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UNBUILDING A BUILDING
I tore down an old house recently, rent it part from part with my own hands and a crowbar, piling it in its constituents, bricks with bricks, timber on timber, boards with boards.
Any of us who dare love the iconoclast would be one if we dared sufficiently, and in this work I surely was an image-breaker, for the old house was more than it seemed. To the careless passer, it was a gray, bald, doddering old structure that seemed trying to shrink into the ground, untenanted, unsightly, and forlorn. I know, having analyzed it, that it was an image of New England village life of the two centuries just gone, a life even the images of which are passing, never to return.
As I knocked the old place down, it seemed to grow up, more vivid as it passed from the roadside of the visible to the realm of the remembered. You may think you know a house by living in it, but you do not; you need to unbuild it to get more than a passing acquaintance. And to unbuild a building you need to be strong of limb, heavy of hand, and sure of eye, lest the structure upon which you have fallen fall upon you; nor do business mottoes count, for you begin not at the bottom, but at the top, or near it.
Up in the attic among the cobwebs, stooping beneath the ancient rafters, dodging crumbly bunches of pennyroyal and hyssop, hung there by hands that have been dust these fifty years, you poise and swing a forty-pound crowbar with a strong uplift against the roof-board, near where one of the old-time hand-made, hammer-pointed, wrought-iron nails enters the oak timber. The board lifts an inch and snaps back into place. You hear a handful of the time-and-weatherworn shingles jump and go sputtering down the roof. You hear a stealthy rustling and scurrying all about you. Numerous tenants who pay no rent have heard eviction notice, for the house in which no men live is the abode of many races. Another blow near another nail, and more shingles jump and flee, and this time a clammy hand slaps your face. It is only the wing of a bat, fluttering in dismay from his crevice. Blow after blow you drive upon this board from beneath, till all the nails are loose, its shingle-fetters outside snap, and with a surge it rises, to fall grating down the roof, and land with a crash on the grass by the old door-stone.
The morning sun shines in at the opening, setting golden motes dancing, and caressing rafters that have not felt its touch for a hundred and fifty years, and you feel a little sob of sorrow swell in your heart, for the old house is dead, beyond hope of resurrection. With your crowbar you have knocked it in the head.
Other boards follow more easily, for now you may use a rafter for the fulcrum of your iron lever and pry where the long nails grip the oak too tenaciously, and it is not long before you have the roof unboarded. And here you may have a surprise and be taught a lesson in wariness which you will need if you would survive your unbuilding. The bare rafters, solid oak, six inches square, hewn from the tree, as adze-marks prove, are halved together at the top and pinned with an oak pin. At the lower end, where they stand upon the plates, they are not fastened, but rest simply on a V-shaped cut, and when the last board is off they tumble over like a row of ninepins and you may be bowled out with them if you are not clever enough to foresee this.
As with the roof-boards, so with the floors and walls. Blows with the great bar, or its patient use as a lever, separate part from part, board from joist, and joist from timber, and do the work, and you learn much of the wisdom and foolishness of the old-time builder as you go on. Here he dovetailed and pinned the framework so firmly and cleverly that nothing but human patience and ingenuity could ever get it apart; there he cut under the ends of splendid strong floor joists and dropped them into shallow mortises, so that but an inch or two of the wood really took the strain, and the joist seemed likely to split and drop out, of. its own weight. You see the work of the man who knew his business and used only necessary nails, and those in the right places; and the work of that other, who was five times as good a carpenter because he used five times as many nails!
You learn, too, how the old house grew from a very humble beginning to an eleven-room structure that covered a surprising amount of ground, as one generation after another passed and one owner succeeded another. In this the counsel of the local historian helps you much, for he comes daily and sits by as you work, and daily tells you the story of the old place, usually beginning in the middle and working both ways; for the unbuilding of a building is a great promoter of sociability. Fellow townsmen whom you feel that you hardly know beyond a rather stiff bowing acquaintance hold up their horses and hail you jovially, even getting out to chat a while or lend a hand, each having opinions according to his lights. Strickland, whose prosperity lies in swine, sees but one use for the old timbers. "My!" he says, "what a hog-pen this would make!" Downes is divided in his mind between hen-houses and green-houses, and thinks there will be enough lumber and sashes for both. Lynde suspects that you are going to establish gypsy camps wholesale, while Estey, carpenter and builder, and wise in the working of wood, knows that you are lucky if the remains are good enough for fire-wood.
Little for these material aspects cares the historian, however, as he skips gayly from one past generation to another, waving his phantoms off the stage of memory with a sweep of his cane, and poking others on to make their bow to the man with the crowbar, who thus, piecing the narrative out with his own detective work in wood, rebuilds the story. It was but a little house which began with two rooms on the ground floor and two attic chambers, built for Stoddard who married the daughter of the pioneer landowner of the vicinity, and it nestled up within a stone's throw of the big house, sharing its prosperity and its history. No doubt the Stoddards were present at the funeral in the big house, when stern old Parson Dunbar stood above the deceased, in the presence of the assembled relatives, and said with Puritanical severity, "My friends, there lies the body, but the soul is in hell!"
The dead man had failed to attend the parson's sermons at the old First Congregational Church, near by, a church that with successive pastors has slipped from the Orthodoxy of Parson Dunbar to the most modern type of present-day Unitarianism.
A later dweller in the old house lives in local tradition as publishing on the bulletin board in the church vestibule his intention of marriage with a fair lady of the parish, as was the custom of the day. Another fair lady entering the church on Sunday morning pointed dramatically at the notice, saying to the sexton, "Take that notice down, and don't you dare to put it up again till I give the word."
The sexton, seeming to know who was in charge of things, took it down and it was not again posted for two years. The marriage then took place. A few years later the wife died, and after a brief period of mourning another notice was posted announcing the marriage of the widower and the lady who had forbidden the banns of his first marriage. The second marriage took place without interference, and they lived happily ever after, leaving posterity in doubt whether the incident in the church vestibule was the climax in a battle royal between the two ladies for the hand of the man who dwelt in the old house, or whether the man himself had loved not wisely but too many.
Another dweller in the old house was a locally celebrated singer who for years led the choir and the music in the old church, having one son whom a wealthy Bostonian educated abroad, "becoming," said the historian sagely, "a great tenor singer, but very little of a man." These were days of growing importance for the old house.
Two new rooms were added to the ground-floor back by the simple expedient of tacking long spruce rafters to the roof, making a second roof over the old one, leaving the old roof with boards and shingles still on it. Thus there grew a roof above a roof, -- a shapeless void of a dark attic, -- and below, the two rooms.
The use of the spruce rafters and hemlock boarding marks a period in building little more than a half-century gone. About this time the house acquired a joint owner, for a local lawyer of considerable importance joined his fortunes and his house to it, bringing both with him. This section, two more rooms and an attic, was moved in from another part of the town and attached very gingerly, by one corner, to one corner. It was as if the lawyer had had doubts as to how the two houses might like each other, and had arranged things so that the bond might be broken with as small a fracture as possible. This "new" part may well have been a hundred years old at the time, for, whereas the original house was boarded with oak on oak, this was boarded with splendid clear pine on oak, marking the transition from the pioneer days when all the timber for a house was obtained from the neighboring wood, through the time when the splendid pumpkin pines of the Maine forests were the commonest and cheapest sources of lumber, to our own, when even poor spruce and shaky hemlock are scarce and costly. In the same way you note in these three stages of building three types of nails. First is the crude nail hammered out by the local blacksmith, varying in size and shape, but always with a head formed by splitting the nail at the top and tending the parts to the right and left. These parts are sometimes quite long, and clinch back into the board like the top of a capital T. Then came a better nail of wrought iron, clumsy but effective; and, later still, the cut nail in sole use a generation ago. That modern abomination, the wire nail, appears only in repairs.
Thus the old house rose from four rooms to eight, with several attics, and the singer and lawyers pass off the scene, to be followed by the Baptist deacon who later seceded and became a Millerite, holding meetings of great fervor in the front room, where one wall used to be covered with figures which proved beyond a doubt that the end of the world was at hand, and where later he and his fellow believers appeared in their ascension robes. He too added a wing to the old house, three rooms and another attic, and when I had laid bare the timbers of this the historian rose, holding both hands and his cane towards heaven, and orated fluently.
"There!" he said, "that's Wheeler! I knew it was, for the old deeds couldn't be read in any other way. They told me it was built on by the Millerite, but I knew better. This was moved up from the Wheeler farm, and it was a hundred years old and more when it came up, sixty years ago. I knew it. Look at those old cap-posts!" I dodged the cane as it waved, and took another look, for it was worth while. There were the corner posts, only seven feet high, but ten inches square at the bottom, solid oak, swelling to fourteen inches at the top, with double tenants on which sat the great square oak-plates, dovetailed and pinned together, and pinned again to the cap. A hundred and fifty years old and more was this addition, which the Millerite had moved up from the Wheeler farm and built on for his boot-shop; yet these great oak cap-posts marked a period far more remote. They were second-hand when they went into the Wheeler building, for there were in them the marks of mortising that had no reference to the present structure. Some building, old a century and a half ago, had been torn down and its timbers used for the part that "had been Wheeler."
Thus the old house grew again as it fell, and the old-time owners and inhabitants stepped forth into life once more. Yet I found traces of other tenants that paid neither rent nor taxes, yet occupied apartments that to them were commodious and comfortable. In the attic were the bats, but not they alone. Snuggled up against the chimney in the southern angle, right under the ridge-pole, was a whole colony of squash bugs which had wintered safely there and were only waiting for the farmer's squash vines to become properly succulent. A bluebottle fly slipped out of a crevice and buzzed in the sun by the attic window. Under every ridge-board and corner-board, almost under every shingle, were the cocoons and chrysalids of insects, thousands of silent lives waiting but the touch of the summer sun to make them vocal.
On the ground floor, within walls, were the apartments of the rats, their empty larders choked with corn-cobs showing where once had been feasting, their bed chambers curiously upholstered with rags laboriously dragged in to senseless confusion. The field mice had the floor above. Here and there on the plates, between joists, and over every window and door, were their nests, carefully made of wool, chewed from old garments and made fine, soft, and cosy. Their larders were full of cherry-stones, literally bushels on bushels of them, each with a little round hole gnawed in it and the kernel extracted. As the toil of the human inhabitants year after year had left its mark on the floors of the house, worn thin everywhere, in places worn through with the passing and repassing of busy feet, so had the generations of field mice left behind them mute witnesses of patient, enormous labor. From the two cherry trees in the neighboring yard how many miles had these shy little people traveled, unseen of men, with one cherry at a time, to lay in this enormous supply!
Within the chimneys were the wooden nests of chimney swifts, glued firmly to the bricks; under the cornice was the paper home of a community of yellow hornets; and under the floor where was no cellar, right next the base of the warm chimney, were apartments that had been occupied by generations of skunks. Each space between floor joists and timber was a room. In one was a huge clean nest of dried grass, much like that which red squirrels build of cedar bark. Another space had been the larder, for it was full of dry bones and feathers; others were for other uses, all showing plainly the careful housekeeping of the family in the basement.
I looked long and carefully, as the work of destruction went on, for the pot of gold beneath the floor, or the secret hoard which fancy assigns to all old houses; but not even a stray penny turned up. Yet I got several souvenirs. One of these is a nail in my foot whereby I shall remember my iconoclasm for some time. Another is a curiously wrought wooden scoop, a sort of butter-worker, the historian tells me, carved, seemingly, with a jackknife from a pine plank. A third is a quaint, lumbering, heavy, hand-wrought fire shovel which appeared somewhat curiously. Reentering a room which I had cleared of everything movable, I found it standing against the door-jamb. Fire-shovels have no legs, so I suppose it was brought in. However, none of the neighbors has confessed, and I am content to think it belonged in the old house and was brought back, perhaps by the Baptist deacon who "backslided" and became a Millerite. It has been rusted by water and burned by fire, and I don't believe even Sherlock Holmes could make a wiser deduction.
As I write, a section of one of the old "Wheeler" cap-posts is crumbling to ashes in my fireplace. It was of solid oak, of a texture as firm and grainless almost as soapstone. No water had touched this wood, I know, for a hundred and fifty years, perhaps for almost a hundred added to that. For hours it retained its shape, glowing like a huge block of anthracite, and sending forth a heat as great but infinitely more kindly and comforting. Toward the last the flames which came from it lost their yellow opaqueness and slipped fluttering upward in a transparent opalescence which I never before saw in fire. It was as if the soul of the old house, made out of all that was beautiful and kindly in the hopes and longings of those who built it and lived in it, stood revealed a monument in its shining beauty before it passed on.