Cold Days

Lea Wait, here. If you’re reading this blog, you

My Home,Showing House, Ell & Barn (1938 Photo)
My Home,Showing House, Ell & Barn (1938 Photo)

 

probably know I live on the coast of Maine. You may not know I live in a house built in 1774. It has 6 fireplaces, which were the only heat sources in the house (other than one space heater) until my parents had a furnace installed in 1974. Classically for New England, what was the dooryard faces south, to get as much warmth as possible, and the fewest windows are on the north side.

Today only two of those fireplace flues can be used — one is lined and connected to the furnace, and one is for the wood stove my husband has in his study. We can’t afford to bring the others “up to code” so they’d be safe to use today. Maybe someday.

In the meantime the furnace and woodstove do fine, even considering that temperatures here have been in the single digits (and below) off and on for the past couple of weeks. It’s a little early this season for temperatures to be that low, and they often make me think of the people who lived in this house in the past, and how cold they must have been in winters like this one.

No global warming broke bitter temperatures. The wide river across the street from our home, on which occasionally there are ice floes today, then froze solid. Snow fell more often, and lasted longer. Occupants of this house were lucky: it had glass windows — luxury items in 1774. To protect the rooms from winds off the river, all most folks could do was close their shutters. But then

they’d also close off the light.

Winslow Homer Engraving, 1871. Note wooden shovels &  Woman w/o coat

Winslow Homer Engraving, 1871. Note wooden shovels & Woman w/o coat

This house was not (and still is not) insulated. In the fall, home owners piled evergreen branches filled in with hay around their houses to catch the snow and act as a  layer of insulation around the walls.

Wells, which were outside until the 1830s or so, often froze, or at least the top few feet did. Snow was melted for water.

1774 Fireplace - described in Lea's Shadows on the Coast of Maine

1774 Fireplace – described in Lea’s Shadows on the Coast of Maine

Clothes, that at least in the early years were made from wool spun and woven at home or linen imported from Europe, were limited, so in winter people wore almost all they had, and then wrapped blankets (also woven at home or on a neighbor’s loom) around themselves if they were sitting or lying down. They slept several people to a bed for warmth.

About 1840 ships’ captain Enoch Chase bought this house. He was a widower with 8 children. He married again, a young woman named Sarah, who gave birth to 6 children. At one time, according to the local census, 19 people lived in this house, including 2 young women and one man who “helped out.” The house has 5 bedrooms, and, of course, had no indoor bathrooms in the mid-nineteenth century, although it did boast an “indoor” privy in a corner of the barn, which is attached to the house by a series of small rooms (for cooking, butchering, making butter, perhaps weaving) to the main house.

On cold days, as I walk through these rooms, which I now share only with my husband, I think of Enoch and Sarah and their children. I wonder who slept where, and which room was set aside for spinning and weaving. And which daughter (I’m sure there was at least one) scorched her skirt by standing too close to one of the fires.

View of river, from Lea's porch

View of river, from Lea’s porch

I think of Sarah, giving birth in this house. And of her (and Enoch and several of their children) dying here. I wonder what they thought of the Civll War. None of their sons enlisted, but most were at sea then, on clipper ships in the Pacific. One died there.

I write historical novels for children, and Sarah’s grandmother, who lived in this house in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, is in one of my books (Sally Clough, in Stopping to Home,) and one of her uncles (Rev. Jonathan Adams) is in my Wintering Well.

I didn’t know any of them, but their footsteps are still here, and I remember them.

And on days like this, when the temperature is near zero, I wonder. How did they stay warm? And often I turn my thermostat down a degree or two. We keep it at sixty during the day.

Sarah and Enoch would have laughed at our being such wimps.

But I suspect they would have envied us, too.

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9 Responses to Cold Days

  1. Jule Dupre says:

    Lea – With a degree in history and a fascination for wandering in the path of the footsteps which have fallen before mine, I admire your place of abode and thank you for this great little verbal nugget. Often when I strongly feel the presence of the past, sometimes with a name and a recorded history connected, I cannot help but wonder and imagine about all of the unrecorded stories which were never told. Are they lost to the past and forgotten to the future? Or maybe, just maybe, they are the instinctive impetuous for some of the stories we all write. It’s a point which can’t be proven one way or the other, but, nevertheless, an enjoyable read – thank you! And Merry Winter Solstice… Jule Dupre

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  2. Suzanne Woodward McGuffey says:

    Do you still have the English barn shown in the 1938 photo? My home is more modern than yours — built by my great-great-grandfather to bring his wife to in the summer of 1817. No insulation, here either, but sturdy!

    We who live with the past know the shades who share our homes, and we are greatly enriched thereby.

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  3. Our farmhouse is younger (early 1900’s) but still has its stories. At one point, the Hooper family owned it and ran a small store in the barn. “Hooper’s Store” brings me back to my childhood days of Sesame Street, as that was the name of the corner store on the show’s early days.
    My eighty-one year old neighbor has also told me there were a few cows in our backyard when he was a boy — a story I love, since I now have chickens, and fancy myself an urban farmer!

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  4. Lea Wait says:

    Thank you for the comments! And, yes, the barn … and the rest of the house …. look pretty much the way they did in 1938, when that photo was taken. A new floor and doors for the barn … three new windows for the house …. minor changes, over the years. And today it’s actually warm (ish) — about 32. Although weather forecasts are for some ice to cover the 2 feet of snow on the ground later today. After all — it IS Maine! Merry Christmas, everyone!

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  5. Mary Anne Sullivan says:

    Love your comments on the history of your home. My grandparents bought the second oldest house in Auburn back in 1920. Plus he bought the next farm that was built in the 1800s before the Civil War. The oldest one was sold and the house still stands but the barn is gone. Sadly, the other farm burned down in 1984. Too bad people didn’t keep journals of their days in a house and then bequeath them with the sale of the house. There is an old farmhouse on that road that still stands (barn is gone) and I found a poem my mother kept written by a woman who resided there from the late 1800s until 1930. The poem recounts life in that farmhouse and how she loved it and the views of Lake Auburn and the White Mountains. I photocopied it and made the woman’s elderly grand daughter very happy. I then gave copies to the elderly man who still lives there and to his daughter who grew up there. All were so delighted to receive it and it’s now framed and up on everyone’s walls.

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  6. Lea Wait says:

    Wonderful to have done that, Mary Anne! You found – and shared – a treasure!

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  7. Carole Price says:

    What a great article, and to live in a house with so much history would be the best. I love New England, honeymooned in Vermont, and have written a book that takes place on Martha’s Vineyard. We moved from Ohio to California in 1980 but I still hope to revisit New England.

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  8. Lea Wait says:

    Hope you get a chance to visit, Carole!

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  9. Barb Ross says:

    What a wonderful post. I can imagine Enoch, Sarah and their family living in your house!

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