The Fixer Upper

Fri, 09/20/2019 - 6:15pm

About this blog:

  • HOME SWEET HOME was embroidered on a framed sampler the living room at my grandpa and grandma’s farmhouse up on the mountain where we lived long ago and far from here.

    Those were the first words of wisdom I learned to read, write and understand. Looking back today, I realize how this inspiring motto guided me throughout my life’s work of building my own home . . . sweet and truly mine. That plus my collection of bumper sticker wisdom.

    I grew up, left home and explored various careers until I became qualified to teach Industrial Arts at my hometown high school. My plan to have my own home was in motion. I bought a modest little fixer upper at the edge of town. My intention was to fix it up, add an addition, live there awhile to make sure everything worked, sell it and finally start building my own home. I figured I could get most everything done during summer vacation. I was young and optimistic.

    I learned a great deal from that first building project. So much that I’ll have to tell you more.



Some years ago my wife and I were out searching for a new building lot when we fell into The Trap. We had recently built and sold a home, vacationed, and celebrated. Now it was time to go back to work.

We were out in the country, innocently driving along, when we rounded a corner and there it was…a quaint old homestead appeared as if right out of a movie. A beautiful barn with weathered boards, a Saltbox style house, an old garden, apple and plum trees, grapevines, a pond, an old brick spring house and a lawn bordered by maples, oaks and catalpa trees. The place was vacant. It was for sale. We fell in love with it. We bought it. The “Fix Up The Old House” Trap was sprung.

We should have known better. We had done this twice before with unsatisfying, unprofitable results but…the third time is a charm, right? The old place had even more features encouraging us to ignore common sense. It covered 30 acres with every type of terrain. There were fields, woods, a stream, and a ridge with a view in every direction. The house and barn were furnished with intriguing junk. There was a fireplace in the living room made with at least 5000 bricks.

It took over a month to clean the house enough to move in and we remained rash free during that time, which was good. Then I inspected, measured, and estimated how much money and time it would take to save the house.

We learned the house, started in about 1820, was the result of many sessions of spontaneous construction over the decades. The foundation was part crawl space with huge stones under hewn oak logs with a partial concrete basement fitted under about a third of the house back in the 1950s. The walls were most impressive. From the outside in there were clapboards (circa 1955), a layer of inch-thick sawn boards, 3×7-inch wall studs from 1820, another layer of sawn boards, two layers of wallboard and at least five layers of wall paper. The roof was of similar super rugged construction, including the wallpaper. That was the good news.

The 5000-brick fireplace had settled a few inches over the centuries and taken that end of the house down with it, twisting and warping every wall, floor, and ceiling in the house a couple of inches in a variety of directions. The only level place in the house was the puddle of water in the basement. No wall, floor, or ceiling was square. Insulation had not been invented. The windows were single-paned and so old that some of the glass looked like it was made of ice.

You could trace the invention of electricity from the bare wires on porcelain knobs through cloth-insulated wires right up to the 60-amp service with screw-in fuses gracing the place when we bought it. All versions were there except modern ones.

Heating (other than the fireplace) was done with gas heaters supplied by two gas wells on the property. But the gas wells had been depleted a few years before and that was the main reason the place was for sale. The plumbing was…I don’t even want to talk about that.

As you can imagine, it took a lot of work to get this place renovated and rebuilt, which we decided to do rather than give it to the fire department for a practice burn. I did many jobs there that I will never forget, even with therapy. But for this story I’ll tell you some of the happier experiences we had renovating the old walls.