Something to Presume

Let’s take another look inside that ancient beehive oven.

beehive 2

As previously noted, I’d always thought these alcoves along the stairs to the basement looked like beehive ovens but I’ve only recently confirmed this. (That is, the middle alcove, in the photo above, was definitely built as a beehive oven.)

Can you see those black speckles and spattered spots? We must be looking at carbon from cooking. What would carbon-dating tell us? Could we figure out exactly what they were cooking in that oven? Goat meat, perhaps? Or wild boar?

And then there’s this, which showed up in a digital image. What is this? Could it be the remains of some monstrous arachnid known only to the Puritan colonists? Or perhaps it is a mysterious rhizome, growing with impunity between the bricks? But then again, it could be some kind of alien life form that decided to attach itself to the oldest oven in North America, hoping to get the attention it deserves:

spider

In previous posts I explained that this hearth was clearly sealed before the stairs – to the second floor – and to the basement – were built.

The amazing thing about this is that the second floor was built about three hundred years ago; perhaps more than three hundred years ago. (I’m basing this assessment on the hand-hewn beams, gunstock posts, and early Georgian paneling throughout the second floor. I’ll talk more about that later.)

Also, my husband John feels it is important to clarify that the second story Georgian paneling was installed after the second story beams had settled, because the paneling was cut with strong horizontal and vertical shapes, which, when joined to the beams, were cut diagonally to accommodate the skew of the settled beams. This dates the construction of the beams to a time well before the installation of the old Georgian paneling.

This means that the hearth (with the beehive oven picture above), which must have been in use for many, many years, was sealed and deactivated about three hundred years ago, or perhaps even earlier than three hundred years ago.

In other words, around three hundred years ago, that hearth was already old and obsolete. Therefore, that hearth must be pretty old.

My presumption is, therefore, that our house dates to the very, very early first period.

Rant Du Jour

The purpose of these rants has been to raise consciousness around the serious risks to the historic homes on our street (including our home), and to the pedestrians, including the many, many children who walk this route to and from school.

These risks have come from heavy high-speed traffic and especially from the super-heavy trucks that travel this street. By state regulation, these trucks can weigh as much as 127,400 pounds each.

All these factors are potentially disastrous to us because our front door is approximately 12 feet from that traffic.

Yet I’m happy to say that we’ve recently experienced a breakthrough. The speed limit on our street has been lowered to 25 miles per hour. (It should be lower than that, but this is a start.)

We are very grateful to the state representative, town select board, and town manager for lowering the speed limit.

However, while most of the traffic seems to be slowing down, much of the truck traffic still appears to be speeding (we’re not the only people in the neighborhood who’ve noticed this). Therefore, the street needs to be patrolled to ensure that all vehicles, especially the trucks, are obeying the speed limit.

I’ve also been asking that the following safety measures be implemented:

  • super-heavy trucks should be prohibited from this street
  • we need stop signs at both ends of this street
  • protective barriers should be installed along the sidewalks

I’ve not yet received a response to these requests, but at least there is finally a glimmer of hope.

We bought this house about four and a half years ago. So we are still outsider newcomers in a very old town.

There are several sides to Ipswich but, being idiosyncratic artists, we don’t exactly know where we fit in the grand scheme of things.

My perception is that because the truckers have had their way with this street for a long time, they may be reluctant to slow down. And the affluent residents from the tony parts of town have long seemed indifferent to the truckers having their way with our street, which suggests that they may be overlooking the historical significance of our neighborhood.

So although there is clearly a dichotomy – a schism if you will – between the two delineated socioeconomic town factions, there does seem to be some agreement (albeit tacit) between them, in that both factions seem to believe that the historical aspects of the homes where we live are insignificant and expendable.

Enter those idiosyncratic artists who disagree with all of that, with this assertion: despite previous assumptions and presumptions about the historic homes on our section of High Street, new information must be recognized – and valued – whenever – and wherever – there is truly something to preserve.

Addendum at 1:23 PM, February 10, 2019

If you’ve been following my blog, you may get the sense that I’m pretty passionate about saving our historic house and the other historic houses in my neighborhood from a constant threat. The tractor trailer trucks that drive through are so big and they travel so close to these homes that a slight, accidental turn of the wheel could instantly demolish any of them. The importance of conveying this to others seems obvious to me, but I’m not certain I’ve yet been able to make this all clear.

After publishing my most recent post, I received an email saying, “Please don’t disparage other people in the community” and, “alienating the people you ask to help you is not a good strategy.”

My intention has not been to disparage anyone in the community. My intention has been to raise awareness of the dangers to our neighborhood.

I think this may be the passage that he finds upsetting: “And the affluent residents from the tony parts of town have long seemed indifferent to the truckers having their way with our street, which suggests that they may be overlooking the historical significance of our neighborhood.”

The words “affluent” and “tony” were not meant as disparaging descriptions; they were meant to characterize the parts of Ipswich where the owners have preserved their historic homes so well and where there is no high-volume traffic and no tractor trailer traffic.

I love those parts of town! They are beautiful! The residents there clearly care about their homes, which reflect deep respect for their historical features.

However, it is my impression that few people understand the historical significance of our neighborhood.

Many people in our neighborhood have also worked enthusiastically with sustained effort, and at great expense, to preserve their historic houses. But the fact that our neighborhood is used as a route for maximum-weight heavy tractor trailer trucks makes it appear to have little value or historical significance. In reality, however, our little neighborhood is actually one of the most important historic locations in this country, and this is what I’ve been trying to help everyone understand.

Here is a section from my memo to the Select Board, about a year ago. (The entire memo is included in my blog post “Wrought through Time.”):

Ipswich has some wonderful assets. The Crane estate is awesome, but it is a reproduction. The beach is awesome, but there are many beaches in New England. This largest section of village, however, is unique; unique in this entire country. In reality, it is Ipswich’s greatest land asset.

Maybe I’m tilting at windmills and seeing gold in shaving basins. But to me, our neighborhood is like a yard sale da Vinci. It has enormous value. In fact, it is priceless. Don’t dismiss it because it is dusty with a broken frame. Don’t dismiss it because it has high-volume traffic or because maximum-weight heavy tractor trailer trucks run through it day and night.

It is difficult to keep up appearances of your home, and to maintain your equanimity, when you know your home can be accidentally demolished at any moment by a maximum-weight tractor trailer truck that is simply passing through. It is difficult to have a beautiful front lawn when the heavy-volume traffic results in strangers repeatedly tossing their trash onto it as they pass through.

I’m not attempting to disparage the beautiful parts of town that have little traffic.

But in our neighborhood, along with seeking some safety for the pedestrians, I’m only trying to help save some national treasures.

 

 

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Advancing the Notion

I’ll try to be brief. Maybe I’ve been using too many words. Maybe reading has become passé.

So I’ll skip straight to the rant, but first I’ll share one closer look at our truly ancient hearth. Again, the lower left alcove was probably used for firewood storage. The upper alcove was positively, without a doubt, a beehive oven.

closeup of ancient hearth

I’ve been repeatedly searching online for examples of Colonial American hearths and this one looks older than anything else I’ve seen.

Rant Du Jour

Last week, my husband John and I noticed that the speed limit as you enter our historic village was lowered to 25 MPH. But mysteriously, the 35 MPH sign across the street from it – and the 30 MPH sign across the street from us – were never updated or removed, which may be why no one seems to be slowing down.

Then three days ago we received an email from a member of the town Select Board (with copies to the state representative and to the town manager) telling us that the speed limit had been lowered to 25 MPH. (About a year ago I’d spoken at a Select Board meeting about the dangerously high speeds along our street, and I’ve repeatedly complained since then.)

I wrote back to her, with copies to the state representative and to the town manager, that we’d noticed the lowered speed limit sign on our side of the street, but the high speeds were still posted on the other side of the street.

I also reminded them of the other serious dangers resulting from the super-heavy tractor trailer trucks that regularly travel along this street.

Then we received an email from the state representative saying he would contact the town manager and work with the Select Board member to rectify the situation (meaning the signage discrepancies). This was two days ago.

As of 10:14 AM today, the high speeds are still posted across the street. I’d go out there and update those signs myself if they’d give me the tools. But at least this is a small victory.

There has been no response to my concerns about fixing the other seriously dangerous problems on this street – the super-heavy tractor trailer trucks traveling right alongside the fragile historic homes and traveling right alongside the many children who walk along the sidewalks to and from school, as well as the need for some stop signs – but at least the lowered speed limit is a start.

Too often when accidents happen here, the accidents are blamed on the weather. But the weather would not be so dangerous if other safety measures were in effect.

Today is Friday. I’m truly hoping they’ll add those lowered speed limit signs on the other side of the street before the snow and ice arrive. We’re expecting a major winter storm this weekend.

 

Addendum at 2:30 PM, January 24, 2019

The weekend storm brought much snow and ice, and the 30 MPH and 35 MPH speed limit signs are still in place across the street. It was my understanding that these signs would be replaced by 25 MPH signs, but that hasn’t happened yet.

I’ve been kind of obsessively checking to see if the 25 MPH sign at the base of the railroad bridge is still there, and as of yesterday it was, so maybe there’s hope.

But the super-heavy trucks are still speeding through. I’ve got to believe that’s because directly across the street from the new 25 MPH speed limit sign, the old 35 MPH sign is still in place, so maybe the truckers think they can pick and choose their speed. It says 25 MPH but it also says 35 MPH, so maybe they’re all choosing the 35 MPH option.

This should be a chapter in my upcoming book about our old (perhaps oldest) house. The traffic situation here is farcical.

 

Addendum at 4:00 PM, January 30, 2019

Yesterday the 25 MPH speed limit signs were posted across the street. Thank you to our state representative, who has been instrumental in making this happen.

The heavy trucks still appear to be speeding through, however.

And we still need help prohibiting those heavy trucks from this street, installing stop signs, and placing some kind of protective barriers along the sidewalks, but at least the lowered speed limit signs are a good start.

Hearth Signs Redux

Have you ever suddenly noticed something that’s been right under your nose for years? And then you can’t believe you’ve never before noticed it?

A few days ago I was sitting in our dining room looking at our old hearth and it occurred to me, Wait, this is connected to those alcoves on the stairs to the basement:

alcoves

In 2014, the architect who came with the realtor when we first saw this house said those alcoves were root cellars. But wait, those alcoves are too close to the fireplace and would get warm and would therefore not be effective at storing food.

Another architectural historian who walked through the house dismissed the alcoves as some kind of storage. But that would seem odd and random. And if the Puritans were anything, they were not random.

When we first bought this house I’d spent a little time combing through the dust of each alcove, always thinking they were somehow important. And finally, a few days ago, it occurred to me to inspect them with a flashlight. That’s all it took. Amazing it took me so long. (It took so long because the steps are precarious and it would be very easy to lose my footing and fall.)

The central alcove is clearly a beehive oven. Look inside:

beehive oven

The apex of the inside forms a brick dome, which has been charred, obviously through the process of cooking.

So what we appear to have is a wraparound double hearth. The hearth in our dining room faces North West. But around the corner and connected to that hearth is another hearth (which we used to think of as a set of mysterious alcoves), which faces North East (and it is hidden by stairways up and down – to the second floor – and to the basement – and by the interior door to the basement staircase). The North East facing hearth has long since been bricked off from the North West facing hearth. (This may have been when the second floor was added to this house. I’ll talk about that later.)

This photo of the interior of the North East hearth beehive oven shows that it was bricked off from the North West hearth:

bricked off beehive oven

No matter when or how or why the alcoves were closed and the wraparound double hearth became a single hearth, it is certain that the North East hearth was not built along the stairs. I’ve looked around for other 17th century hearth examples, and it looks like the alcove on the lower left was used for storing firewood. The middle alcove was definitely a beehive oven. The top smaller alcove must have also been used for cooking, being connected to the North West hearth around the corner. You wouldn’t expect pragmatic Puritans to walk up or down a set of precarious stairs to fill or to access their firewood storage, nor would you expect them to cook their food while standing on a precarious staircase. No. They wouldn’t have done that. Therefore, there was certainly once a floor by these alcoves… by this hearth.

And the stairs that we have now, and the opening for the stairs (both down and up), were added later.

The fact that these two hearths were once connected but that connection is not visible from our dining room hearth means that our dining room hearth has a false back, which looks extremely old. And yet, something far older is hidden behind it.

Here is the back left corner of our dining room hearth. The area on the right was added later:

false back of hearth

(Just what we need: another area to open and to explore and to make the room all dusty again.)

Now for the hearth redux. My husband (John) pointed out something worth clarifying.

Earlier in this blog when I’d talked about the signs of the hearth, I’d said the dining room chimney was packed with wattle and daub, because I’d found some along the shelf across the top of the hearth, and the chimney stack is clearly coated with wattle and daub along the outside edges. But John, who is also a potter, reminded me that the central part of the hearth itself is made of brick and clay and nothing else. Pure clay. No mortar. No wattle and daub. Just brick and clay.

Look. For example:

little blob

This is a little blob of clay that’s been sitting there on our fireplace for centuries, acting as mortar but without the adherent qualities of mortar. As far as we can tell, the only thing that has held the entire ancient chimney stack together is the process of firing it went through when it was active, long, long ago. In other words, the chimney stack is fragile. Remarkably fragile.

The fact that the area all around the chimney (which is also brick so I’d assumed it was also part of the chimney) is packed with wattle and daub implies that the wattle and daub in this area may have been insulation to an outer (exterior) wall that was later removed as the house was expanded (built out).

There has been some confusion in town about the age of our home. Apparently there was a “planter’s cottage” that was moved from this land in the 1940’s to another section of Ipswich, and apparently there are people who believe that cottage was the original structure on our land. But as far as we know, for about a hundred years before we bought it, the interior of our home had no first-hand assessment by any architectural historian. (Perhaps a first-hand assessment was done by the author of an article in the Antiquarian Papers, who wrote of our house, “The central part is very ancient.” My copy of that article is undated with no byline, but it includes an image of our home, illustrated by the artist Arthur Wesley Dow, so I’m assuming that the article dates to the late 19th or early 20th century.)

However, had the age of our house been recently assessed before we bought it, the true age would not have been clear because so many of the architectural artifacts we’ve uncovered were then still covered and therefore unavailable for inspection. (For example, our dining room hearth, which is in the “very ancient” central part of the house, was still covered by layers of newer brick and paneling.)

Essentially, in 2014, we bought an encapsulated house. Quite literally. Layers upon layers upon layers were covered by more and more layers of materials through time; through hundreds of years.

The fact that a cottage that “was believed” to be the original structure was moved from this property in the 1940’s does not prove that our home is not as old as that cottage or, in fact, even older.

We have a hearth and chimney built of brick and pure clay, enveloped by wattle and daub. We have an adjoining hearth around the corner that has been closed off for centuries

Why is all this significant?

It would appear that the original section of our home is defined by these hearths – and the structure they formed – and still form. This structure is extremely old (“very ancient”) and would have been built very early in the first period.

Again, it would appear that the wattle and daub surrounding the chimney served as a buffer to the outside of the building. In other words, the original outside became the inside. And the inside kept growing. And the outside kept growing.

Maybe one of the reasons historians have been confused about the age is that if they had not gone inside to look around, they might have based their assessment on the above-the-weather-line section of chimney, which can be seen from the street. That chimney looks – and is – quite new; as late as perhaps the early 19th century.

But an architect who specializes in historical restorations (who identified features of our home when we saw it with our realtor) pointed out, in the attic, the line where the top of the old 17th century chimney (the original area above the weather-line, or perhaps the top of a 17th century chimney weather-line but not necessarily the earliest 17th century chimney weather-line) united with the addition to that chimney – and that addition (which you can see from the street) – was constructed sometime in the early 19th century.

Here are photos of that earlier (perhaps the oldest) above-the-weather-line line where the 17th century section of chimney joins with the 19th century addition. This line and this exceptionally old section of chimney are only visible within our attic. These are not visible from the street:

chimney line

attic chimney

Our deed dates to 1634. Historians can argue about what that means, but in philosophy there is “Occam’s razor,” which stipulates that the simplest theory is most likely correct. In other words, if our deed dates to 1634, maybe we should consider the possibility that our home, or at least the genesis of our home that still exists and which we discovered under all those layers, also dates to 1634 (or at least close to that date).

In other words, we have uncovered layer upon layer upon layer because through hundreds of years this house was built out and out and out while retaining the genesis of what may be not only the oldest house in this town but also the oldest house in this country.

In other words, we need an archaeologist.

Rant Du Jour

A dear friend of mine has cautioned me about proving that our house is the oldest in the country, because if it is, we’d need to prepare to be “seriously inconvenienced.”

She is most certainly correct. As I’ve mentioned earlier in this blog, my husband is part of the Fairbanks family of Dedham, and the Fairbanks House is currently considered to be the oldest house in the country. We’ve visited that house and have learned that having their house designated as oldest was a serious inconvenience to that family.

But we’re in a bit of a bind.

About a year ago, our youngest daughter was almost hit by a car while trying to cross at a crosswalk near our house. (And we know from reading the local news that this situation keeps happening to other people all along our street, which is also known as Route 1A and Route 133.) About two years ago a super heavy truck sped by, causing our house to shake so violently that it activated a fire alarm that we could only disable by removing the battery.

Basically, the speed limits along our street are far too high, and the exceptionally heavy tractor trailer trucks that speed along our street present hazards to the historic houses and hazards to all pedestrians, including the many, many children who walk along this street to and from school.

I’ve written to the Select Board, I’ve spoken at a Select Board meeting, I’ve written to our State Representative, and I’ve sent numerous emails to the Historical Commission.

I’ve gotten nowhere.

I’ve been trying to establish the historical significance (and the fragility) of our home, hoping this will help provide it with some protection, from any source.

Over the holidays some friends and family members who’ve been helping me research the traffic situation identified places on other Massachusetts state highways where heavy trucks are being successfully diverted.

This is an especially important issue because even if the speed limit were dramatically lowered, one out-of-control tractor trailer (which by state regulations can be as heavy as 127,400 pounds) traveling at a very low speed could result in the total destruction of any of these historic homes (which are actually national treasures). It could also result in loss of life. (The fact that this has not yet happened is an absolute miracle.)

At the edge of this oldest village in America (where our house is located), there is an elevated railroad bridge, where the speed limit is 35 miles per hour. Exceptionally heavy tractor trailer trucks reach the top of that bridge and head down that slope into our village traveling at that high speed. There are no barriers to protect the pedestrians or historic homes along the path of those trucks, which run right next to the sidewalks. On the other side of the bridge, these trucks head down a slope into a section of street where the town middle school/high school is located. I’ve just read that crosswalk lights are to be placed on that section of the street to protect children walking to and from school. But as the schoolchildren walk over the bridge into this section of street, into this oldest village, there are crosswalks without lights and nothing else to protect them. The heavy trucks travel at high speeds right along beside them. I’ve never before seen anything else like this, anywhere.

The fact that there are places on Massachusetts state highways where heavy trucks are diverted means that a precedent has been set. It means that these incredibly heavy trucks can be diverted. It means that the heavy trucks can be diverted along this street, which is densely populated and quite often packed with children walking to and from school. It is also the street where some of the oldest houses in this country are located, including mine. These houses are fragile. They have survived King Philip’s War, the Revolutionary War, and everything else that followed. They deserve to be protected.

On learning these trucks can be diverted, I emailed this information to an influential person in town.

He responded that he wished we could ban heavy trucks but he doubted I’d get very far with that.

The official consensus seems to be that to ban heavy trucks would involve inconveniencing some truck drivers. And, apparently, that must not be allowed to happen.

Therefore, the official consensus seems to be that it is more important to provide convenience for the drivers of super-heavy tractor trailer trucks than it is to protect national historic treasures and to protect the school children and other pedestrians along this street.

Addendum at 5:28 PM, January 9, 2019

I’ve just noticed that the speed limit as you exit the railroad bridge and enter this village has magically been lowered to 25 MPH. I’m not sure when this happened, or how, but it is good news.

It does, however, need to be enforced. And the heavy tractor trailer trucks still need to be diverted. But this is a start. It’s a start.

Addendum at 7:39 AM, January 10, 2019

Looking back at my earlier blog posts I’ve realized I’ve previously referred to those North East hearth alcove openings as beehive ovens, because that’s what they look like from the outside, even though I’d been told they were root cellars or storage. I’d thought they must have been used for cooking but have only recently confirmed this. In other words, now I’m certain. What had confused me, and what has probably confused everyone else, is the fact that these alcoves are on the (very old) stairs to the basement, so they seem to be on a lower level of the house. But in reality, the North East hearth is actually at about the same level as the dining room hearth. It has also just occurred to me that part of the North East hearth is still hidden by the stairway to the basement. There may be more alcoves or ovens hidden behind those stairs.

Addendum at 9:18 AM, January 12, 2019

The new 25 MPH speed limit has been posted for several days now, but the trucks do not appear to be slowing down. Not at all. Clearly, the speeds on this street need to be monitored. And this street needs to be patrolled.

About the Bones

Along with the goat head, other baffling bones emerged from the aperture in the floor.

At the time (July and August, 2016) that we discovered them, the bones seemed to be absurd impediments to our room remodel. (If you’ve read the early posts of this blog, you’ll know that our challenges with this house included the problem of trying to determine the source of its dreadful odor.)

Here are some wild boar jaws:

wild boar jaws 2

It seemed important to remove the old bones, because they were odorous (or, at least, the organic matter surrounding them was odorous).

Here is a more detailed view of some wild boar jaws:

wild boar jaw 4

When I first came across one of these, I was taken aback and shaken. What was this thing with the molars? How horrifying. Was it some kind of long extinct sea creature?

I held it up for our carpenter to see and he casually remarked that it looked like a wild bar jaw.

It does appear that he was correct.

Here’s another view of wild boar teeth and tusks…

boar.jpg

Rant Du Jour

Like most creatures on this planet, human beings are typically born with a sense of vision.

Vision is typically affected by one’s perspective.

The restoration work we’ve done in our house has awakened my vision to perspectives I’d never before imagined. Perplexing perspectives.

When we first began to restore the building, I’d wondered if we’d ever come across an artifact.

My initial response to finding an artifact was like, “OMG! An artifact!”

But over time I’d find more and more of them, tossing them aside, thinking, “Oh, another artifact.”

Still, we’ve kept all the artifacts we’ve found. (I’ll discuss this in greater detail later.)

One unanticipated perplexing perspective has been the overall lack of interest in our artifact discoveries by those who would seem to want to know about them.

Here’s what I’m trying to say: we’ve made remarkable discoveries. But these do not seem to matter.

And the most remarkable discovery is the realization of the real and present danger affecting our home. And our street. And that doesn’t seem to matter either.

If you’re new to this blog, here’s a recap redux: Ipswich, Massachusetts has the largest number of first period (earliest) homes in the United States (my home is a first period home), but in one part of town (where my home is located, which I’d assert is the oldest part of town) these houses are at great risk (from seriously heavy truck traffic and seriously heavy truck vibrations, high speed limits, and a lack of stop signs or any other kind of traffic calming strategies).

I’ve reached out to the town Select Board and to the Historical Commission about this issue.

It would seem to me that a historically significant home deserves to be protected but that is not happening. (And yes, of course, every home deserves to be protected.)

And as I noted in my memo to the Select Board in February, the children walking along this street, to and from school, are also at risk. Why isn’t anyone doing anything about this?

I’ve also written to our state representative, asking for help. No response.

The most consistent response I’ve gotten is no response. (Or dismissive responses, which are not helpful.)

In 2017, Richard Clarke (the former U.S. National Coordinator for Security, Infrastructure Protection, and Counter-terrorism) wrote a brilliant article about Cassandra, the princess of Troy who correctly foresaw the outcome of the Trojan War. Cassandra was a visionary, and like many visionaries, her warnings were dismissed. It appears that many people cannot see looming problems, or they choose not to see them, and these problems are dismissed until catastrophe strikes.

Like Cassandra, I’m trying to avert disaster. I’m trying to protect my home, along with everyone who lives or travels on my street.

My perspective on the looming High Street / Route 1A /Route 133 disaster is absolutely clear.

I live here.

My front door is about 12 feet from the street. I’m witness to close calls every day, to brakes squealing, and to horns blaring. It is not possible for me not to hear (and to feel) huge trucks whizzing by in the middle of the night (shaking and jolting my house). I’m not able to ignore the reality that at any moment all could be lost. But when I’ve tried to alert the authorities in town about this, their lack of response might suggest that they think I’ve got a problem. They haven’t quite realized (yet) that my problem is their problem. We share this problem. I’m truly hoping not to say, “I told you so,” but the clock is ticking.

Eventually Cassandra went mad. And Troy did fall.

The point of Clarke’s article is that prognosticators who are close to volatile situations and who issue warnings of impending disaster should be heard. It is unwise to ignore their warnings.

We do not need to keep reliving the Greek tragedies.

We must not tempt the Fates.

The Goat Ghost of Ipswich, Massachusetts

In the summer of 2016, we continued the process of updating the old plumbing in our ancient house in Ipswich, Massachusetts. We realized we needed to completely replace all the plumbing in our downstairs bathroom, and, in the process, we opened up the floor. We opened the entire floor, including an area under the stairs that apparently had not been touched in hundreds of years. This goat skull was in there:

goat skull

At least I think it is a goat skull, as its horn nubs are embedded in the bone.

This is what the area looked like when the old wooden floor was first opened:

open floor.jpg

Along with the goat skull, we found other assorted animal bones and bone fragments. I’ve saved and photographed and documented all of those discrete segments, numbering in excess of 2,300.

It’s not every day that you find over 2,300 animal bones in your bathroom floor. I’ve got a lot to say about this. But not today.

Today, because we are approaching Halloween (also known as Samhain and also known as The Day of the Dead), and because the veil between the worlds is becoming thinner now than at any other time of year, I’d like to talk about my haunted house, in the rant that follows.

Rant Du Jour*

*WARNING: Once you read this rant, you won’t be able to unread it. Proceed at your own risk.

In 2014, soon after we’d bought our old house, I was standing in the entranceway by the front door (that is, the door that opens to the street) and noticed that the hook-and-eye latch to the basement was lifting itself up, all by itself. And then the door swung wide open – fast – and hit the surrounding wall. All by itself. The door unlocked and flung open. All by itself. Like in the horror movies. I’ll repeat that. That door latch lifted up all by itself. The door flung open. All by itself. That really happened.

I saw this with my own two eyes.

There have been other strange occurrences as well. Many times I’ve carefully closed an attic door at night, only to find it wide open in the morning. Or I’ve carefully left an attic door open at night, only to find it tightly shut in the morning.

What exactly is afoot? Are these nefarious influences, resulting from restless disembodied spirits?

The core of our house was built sometime around 1640, and we have convincing evidence that some of our architecture dates to 1634 (the year that Ipswich was settled). Therefore, one must conclude that many people were born here. And many people died here. It is a place of spirit; spirits have arrived, spirits have departed.

And yet… Why would spirits do these things?

It gave me chills to watch that door as it flung itself open. I’d never before seen anything like it.

But, I do recall, at the time that door flung itself open, heavy trucks were passing by outside, about 12 feet from it. Heavy trucks are allowed on this street; they speed past our exceptionally old house. These trucks are permitted to travel at speeds of 35 miles per hour as they make their descent from the nearby railroad bridge. In Massachusetts, 35 MPH means 40 MPH.

When I say “heavy” I mean that these trucks can weigh as much as 127,400 pounds each.

When two trucks weighing 127,400 pounds pass each other going in opposite directions, we’re talking about weights in excess of a quarter-million pounds whizzing a few feet past the front door. This results in seismic vibrations. It is as if our house is experiencing a type of earthquake, which can happen multiple times a day. Every single day.

These vibrations create wind vacuums that cause doors to be flung open and doors to be flung shut. These kinds of vibrations can take a toll on any house, although a modern house is probably best suited to withstand them.

But when you’re talking about our house, which was built nearly 400 years ago, as well as the other exceptionally old houses on this street, what kind of effect would you expect from these incessant vibrations? That is very scary.

Scary, but not nearly as scary as the realization that there is absolutely nothing preventing one of those trucks from crashing into and completely destroying any of these houses (which are really national treasures) at any moment.

I’ve written to the Ipswich Select Board and to our state representative about these problems. I’ve repeatedly talked to everyone in town who I’ve felt might have some ability and willingness to try to help fix these problems.

The Ipswich Select Board finally addressed the situation at their June 4th meeting. Apparently there was some discussion about adding a warning sign, “indicating a dangerous turn,” which, “may be helpful in lieu of changing the speed limit.”

(Um…?)

Later I reached out to the Select Board again, and my email was forwarded to the state representative.

This was his response:

“I have been in contact with both the Ipswich Police Chief and Director of the DPW. It is my understanding that the Town is looking at reconfiguring this whole area. I am awaiting further reports and designs before commenting on what is being proposed. However, there may be state grants available to help with what may be proposed.”

I wrote back to the state representative, saying:

“I’ve not heard anything about a plan to reconfigure this area. That would be great, but we really need immediate help. I wrote a memo outlining the problems and potential solutions, and presented it to the Select Board in February, 2018. Essentially, the much higher than necessary speed limits and heavy trucks are creating dangerous risks for the children who walk this route to and from school, for the pedestrians and bicyclists, and for the village of fragile, irreplaceable antique homes that were built in the 1600’s and 1700’s (that is, in the 17th and 18th centuries).”

The state representative did not respond to my request for help.

So, yes, I’d say with certainty that my house is haunted, but probably not by spirits.

My house (as well as my street) is haunted by seismic vibrations, potentially catastrophic truck accidents, and local government dismissiveness.

All of this is scary. Very, very, very scary.

(Happy Halloween anyway.)

 

Adapting to Changing Times

It occurred to me that I’ve never shown my completed kitchen after having described its many layers of deconstruction (early in this blog).

Here’s how my kitchen looks today:

kitchen new 1

This is how my kitchen looked four years ago:

kitchen old

I love being able to hang dried herbs and old baskets from the exposed beams.

kitchen baskets 1

Here’s a view of the utilitarian section of the room, with appliances and other modern apparatuses.

kitchen new 2

I placed rice paper in the central frames of the large window to block the views of the incessant street traffic and all those heavy trucks.

Rant Du Jour

If you’re new to this blog, here’s a recap redux: Ipswich, Massachusetts has the largest number of first period (earliest) homes in the United States, but in one part of town (where my house is located, which I’d assert is the oldest part of town) these homes are at great risk (from seriously heavy truck traffic and seriously heavy truck vibrations, high speed limits, and a lack of stop signs or any other kind of traffic calming strategies).

In an effort to help fix these problems, I’ve repeatedly asked the town for a traffic study. The official response is that they already did a traffic study. In 1968.

1968 was an interesting year. Richard Nixon was elected to his first term as president of the United States and the Beatles released The White Album. Ipswich not only did a traffic study, but John Updike still lived here and his novel Couples was published that year. Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway also came to town to film a scene from the first screen version of The Thomas Crown Affair.

Seems like only yesterday.

Except that trucks are heavier now. Much heavier. Their weight limits have grown incrementally these past 50 years. For example, in 1974, the maximum federal weight limit was 80,000 pounds; but now the weight limit in Massachusetts is 127,400 pounds. And when we observe that some of the tractor trailers that speed within inches of these oldest houses in America are carrying 12 automobiles on their double-deck trailers, we may assume they are in the 127,400 pound range.

I recently noticed that the Ipswich town historian wrote about that 1968 traffic study in a 2014 blog entry. That traffic study concerned the potential creation of a new stretch of highway to run through many towns, including Topsfield, Rowley, Hamilton, Essex, and Gloucester, as well as Ipswich. It appears to have been a highly detailed proposal for a project that never happened.

That’s not the kind of traffic study I’ve been talking about.

The kind of traffic study we need is free and quick, and it would involve only key people, such as the town planner, local residents, and the state representative. We all need to get together some morning during the height of truck traffic on Route 1A/High Street between the railroad bridge and donut shop to feel the houses shaking and to observe the giant mega-trucks speeding along a few feet from the front doors of the oldest houses in America. If everyone were to observe this hazardous situation firsthand, everyone would agree that it is seriously dangerous and perilous and needs to be fixed.

What I’m asking for is not expensive or time-consuming. It is not rocket science.

It is simply common sense.

A Whole Lot of Crock

Let me backtrack a bit… When we purchased our house, the basement was a dismal wasteland of dusty wires and cobwebbed boards, set atop piles of cruddy sand. John set about to clean up the area and turn it into usable space. In the process, he discovered tips of mason jars and pottery protruding in that sandy floor. Let’s just say that he uncovered a whole lot of crock.

These are the remnants of a very large, very heavy, very old crock. It measures approximately 14 inches high with a 13 inch diameter.

crock 1

Here are additional pieces:

crock 1 pieces

Here is its lid:

crock 1 lid

Here are the remnants of a smaller crock.

crock 2

At some point, when we have the time, we plan to glue these crock pieces back together. We are inspired by the Japanese Kintsugi method of pottery repair, which incorporates gold pigment in the cracks. In this way we will try to honor the wounds and preserve the beauty of these artifacts.

Rant Du Jour

If you’ve been following this blog, you know that I’m trying to protect, and to thereby preserve, the ancient houses on my street in Ipswich, Massachusetts. These houses (including mine) are in constant danger with great risk from the high speed limits and heavy truck traffic a few feet from our doors.

My blog post “Wrought through Time” includes the text of my memo to the town Select Board regarding this issue. Following the meeting where I’d read that memo, I’d been under the impression that a traffic safety study would be conducted for my street. More than three months later, the Select Board finally addressed this issue at their meeting on June 4, 2018.

The minutes include “doubt” about the “practicality” of the “three-month process” and the “resources needed” to conduct such a study. The minutes indicate that “because the area is not adjacent to a park or trail, it cannot be designated as a safe zone” (overlooking the fact that this street is a daily walking route for many, many school children as well as the location of the oldest houses in this country).

The minutes also indicate that the town actually did conduct a traffic study of this area in 1968. This was 32 years before the year 2000, when the school was built along this street. (Shouldn’t the school designate the area as a “safe zone”?) 

But, yes, the minutes clearly do indicate that a traffic study was conducted. In 1968.

In 1968.

Fifty years ago.

In 1968.

That will be the subject of my next rant. Stay tuned.