Aerial View

Aerial View

This past week the roofing project started.

roofing underway

This took a little longer to get to than anticipated, largely owing to product (wrong color shingles came in) and weather issues. Thus far things seem to have gone off without a hitch. As the old shingles have come off, and the new ones gone on, there have been no concerns expressed about the solidity of the roof underneath. I’ve spent my fair share of time in the attic area, and I do look at the roof when I’m up there - seems reasonable to take that opportunity when it presents - and I’ve never found evidence of issues.

And the new shingles look good, so there’s an aesthetic improvement as well as a practical one. And, of course, now we don’t have to worry about the roof for the next 20-30 years or so.

(I’ll add a picture or two of it post-shingles here in the near future. I planned to take them this morning, but the fact that it is snowing in the middle of April has temporarily foiled that plan)

I feel like I should want to say more about it than that - such a costly event feels like it should be something about which considerable commentary could be made. But the reality is that getting a new roof done is like getting socks for Christmas.

However, having the roof done also provided the opportunity to have the old TV antenna taken down.

Aerial View...

I knew the roofing crew wouldn't want to work around it if they didn’t have to, and it’s been on my list to remove for quite some time. Several years ago, when I had to remove the satellite antenna for Wildblue I had planned also to go up and take down the TV aerial. This was a reasonable confluence of events because the height of the house is such that it takes a special extra-long extension ladder - which I had to borrow - to get up there. So, you know, two birds with one stone. However, I’ve never really been a "ladder" guy, and the 10 minutes on an extra-long one, with all the bounciness that entails, while removing the satellite antenna turned out to be more than enough for me. So it waited.

For those old enough to remember working with these old antennas, this was one of those deals with the motor on it to change orientation. I grew up with these out in the country, and it meant that watching your desired shows required you to have some knowledge of the relative geographic locations of the stations you wanted to watch. For example, if you wanted to watch Mr. Mustache you needed to turn the dial for the antenna to north. If you wanted to watch Son of Svengooli, tho, it needed to be oriented to east by northeast.

And, to be clear, saying "turn the dial" really makes it sound all too simple. Because you were activating a electric motor that ratcheted the antenna on an axis set with detents (one assumes to keep it from moving in the wind). This means that you turned the dial and waited, listening to it move:

Me: turns the dial to north

Antenna: rrrr-click-rrrr-click-rrrr-click-rrrr-click

Me: looks at tv, picture still not quite clear. Turns the dial a little more.

Antenna: rrrr-click-rrrr-click

And heaven forbid you turn it too far. Then you have to go all the way back around to the right spot.

That’s right - you really needed to plan ahead and get your antenna oriented before your show started, or you might be plagued with static for the first few minutes of the show. Kids today really don’t understand the struggle of the late 70’s rural childhood...

That antenna has been mounted to the roof literally my entire life, or at least the entire portion of it for which I’ve been aware. It could realistically have been there longer still. But it never looked right. This is not something I would have thought about as a child - it was simply always the way it was, from that perspective. But as an adult, coming back to the house, it looked really out of place - a piece of late 20th century sitting glaringly on top of my mid-19th century home. That might be forgivable if it were useful - I do have an antenna for our internet service on the edge of the roof still - but it wasn’t. The motor is long since gone, and all of our viewing in this day and age is through other means.

So now, at least, the roofline looks a little more like it once did. I don’t have any expectation that it will ever return to its actual 1865 appearance - that would require pulling down one chimney and putting two additional ones back up through the roof:

two chimneys, no waiting

And that seems excessive...

Winter Moanings

Well, it’s here.

We’ve reached the part of the winter where virtually every conversation starts out with a reference to how tired of the season the person is, and how ready they are for spring.

I feel a little bad for winter in that respect. I mean, no one ever tells you how tired they are of summer, or how ready they are for the fall colors to just get it over with already. No - winter is clearly a thing to be endured rather than enjoyed.

I get it - we’ve absolutely had our own challenges with this winter, and though we’ve weathered through them, it does help one see how and why the yearning for the vernal equinox occurs. But mostly this sort of thing makes me think back to what life must have been like out here in the days before central heat and rural electrification.

Our old house is several miles from the nearest town. That distance is easily covered in just a few minutes in a car, but it would have been a much longer period of time by foot or by horse. This would have been a journey of some effort in the winter, and something probably undertaken only under specific, favorable conditions.

And they would have been prepared for the weather when they went. This is something that is a recurring theme in my thoughts about this and, oddly enough, in my conversations with LB about the weather (not odd that I bring it up, but odd that LB engages the conversation). While I am certainly not interested in going back to the days prior to those modern conveniences - let’s be clear, I’m writing this on an iPad, not, say, scrawling it with a fountain pen on parchment - the conveniences themselves have absolutely changed how we modern people regard the weather.

On even very cold days you see people moving about in lightweight gear - maybe a jacket, maybe not, wearing tennis shoes, eschewing scarves, gloves, and hats. It is easy to see how this happens: if all one is doing is moving from their home to their vehicle, and then from their vehicle to a heated office or other sort of workplace, then their winter gear could certainly seem sufficient.

Of course, this means that the exposure one experiences while outside has the dual components of being always that point of initial contrast to the warmth of the inside, and so especially shocking; and it is experienced with insufficient weather protection, compounding the effect. All of which is to say: no wonder it seems so cold.

Now, before this becomes too much a get off my lawn post, let me note that I’m not suggesting that everyone should bundle up like they are tackling a South Pole record ride in order to go from home into a warm workplace. But I do think that we are losing, as a culture, both the understanding of how to remain warm and safe under cold conditions, and some degree of the general weather-hardiness that previous generations had - that ability to go out and tolerate, perhaps even enjoy, winter conditions for extended periods of time.

This is one of the gifts life in our old house on the prairie can offer. On the harshest winter days it absolutely is not as cozy-comfy as a modern ranch in a housing development. It might be technically possible to get it there one day, but short of a lotto win or the passing of an unknown, beneficent wealthy relative ("Great uncle Otto? I don’t think I ever met... what was that? You say he left us $40 million? Oh yeah - Otto. I always loved that guy...") its not going to occur any time in the near future.

But it means that we do have to employ older techniques - understanding how to dress for cold weather to remain warm in the house, and how to outfit a bed so that it’s warm and comfortable for a night’s sleep as the winter wind wails about the home. Our ancestors knew how to do these things well and would have had human and bed clothing specific to the purpose. One has to bear in mind that, even if one has a heating stove in the bedroom, the fire inside will go out in the middle of the night - it’s going to be pretty cold in the bedroom by morning.

None of which is to suggest that I think those ancestors did not complain about the winter weather. I suspect that pissing and moaning about the cold has been a universal since humans first evolved speech. Probably the first word was something like "rock" or "fire"; but I’ll bet the first sentence was something like "sure ready for this cold weather to end..."

Ask Not for Whom the Bell Tolls...

...Because it doesn’t.

Our old house, like many of the farmhouses out this way, has a bell:

The Bell

It’s been there a long time. This picture - of my mother and uncle as kids - shows them standing by the post:

Joel and Julia

I won’t out their ages by saying how long ago it was taken, but I’m less than two years shy of a half-century myself (but, of course, my mother had me when she was eight). Suffice it to say that it wasn’t doctored to make it black and white.

Unfortunately, this is the bell as it appears today:

He’s dead, Jim

As you can see, the bell is somewhat less symmetrical than would be considered ideal. And one might ask "how could such a thing happen?" Of course, I have no earthly idea how this occurred. Just happened out of the blue. Maybe it was struck by lightening.

Yeah - sure - that’s it. That’s the ticket...

Ok - I might have been slightly involved. Slightly directly involved.

Because it is outside, these bells are subject to the weather. In the winter, that means that they can sometimes freeze...

Frozen ringing

close-up freezy

If memory serves, I had been trying to call the dogs, and they weren’t responding - the yard is big enough that sometimes they are out of voice or whistle range. However, we’d found they would come to the bell reliably (liberal application of treats post-ringing may have been involved in developing that). So I pulled the bell rope to summon them and...

...nothing. The bell was stuck. Stuck sideways, wouldn't move. It was frozen.

Now by this point it’s just possible I’d been becoming a little frustrated. You know, dogs aren’t coming. I’m standing outside in the cold. I’m not dressed for the weather because I hadn’t planned to be out there for any real length of time. So I engaged in a time-honored method of addressing a thing not working.

Which is to say I did what I was already doing, only more and much harder. I yanked down on the rope, trying to break it free. This was once, perhaps twice before the rope suddenly got slack.

Everything that followed took approximately three seconds to occur. I was fortunate in that, somehow, I recognized what the slackness in the rope meant. I stepped away and covered my head as the bell hopped off its saddle and came crashing down to the ground.

And then there it sat, in multiple pieces on the ground. And of course the next step on my part was to look around for someone to blame for this travesty. Well - someone else.

There was, of course, no one. I’m pretty sure even the dogs did not come (wise on their part).

This even occurred several years ago. Since then, the bell has been sitting, broken, on the porch while we try to figure something we can do about it. Sitting there, reminding me...

Enter the internet. A friend of a friend on Facebook posted the availability of a bell that looked to match our poor, damaged friend. What’s more, that bell was cracked, but it’s yoke - the part that sits it in what I call the saddle on the post - was intact.

New old bell

A little time on Messenger and we were able to make arrangements on it. It looks to be about the same size, and it came with a saddle of its own, just in case. And that’s where we are now - I’ve got a second bell here, waiting for myself or someone in the household, to undertake it as a project. That won’t happen soon, mind you, but at least now it’s possible.

Bells of a feather...

The Little Things

Evening’s Entertainment

There are little moments in life that can be close to perfect. This is one of them.

There are trade offs to rural living, to be sure - it takes time in the car to get to anything, and sometimes the weather makes getting anywhere impossible. But then it offers the opportunity to sit outside, in front of a fire, enjoying nothing but the sounds of nature, the company of good dogs, and a crackling fire.

The Coleman outdoor fireplace I’m sitting in front of was something we had when we lived in the city. On occasion we’d light it up and enjoy a bit of a fire. But while the crackling was still there, the sounds of crickets and tree frogs were eclipsed by the noise of cars driving by, neighbors arguing, and the general drone of mechanical equipment from houses that were, at best, 30 feet away.

Our old house, ultimately, is a huge project. I know, in these quiet moments, that we’ll likely never complete everything we’d like to accomplish here. But when it offers these moments I realize that’s really ok.

Glazed Over

Our old house has a lot of windows. This is something I’ve written here before, of course, and it continues to be the case. There are somewhat fewer windows than when the house was first built, some of them victims of remodeling (no one wants a six-foot tall window in the middle of their shower stall. Well maybe not no one, but nobody in this house at any rate). Still, there are many.

One of the things that I’ve come to realize is that having this volume of glass around the house seems to also increase the likelihood that one will have broken panes from time to time. These occur for a variety of reasons - wind blown tree debris, rocks thrown from lawn mowers, animal incidents, the possibly unwise decision to have your 12-year old hold a martial arts target for you inside...

As a result, I’ve become somewhat adept at fashioning temporary repairs using cardboard and duct tape (if the women don’t find ya handsome, they should at least find ya handy...). This is an especially attractive repair when the only box in the house large enough to use for a given opening happens to be the ones from the pet food delivery service:

Thanks Chewy!

What one might think, if one is being optimistic, is that this also gives opportunity to learn a new skill. And there is absolutely truth to that. In the course of dealing with this... opportunity, I’ve learned a few things:

  • Stephanich Hardware in Mendota will cut glass to your specification and, if they are not busy, they’ll do it while you wait. Quickly.
  • They also happen to carry the other components you need - glazing putty and glazier’s points - things that one has almost certainly had no awareness of until one has had to do this task.
  • Replacing a pane of glass is conceptually simpler than you think, and involves only a small number of tools.
  • A thing being conceptually simpler than you think does not mean that it doesn’t involve skills that are best honed with years of practice.

The window in question here is a large picture window that was put in to replace the bay window original to the house.

Old House - Bay Window

The replacement was done in my grandparents time because, as I’ve been told, the bay window was "a leaker". My uncle tells me that the picture window was custom made for the opening, which is certainly believable, given that it is huge - over 6 1/2’ tall and nearly 5’ wide.

Tom Silva from this old house recommends that the process of replacing a pane of glass be done with the window taken off of the wall and completed on a flat work surface. I’d done this task once before, on an upstairs window, and I did exactly that: removed the sash from the pane and worked with it on the floor. But there was no way that was going to be feasible with this particular portal. Given its aforementioned hugeness, it would be a two or three person job to lower it out of the wall safely. Even if I wanted to do that, I’m not a fast worker on such projects, and the prospect of having a 6 1/2 x 5 foot hole in the wall in the middle of insect season for any length of time was not an attractive one. What’s more, the overall condition of the window leaves one skeptical about its ability to successfully survive the transition out, and then back in to the opening. So - thanks Tom, but this was going to have to be done in an upright position.

What I realized, as I put the putty in to place (this part is kind of fun - a little like working with silly putty), is that it didn’t have the adhesion (or gription) needed to keep it there for much of any length of time. This wasn’t an issue for the bottom or sides, but it meant that, when I put the pane of glass into the opening, the putty at the top started drooping down like 4th of July bunting. But, you know, not in an attractive way.

But we got past that and got the glazing on around the outside as well, necessary to seal it up against the elements. And here is where I really begin to realize the skill set needed to do this well; a skill set that I simply do not have.

glazed window

(I mean, I could probably have done a more ham-fisted job of it, but that would likely have required considerable drinking while working on it, and handling glass while intoxicated seemed unwise).

With practice I could get better, I suppose, and this window certainly offers the opportunity for additional practice. While the other panes are intact, the glazing is crumbling off around each and every other individual pane - all 19 of them.

Close up of other panes

And, of course, the window frame itself is in need of paint.

This is all a task I’ve been reluctant to undertake because: a) all of the above; and 2) the plan is to eventually replace this window either with a setup that is more energy efficient or, ideally, with French doors that exit to a porch or deck. But at this point you can tell the direction of the wind during a rainstorm based upon how much this window leaks, so...

Whaley House - San Diego

Whaley House from across the street

MLW and I had the opportunity recently to spend a little bit of time exploring San Diego. We honestly knew little to nothing about the city itself before going, aside from the fact that it’s the site of a naval base and of SeaWorld. One of the things we learned about was the area they call Old Town, which includes a state park that maintains a number of restored and/or replicated historical buildings from the early settlement days of the city.

Just outside the boundary of the state park is the Whaley House. This was a place MLW had seen on shows discussing haunted places, and she wanted a closer look.

Whaley House Plaque

Spoiler alert: we didn’t see any ghosts on our tour. But it was a little surprising to see the amount of similarity between this House in California and our own Homestead, despite the 1700 or so miles between them.

The houses were built within just a few years of one another - Whaley in 1857, and our Homestead in 1861 - so some similarities are to be expected, one supposes. Architecturally they are different - Whaley is listed as Greek Revival, while ours is a Georgian Colonial, at least in its basic structure. But the similarities showed up in a general feel of the place, it’s historical usage, and one little decorative component they share in common.

While it’s a different architectural layout, you still enter through a main hallway with rooms off to either side. Though the House is brick on the outside, the inside is wood planks and plaster, the latter complete with the cracks that time insists must present to mark its passage. Ceilings have the large plaster medallions for hanging chandeliers.

The spaces in the Whaley House have seen multiple uses over its existence. The single story section to the left side of the house (when facing it from the front) has variously served as a general store, a courthouse for San Diego, and general storage. While our old place hasn’t ever been a general store or courthouse, it has certainly seen various uses of the different rooms. In particular, the bedrooms in our home have served as corn drying rooms (seriously), and as storage for generations of family. This latter use was still actively in effect throughout my childhood, and sneaking through the stacks of collected stuff remains a fond memory.

A small detail, but perhaps the most surprising component for me, was the faux wood grain finishes on the wood.

front hallway doors

upstairs theatre door

(These pics are taken from a couple of articles from the Save Our Heritage Organization website, the organization that restored and manages the home - I was slow on the uptake for my own photos)

The thing is, this is a feature that we have in our home - efforts made by a prior generation to take wood of a less desirable appearance and make it appear to be something more luxurious by careful application of painting technique.

Office Door

Upper Door Detail

Lower Door Detail

This surprised me somewhat, mostly because our house is the only place I recall seeing it. Now, to be clear, I wouldn't have assumed our house was the only place it had ever been done, and it’s quite possible I’ve seen it elsewhere and simply not recognized it. Still it was a bit of a surprise to see it here, hundreds of miles away from home in a very different landscape.

If you’d like more information about Whaley House, there are a couple of links below.

Whaley House main website:

Whaley House pics of faux graining:

Sinking In...

Our old house was built in 1861. The kitchen, however, is considerably newer...

...It was remodeled in the 1940’s.

To be fair, the appliances are not from the 1940’s - the oven and stove are not new, but are certainly of a more recent vintage than the cabinetry and countertop. The refrigerator is a newer item that we purchased when we moved in.

Shortly after we moved in we also installed a new faucet on the old double-basin stainless steel kitchen sink. This was done in an effort to somewhat modernize the equipment we were working with, and we chose a Moen faucet with a pull-out head that had stream and sprayer settings. Moen is a brand we’ve had good luck with in the past, but this particular faucet was a disappointment. The head piece began to leak at the bottom of base intermittently a couple of years into owning the faucet. At first this only happened when the screen filter inside of it needed to be cleaned out, but it ultimately persisted even when the filter was clean, and/or when it was replaced with a new one.

The bigger part of the problem was the process of discovering the faucet to be leaking. The design of the faucet has the base of the head sitting at a downward angle in the base of the faucet, and that base is open to the cabinet below. This meant that wet feet were often the first sign that it was leaking - wet because the water was now trickling out of the cabinet below the sink and onto the floor. Ultimately we ended up leaving the faucet head pulled out all of the time to avoid this problem:

bad faucet

This solution was not a triumph of ergonomic design, to say the least.

We had been reluctant to purchase new items for the kitchen one at a time, hoping instead to wait and do a larger kitchen remodel. That’s still in the long-term plans (1940’s, remember), but it was clear something needed to be done here. MLW and I headed out to Menards to seek out candidates for a new kitchen faucet and ended up coming across an all-in-one sink and faucet combination by Tuscany.

new sink?.jpg

We cook at home frequently, and MLW and I usually cook as a team. When one is doing this in our 1940’s kitchen, one quickly realizes that, like most kitchens of the era, it was designed around the idea that one person would be doing the meal preparation (that one person was specifically my Grandma Marie, who expertly navigated this kitchen despite its limitations). Though the kitchen is, by far, the single largest room in the house, the amount of counter space to work on is limited, and it typically leaves at least one person re-purposing the kitchen table for food preparation.

This setup offered a number of options that looked like would work well for us, and would address some of those space issues, including a colander for cleaning veggies, and a cutting board that sits in the basin. The included faucet was also very consistent with the types of designs we were looking at.

The measurements on the sink were a little bigger than the one it would be replacing, so we made the call to have an installer look at our setup before buying the kit. The folks from Triple Service were very helpful both for this, and when it came time to do the installation (I know how to install a sink in theory, but I’ve learned the value of letting an expert handle this sort of thing over the years - what would take a skilled installer a couple of hours would take me at least an entire weekend of sweating, swearing, and bloody knuckles; An entire weekend during which we would not have use of a kitchen sink...).

We were pleased with the result:

Happy new sink

We did make one modification from the kit. It came with a built-in soap dispenser, but we elected to keep our hard water drinking line. MLW picked up a small gooseneck faucet to go in that spot, which matches nicely with the main faucet.

We got a chance to try it all out last night with one of our Blue Apron deliveries. So far, it seems to be working out very nicely.


One of the joys and delights of living in a 155-year old house is being able to routinely delight in the craftsmanship of a bygone era.

Of course, one of the struggles is that the very craftsmanship you are delighting in is, in fact, 155 years old and, as such, is prone to breaking.

This can be true on many fronts, of course, but of particular focus over the past couple of weeks has been doorknobs, and one door in particular - the one to LB's bedroom.

Most of the doors in the house have similar hardware - a mortise lock with white porcelain doorknobs and escutcheons). This style of lock means that every door on the main two floors has a door with both a sash lock and a deadbolt in it, the deadbolt operated by an old fashioned skeleton key. Every door - including the closets, the bathroom door, the laundry room door, etc.

Every door has a deadbolt in it, but only a handful of them actually work. In most cases this appears to be due to seizure secondary to age, the overactive paintbrush work of prior generations, or perhaps a combination of both.

LB has one of the two front bedroooms in the house. During my grandparents' occupation of the house, and likely for quite some time before, these rooms were not occupied by people. Rather, they held a vast array of generational cast-off stuff - things that, apparently, were unwanted but considered too nice to be thrown away. By my childhood they were not frequently opened and entered, except by occasional exploring waifs.

One might have expected this relative lack of use to result in the door hardware being less harshly used and, as such, perhaps better suited to withstanding a few years of exposure to the exuberance of youth. Alas, this does not seem to have been the a case. LB's doorknob had worked loose to the point that the jiggling of the handle would prevent the sash lock from catching reliably. I made one attempt, early on, to address this by retightening all of the various and sundry screws and attachments related to the handle (not all of whom seemed to be present and accounted for), but the success of this was short lived. Ultimately it was clear I was going to have to take things apart and effect a more complete repair.

Taking things apart is often a frightening proposition in a house of this age - it has a tendency to open a can of worms well beyond expectation.

In the case of LB's door, disassembling the doorknob revealed a harsher life for this door than I'd originally predicted.

Rough life for the old door

The number of gouges and striations in the area of the iron handle plates suggested that the door handle had been adjusted, and readjusted, multiple times over the past century and a half. It also made it clear why it was so hard to tighten it back down - there was virtually no wood left in which a screw could take purchase.

This wouldn't be a problem with a cylinder latch set - in that case, the two sides of the latching and handle mechanism screw to each other through the door. But the mortise lock is a large rectangular block of metal directly in the door - there's no going through it without potentially destroying the latching mechanism.

My solution, for now, was to head off to the hardware store (they say I "saved big money", but I'm never sure if I should actually believe them) and get dowel and wood filler, as well as additional screws. I used the dowel to fill the deeper, still intact holes, and the wood filler to bring everything back to more or less even with the door surface. Then I let the material dry and cure.

door with filler

The guidelines on the product said to give it at least two hours to properly cure, so to be safe, I gave it a week. Plus, you know, there's nothing more entertaining than listening to your teenager struggle with trying to open and close a door without a handle for several days. Also - it's remotely possible that I got a little busy...

In putting the handle back together, I discovered a couple of additional interesting features about the handle itself. Most of the handles in the house use a system in which backing plates go against the door, are covered by a porcelain escutcheon, which is held on by a threaded brass cylinder that screws into the backing plate. The handle on LB's door looks like this too, but it was hiding a secret. The backing plate on the inside was different - it wasn't threaded like the others, with a smaller inside lip, and the brass cylinder had been cut down so that it would fit into the new opening.

Hidden Differences

The cutting down of the brass cylinder could not be accidental, and one suspects that this is the result of a previous generation needing to replace the backing plate, and being unable to find a part that matched exactly. And, given that the room was virtually never entered, exactly was probably felt to be unimportant.

For our situation, exactly was the thing that was needed. I scavenged the backing plates off of the closet in my office - the door to that is never shut, as it is a pass-thru for electronics cables, and a previous tenant had already scavenged the mortise lock from it anyway. This seemed to do the trick, mostly. However, I found that the porcelain escutcheon would no longer fit on the inside with the scavenged backing plate. I have multiple escutcheons, and tried them all, but to no avail. In deference to the teenager's week of suffering, I deferred painting the wood filler for later, went ahead and put it together without the escutcheon, which is functional, albeit less attractive.

No Escutcheon

It don't fit no more

Shortly after making this decision I noticed that one of my ancestors had made the same decision previously, just across the hall.

it wasn't just me

This makes me feel a bit better, though I'd like it all to go together correctly. Still, at least the offspring now has a functioning door behind which one can pretend there is no one else in the house...

These aren't the first door problems we have had, and they aren't the only door issues that my ancestors have faced. We have doors where the screws in the hinges have worked loose - sometimes to a significant degree (the downside to pine as a building material), and a couple of doorknobs have been replaced by completely different handle sets. The door into the basement was clearly a struggle for someone:


The set on the inside is loose, as you can see, and will not tighten (I would not be surprised to find a very similar situation inside there as with LB's door). And on the basement side of the door:


The repairs required an additional wood plate, and it appears that a decision was made to caulk or epoxy the escutcheon against the wood, likely because it would not screw tight.

I haven't gotten to the epoxy point yet, but I can see how one might get there...

Solar Roof?

This week Elon Musk, founder of Tesla and Space X, announced a new product developed in conjunction with SolarCity - a new type of solar shingles designed to visually replicate the appearance of traditional roofing materials.

At first blush it might seem odd to bring this up here, on this site dedicated to living in and (very slowly) restoring a family home built in 1861. Indeed, I went back and forth between whether to put this here, or on my more science and technology oriented site. But this seemed the right place.

While our goal is to maintain and restore this old family home, it has never been with the intention of living a 19th-century lifestyle. We've been working our way through the replacement of the original windows, and with the help of the fine folks at Triple Service, have installed air conditioning and, more recently, a modern iron filtering system for the water supply. And, given that the house was originally built without either electricity or indoor plumbing, I hold that these modifications are consistent with the approach prior generations have taken to the Homestead.

All of which makes this new product very interesting to me. The prospect of using alternative energy sources - either solar or wind - has been something I've wanted to incorporate in the long-term picture for our home from the beginning. This is true both from the standpoint of being a person who is interested in these technological solutions for their own sake, and for the benefit they stand to offer to the environment. It's also true from the perspective of a person who owns a large, 155-year old home who must contend with the utility bills that home generates.

In addition, owing to our rural location, we are low on the list for restoration during power outages. In the seven years that we've been living at the homestead we've encountered at least one outage each year, and several of those have been for multiple days at a time. Because we have forced air heat and get our water from a well with an electric pump, a power outage also means a heat and water outage. This is a reality of where we live, of course - on the open prairie, in an area with high enough winds to justify a wind farm - but that makes it a reality it's which one must contend. Being in the position of generating some or all of one's own power becomes a very attractive option under these circumstances. If one can do that in a fashion that also complements the appearance of our vintage home, as opposed to looking like a modern-era tack-on, so much the better.

Another, very relevant detail is the quality and durability of the roofing material itself. Because of our location in the wind farm the traditional asphalt shingles that are used here struggle to maintain their protective position in the face of the gust. The descriptions of this material suggests that it is considerably more durable than traditional roofing.

This is all early days, of course. The product is not yet available, and there's been no announcement of pricing, though the stated goal is to make the cost competitive to the cost of traditional roofing plus utilities. Still, I think our Homestead would look quite nice with the Slate Tile panels on it. If the folks at Tesla and SolarCity are looking for a location which would provide a real-world, four-season, high-wind test site for their product I'm certain arrangements could be made...

The old Barn

The old gray mare ain't what she used to be... 

The old gray mare ain't what she used to be... 

The Old Barn

At the Homestead we have a barn. It's an old building, and photos of the property suggest its age is probably similar to that of the house. As barns of the era go, it's in relatively good condition. But it's important to understand that relative here refers to the fact that many barns of the era, in our area, have fallen down.

This home, as I've detailed before, was my grandparent's house, was the house my mother grew up in. Some of my earliest memories involve being inside of this house, playing here. I do not have the same relationship with the barn.

As a child growing up in intensely rural Illinois I spent a great deal of time in barns. Although many of them were quite old back then as well, thirty-plus years accounts for a lot of deterioration. Most of the places I went out here, friends had barns that were old, often in limited use, but still sound structures. Many of them still had hay and straw in the loft, put there for a previous generation's animals, left behind when their families decided to move away from cattle in favor of corn and soybeans. They had multiple levels to explore, ladders to climb, ropes to swing from; in some cases there remained the pulley and track systems used for getting bales out of the loft and through the upper-story door. As a child those doors seemed a mystifying and amazing thing, doors to the sky, doors to nowhere.

Frankly, it's a wonder we weren't all killed playing in these places.

My relationship with our particular barn, however, is nothing like this. I spent a great deal of time at my grandmother's home, and played here often. But while the barn is on my property now, it wasn't on Grandma's property then. The building, and the land it occupied, belonged to my (Great) Uncle Bud; my grandmother's brother, who lived just down the road.

At the time Bud kept cattle, and the barn was at the edge of a pasture. Perhaps that was the reason, or perhaps it was something about the building itself but, as much fun as I knew barns could be, I cannot ever recall going into the building before moving here as an adult.

The building itself is quite old, but its appearance is a mashup of generational modifications. When you walk inside you can see the old wooden structures, the mortise and tenon joints. There is ancient, decaying animal tack hanging from the wall - old leather yokes and harnesses, bits of bridles. But at some point, perhaps twenty years ago or so, the center of the barn was modified to make it a grain bin. From the ground floor the new construction is almost a little hard to see if you don't know it is there, but it occupies about a third of the center of the building, as well as taking up the lion's share of the loft, dividing that space into two narrow rooms.

Perhaps the most striking generational change - and the one that makes the building uninviting - is on the outside. This was an entirely wooden structure when it was build, with the traditional vertical wooden exterior panels found on most barns of the era in the region. At some point, probably more than forty years ago (as I cannot remember the building looking any different than it does today), someone elected to cover the building in large, white panels of cement board. These were placed over top the existing, albeit decaying vertical wooden siding where it still existed. In truth, those panels probably deserve a large portion of the credit for the fact that the building is still standing and structurally sound.

They are also ugly as sin.

The barn is on my mind at the moment because it has begun to decay more rapidly over the past year. Early this fall I noticed a hole in the western roof of the building. It's been a home for wildlife - mostly raccoons (and believe me, we will have more to say about the raccoons) and birds, though there were also foxes living in the barn when we first moved in. The raccoons are particularly problematic here, as elsewhere, as the building is full of mounds their leavings. It is clear that, whatever else might be said for the life of a raccoon living on our property, they don't appear to suffer from constipation.

Cleaning up, and then doing something with the barn has been on the long end of my to-do list since we moved in to the place. I am honestly not sure what that something is or should be. We don't really need the space for storage, for example. I've considered taking out the grain bins - a necessity for virtually all barn scenarios - and returning the loft to full-size. At that point there is a large open space that could be used for... exercising, perhaps? Open space like that is very nice for things like martial arts. But the list of realistic uses is short, too short to make it worth deflecting the type of time and attention it would take to work on it away from other things.

So I'm left in a bit of a quandary. I don't want to simply allow it to slowly tumble down. Benign neglect is the most common course for dealing with these buildings. Driving around the countryside here offers multiple opportunities to see this very approach in action in multiple locations; barns in various states of decline, ranging from those with roofs slowly caving in to those which are just a pile of wood laying on the ground. It is sad to see, but also perfectly understandable. Taking them down, repairing them, either option is a huge project for a building that is no longer in any sort of use.

At the moment my best consideration is to see if I can find a way to inexpensively patch the roof and slow the decline. I've purchased a book on barn restoration, not because I think that's what I'm going to do, but to see if I can better understand what is involved so I can decide whether I think it will even be an option.