Sunday, January 29, 2012

This Old House

(Updated in February 2017)
My family: my wife and I with our four
kids, daughter-in-law, two grandkids, and
my mom, sitting right there in the middle.
Happy times.
I've been in a bit of a thoughtful mood of late.
Since I wrote this original posting in January 2012, many occurrences have taken place in my life, some simply wonderful, and some very sad: I've lost close family members, most notably the sudden and unexpected death in 2014 of my brother, Tom, who I loved dearly, and, more recently, my dear mother, who I was with when she took her last breath on January 18, 2017. That being said, I suppose one can't help but be a bit melancholy, wouldn't you say?
On the bright side, in that same duration of time my wife and I became in-laws to a wonderful young lady and are ecstatic to be grandparents  - even at our young age - to two beautiful grandchildren (with one more on the way) - this makes us very happy!
Not too long ago I wrote of my thoughts upon entering historic homes such as the Daggett Saltbox House (built around 1750 - click HERE), for I don't look at old homes as just old houses; I "see" and "feel" the ghosts of the past in them, not unlike my own home's past.
No, not literal ghosts - - - :
"Just imagine...Those who once lived in this (18th century) house were living human beings and not just characters in a book. They had feelings the same as we do: they felt happiness, sadness, anger, pain, concern, and contentment. They celebrated the coming of spring and of harvest time. They enjoyed church picnics and weddings, and certainly mourned when loved ones, whether friends or family, died. They spoke of their crops, the weather, told stories, and studied the Bible. Just imagine the discussions and probably even debates they had of the news of the day - how interesting it would be to hear conversations and opinions about the Bloody Massacre of Boston, the Revolutionary War, their thoughts on the Declaration of Independence, the forming of the new nation with its own Constitution, and hearing of George Washington becoming our first president as it was happening!
Just imagine...I mean, if the walls of this house had ears, they most certainly would have heard at least some talk about these great events.

And if it could speak, imagine the tales it could tell.
I can only imagine…"
This week's post reflects this mindset. It's not a downer...rather, it's more reflective. And, yes, there is history in it as well.

There's a room in my father's house
Full of old heirlooms
Grandma's Bible, Grandpa's trunk
To a total stranger no more than junk
The closest ties I ever knew...
The Sixberry House at Historic Charlton Park in Hastings, Michigan from 1858. The front parlor...
Entering an old or historic home is so much more than the "Can you imagine what it was like to live back then?" comments one often hears, usually from a mother or a teacher making a feeble attempt to understand and explain the past to the younger set.
I'll try to convey what I mean by this...

This house that I have lived in for over 25 years is filled with, well, over 25 years worth of memories. It's where three of our four children were born, where we had birthday parties, graduation parties, baptismal parties, Christmas and Easter celebrations, a Thanksgiving dinner with my family that had everyone wearing cardboard Pilgrim hats, and gatherings of friends for dinner and visits. The wonderful fragrance of baked goods - over two decades worth of my wife's wonderful cooking and baking - are still in the air (and she's still cooking, doncha know!). This is where Simply Dickens rehearses period and old world music every Wednesday evening, and has for 15 years. We've had years of period dress gatherings with our Civil War unit here. In the early 1990's we had a 1950's themed party, complete with an authentic diner booth. And we even had an actual Boar's Head party!!
Yes, this is a real diner booth in our kitchen - we bought it over 20 years ago from a warehouse of old restaurant equipment. And the kids really do like to hang out here.
Television times with the kids: Little Bear, Blues Clues, Little Bill, All That, Hannah Montana, iCarly, Boy Meets World...and for the adults: Friends, Red Wing Hockey, Gilmour Girls, Antique Roadshow, NCIS, Turn-Washington's Spies, Big Bang Theory...and we can't forget about the Our Gang and Three Stooges comedy shorts that we love.
Movie nights where we all settle down on cold Saturday evenings in the fall, winter, and spring to watch a movie, whether it is The Wizard of Oz, Angels With Dirty Faces, American Graffiti, The Lion King, John Adams, Marley and Me, Pirates of the Caribbean, Meet Me In St. Louis, Gods and Generals, Back to the Future, Lords of the Rings, and countless others.
And music: The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Hank Williams, Glenn Miller, Green Day, Buddy Holly, Emmylou Harris, Pink Floyd, Civil War & Colonial era, Bing Crosby, Moody Blues, early 20th century jazz & ragtime, and everybody in between. Lots of music was and is played here constantly - I mean all the time!
My annual "A Christmas Carol" parties where friends gather in December to watch a different movie version of Dickens' novel each year.
Oh! Did I mention Christmas music? Oh yeah...
The sounds of laughter and good times echo through these halls and walls, and I can still hear the voices of special people who are no longer with us reverberate within.
In my over 50 years on this earth, I've spent more time in this particular house than in any other structure that I have lived in. As much as I dream (and sometimes wish) I could live in an old historic house, it would be very hard for me to leave here because of my own personal historical ties to this 1944 bungalow.
The women of Simply Dickens during a dress-rehearsal and photo shoot. Yes, lots of laughs occur in this house.

And we haven't even touched upon those who lived here the 50 years before we did and what it was like through those decades of the '40's through the '80's.

When stepping into any historic home in Greenfield Village or Crossroads Village or any other place that may house old structures, there is a that I get; the feeling is a different sort of awareness of the everyday activities and living that took place in these structures years before they became historical museums.
Before it was a museum relocated inside Greenfield Village, the home of George Adams was alive with visitors of family and friends
I think of the laughter and discussions that were had in the parlors or at the dining room table: the men arguing about the politics of the day or of their planting or harvesting chores. I think of what the women of the home spoke of while in the kitchen (yes, they were mostly in the kitchen in the old days. My wife still is!). If I really concentrate, I may be able hear some of the clanging and clatter of the tools of the trade, whether used for baking or fixing.
Yes, imagination...but sometimes it's more than that, like when I feel the sorrow and sadness of the not so happy times. Yes, certain houses or antique objects seemingly speak to me in that very real sense.
This is what researching - engulfing - social history books can do to you, you know. When one gains knowledge beyond the school text books that are normally filled with war and politics of a certain time and place, you can gain an ethereal feeling that can overwhelm and bring alive those of the past. The social history books can make you much more aware when visiting something historical than the average visitor or, ahem, history buff. They put the meat on the bones, the flesh on the meat, and puts the ghosts of the past in their proper perspective.
Living history without the living...
Our reenacting/living history civilian meetings take place in our parlor 2013
In addition to those wonderful social history books that I have, I also search out diaries and journals, which, to me, when reading the actual letters of someone describing home life of another time, it very much brings that home alive for me.
For instance, Noah Webster, in the early part of the 19th century, spent much of his time away from his family. He greatly encouraged his wife and children to write him letters and to include instances of their daily activities. Mr. Webster knew of the importance of describing everyday life in these letters. Noah especially treasured hearing of the minute details of domestic life that he missed while on far-away business travels.
His wife, Rebecca, willingly obliged and wrote about their lives as requested to her husband. On July 30, 1824 she wrote: "I wish you could take a peep at us in the present moment," and proceeded to describe, for example, her granddaughter, Mary "sitting on the carpet by my side studying her sabbath lessons for the next week...Harriet is drilling at her music. She plays 6 tunes very comfortably...and (grandson) William driving around with his stick." Rebecca, described herself as "enfeebled" but able to "engage in quilting bed quilts with only two or three to finish." Lucy Griffin, the free black servant had taken ill as family members "sit with her" until she can walk downstairs.
Rebecca also sent a letter to married daughter Eliza: "Papa longs to see you all. I heard someone conversing in the drawing room the other day and found him standing before your portraits. We often talk together of our singular happiness in our sons-in-law and daughters and such a promising bunch of grandchildren."
The paintings of daughter Eliza and her husband that Mr. Webster was found speaking to.
Because I've read numerous letters Noah and Rebecca Webster have written during the time they lived in their Hartford, Connecticut home, the very same that is now inside and preserved in Greenfield Village, I can almost - almost - see and hear the family move about and converse when I walk through. Just think about it-----I have been in the very same structure and actual rooms the letters were written in.
Talk about spirits within walls!
But it doesn't have to be the home of someone famous, you see. Because I am in a constant state of historical reading, nearly every historic home tends to come to life when I step inside, or even when I see photographs.
I read at least a snippet from one or more of these books virtually on a daily basis, and the words just swirl around my brain throughout the day. And it's these continuous daily bits of information that, after a while of building and swirling in my head, begin to form a cohesive picture of the past.
Of course, I incorporate this 'wisdom' into my living history presentations while at reenactments.
But it's more than that, which is what I was getting at earlier; using what I've learned (and continue to learn) from my social history books I have found myself looking at historical items, whether it's houses, pictures, antiques, objects in a museum, or even background items in historical movies, in a much different way.
I don't just look at them with only my eyes anymore...I now see them with the knowledge of what life was like back then.
More than just imagining what life was like back then.
And sometimes even getting a feel for what it was actually an extent.
Our parlor: filled with antiques from the late colonial period through the 1890's. 
Many a-gathering has taken place in this room...upon this old furniture. Yes, we use our history.
From the outside, our 1944 bungalow looks like nearly every other house on my suburban block: all cookie-cutter homes built for the boys returning from fighting in WWII. But, if you've taken a gander at some of the photographs I have posted in previous entries (or maybe even on my Facebook page) of the inside of our house you know that we have decorated one of our rooms - an addition we had built in 1999 -  in a mid-19th century manner. Most everything in this parlor area are original antiques - antiques that we actually use. We sit upon a couch built in the 1850's, a sette' from the 1890's, and the rocker from the 1850's, we set our (clean) dishes and glasses on our circa 1830's corner cabinet, and my wife spins on her 200+ year old great wheel. Knickknacks sit upon the 1860's/70's what-not-shelf, pictures on the wall are framed in 19th century frames of varying ages, and I write upon my 1860 desk while sitting in my 1887 chair. In my bedroom, my clothes are tucked in the drawers of my 1850's dresser.
A very recent visit from some friends.
We use our antiques.
A friend of mine who happens to work at Greenfield Village mentioned recently that when he enters this room he feels like he's in one of the Village's historic homes, only here he can touch or even sit upon the furniture whereas at the Village it's a hands-off policy.
Please understand, I am not bragging about all of my antiques, and I hope it doesn't come off that way. But because I use to ache - literally ache - whenever I would return home to my ultra-modern house after visiting a historic village or museum, I decided to take action on what many only talk about, which is how I got the parlor you see in the photos. And it's literally taken me years - my entire life, in fact - to 'build' this place of contentment. We're not wealthy by any means - the antiques we own were bought over the course of 30 years at rock-bottom prices, usually at tax-refund time.
We often light our candles and oil lamps in the evening just to mind-travel to another time. Patty will spin on her wheel, I'll write with pen and ink or read from a Harper's Weekly for fun or even read a modern magazine. I might also read one of my history books - sometimes we'll even just sit and talk. It doesn't always have to be an 'event' in period clothing.
Because my home was built in the mid-20th century with all of the modern conveniences, and because it's been updated numerous times since, (and because we do live in the 21st century whether we want to or not) it would be nearly impossible to "live like they did back then." But that doesn't matter to me, because this room brings me solace. Some people find their get-a-way in books, in movies, gambling, or even in vacations. Well, this is my get-a-way right in my own home. It's my "happy place."
It speaks to me.
A journey to the past right in my own home...
My house may be a pseudo-Victorian (rather than an actual Victorian) home in the middle of modern suburbia, but it's MY home. And it is filled with memories that may last longer than this house will stand. Memories such as political discussions, my mother telling stories of her youth during dinnertime, backyard bonfire fun with friends, the smell of turkey roasting in the oven, laughter, decorating our Christmas Tree with our kids and grandkids, discipline and anger when necessary, the scent of freshly picked apples in a bushel in the kitchen, my brother and I making a patio, the sound of the clicking of the computer keyboard...
I'm sure sometime in the distant future, other owners may also hear the ghosts of the past...
There are places I remember
All my life, though some have changed
Some forever, not for better
Some have gone and some remain
All these places have their moments
With (family) and friends I still can recall
Some are dead and some are living
In my life, I've loved them all
Our own homes are historic in their own way...let's keep making the memories...

The following links are what I consider to be some of the best books on every day life of late 18th and 19th centuries. They have helped me to look at houses, antiques, and people from the past quite differently than I did before.
There are more books, of course, than what's listed here, but I tend to open these more often than any others...

Our Own Snug Fireside
At Home
American Thought & Culture 1860-1880 
The Cormany Diaries
Affectionately Yours
Village Life in America: 1852-1872
Notes on the Life of Noah Webster Vol. 2



Pamela@ Our Pioneer Homestead said...

I recommend you watch the episode of little house on the prairie, when pa's crop and house is wrecked by a storm, and they pack up and get ready to leave it all behind. This show is very helpful and I found it very reassuring. There are a few episodes- like when pa's crop gets eaten by a swarm of locusts (or grasshoppers- I forget..) and since you have so much respect for history, these are based on a true story. :)

Civil Folks said...

Enjoyed the post Ken. We are in a downsizing process right now and realize that 'stuff' is just that, stuff, but it is our stuff and its history speaks to us if to no one else.

The problem is deciding what to keep, what to pass on and what to sell.

When I consider each thing in our home a blessing, it makes it easier to pass along the blessing.


An Historical Lady said...

Dear Ken,
I loved your post. You and your family are in my thoughts and prayers. Adam lost his job in the bad economy over 3 years ago and has been unable to find one in his field. We have had continual stress, disappointment, misery, and depression.
He is currently assistant teaching special needs kids full time---the only job he could find--at the insulting and impossible pay of about $250. a week, and no insurance for me. (Some people at Mc. Donalds probably make more!) This is a sick travesty, but that may be a rant in one of MY future posts!
The economy in New England is very bad. We always lived very simply with no 'toys', vacations, newer cars, big homes, eating out, etc. etc., but now we can't even survive...We have tried everything, from the sublime to the ridiculous and have pretty much lost hope, sadly.
I just want you to know that my heart and hopes go out to your family, and I am sending all good thoughts and wishes your way...
Kindest regards,

Historical Ken said...

This is from my friend who cannot get into the comments section:
Jean Cook

Just read your blog. I hope you don't mind me speaking from the voice of experience on this sort of thing, I lived in our house on Delton for 18 years, so many memory's...It was the house that Scott lived in from five months old...We had some memorable times, like the birthday party where I had about 30 people squeezed in for Scotts fifth Birthday..Where we literally were throwing things over the table, because there was no room in the kitchen to pass by the table. Or the times I had to be locked in the attic while I was working on my miniatures, in about four feet of cubic space, because somebody had to use the bathroom. Giving my little girl I took care of, a bath and seeing steam rising from her body because we had no heat coming into the bathroom. ...God, how we were crammed into that house. Still we tried our best to renovate it. And it was coming along. You know the rest of what happened, I guess my point is, that somehow God knew what would be the best for us. He always does. Don't think I dont miss that litttle house, I miss my little porch the most I think, and my garden. But for 18 years I prayed for a craft room . I had a dream the other night that I got to go back inside, All of my repairs had gone moldy and the roof had leaked and ruined most everything. At the time we lost Delton house, there is no way I could have foreseen, a craft room, two baths, my Mom and brother just minutes away, God put it all in place, Its all in his hands, we just have to breath, and try no to panic too much. I pray for your entire family every day, I know that whatever happens it will be ok in the end. I liked your blog, I used to write notes behind the things we repaired, and leave quarters to date things. I cant imagine the surprise somebody will get when they find the cookie tin buried behind the house with the Guinea pig in it..! Oh one last thing, for 18 years my attic floor was an overturned giant painting of Jimi Hendrix....You just never know what secrets are in your houses history! Love ya all, Mrs Cook

Historical Ken said...

I appreciate everyone's comments. Sometimes it seems people you can count on the most live so far away!
At this time we are *okay* - not great, but we're above water. It's pretty deep (and getting a little deeper) but we're still breathing.
Prayer does help and I will also pray for all of you who seem to be going through a similar circumstance.
2011 was the first year in many that we did not purchase an antique beyond an oil lamp. And I expect 2012 will see even less of a purchase, if there is a purchase at all.
But thank you for the kind words. I thank God for each of you.

Jimio said...

I know what it's like to leave a home after many years. Our large red brick home that my parents owned had to be sold because of my Moms carehome expenses. They lived there 40 years from may 1962 to june 2002. Most of my childhood was there and being on a lake, I will never forget the fond memories of swimming, fishing, turtle hunting and ice skating I still drive by it once in a while to see it.

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