Thursday, February 2, 2012

Quick Fixes # 2

Before: A jumble of mossy rocks

In several places on the property, it is obvious that something used to be there. Mounds of cut stones lie where buildings and walls used to stand. Broken glass, ceramics and coal mark old dump sites. Raised ground is remnant of long forgotten roads. Ditches reveal old wells and broken clay drainage tile. Nothing excites me more, as a one-time archaeologist, than a little exploring to dig up the past. For safety and the protection of expensive farm equipment, it is also good to know where these piles and holes are located and what lies beneath.
We have matched some rubble piles to historic photos and maps, but others are a mystery. A jumble of rocks in front of the barn had me baffled. So, I took a shovel to it. I discovered a 15x4 foot retaining wall. Years of erosion and tree growth had toppled and covered it. Being in a fix-it mood, and highly caffeinated that morning, I decided to rebuild it with the help of my brother-in-law.
It was much easier than rebuilding the old fieldstone wall that we fixed earlier in the year. At least these stones were in some kind of order. The key to rebuilding a retaining wall without mortar is to have a solid foundation and to lean the wall slightly back against the higher ground for strength. We pulled out the stones, staked out the area and evened out the foundation. Then, we stacked layers of interlocking flat stones row by row. Last, we packed the soil down behind it. My wife even planted some spring daffodils around. Good as new!
Gradually restoring the farm to how it used to be is challenging, but also a lot of fun. When we don’t have old photos to go by, we’re stuck with reasoning things out. What was this pile of rocks? What had that been? Sometimes, it is just a pile of rocks. But sometimes it is another trace of the farm’s long history.

After: A great-looking retaining wall!

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!

Water, Water Everywhere!

Water is the lifeblood of a healthy farm. It also destroys things when left unchecked. When the rains started this fall, we found out that the old stone house was not totally impervious. Even the slightest drizzle brought torrents of water into the basement. In not just one, but several locations. What gives?! We had to find some DIY solutions quickly.

Water problem #1: It turns out that, over the years, rainwater runoff had deposited layers upon layers of dirt near the back of the house. Eventually, the ground began to slope toward the basement door, driving water inside. Aerial photos from the 1950s revealed that a small road used to run from that door straight out to the orchards. If we could just find that road surface again, we could use it to channel water away from the house. So, with our trusty Kubota front-loader, we scraped away decades of dirt until we hit gravel. The old road was still there – buried under almost a foot of soil. We cleared nearly 30 feet of the old road, leaving an even slope away from the door and a nice stone berm alongside. Water problem #1 was solved.

Water problem #2 was trickier. Stagnant pools of water would form in the far side of the basement after every major storm. The sump pump had little effect. Luckily, the culprits were easy to spot. First, all the water exiting the outside drainpipe on that side of the house ran back towards the foundation. Second, the sump pump did not have a check valve installed (a valve that allows water to flow out, but not back in). Water was being pumped up, but then gravity pulled it back down into the basin. This caused the sump pump to work non-stop pumping the same water over and over again.

Installing the check valve and cleaning the sump basin was a nasty job, but, it was straight-forward thanks to a shop-vac, respirator and rubber gloves. Stopping the rainwater seepage in the first place was another can of worms. What we needed was a French drain – a system to draw the water away from the house, and then disperse it underground. This required me to dig a 20-foot long, downward sloping trench, gravel it, and then lay waterproof tubing for the first ten feet and then slotted tubing for the remaining distance. It took me a full day, mainly due to hitting a stone walkway, the remnants of a long-buried fieldstone wall and a wrought-iron fence while digging the trench. Oh, and the first snowfall of the year. I am happy to say that, after two months and several rainstorms, that corner of the basement is still dry.

These little problems are so easy to ignore. (“Eh, it’s not that much water.) But, from what I’ve seen around the farm outbuildings, if they’re allowed to persist, they can cause a sea of problems. So, I’m taking advantage of our down-time and this mild winter to fix as many of them as possible.