Monday, September 10, 2018

Summer Ending

It is dark still at five in the morning. The lop-sided triangle of sky visible through my bedroom window is murky grey; the trees on the hillside are shapeless in the gloom.  This is not the velvety blackness of deepest night, but something less than a flush of dawn.
By six o'clock, the patch of sky has a pearly hue; the trees on the ridge show green, though their shapes are indistinct. Inside my bedroom color has not emerged.  Walls, curtains, my painted rocker, the patchwork quilt folded on a rack near the window--all wear the sepia tints of a room in a faded vintage photo.
Downstairs at a few minutes past six, the kitchen is dark; table and chairs loom, the wood range is a black hulk. The north windows frame a view of the stable and the dark  thick woods beyond. 

Summer has continued past the turning of the calendar page--a summer marked by frequent rain and days of sullen steamy heat. 
We've tweaked the settings of the newly installed A/C system, keeping the rooms upstairs and down comfortably cooled.
Outside, even this early in the day, the air is heavy with moisture, suffocatingly warm.

The cats venture out cautiously when I open the back door.  The overgrown garden is wet, its planting strips and grass walks run together, barely defined, abandoned in this season when rain has defeated my efforts to weed and to tidy.

Late summer wildflowers have bloomed in the heat: masses of yellow coreopsis, a froth of wild blue ageratum, blazing purple stalks of ironweed.
The upper lane is still in deep shade, although the morning sun has finally topped the ridge to warm the lower house and barns. 

Ironweed makes an exotic splash of purple towering above a background of jewelweed.

Boneset blooms in the moist ditch that disappears into the culvert at the bend of the lane.

Lavender-blue ageratum flourishes in the shade of fence corners and shallow ditches.

The area below the stable where I fling kitchen scraps and garden waste  is not worthy to be labeled a compost heap.
Each summer a tangle of vegetable plants germinate there from a welter of rotting tomatoes or over-ripe cucumbers, a spoiled melon.  Vines sprawl across the ground, clamber up the remnant of a fence.
One splendid butternut squash is nearing maturity.

The squash vine has scrambled under the fence.  This tiny squash, resting on stony ground will likely be overtaken by frost before it can grow large and ripen.

A squash blossom is a bright splash of color on a morning when rain threatens.

Cucumber or melon?  Another volunteer.

Morning glory or 'bindweed' in various mutations is the scourge of gardeners in a warm and humid climate. It clambers over pasture fences, swarms rapaciously through what remains of my perennial strips. Along the lane the flowers are pearly white. 
These resemble the cultivated variety Heavenly Blue.

Two years ago, before we sold the big meadow that borders the creek, I collected seeds from a rose-pink morning glory that blanketed the side of a weathered grey barn and grew thickly along the sagging  remnant of an old fence. The seeds, planted in a large pot the next spring, obligingly sprouted and vined.  The flowers [if they can be called that] were miniscule  and white.

Common white bindweed, growing near its blue-flowered cousin.

Jewelweed is in bloom along the brook-bed in the billy goats' pasture.
A bank of it borders the shady lane at our new property spilling into a ravine at the lower edge.

Summer has lingered long this year defying the calendar.
There is more than a week to wait until the autumnal equinox.
Surely by 22nd September, our weather will be more in keeping with our notions of 'fall.'

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

A Good Name

The Rising Hotel, Lake George, Hague, NY

The morning sun cleared the top of the wooded hill to the east of the stable, sending  fingers of light through unshuttered windows. 
The bay gelding stamped a hoof, stirring the chaff on the stall floor into dancing specks.
A fly landed on his shining neck, causing his hide to twitch.
"Easy, Dan."
Mac stroked the gleaming, just brushed coat, checked the last harness buckle. 
Satisfied that all was secure, he backed Dan from the stall, led him toward the shed where the farm wagon and family buggy were parked.
On the shady side of the barn, the light  held a pearly dawn quality and the August morning was cool.

Mac guided Dan between the buggy shafts and they crunched across the dooryard to the fence at the back porch.
From the hen house a rooster heralded the day; a hen triumphantly announced production of an egg. 
Mac's brother, Andrew, appeared in the barn doorway, a brimming pail of milk in each hand.
The screen door opened onto the back porch and Mac hurried to help with loading of the farm produce to be carried to the hotel on the shore of Lake George.

Winters in the Adirondacks were cold and long; narrow mountain roads often drifted in with snow; summers were too brief and busy.
From late May til early September 'summer folks' swarmed to the lakeside hotels and boarding houses to exchange the stifling heat of cities for the clear cooler air of the lake-dotted mountain hamlets.  Hotel proprietors boasted of 'setting a fine table' and depended on the locals to supply fresh produce, eggs and milk.

Mac's little sister, Julia, was in charge of feeding the flock of Plymouth Rock chickens, collecting and washing the eggs, packing them in clean straw for the trip down the mountain.
She stood now at the edge of the porch, neat in flowered calico, soft brown hair in a plait down her back, lifting the crate of eggs towards Mac's reaching hands.
Mother sailed through the door, starched apron rustling. In quick succession she set out a basket of green beans, picked the previous evening, the cheesecloth covered buckets of blueberries that Mac and Andrew had gleaned as they ranged along the slopes of Tongue Mountain in slumberous afternoon heat.
Jugs of milk, gleaming glass jars of raspberry jam, a pail of small new potatoes, yellow crook-neck squash heaped in a basket. 
Julia passed items to Mac who stowed them carefully in the buggy while Mother supervised. 
At last with the milk and produce settled to her satisfaction she retreated to the kitchen reappearing in a moment with a large cloth-covered crock which she deposited on the porch steps. 

'Mind you don't dally, Mac, the butter needs to stay cold.' And she was gone, the screen door slapping behind her.
Left alone, Mac, who wasn't at all prone to dallying or wasting time, contemplated his collection of baskets, buckets and crocks, decided he could devise a more efficient arrangement to insure that nothing was spilled on his trip along the rutted dirt road.

Around him the August morning bloomed;  cobwebs shimmered in the dewy grass, barn swallows swooped in and out the open stable doors.
So accustomed was Mac to the sounds of the farmstead that he heard them as muted background--the cluckings and scratchings of the hens which Julia had loosed from their overnight confinement;  the delighted whinnies of the sorrel work horses, Dick and Bess, as Andrew dished out their grain; work sounds drifting from the graphite mill, the subdued clattering from the pantry sink as mother attacked the breakfast dishes.
Pleased finally with the rearrangement of containers, Mac turned to lift the brown crockery bowl of butter balls into the spot he had cleared. 
The cows, on summer pasture, were producing quantities of rich milk; Mother trusted no one else to handle the milk and the making of butter.  Meticulous in all her housekeeping, she gave extra attention to the care of milk as it was carried in night and morning.  She stood over Andrew as the milk was strained from the foaming pails  and poured into the shining bowl of the cream separator. Skim milk and thick yellow cream were decanted into glass jars that had been washed and rinsed with scalding water, then rushed down cellar into the damp coolness of the earth-floored larder.
Cleanliness and neatness were high on Mother's list of priorities.

The bowl was heaped higher than usual, the muslin covering bulged over the butter balls.
As Mac lifted the crock, swung it toward the buggy, an edge of the towel slipped from under the twine binding it in place and a butter ball bounced into the short grass at his feet.
Mac landed the bowl carefully on the buggy floor and with a mild sigh stooped to retrieve the fallen butter ball. 

Mac picked up the butter, still in its cheesecloth wrapping.  Turning it over he picked off several blades of grass, and not finding evidence of dirt or grit he moved to replace the butter ball in the crock.
Behind him the screen door opened, swung shut again with a twang of hinges. The porch floorboards creaked as Mother sailed to the edge of the steps. 
"Mac!" Her voice was sharp with exasperation. "Whatever are you doing?"

Before Mac could gather his wits to answer, Mother continued, "Surely you're not thinking to pedal butter that has been on the ground!"
Mac held the butter ball out for her inspection.  "Its not dirty," he protested. 
Mother's tone rose a notch.  "Not dirty?  It landed on the ground!  I saw through the pantry window!"
Taking the butter ball, Mother sputtered, "It landed on the ground--where you've been standing--where the horse has been--where the chickens have pecked!"

Mac stood resignedly, waiting for the tirade to ease.
Mother's round cheeks were rosier than usual, her blue eyes glinted with irritation.
She blew out her breath with a small huffing sound, "Hmmmmph!"

In a milder tone Mother explained, "We have a reputation--I have a reputation. Byron Rising has a reputation to maintain.  He advertises the freshest produce, fresh eggs, the finest sweet cream butter; he's proud of the table he sets for the hotel guests."

Mac shifted from one foot to the other, anxious to be on his way.  Dan shook his head, swished his tail. The harness jingled.

Mother continued, coaxing Mac to understand. "I'm known for the way I keep my kitchen, the way I handle the milk--just as you and Andrew are known for finding the best berries on the mountain.  You take care to pick carefully, no green berries, no leaves and twigs in what you pedal to the hotel.  Julia washes every egg--no smears, no fluff or straw sticking to eggs that come from this house."

Mac twitched at his galluses, considered the wisdom of an answer.
Before he could formulate one Mother concluded her homily.

"We have a good name," she stated quietly, "A good name for honesty and hard work, a good name for selling only the best. I'll unwrap the butter, scrape off the edges to be sure its clean and I'll use it for baking, but its been on the ground and its not going to be passed off at the hotel!  Now, you'd best be going before the morning heats up."
The screen door slapped behind her rustling calico skirt; a chicken squawked; Dan snorted between the buggy shafts.

Mac pulled out the pocket watch secured to his suspender loop with a leather shoelace. A quarter to six!  He untied the reins from the fence post, climbed to the buggy seat.
"Right, Dan," he said, "We've taken too long getting ready to commence this trip. You'll need to step lively to have these goods pedaled to the hotel before the summer people want their breakfast."

Mac wheeled out of the dooryard, turned onto Battle Hill Road.  
August mist rose in thin silver veils from a neighbor's meadow;  the scent of wood smoke from breakfast fires mingled with that of dusty roadside blooms and swaths of curing hay.
Dan's hooves beat smartly on the hard packed surface of the road. Mac drove easily, the leather reins in his right hand, enjoying the soft summer morning, pleased with the good load he was 'pedaling' to the trim hotel with its white paint and wide veranda facing the blue waters of Lake George. 

Shortly he would be pulling in at the back door of the hotel.  He knew from other trips that the steps would have been swept, the big front porch tided, the rocking chairs lined precisely to take advantage of the view toward the tree-lined ledges that rimmed the other side of the lake.
Crisp white curtains would be fluttering at the upper windows.  Cook and her serving girls would be bustling in the kitchen, making ready for those guests who would soon be early arrivals in the big dining room. 

Mac would wait with Dan while Byron Rising tallied the produce, counting the eggs, weighing out the green beans and the yellow squash, calling for a clean container to carefully transfer the blueberries from the bucket. Mr. Rising might comment, "Can always count on you Lewis boys to bring in the biggest berries!"

The day was warming into mid-morning heat when Mac turned Dan back up the mountain road. The empty buckets and baskets at his feet rocked gently when the buggy rumbled over a rutted stretch of road.  Folded carefully in Mac's shirt pocket was the slip of paper on which Byron Rising had copied the details of the delivery, a total due neatly penciled at the bottom of the list.
At the end of the month there would be crisp bills and silver coins to add to the little hoard squirreled away in the old blue sugar bowl, added funds to see the Lewis family through another Adirondack winter.  

Mac let Dan take his time on the steepest climb heading home. Puffs of dust rose under the buggy wheels as Mac pulled into the  dooryard.  Dan would be rubbed down, brushed, turned out into the pasture after being offered a bucket of fresh water.

The buggy, unloaded, had been parked in the shed, Dan tended. The sun ascending toward its mid-day zenith  had warmed the dooryard.  
Julia poked her head round the back door, smiled at her beloved big brother. 
"I heard you coming up the road, " she declared. "I've got a glass of cold buttermilk and some fresh  gingerbread ready for you. Mother has water hot to wash the buckets and crocks as soon as you bring them in.  Andrew has gone out to scythe around the garden fence."

Mac grinned at Julia.  "Sounds like we're all working hard this morning. After all, we've got a good name to live up to!"

Grampa Mac with son Billy circa 1919.
Mac was in his late teens when the story of the butter ball took place.
He married in December, 1913 and moved to the Vermont side of Lake Champlain, to become a partner in the farm purchased a year earlier by his wife's parents. 

From an 1890 advertisement:
Rising House, Hague on Lake George
This New House is located in one of the most Healthful Localities on Lake George, commanding an extensive view of the lake, with fine facilities for
Supplied with Mountain Spring Water, Fresh vegetables, milk, butter and eggs.
B.A. Rising, Proprietor, Hague, Warren County, New York

Monday, September 3, 2018

Cellar Holes and Door Yards

Cellar Hole on our new property: A work in progress.

From Merriam-Webster:
Definition of cellar hole: an excavation intended for a cellar or the exposed cellar area where a house has once stood

A good friend, sitting across the table from us at a recent church dinner, inquired, "So, have you started work on that piece of property you bought?"
Jim, having momentarily shoveled in a large wodge of lasagna, took a few seconds to reply, then stated, "I've got my cellar hole two-thirds dug.  If the rain will quit for a few days I'll be ready for concrete."
Friend Raymond was puzzled. "Say what? You're doin' what?"
Jim elaborated. "I bought a backhoe.  I'm digging the cellar hole!"
Raymond considered this. "I suppose you mean you're digging out for the basement...or do you mean a storm cellar?   I never heard of a cellar hole."
I decided to wade into the conversation.
"The cellar hole is the excavation in the ground where the foundation goes."   

New England [the land of our birth and heritage] is dotted with old cellar holes, the buildings which stood there-on long since collapsed and slowly absorbed into the surrounding earth.

Cellar hole is a term well understood in New England, in upstate New York and in the Maritime Provinces of Canada. Crouched in over-grown pastures or along bramble-crowded log roads cellar holes endure, half filled with more than a century's worth of fallen leaves, layers of twigs and branches, with perhaps part of their stone-lined walls tumbled. 

Stones were [and are] a plentiful commodity in the north east---picked laboriously to clear hilly pastures, piled in heaps and cairns, stacked to create grey stone walls--and cellar holes.

A stone cellar hole a few rods from Grampa Mac's south line fence bore witness to a house burned decades before my birth. My mother could not recall a house there or name the family  to whom it might have belonged.
My sisters and I clambered over the sagging wire fence, scrambled through thorny barberry bushes to emerge at the edge of that cellar hole. The stones wore beards of moss. Weeds and a few small saplings hid the detritus of years--rusted tin cans, shards of broken crockery, twists of blackened wire.
We poked about, inventing tales of the families who might once have lived there.

A twenty minute walk across the west pasture, over the brook, up the hill and into Grampa Mac's woodlot brought us to another stone cellar hole.  This one lay a short distance from the woods road, surrounded by maples and beech. 
We pressed Uncle Bill for information, but although born and raised on the farm he could supply only the vague hint of a story: a man, before his day, had owned the lot, prepared the cellar hole but died before building a house.

To the east and a bit south of Grampa Mac's farm lies the wooded rise known as Wilder Hill. A road [so they say] once followed the base of the hill, passing the homesteads of Daniel Wilder and Edmund Gould, forebears of Almanzo Wilder. 
Elderly residents in the neighborhood recalled that the old road was still occasionally used in the early 1900's as a 'short cut;' they testified to the presence of the old cellar holes that remained after the two families departed for northern New York in the 1840's.

We searched for traces of the old road, crossing a neighbor's back meadow, battling swarms of black flies and summer's heat. 
A neighbor and I once left her car in the edge of a field, hiked into the woods hoping to discover the old road from its supposed northerly starting point.   It was late September, a day of golden sun and drifting leaves.  We made our way around the hill inside the belt of trees, finding no hint of a road or a long-ago dwelling.  We retraced out steps, plunged higher into the woods.  Susie grew tired, her passion for local history drowning in fatigue and a failing sense of direction.  I assured her we had only to walk toward the sun hovering low over the western ridge and we would reach the pasture below her home where I would phone for someone to fetch her car.

In all the years that we searched for the Wilder Hill settlement we found no trace of the old road, no half buried cellar holes, no twisted lilacs which might have graced a dooryard.

Decades ago when our children were in grade school, we took an impromptu Sunday afternoon trip across Lake Champlain on the ferry, drove through the quiet streets of Ticonderoga, headed for Hague, NY, the place where many of my mother's kinfolks settled in the late 1700's.

Absorbed into Jim's large maternal family, I was feeling a need to connect with my own roots.
I realized that although I cherished Grampa Mac's stories of growing up on the little farmstead tucked against Tongue Mountain, I had never been there and had no idea where it was located.

We landed in the dooryard of my great uncle and aunt [Grampa Mac's sister] who promptly rang up their daughter and son-in-law next door to tell them of our arrival.
At some point in the afternoon when I mentioned my desire to find the place where Grampa was raised, we were bundled into Gerald's car and driven a few miles up the Graphite Mountain Road.
Gerald turned onto a barely defined rough track that led through the green darkness of close-crowding trees.  The car lurched forward over grass-grown ruts, bumped to a stop.

Grampa Mac's stories had conjured a picture of a small clap-boarded farmhouse, wood smoke rising from the chimney, a barn for livestock, stable for the horses, pasture and hay meadows.  We stood there in the tiny clearing, trees leaning in from all sides; brush and brambles made exploration impossible.
My imagination failed me,
Gerald jabbed with the stem of his pipe: "The house stood there--see where the rim of stones marks the old cellar hole.  The barn was back to one side." Again he gestured toward the trees with his pipe.

After all, what had I expected? Surely not this sense of dislocation, this silent deserted spot in the deep woods.  I couldn't people it with my grandfather, his younger brother and sister, his parents whose likenesses were not among those curling tiny photos in the musty old black album.

I walked slowly toward the rubble of grey stones, all that remained to mark the place that had been home to three generations of my mother's paternal family.  I ran my hand along a bit of the cellar wall still standing, selected a flat, grey, moss-covered stone, small enough to take away. 

Paging through the entries in a diary kept by Grampa Mac I found his record of a journey back to the old farmstead on Tongue Mountain.  In his late 80's and a mere few years before his death, his remarks were typically brief: "Went back to the place where I was raised.  Hardly knew it, couldn't find the big maple that was in the dooryard."

People move away from home, old hamlets are deserted, saplings sprout and grow into trees that obliterate pasture, house and outbuildings.
As Grampa Mac would have said, families 'die out' and soon the generation that knew the names, the places and stories, has passed.

Jim hopes to have our cellar hole ready for concrete this week. A new house, one without prior history or former occupants. As the walls are raised, the surrounding earth leveled and smoothed, I can anticipate landscaping, choosing the shrubs and perennials that will define a dooryard created from a former rough pasture. 

"Cellar hole" and 'Door yard" are terms firmly lodged in our lexicon, part of our sense of place.
They mark the  beginning of what will become "home."

Dooryard: US and Canadian:  a yard in front of the front or back door of a house.