Category Archives: Renovation

Quick Fixes #1

This 180-year-old house underwent major renovations in the 1930’s and 1950’s. Probably the biggest fundamental shift to the house (well, besides indoor plumbing and electricity) was when they moved the driveway from the front of the house to the back. Horses and carriages used to ride up a semi-circle arc on the south lawn. But, after cars were invented, they moved the driveway to the back of the house, on the north. The problem with a north-facing entrance is that it is always damp. Over 80 years of constant moisture on the stones created a thick coating of slippery brown moss and algae that made that side of the house perilous and ugly. It was the perfect excuse to break out the power washer!

Like a dentist with a super-charged water pick, I blasted every nook and cranny, peeling layers of slime off the stones. Three hours and two soaking feet later, the walkways in the front were clean and several shades lighter. This also allowed the ornate stonework on the facades to stand out once again.

Continuing with “quick fixes” like these has made the biggest difference for me personally, in terms of turning the look and feel of the property back into a lived-in home. Of course, the minute we cross one off the list, another one goes on it. So, there are many more to come. But, we’re getting there!

Flash Back – Cobwebs in the Attic

A dusty box of papers in the attic revealed some amazing insights about life on this family farm back in the late 1800’s. For years, dozens of post-Civil War Era receipts and contracts from my great-great-grandfather, Silas Wright McCollum, and local businesses sat collecting cobwebs. It wasn’t until our “Big Clean” that some of these documents came to light. They give us a rare glimpse at the business of the historic farm. They also paint a vivid picture of this bustling town on the banks of the Erie Canal.

An invoice for seeds dated February 1883 from James Vick (of Rochester, NY) show what my family planned to plant and sell that year. It also gives a hint at what grew best on the farm and what produce was in highest demand during that time. Beans, peas, potatoes, cabbages and onions were among the many vegetables ordered. Near the bottom, you’ll see an order for a plant called Salsify, an oyster-flavored root vegetable. I guess our tastes have changed.

With the farm being situated next to the Erie Canal and a railway, it is possible this produce was shipped out West, along the Atlantic Seaboard and even out of the county.

A Memorandum of Agreement dated March 1884 was signed between my great-great-grandfather and the Niagara Preserving Company. In this, S. W. McCollum agreed to plant fifteen acres of “the best variety of tomatoes” and sell them only to the Niagara Preserving Company in exchange for a pre-negotiated selling price of $8 dollars per ton.

Besides needing to feed his own family, Silas also had to feed his workers and care for a wide range of farm animals. This bill from Arnold & Little, merchants from a Lockport city mill, shows a balance of $180.89 for the purchases of flour, feed & grain between October 1883 and March 1884.

Just like today, advertising your products and services is a key part of doing business. At a time before radio, television and the internet, printed word was your best option to reach the masses. In this receipt from October, 1884, Silas paid $23.50 in advertising expenses to the Union Printing and Publishing Co., owners of the Lockport Daily Union and the Niagara Democrat, the “best advertising mediums in Western New York.” In that spirit, we want to say, “Silas, welcome to Google.”

Rebuilding the Past

Back in April we wrote about a powerful freak windstorm hit Lockport, NY with wind speeds recorded at 83 mph. Dozens of trees fell, knocking down power lines and blocking traffic. The most notable casualty was a grand century-old Locust tree that shaded our quiet neighborhood street. When it fell, it left an 8-foot deep crater in the road. It also crushed an old iron fence and a section of a historic fieldstone wall that my ancestors built back in the 1830’s.

The fallen tree lay there for a few weeks (during which neighbors and passerby stopped to take photos) until the City hauled it away. The crew had to bulldoze a wider span of the old stone wall to drag it off our property. Just what I needed: another project.

Back in the day, horse- and ox-drawn plows crisscrossed the farm, tilling the ground. Rocks that were plowed up were carted to the sides of the fields where they were used to build stone walls that marked plots and property lines. Several generations of farming had produced a sizable wall of stacked rock. It stretches through the fields, in neighbors’ yards and even pops up on the other side of the street.

Project Rebuild waited until the end of the summer, after planting and the weather cooled off and when my brother-in-law, a former Russian body-builder, happened to be visiting. The first step was actually to clear the jumble of rocks and dismantle more wall so I could see how it was originally constructed. It brought me back to my days working as an archaeologist.

It was a double-wall construction, where two lines of large flat-faced rocks were placed on either side, and small rocks were piled in the middle trough. Thin stones where then used as shims to stabilize the layers. This back-breaking process was repeated until the wall was about 4.5 feet high, then a large capstone was set on top to hold everything in place.

Putting the wall back together was like finishing a large, very heavy jigsaw puzzle. The biggest boulders weighed over 300 pounds. And we have no oxen. It took pick axes, pry bars, perseverance and a lot of brute strength. But, we repaired the wall. Then, we even moved on to rebuild some other sections that had crumbled and collapsed over the decades. When we were finally finished, we’d added 20 feet of new wall with stones that we had collected during this growing season.

Repairing that wall made me appreciate the amount of labor that went into building this farm over the generations. It’s the kind of work that has to be done by hand. Sure, a machine could move the rocks, but only a person can construct that complex wall. Rebuilding the wall was like rebuilding a connection to my ancestors who did the same project on the same spot 180 years ago.

Next time you drive through the countryside and see an old stone wall in the woods, take a second to think of the family who toiled in the fields and built that wall in their attempt to clear the land and make a life for themselves. Until the day comes when no more stones surface in the fields, the wall on our property will be, as it’s always been, a work in progress.

What to Keep, Toss, or Sell: How to Clean Out An Old Barn

McCollum Orchards has a beautiful barn. Built in the late 1800s, it has wide virgin timber floorboards, rough ax-cut support beams held together with wooden pegs and square handmade nails. It has withstood many Western New York winters and begs to be used again for its intended purpose.

The problem is that we cannot use it for farm jobs because it is filled with generations of old stuff – broken furniture, lead windows, rusted kitchen utensils, old books, photos, trunks of molded clothing.  It has gathered about 80 years’ of dust and squirrel nests. We’re pretty sure it has become New York’s largest squirrel condominium. To be able to use the space, we have to clean and organize it and perhaps evict some angry squirrels.

How do you clean out an old barn? How do you decide what to keep, toss, or sell?

Asking those questions while standing in front of a barn full of stuff conjures up some surprisingly strong emotions – even when it is not your stuff! To do this right and not get overwhelmed, we had to deal with the knee-jerk sentiment to keep it all or the frustrated urge to toss it all. We also had to play nice with those chattering squirrels.

First, we developed an action plan to keep ourselves realistic. We designated areas of the barn for certain types of things.

Then, we created a decision matrix for each item:

  • Is it obviously trash? Move it to the garbage can.
  • Can it be sold for scrap? Move it to the scrap pile for drop-off.
  • Can it be reused for another farm purpose? Move it to the tractor shed.
  • Can it be sold at an auction or yard sale? Clean off and move to a dry side of the barn.
  • Does it have family historical significance? Take a photo and set aside for family.
  • Is it worth the cost and effort to repair? If no, then move to yard sale pile.

Finally, we donned industrial cleaning gear – coveralls, gloves, shoe covers, respirators, and goggles – and got to work. We moved like with like – farm tools with farms tools, books with books, and broken pieces altogether. Some decisions were no-brainers, like to toss a rusted metal bedspring, but to keep family wedding photos from the early 1900s. While we worked, little squirrel eyes followed us from room to room.

The process was helpful both in putting the farm’s long history in perspective and in preparing for its future. We uncovered relics that can be salvaged. At the same time, we created space to live in the present. Now, if we can just disable those walnut slingshots the squirrels set up…