Note from Lea Wait: This blog was originally published on Maine Crime Writers five years ago, but given this winter’s temperatures (and my writing schedule) I thought it was time to repeat it.)
If you’re reading this blog, you 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 studio. 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.
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.
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 fire
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 Civil 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 Sarah’s 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.