‘The more things change…’

Charles and Harriett Saunders, ca. 1872-97.

Shortly after the Covid-19 stay-at-home order was implemented in Maine, Son remarked that living in My Old House, now known as Our Old House, is like living in two centuries at once, the eighteenth, nineteenth, or twentieth centuries – as well as the twenty-first.

In the eighteenth century, when this house was built, my ancestors’ daily lives as farmers were “at home.” Now, as the prodigal farmers’ daughter living in their house during the Covid-19 pandemic, I’ve planted a small garden and signed on with local farmers for the vegetables, dairy, and meat supplies I either decline to produce on my own or lack the wherewithal to grow. (I gave up mucking out the barn decades ago, and no one wants me near a garden plow. I confess that I do occasionally have an attack of “tractor envy” as I drive by the neighborhood tractor dealer.) Son has hand-dug a garden bed for growing corn, hoping that we can get it fenced in before the turkeys and woodchuck find it. He was also grateful that my great-grandfather’s spade and shovel are long gone; Grampa’s edger, however, broke at the second row.

Finally.

Asa Williams account, S. & W. Howard Store. Courtesy Linda Novak, Director/Curator, Old Fort Western

Fort Western was the supermarket and bank of the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth, with the Fort’s trading post and then the S. & W. Howard Store. Trading was the business of the time because most people in the Fort Western settlement were more self-sufficient than we are today. While Our Old House builder, Asa Williams, borrowed money from the trading post owner to buy this property, he and the rest of the family did very little trading or banking there, according to the Howard Account Books.

I still feel that the nineteenth century is alive and well here as I try to cool Our Old House on this hottest day yet this year. The house was built with horsehair lathe and plaster walls, occasionally lined with newspaper for insulation (even over the fireplaces!), none of which were especially effective in keeping out heat or cold. In the late 1800s, Charles and Harriett Saunders, my cousins and House owners at the time, tried to keep the upstairs cooler by closing the window shutters. Personal note here: Those darned shutters do nothing but make the room dark! Enter modern window air conditioners (forced into eighteenth-century windows with herculean effort) and comfortable nights of lovely sleep. The shutters now are purely decorative, as they should be (but still a pain to paint).

[It] wasn’t until the very early 1940s that a bathroom was added to Our Old House.

In times of illness, epidemic or not, a bathroom is usually considered critical. Yet it wasn’t until the very early 1940s that a bathroom was added to Our Old House. Another cousin who lived here with her grandmother in 1938 remembers having to walk through the house and forge buildings to the outhouses. (Note the plural; how pretentious!) I am delighted that by the time I came along a basic bathroom occupied a place of prominence just off the kitchen, instead of “out back.”

Face masks aren’t new, either. While great-great-great-great-grandfather undoubtedly used a piece of cloth as a dust mask, bandana style, while he made his own bricks, we have surgical-style masks in a variety of fabrics and colors. Nonetheless, Husband still looks like a bank robber with his black hoodie, black t-shirt, and black sunglasses over a light blue surgical mask. I’m hoping I won’t need the name of a good bail commissioner!

Sanitizing everything now is my new normal. At least I have modern disinfectants to use instead of the sulfur or mercury of previous centuries. However, lime was still in use during my childhood at Our Old House as well as at the neighbors’ farms as whitewash, cattle feed, and insect repellent. I lived, anyway.

When illness, epidemics or otherwise, have appeared (such as plague, yellow fever, scarlet fever, cholera, typhoid, Spanish Flu, diphtheria, polio, measles, or coronavirus), this Old House has stood and still stands witness to the continuation of daily life even as the current contagion spreads through the community. We stay at home, just as my ancestors did in their usual daily lives. We continue to maintain the property and try to become as self-sufficient as possible, just as they did. We now can more fully appreciate the bounty that we have. We enjoy our fields and woods with its wildlife (woodchuck notwithstanding – he/she is under the garage), cherry and apple trees as well as the black walnut trees, the lawns that always need mowing, flower beds that need continual weeding, and a house that will always be very old.

We stay at home, just as my ancestors did in their usual daily lives. We continue to maintain the property and try to become as self-sufficient as possible, just as they did.

Electrical power, the internet, social media, television – all things totally foreign to my forebears – make our daily chores easier if not effortless, and our isolation less “isolating” than it would have been without those amenities. My paternal grandmother, who started life with horse-drawn wagons and handwritten stationery letters and who lived through epidemics and wars, would marvel at Zoom. She was always happy to have a TV so she could watch the Red Sox games, but she had to listen on the radio (the wireless!) when her team won the 1918 World Series!

The current pandemic has helped me to more fully understand and appreciate how my ancestors, including my parents, lived in this house, and how their efforts to maintain their property have given me what I have today: home, a place to be comfortable, a place to be safe from whatever is out there that wants to kill me.

It proves one thing to me: the more things change, the more they stay the same.

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 WBUR.org’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.

6 thoughts on “‘The more things change…’

  1. Thank you, Jan, this reminds me of our old house in Wiscasset Maine, which also had a (no-longer-used) old privy in the barn, which could be reached under cover through a succession of outbuildings and sheds.

  2. Jan: I live now a very modern life, however had one foot in my Grandparents day when I was younger into my 20s. They had no electric power or modern heating, cooling, along with no indoor facilities until they sold their farm and built a very modest home with these modern facilities. My own daughter once asked this Great Grandfather what he considered the best invention in his time. She was so surprised when he said “The Flush Toilet.” He was born in 1887, one has to think about how he came to that decision:) I felt very proud of his and my Grandmother’s accomplishments then and still do now after they are long gone. I loved going to their farm, where my Mother grew up of course, so fully understood what he had replied to our daughter.

  3. Jan, I LOVE the picture of your Big House-Little House-Back House-Barn! We had one in Vermont, but mostly your memories bring back my mother’s family house in Western NY, built c. 1818. The well, dug in the 1930s, blackened the silver, so we had to fetch pure water from the big house – still occupied by relatives, a NY State 200 year family farm. No one is now around to ask about the bath, but it was there by the time I was.

  4. Jan, I can relate with you and your old house. I bought an 1840’s house that also still has horsehair plaster and some ceilings. The cold winter air welcomes it’s way in. The upstairs is as hot as can be in the summer and cold in the winter. You have to really like old house to put up with this and the creaky floors. I have done some upgrades, windows. roof etc, but not enough to be comfy and cozy like the newer houses. But I like old houses because they have character unlike the boxy houses of now. I have done a little house history and found it interesting. Thank you for your stories, I enjoy them.

  5. Jan, the virus encourages us to step back from the modern world and look back into our psychological inheritance. Some of us remember many past houses, and some live in houses they have never left. Your blog entry about the family house and its environment makes me want to hear more. Houses deteriorate rapidly when no one lives in them. Their occupants care for them and keep them alive through little things like patching the holes where mice enter to big things like repairing the roof or foundation. Those things are as personal to the house as they are to the people. Old houses do not take kindly to the forced intrusion of water pipes, electrical wiring, and the appliances that those things bring. Houses never forgive and we find, sometimes painfully, that they never fully adapt. I would like to know your house better.

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