Before Hartland: A Look back

John Clark looking at a place and time that saw many changes in the 26 years we lived there. A year after Beth and I got married, interest rates and inflation started rising at a frightening clip. We’d saved a fair amount, so we started house hunting. In hindsight, we were fairly clueless about what we wanted and how much we could afford. The first place we looked at was in Readfield. The walk-through was an adventure. The owners had drenched the interior with spray on foam insulation to a point where it was difficult to stand upright. I’m sure it would have been easy to heat, but we weren’t hobbits.

Sara and Lisa with Japanese exchange students on our front lawn in Chelsea.

Our second look was at a place on Route 226 in Chelsea. It was a reasonable distance from Augusta and had just over six acres of land. What we didn’t immediately realize was that it had been on the market for some time and the upper part had once burned. Whoever repaired it had done a half baked job and the pitch on the back side of the roof was perfect…For ice dams and water backing up after a snow storm (more about that later).

Worried the mortgage rate would jump even further, we bought the place. This was in early fall and our first winter was a rude awakening. The house had an older hot air furnace and minimal insulation. Neither Beth nor I had much in the way of rebuilding skills or experience, but we entered the learn as you do world pretty fast. By the second winter, we’d replaced pretty most of the interior walls with better insulation and new sheetrock. The son of a co-worker built us an exterior chimney and a brick hearth. We bought a used airtight stove from another co-worker and I rigged a small high-speed fan behind it that did a decent job of circulating heat.

Lisa and Sara in front of the wood stove at Christmas.

Fortunately I liked cutting wood and between what we cleared behind the house and wood I cut on Sennebec Hill Farm, we never lacked for firewood. In fact, there were two winters where we hit an accidental abundance. The first was when I lucked into getting the pallet recycling contract at AMHI where I worked. I’d been stealing pickup loads at night when I worked late, unaware that they were overloaded and wanted someone foolish enough to take them off their hands. I bid the princely sum of ten dollars for a year’s worth of them puppies. It wasn’t long before I had too many. Some I rebuilt and sold, but most got taken apart and cut up. Since the majority were hardwood, people who weren’t fussy were happy to buy a pick-up load of cut up ones even with all the nails still in the wood. We burned plenty ourselves. I even had the dubious experience of losing a load coming up the hill to the east side rotary during rush hour.

Looking at our neighbor’s house during the ice storm.

The other bonus came right after the Ice Storm of 1998. The Town of Windsor reacted by doing a major tree removal along Route 105. Many of the property owners were thrilled to have adventurous souls buck up the downed trees and haul them away. I netted more than 20 pickup loads that way.

The property was a never ending adventure. When we moved in, there was a jungle of weeds, an old pigsty and a garbage dump behind the house. We wanted a garden, so I set about taming the land. My first adventure came while tearing up what was left of the sty. I managed to drop a large rotten beam on my leg where a rusty spike penetrated my thigh. Off for repairs and a tetanus booster. In the process of clearing more junk, we discovered we had an antiquated septic system that consisted of a big rusty circular tank in the ground and a jury-rigged series of pipes spreading under thin soil. I made the mistake of hiring a local contractor to come in with the understanding that he would scoop up the big rocks beyond this contraption and move them down back so we’d have some garden space. Instead of using a bucket, he used a blade and in the process of pushing them to one side, he not only scraped away most of the soil, he completely flattened the drainage pipes. We were left with a bed of semi-fractured ledge and no drainage field.

One of many nighttime burns we had as we reclaimed the back yard.

There are advantages to living in a small Maine town. A major one is that you can get away with a lot of code violations. I set a speed record rebuilding and covering the drainage field and spent the next year using a crowbar and a sledge hammer to break up as much ledge as possible. After building an elevated sifting screen, I literally screened the whole damn back yard, adding the rocks and pebbles to the leach field behind the garden.

After a few years of raising great crops of rocks, the soil, having been enriched with horse and hen manure, shredded leaves and chopped up seaweed, started producing pretty decent veggies. We added apple trees and a plum and a cherry as well as several grape vines and two butternut trees. Every year, we’d expand the back yard a bit further toward the small swamp at the bottom of the slope behind the garden. I also cut a trail into the back of our property and put up a tree stand, using a couple of the remaining pallets. October became my favorite month. I could come home from work and be in the stand with my bow with an hour to hunt. I liked the quiet and solitude. Even though it was just a couple hundred yards from the road, it was mostly silent save for the woodland creatures. Chickadees often landed close enough so I could feed them out of my hand.

Winter brought another adventure I wasn’t prepared for. Every time we got measurable snow, I had to rake the back roof. That involved ladders, taking my life in my hands while trying to keep my footing on the lower roof over our dining room and not eating a gallon of snow in the process. Is it any wonder one of our major criteria when we began looking at homes in the Hartland area was a metal roof and NO need to rake?

I don’t want to go on too long, so next time I’ll share the culture and characters we encountered while living in Chelsea. I’d be interested in your memories of the first home you owned.

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4 Responses to Before Hartland: A Look back

  1. Gram says:

    Looking forward to the next part of this story. Houses are always work, a homeowner never rests.

  2. Nancy says: sure took on a lot of work. Thanks for writing about your experiences. I really enjoyed reading it, as I enjoy reading most of your posts.

  3. Julianne Spreng says:

    The home I grew up in was originally the mess hall and councilor sleeping quarters of a residence camp for kids from the city. They got to spend several weeks in the wilds of Geauga county, Ohio. The camp was established back in the teens and remained open until just after WWII. My parents were excited to get a place so far out in the country, but there were a few pitfalls.

    The inside walls were the old horsehair fibre board. The windows were single pane and slid into the wall instead of opening out, so you can imagine that there was NO insulation in those walls. But we had beautiful frost patterns in the winter. The outer siding was the old style board and batten. Thin up-right boards with a furring strip over the seam. The only heat was an open fireplace located in the outer wall that had two heat vents on each side. The front of the house cantilevered over the hillside on four posts. Even the underside of the house was exposed and uninsulated! You had to go out the side door, down the outside stairs, and back under the house to get to the bathroom and shower. I remember my dad thawing the main pipe every winter morning with a hand held propane torch. The only heat tapes at that time were lead wire without a thermostat. You couldn’t leave it plugged in.

    We had 57 narrow steps and three walkways to navigate up to the house. In the winter you also had to climb the twisting drive from the road, as it was impassible by vehicle. My dad even made my mum a toboggan to haul groceries and kids up the drive. But it all still had to be carried up those steps.

    There were other large cabins, an in-ground spring-fed pool, a creek, ravines with streams at the bottom, woods with towering tulip poplars and beeches, and even grape vines as round as your wrist. This was all on seven acres of heaven.

    Over the years my dad orchestrated the tearing down, rebuilding and adding to. He taught himself everything he needed to know to do the work. Even enlisting my sisters and I to help. The work was on-going and never really finished even when they moved after living there for fifty years.

    My home is a glazed tile Swiss cheese factory built in the teens. Remodeling is ongoing. We love it!

  4. Thanks for sharing, John. I enjoyed your first-home story. We’ve had many over the years. From our first three in New York State to our last three in Maine, it’s been an adventure. Happy New Year!

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