Old House vs. Storm

Recently, I’ve been watching Storm Chasers, the show where lunatics try to intercept tornadoes and live to speak about it. After a tornado dissipates, the storm chasers often ride through the aftermath and survey damage. Depending on the strength of the tornado, damage ranges from a few downed limbs to completely flattened towns.

Of course, if our old farmhouse were, Lord forbid, in the path of a tornado, it wouldn’t stand a chance. During thunderstorms, Natalie says it’s both a comfort and concern to know our house is 118 years old. It’s weathered worse storms than this, she’ll say, but then again it was a bit younger when it did.

The house is your typical old farmhouse, built by a cotton farmer, Natalie’s great-great grandfather, out of old hand-hewn timber. In the inner layers of the plaster, we can still see animal hair, the predominate binding agent used in plaster in the 1800s. Apparently, the animal hair was effective, as our house still stands over 100 years later. Still, sometimes in the midst of a severe  thunderstorm, the fact that our house is held together by hand-hewn timbers and animal hair is a little disconcerting. Hopefully, a big, bad tornado, will never huff and puff and blow our house built of sticks in.

The backsides of our walls still have animal hair in the plaster

Interestingly, the original boards and timbers have stood the test of time better than the brick chimneys. About 10 years ago, Natalie’s Poppaw cut down the two main chimneys down and closed them up. Unfortunately, the mortar was crumbling and the chimneys were unstable.

The chimneys and fireplaces are now out of commission

If ever caught in the path of a bad storm, we only have the lone closet for protection from windows. It’s amazing to think that this one closet, about the size of a phone booth, once accommodated a family of nine. In the past, what clothes folks had were apparently kept in wardrobes and trunks. In any event, when a strong thunderstorm rolls through, Natalie goes into emergency mode, and we crouch down in the closet with couch cushions over us.

So far, so good. Although the house sometimes sounds like it’s getting ready to blast off in thunderstorms, we’re all, house included, still firmly on the ground.

Fledgling Farmers

Natalie’s great-great grandparents

My wife, Natalie, and I live in a white clapboard farmhouse built in the 1800s, and slowly but surely, we’re learning about farm life—by trial and error, by research, by watching my wife’s Poppaw.  He lives next door, and we rent the farmhouse from him.

My wife’s Poppaw comes from a long line of farmers, living in Shelby, NC, the self-proclaimed “City of Pleasant Living.” His grandfather built our house in 1893, when just about every square inch of the region was farmed for cotton. Now widespread cotton fields and ubiquitous fiber mills are gone.  But Shelby is still a pleasant place to live.

On some evenings, from the front porch, we watch three goats play beside a stoic quarter horse. The goats and horse live together in the pasture of our neighbor, Asa. We watch barn swallows hunt insects over the pasture, as the sky changes from blue, to pink, to purple. And as the sun retreats over Asa’s red barn, we talk about our dreams of raising sheep and alpacas, of selling produce and eggs at the Shelby farmer’s market.

My wife and I are in our mid-twenties, and we were raised in a generation mostly separated from the farm. Sure, our families had gardens, but food came from the grocery store and our parents’ livelihoods came from jobs unrelated to the soil.  Unlike our parents, who were born of cotton and tobacco farmers and who can remember the horses and cows and chickens, my wife and I remember other stuff—like my video game Age of Empires, in which tiny medieval farmers plow and harvest fields at the right-click of a mouse.

To say the least, we’re a little detached from farm life. But we’re trying. Although Natalie and I will probably never quit our day jobs, we like working in the garden and raising chickens in our free time. Indeed, in the past year, we’ve learned about several old farmstead activities, like making lye soap.  At an arts and crafts sale at a local university, our Bishop’s Tallow: Handcrafted, Hand-milled Soap was one of the biggest sellers there. After creating several fragrant varieties, from milk and honey to lavender and rosemary soap, we learned that soap-making is mostly a down and dirty process and that rendering tallow (a euphemism for purifying beef fat) renders the kitchen smelly, at least until you wise up and do it outside.

Wising up is what we’re trying to do. We like living in an old farmhouse. We like learning that deer aren’t eating our tomato plants, but cutworms are. And who would have thought that night crawlers aren’t the best composting worms because at night they have a tendency to crawl out of the compost bin and dry up on the floor? Indeed, while living in this old farmhouse and trying our hand at hobby farming, we’ve learned a lot from making mistakes. Most importantly, we’ve learned to have fun making them.