October 31, 2011

Snow Miser vs. the Great Pumpkin

We carved some great jack-o-lanterns this year - one for each family member and a joint entry for our cats.  Feel free to vote for your favorite.  Sadly, as usual, there were no trick-or-treaters to admire our pagan handicraft.  For some strange reason, even the most maniacal candy-seekers seem to be turned off by dark, dead-end streets with cemeteries and old houses on them.  Go figure. 

In any event, more candy for us.   Mmmmm.  Twix.

To top it all off, Saturday's snowstorm brought down so many branches and power lines that all of the towns in the area decided to "postpone" Halloween until Saturday.  I thought that only the Grinch was sufficiently deranged to believe that he held such sway over the holidays, but apparently the Snow Miser and his local politician minions have similar delusions of grandeur.  I think that there might be the makings of a claymation holiday special somewhere in all of this meterological madness. 

Thanks, G.P.
Luckily, our premature snowification didn't take too large a toll on the property - we lost a huge branch from an elm tree and a few boxwoods that were already looking pretty raggedy, but otherwise we are in good shape.  We even managed to keep our power.  Sincere thanks to the Great Pumpkin, who must have recognized us as the most sincere pumpkin patch in the area and staved off any real damage.

Happy Halloween!
October 30?!

October 28, 2011

American Horror Story

Watching four episides of American Horror Story the week before Halloween is making me think about the people who preceeded us in our house in a new way.  I might have to think twice before going into our semi-creepy basement at night, as I really would not like to run into anything like this:

October 14, 2011

Halloween around the House

The leaves in southern Connecticut are finally starting to change, and much to our kids' delight, the Halloween decorations are up at the house.  Since they're only 2 and 4 years old, we can't really spookify the place too much, so we'll stick with some vintage decorations and a bunch of pumpkins for now.

40s or 50s Paper Party Hat

Oreo, the Halloween Black (and White) Cat

October 10, 2011

Archaeology 101, or Get a Real Job, Hippie!

I'm going to go on the record here and state that our house is a cruel tease.  For as long as we have lived in the house, I have desperately wanted to find something really cool buried in our yard.  I'm not talking about real buried treasure (although let me make it totally clear to the powers that be that if my shovel should happen upon a cache of gold coins, I will reluctantly embrace the find).  All I'm looking for are a few colonial coins, some intact pottery, even an arrow head or two.  Just the little tangibles that provide a link to the people who lived on the property in the 18th and 19th centuries.

While we have found a few neat items, including a beautiful cobalt ink well, some early clay marbles, and iron strap hinges and tool parts, for the most part, the property has been pretty stingy with us.

This is particularly disappointing given the lengths to which I have gone to uncover the artifacts that our yard must contain.  When we put an addition on our house five years ago, I over-enthusiastically instructed the excavator to pile the fill that was removed from the newly dug basement in our side yard, so that I would be able to sift the dirt for stuff.  As the basement was being dug, it seemed like everywhere I look there were pottery shards, glass, metal and other artifacts.  No doubt, there would be lots of even better stuff in the big pile of dirt that now stood next to our house.  So, I started sifting.  I don't know how many of you have watched archaeologists sift for artifacts on TV, or at Jamestown or places like that, but the reality is that the process sucks.  I quickly found that it takes a brutally large amount of time to work your way through even a small amount of dirt, especially when the dirt contains lots of gravel and rocks.  To be sure, I found some interesting things - bits of local redware, stoneware, some decent sized pieces of green hand-blown bottles and some cool china pieces, but really all I was finding  was old trash.  And this is not to disparage old trash.  Old trash can tell you a lot about the past.  If you haven't read it, I recommend James Dietz's fantastic book, In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American Life, to find out what I mean.  That said, there is only so much broken trash that a person can take before they throw in the towel.  Which is pretty much what I did after a few months.  And which is why "The Dirt Mound" continues to stand in our side yard, an eternal testament to my archaeological hubris.  From time to time I will take a few wheelbarrows of dirt to fill in a hole somewhere in our yard, and our kids love running down the mound at full speed and digging around the mound to find "Daddy's treasures", a phrase that sounds genuine when they say it, and more than a little sarcastic when used by Jenny.

While Jenny gently teases (mocks) me for the Dirt Mound, she is the one who retained the services of a metal detecting enthusiast at a silent auction, so she shares some culpability for our local (and predictably disappointing) National Treasure sequel.  Sadly, the semi-pro detector guy had just as bad luck on our property as I have had.  Among his paltry finds were a sheet of lead, a dog tag from the 1950s, a few axe head (old, but not that old), and a round metal disk that was the right size, metal and color to have been an 18th century coin, but which had been rubbed flat to the point that it was impossible to identify.  More old trash.

"Treasure" Hunting

The closest I have come to finding anything useful in the dirt was a cache of pottery shards, glass and bones that turned up under a circa 1840s entry hall on the side of the house.  As we were repairing the foundation around this structure, a few tantalizing pieces of Norwalk redware plates emerged, followed by some broken slip decorated stoneware and broken case bottles (and some creepy, unidentified bones).  Thinking that I was finally going to hit the jackpot, I excavated under the hallway, a process better suited to a small, double-jointed child than to someone of my size.  Still, I dug every piece of trash out from under that house, but never did encounter one complete item.

Still, hope springs eternal.  There are old wells and privies on the property to be dug (seriously, digging up old outhouses is generally considered to be the most likely way to find "good stuff" at an old house), and I may be only a shovelful of dirt away from finding that buried musket, figural flask, 18th century plate or diamond ring.

In the meantime, I will continue to fill container after container with broken glass and pottery, and to gaze in awe at the beauty of brilliant autumn sun setting behind the Dirt Mound.

October 05, 2011

Birdseye Views - Play Along at Home

I thought that I would pass along a great link for those people who are researching their old houses.  www.historicaerials.com makes available aerial photos of geographic locations from various times in the past.  For my house, they have overhead pictures from 1934, 1949, 1960, 1974 and 2006.  Pretty amazing to see the land change incrementally from wide open farmland to New York City suburb over a period of 70 years.  Particularly interesting is how long this location maintained its rural landscape.  Through 1960, my property consisted largely of open fields, stone walls and agricultural structures.  Pretty amazing.  Sadly, I can't paste in a picture here, but this link shows the Enos Kellogg Homestead property in 1934:

Check out your old house's address - very cool.  Now if only I could get back all those wide open acres . . .

A Cavalcade of Pictures!

Better late than never.  I am backfilling photos on my last few posts, which were tragically short on anything other than text.  So, even if no one is reading this blog, at least we will have a visual record of what we have done on the house over the past ten years.  This batch covers the recently completed work in the living room, entry hall and den.  I am throwing in a few pictures of reproduction lighting fixtures that we have installed over the past ten years for good measure.

Remember, if you like it then you shoulda put a comment on it . . .

Living Room and Entry Hall

Living Room

Restored Board-and-Batten Door to Entry Hall

19th Century Corner Cupboard

Hydrangeas from Jenny's Garden

Living Room, with 18th Century Ladderback Chair from Stratford, CT Area

Newly Restored Entry Hall

Wood Lantern, Converted to Sconce

All Lit Up

Entry Hall Peg Rack with Carved Wooden Hooks

Newly Painted Fron Door with Original Hardware

Iron Strap Hinges

18th Century Door - Original to House

Early October Fire

George Washington Andirons

Original Cooking Hearth

October 02, 2011

The Haunted Question

When you live in a really old house, there are a few questions that you are guaranteed to hear with some regularity.  When we first moved into our home, the most frequent question was probably "Are you out of your freaking minds?"  Fair question.  As the house has slowly taken shape, however, that question has, thankfully, started to fade away.  These days, the favorite question is "What is it like having kids in such an old house?"  Simple answer - the house has survived 227 years and dozens of children.  It's pretty much bomb proof (bomb proof being the minimal structural rating necessary to survive the onslaught of our wild 4 and 2 year old kids).

The most consistent question that we have gotten over the past ten years, however, has concerned the supernatural.  "Is it haunted?"  "Have you seen any ghosts?"  "Is that blood running down the walls?"  OK, I made the last one up.  Still, without doubt, our house has seen a lot since 1784.  More than a few people have been born and more than a few people have died in this house.  Quite a few of them are buried just up the street from our house.  Have their spirits stayed local, too?

For the most part, Jenny is very uncomfortable with these questions.  She doesn't want people to think that our house is creepy.  I, on the other hand, love it when the topic comes up.  First of all, who doesn't love a good ghost story?  Secondly, we have had a couple of weird - but never scary - things happen in the house, and I am always curious to see what people think about them.  I've never been much of a ghost believer, but ten years in an old house is bound to make you question a few things.

So, with Halloween only a few weeks away, I thought that I would share the ghost stories of the Enos Kellogg Homestead.  No worries - there is nothing gory or really scary, no poltergeists or apparitions - just a few low-grade campfire stories of weird things that my rational brain can't fully process.

The house decorated for Halloween - 2009

Our first weird experience came shortly after we moved into the house.  Actually, it was probably almost ten years ago to the day.  We moved in to the house with major restoration work underway.  Accordingly, there was no heat, we were sleeping on a mattress in our den, and our creature comforts consisted of little more than blankets, a few lamps and a small TV (I can survive a lot or inconvenience, but it would be tough for me to choose between running water and the soul-warming glow of my precious television.  Quoth Homer Simpson - "Television!  Teacher, mother, secret lover!").  As background, it should be noted that we were not (yet) engaged in any real work on the home's electrical systems.  This is why it was strange when light bulbs began to go out repeatedly in the house.  I would replace a burned out bulb in a lamp, only to have another bulb go out shortly thereafter.  No power disruptions, no tripped circuits, just one bulb after another burning out.  This went on for a few days before Jenny couldn't stand it any longer.  She stood up in our den one evening after the bulb in a lamp burned out (again), and addressed the house (and anyone or anything therein).  "Hey, we're working to save this house, not to destroy it."  And with that announcement, the flurry of burned out bulbs ceased.  Cue Twilight Zone music.

Our next spooky story is location specific.  The second floor bedroom at the top of the stairs was, prior to kids, the guest room in our house.  For whatever reason, people love this room - always claiming that it has a good vibe and that they sleep wonderfully in it.  My brother-in-law was a frequent visitor to the room in the years after we moved in.  One morning he told us a story (corroborated by his girlfriend) about the night before.  At some point in the night, his dog, who was sleeping on the floor next to the bed, stood up and began growling at the door.  He then proceeded to act as if someone had entered the room.  Focused on whatever he saw, he swiveled his head, and watched the "guest" proceed across the room to the far side (where a now sealed door to the adjoining room was located).  He then lay back down and went back to sleep.  In writing it, this sounds very mundane (a story better told than read, I guess), but both witnesses were insistent that they had seen this exact behavior many times before, when someone new to the dog came into a room, and that the dog, without doubt, thought that he was watching someone walk across the room. 

My next ghost-ish experience took place following the birth of my now four year old daughter.  In the weeks after she was born, we spent quite a bit more time roaming the house than we were accustomed to.  Feedings and diaper changes had us (mostly Jenny) doing a lot of zombie-fied shuffling around the house in the wee small hours.  One night, trying to soothe my crying daughter, I began walking laps around our living room (the home's original kitchen), carrying her on my shoulder.  As I walked around and around, I gradually became aware of something.  I smelled smoke.  Not call-the-fire-department smoke, but pipe tobacco.  As I began to pay closer attention, I got a distinct whiff of pipe smoke every time I reached a point just before the staircase in the corner of the room.  Nothing felt scary or intimidating, but the smell was unmistakable.  It was as if someone was checking in on the new addition to the house.  As I walked the same route around the room over the coming weeks, the tobacco smell would surface again from time to time, always in the same place.  I have no idea who was enjoying their pipe in my living room, but it was actually sort of a comforting presence.

My final household Halloween stories are really just stories of coincidences that are too improbable to believe, and I have relayed both in previous blog posts, so please forgive me as I plagiarize myself. 

Most improbable was a call I received from my parents the day before Halloween in 2009.  They were calling from an auction in middle-of-nowhere Pennsylvania.  As my dad was flipping through books on a table at the auction, he opened up a Victorian-era photo album.  As he looked, he was struck by how similar the house featured in family photo album was to my house.  The more closely he inspected, the more striking the similarities were.  Same house shape, similar looking barns.  A sign in one picture even seemed to read Norwalk in tiny print.  But it couldn't be, right?  Finaly, with a call to me, he was able to confirm enough details to make it clear that he had actually stumbled on a 100+ year old photo album from my house.  The photo at the top of the blog is scanned from that album, which is now back in the house.  A priceless treasure for me for the grand sum of $20.  By my calculation, that chances of this event occurring are precisely zero (mathletes - please spare me any lectures on probability and statistics, this is my story).  No way this book was not delivered to me by something supernatural.

In a similar vein, I was shocked earlier this year to see an auction advertisement for an early 19th century redware plate, manufactured in Norwalk fewer than five miles from my house, and emblazoned with the name Enos.  Around the time that the plate was made, I can find only three individuals named Enos in the various towns around Norwalk - the Enos Kellogg who built my house and who died in 1832, his nephew and namesake (also Enos Kellogg), and one unrelated Enos.  While it is by no means a certainty, this puts the odds freakishly high that the plate is memorializing either the man who built my house, or his namesake.  Weird, wild stuff.

So, there is the long answer to the ghost question.  No real ghost sightings and no skeletons in the basement (although who knows what is under that concrete floor?), but plenty to get your mind to thinking when you're sitting in an old house on a dark night. 

I'd love to hear how the rest of you old house people deal with the ghost question.  Do you revel in the chance to freak people out a little, or do you downplay anything weird?

Happy (early) Halloween!