• When the lights were bright –
He’s waiting for his final ending, as he has for decades.
One day, one of the tired old oaks or pines that have reached the yard will collapse, taking another piece of the old house and possibly causing an ignominious end. Even I have to admit, even reluctantly, that it is already beyond salvation. The windows have been broken for a long time, the frames hang precariously. Holes in the shingled roof allow rain as well as a sun inside.
Out of respect for the posted signs, the gate and the fence, I never did more than park on the road next to the old house, but when the brambles and bushes fell for the winter, you can see traces of pale blue painted plaster dripping from the walls of one room, a darker color falling like tears falling from another.
The house was once a riot of glorious Victorian excess; gingerbread trim framed the porch and three-sided eaves. Although the woodwork is rotten, you can see how the side windows and the ceiling window once framed a huge door, presumably made of oak, wide enough for a hoop skirt to fit through or a coffin to be carried.
Two huge picture windows once gave a view of a courtyard that was just far enough from the then sandy road for safety, but close enough to see what was going on in the world.
I’m told there’s an alley buried under old grass and pine straw where in the spring daffodils stand proudly, covering the sides of roses long since become popular. Gardenias and camellias still bloom in season, as do a few gnarled dogwoods.
It’s frustrating in some ways that I’ve been able to discover pieces of the place, but its full history remains somewhat lost on the casual sleuth with a love of architecture. I have no idea whether the remaining memories of peeling white paint were the original color or not – I doubt it, as so many homes from this era were often anything but white, except for people barely at- above the level of the working poor.
White walls have become as ubiquitous as the lead-filled brown or gray floor paint of the second quarter of the 20th century, covering the glorious richness of dark pine or cypress, planks sometimes wider than a forearm of a man is long, other times firmly locked in the tongue and milling carefully cut grooves by a steam-sniffing sawmill. It breaks my heart to see such heresy, and it broke my back to remove those thick paints to bring old floor back to life, but I’m not the type to judge previous generations by modern standards, be it something that âenlightenedâ generations see as socio-political horror or simply a travesty that others have found to be a practical upgrade of a building.
Once upon a time, there was handcrafted nails. Until the late 19th century, and for some time thereafter, nails were handcrafted, a heated rod, stretched over an anvil, tapered in a “stamping”, then broken hundreds of times. I made nails in a forge; you learn to appreciate the good true swing of a hammer. Now a bent nail is put aside and forgotten.
We now live in an age of plywood and chemically treated lumber and two-by-four planks that actually look more like 1.75 by 3.65, where the pieces are forced together with a pneumatic nail gun and plasterboard. Practical lines cover the walls, followed by layers of plywood topped with cushions and rugs or, ironically, vinyl designed to resemble wood.
I grew up in homes with interior walls made from real pine boards, 3/8 inch thick and cut on the bias, not the laminate rectangles. I have lived in others where the walls were made of individual turns, each nailed with precision to a heart-pine nail, then smeared with plaster which was mixed by hand, sometimes thickened with hair, then smoothed and painted. Insulation, if it existed, would horrify most modern home inspectors: junk cotton, sawdust and, in some cases, newspapers.
I once found a treasure trove of newspapers, the most recent from the 1970s and the oldest from the 1940s, that an elderly lady was storing to eventually isolate her farm. Her kids, amused that anyone would want to explore the old place, said she saved everything and even pasted newspapers as wallpaper like she did during the Depression.
There is a development on this farm now, a dozen modular homes where new families never have to split a piece of wood to warm up or prepare a meal, the water comes from sanitary pipes fed by a system managed by the county, and the kids ride in air-conditioned comfort on their way to school, rather than driving a few miles on a seashell road. I’m sure there isn’t a single newspaper stuck in a gap in one wall, even though there are gaps in said walls. In all fairness, I’m happy for the people who live there, who made their home in what was once a tobacco and pig farm and a garden pecked by chickens.
I’m sure that someday the sad old house that I look at every week will be replaced by a mobile home, or maybe just become a heap of waste wood to be burnt by a vandal or a hardworking farmer. The rafters (already visible in places, embarrassing as a glimpse of a petticoat would have been when the house was new) will sigh and collapse, allowing spikes and skylights to crash into the ground. Indeed, a chinaberry has already invaded the kitchen and its dogtrot transformed into a closed porch. With enough time, one could probably find a ghost of the other buildings that made the house a home – a smokehouse, perhaps, or a chicken coop. Maybe a barn. Perhaps there is even a private landfill transformed when a Delco unit or the rural electricity association made indoor plumbing possible.
If this is simply ignored the house will fall, the pines will eventually beat the oaks and the brambles will cover everything, leaving what was once a storefront, then a rental, then a tenant house to be little more than a lair. for possums, foxes and the occasional wildcat. It’s little more than a pile of wood held up by rusty nails and vines at this time.
I would have liked to see it when the horses were tied to a railing around the courtyard and the lights were shining through the large picture windows. I like to think of the chic little roadside house as a happy house, where friends and family spent time on the porch, where the young people flirted on the side porches, and the old men told stories about the war and discussing politics, where a perpetually harassed lady of the house reigned over everything and everyone.
Instead, the old storefront is just a shadow to ignore by most who pass by, people looking for a GPS-determined shortcut, or truck drivers delivering pork or grain. , and the farmers who no longer see the old house, which has been abandoned since their childhood.
Maybe someone will salvage a leftover window frame, door, or even a mantel or staircase. A bottle collector will sweep away the old garbage piles. Maybe a treasure hunter with a metal detector will spend a Sunday sorting through old iron and tin to find a coin, spoon, hand forged nail, or even a ring, reminders. from a time when the lights were bright and the house was a happy house.