentiments

Therephoto was a turn toward fall the last week of September at the farm. The days were still summery—in the 80s—but the nights were cool. September in my childhood was always the month of planting wheat and starting school. True to form, the wheat is in and right on schedule a big yellow school bus motored up the road the first day I was there.

I used this trip to clean up some storm damage from a few weeks ago. A windstorm downed some large limbs from the eighty-year old Siberian elm trees that my father planted in the thirties. One of them was hanging from “Denny’s tree” near the road, in front of the farmhouse. In my childhood Denny was a neighbor who lived two miles up the road. He and his wife and three or four children lived at a subsistence level. They heated their shack of a house with wood and had no car. When they needed groceries Denny would walk the four miles to town.

When he got to our place, which was halfway, he’d sometimes stop and rest in the shade of one of our elm trees. Part of his reason for doing this was a hope that one of us would notice him and give him a ride to town. Which we often did. My dad would see him out there and take pity. He’d say, “Oh, get the pickup and give old Denny a ride.” And one of us would. And now all these years later, Denny is long gone, but his tree remains.

In addition to trimming trees on this trip, I put a new storm door on the north porch of the farmhouse. There were probably other needs that were more pressing, but the condition of that side of the house, next to the driveway, has bothered me since the farm came back into the family a year and a few months ago. The old storm door was missing and its frame had been flapping in the wind. So I got a new (used) door at Habitat Restore (I’m getting pretty good at scavanging), and repaired a couple of porch windows, and now the porch is weathertight. This makes me feel better and makes the house look a little better. This was the main entry into the house way back when.

I also removed and brought home two second-story bedroom windows which were coming apart from longtime exposure to weather. Sometime in the seventies Mom and Dad had aluminum storm windows put on most of the house, but they didn’t spend the money to protect the three upstairs windows because they didn’t heat that part of the house. Which would have been okay if the people Mom and Dad sold the house to twenty years ago had bothered to keep those windows maintained. They didn’t, and as a result they were falling apart, allowing intrusion by wasps and larger critters, plus letting water into the wall. So I removed the two worst windows on this trip.

Those upper windows are also the only original windows on the farmhouse. They date to 1872. It was the era when windows mostly had sash weights, but these are different. When the lower sash is raised it is held in place by spring-loaded sash pins rather than weights. Preliminary internet research indicates this was a cheaper way to go way back then. Too bad. I kinda like playing with the old sash weights and pulleys. The springs still work on these pins, though. It was apparently a pretty basic technology. When I had the windows out I thought for a few moments about the last time these holes in the wall were opened up––during construction. The scenery out the window was an unbroken prairie. It still isn’t much different. The prairie (pasture) is still there, although now it is punctuated by a few fence posts, a power line, and a couple of cattle feed bunks across the road. Nothing’s perfect.

My plan is to rebuild these two windows this winter. It will take all of my woodworking skill and then some, but I hope to enlist a friend and try to learn something in the process. In the meantime the two holes in the wall will remain plywooded over. That makes the house look like it’s abandoned, but down the road it’ll look much better. I also need to find aluminum storms to fit these windows so that they will last another 140 years. (A fella can dream).

Am I having fun doing all this? I’m of an age where I could relax a little, but something is driving me to do all this work. Part of it is simply reliving my childhood and part of it is to see if I’m up to the challenge of doing things I may only do once––like repairing these windows. I’m learning stuff and using my hands for something other than typing on a keyboard, which I’ve done most of my life. I also simply hate to see buildings decline. It’s a curse.

On this trip I was also witness to a blue jay migration. Not all blue jays migrate, but many do. The science is still unclear on all this, but on one of the days at the farm there were a dozen bluejays in the trees, carrying on like only blue jays can, flying from tree to tree, and chattering about some highly important matter, all the while proceeding in a southerly direction.

September is also the month of the Monarch butterfly migration. Every few minutes, as I worked at my various tasks on the farm, a Danaus plexippus would come drifting by. In my childhood I seem to remember a lot more of them, however. It was common to see a half dozen at any one time. It seems certain we’re thinning them out with our pesticides and rapacious agricultural practices. That’s a little depressing to think about, but for the moment I’m celebrating the ones on their journey.

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More gutters and a pile of bones

IMG_2022The farm has been back in the family a year now and it’s amusing to me to recount that 80 percent of the work I’ve done there in that year has been involved with water. That includes getting it, repairing the damage it’s caused, and preventing further damage.

First up was the repair of the water system. There’s more to be done in that regard, but after some work on the well, we have basic water service. Then came repairing basement walls that were leaning in because a lack of gutters let water run down next to the foundation on the smaller house. Then came replacing gutters on both houses and adding back the missing sheets of tin that had blown off the barn roof.

Water truly is the enemy of every structure. Given enough time water will tear down everything ever built.

On my trip to the farm recently I completed the guttering work, adding gutters to the north and south sides of the farmhouse. That should help keep water from pouring down on top of the well house and from splashing up onto the siding, where the lower boards have already been significantly damaged. Now I’m ready to put guttering behind me. It’s a pity tho. I just learned to do it and now I may never do it again.

With the help of a borrowed hydraulic lift I also put the second story gutter on the farmhouse back into place. Sometime in past years this long run of guttering had come loose at one end and draped itself over the peak of the porch roof, creating a sad and forlorn sight. It felt good to restore it and it makes the house look much better.

We also resolved a lingering apprehension last week. Out in the farm fields were two mounds of earth that our renter has been farming around. Given the track record of the former owners we were sure they were burial pits for dead cows. And one was. We picked up lots of bones from the surface, then leveled the mound and picked up more bones. Still, it could have been a lot worse. The other mound turned out to be nothing more than a huge pile of manure, which, when spread out created quite the patch of superrich soil. A nice surprise. And we got rid of two mounds that had to be farmed around. I do like a clean-looking field.

The weeds have grown high this year. There’s enough debris still laying around that it’s not entirely safe to run a mower across the farmstead. That, plus the rich cover of manure that lies everywhere has created prime conditions for tall weeds. Can’t do much now except burn them when they die this fall. And then make a better plan for next spring.

There are chickens on the farm now–a rooster and his brood of five hens, part of a 4-H project. They seem quite at home, chasing after grasshoppers and bedding down in the heat of the day under the spirea. The rooster knows he’s in charge. The hens seem okay with that.

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