Use it up, wear it out

Growing up and living in my ancestors’ house has given me bins of memorabilia, a devastated checkbook, and changing perspectives and perceptions of their characters. The “how?” of what they did has often given way to the “why?,” not to mention the “what were they thinking?!”

Like most good early New England families, they routinely made do with what they had or made whatever they needed. That “make it do” mentality is clear throughout this house, and has been passed on through the generations.

Newspapers, for instance, were found providing insulation over the kitchen fireplace (hence the “what were they thinking?!” alarm), as well as helping to level part of the kitchen floor. Clippings of varying but indeterminate dates found themselves glued permanently into the old business ledger from the mid-1800s.

Generations later my great-grandmother Nellie rejected the old outhouses and put in the first indoor bathroom in our neighborhood. When my grandmother Winifred later replaced the original bathtub with a new, more comfortable clawfoot tub, my grandfather Rex in a very dry year hauled the old tub out to the pasture and placed it at the cows’ spring for their drinking ease.

I’ve often used an old rake to support plants in my vegetable garden...

This tradition of repurposing is apparently very strong in these last three parental generations, partly because of a “depression-era mentality.” I’ve often used an old rake to support plants in my vegetable garden, used pliable cattail stalks to tie up bundles of decorative cattails, or wrapped grape vines into wreaths, just as Grandmother Winifred did. Grandfather Rex used an old tube tire to hold water to catch sparks from the old grinding wheel. Old cultivators, side delivery rakes, and wagon wheels became planters or supports for trees growing up through them.

While we worked on This Old House, I discovered my husband straightening rusty old nails and saving old screws, just as his grandfather had taught him, and just as my father and grandfather had done. (I have yet to break him of that habit, no matter how many new nails and screws I buy!)

I think my father, Ambrose, was the most creative relative in his recycling efforts. He painted old tires and used them as planters (later repurposed as fill for the trash truck). Dad bolted an old Wisconsin engine to a trailer and used that instead of the pulley attached to the power takeoff on the tractor to start the wood saw. He could repair the water pump in the old milk room with Antiphlogistine and rags. When we had to replace our mailbox, we discovered that Dad had fashioned the post and brace out of pieces of an auto muffler.

My favorite, though, is Dad’s solution to the need for a new woodshed. He found what he wanted and, with a great deal of pride, placed it to one side of the garage: an old outhouse.

Jan Doerr

About Jan Doerr

Jan Doerr received a B.A. degree in Sociology/Secondary Education from the University of New Hampshire, and spent a long career in the legal profession while researching her family history. She has recently written and published articles for’s Cognoscenti blog: “Labor of Love: Preserving a 226-Year-Old Family Home and Preparing to Let It Go” and “The Value of Family Heirlooms in a Digital Age.” Jan currently lives with her attorney husband in Augusta, Maine, where she serves two Siamese cats and spends all her retirement money propping up a really old house.View all posts by Jan Doerr