The Weekend Time Traveler

July 2, 2015 in Life on the Farm at Morrison Corner, Living history, Uncategorized by M C

homefarm5When I was growing up there were two camps and three second homes on our road.  One of the camps belonged to my grandmother who was, likely, one of the few people who could walk from their first home to their second when it came time to air it out in the spring.  My grandmother’s camp was occupied summer and fall by friends or relatives, come for a week of relaxing in Vermont.  They were the ones charmed by the tiny kitchen with its miniature appliances, the wobbly table, the old books and board games stored on shelves against rainy days.

My grandmother was charmed by her ability to entertain for weeks on end without having to share her house for more than a few hours at a time. Especially, I suspect, when we came to stay.

In college I met people for whom the vacation cottage, camp, or beach house, represented some of their fondest childhood memories. I dated a couple of men whose life ambition it was to provide their children with the same second home experience they’d grown up with.  Never mind careers, travel, or world peace… all they wanted was a place on the lake just like they’d had as children, or better, to find employment which allowed them to live in the communities they’d summered in as children.

I met the families of both men not at their primary residences, but at their second homes, one in the mountains, one on a lake, where the furnishings were battered, the beds bunked, and the nights filled with the same vintage board games my grandmother kept in her camp.

It all seems quite idyllic unless you’re the person charged with feeding everyone, keeping the place tidy, and coping with laundry issues.  Then the second home starts looking an awful lot like work made unnecessarily complicated by battered pans, sand tracked in on bare feet, and no washing machine.  And being of a practical frame of mind (to say nothing of burdened with sheep), and barely able to afford the first home, owning a second one seemed a bit of frivolity my husband and I were never going to experience.


Funny how things work out, isn’t it?

Last year we bought a smaller, but much more modern, farmhouse, in what is romantically referred to as The Northeast Kingdom. The plan, and it was a good plan, being we would move from our 18th century farmhouse, with its wobbly windows barely holding back the shiver of winter… into a little 20th century cape with huge modern windows.  Windows which are not stymied by humidity and actually open and close regardless of the weather. Windows that don’t have wind whistling in around the edges.

We’d go from 18th century insulation to the 20th century.. which is not 21st century but still.. 200 years of insulating technology is a substantial leap forward if you’re accustomed to bedrooms hovering around 45 F and living spaces cresting at a balmy 55.

It all sounded quite modern.  Possibly even idyllic.

Unfortunately I might have, even prior to closing, made the mistake of remarking that it would be much nicer if it didn’t have popcorn ceilings.

And my husband rushed to be accommodating.

Popcorn ceilings are surprisingly easy to take down. Spritz water on them, wait a few minutes, and they peel right off. Unfortunately, popcorn ceilings were used, in the 1980s, for a reason: they conceal hasty finish work.  Peeling off the popcorn revealed uneven taping and poor mud work.

How, exactly, one goes from needing to remud the ceilings to punching holes in the wall, tearing out floors, lifting doorways, and putting in a new kitchen, remains a mystery to me.  But months later we have one room almost complete.. the entry way.  As soon as we add shaker pegs we will have a place to hang our jackets.

The original plan, to move from the 18th century into the 20th by June, has stalled in plaster dust, paint chips, and backordered countertops.

And I can’t say I’m all that sorry for it.


Original homestead, 1785: house c. 1950 as it was c. 1850

My 18th century farmhouse has early 19th century systems, in fact the house, with a flick of a switch, can be returned to 1850, all systems intact, including the bathrooms. The flush toilet was invented in 1596 (surprise!) but was mainstream by 1850.

True, it didn’t make it to this farmhouse until 1950.. but let’s not quibble about a century or two.  In 1850 the house had running water, brought down from a mountain spring in wooden pipes, and it could have had flush.. if we’d wanted to renovate every 100 years instead of every 200.


farmhouse c. 1955

Today the cistern in the basement still holds the spring water as it comes into the house, just as it did in 1850, and still functions as a refrigerator, keeping dairy and meat products cold, while the basement itself works as a root cellar. The wood stove still throws off enough heat to keep the pipes, and most of the time us, from freezing. The gas stove operates in much the same way gas stoves did when they were first developed.. in the 1820s.

No electricity required.

The new, modern, house has a boiler in the dry basement, which is so warm it wouldn’t store a potato a week before it would start sprouting, and central heat. It has a microwave and a dishwasher. The water comes from a well, which, I’m led to understand, will never have a bug backstroking across its still waters the way a springhouse can.

cbry1It is comfortable, modern, and utterly dependent upon electricity.  My husband is ecstatic.

I wish I shared his enthusiasm. But I am comfortable with 18th century systems: gravity fed water and root cellars. My modern conveniences were invented in the 19th century: closed box wood stoves, flush toilets, and canning jars.  Even the drum washing machine is a 19th century invention (1851), although it doesn’t become powered until 1908.

Which is about where my comfort level with household technology ends… at best, 100 years ago.

I used to think people kept second homes because when they were there, they had nothing to do. Or, more to the point, they and their children had nothing to do, and they could do nothing (or something) together.  They could lie on the beach, paddle around the lake, or hike to the top of a nearby ridge.  At night they’d pull out the bug spray and board games and chase each other down the chutes and ladders.

That’s the romantic ideal… but not the reality.

cbry2All my friends and neighbors who come on weekends and holidays, dragging coolers of food, fresh sheets, and tired children up from Boston, New York, or Connecticut make serious sacrifices for their second homes. They might spend part of the weekend relaxing in an Adirondack chair, beer in hand, with a steak on the grill, but they still have to mow the lawn, tidy the kitchen, and make the beds. To say nothing of inflate the tube toys, haul out the canoe, or take everyone for that promised picnic in the wildflowers.

But even with the effort and work involved the second home is less complicated than life at home.  The second home is relaxed. Without crystal and china formal entertaining resolves itself into mismatched plates and plastic cups which can be left on the deck until morning.  Nobody misses diner because they’re running late at work, or has a soccer game.  The TV, if it is hooked up at all, gets only the most basic stations, and cell coverage is so frustrating even siblings start looking like a viable entertainment option.  While everywhere you look there’s likely to be a chore you could be doing, at the summer house it doesn’t seem quite so urgent that you do it.  Sand on the floor at home is a problem, it will ruin the finish or the carpet. At the summer home, it’s just part of the charm.

The family camp allows everyone to spend the weekend reliving a different time.  Perhaps not the 18th century, but the late 19th and early 20th century, when Victorians, recognizing the excesses of industrialization, made discovering the natural world into a passion, and leisure into a fashion. It’s time travel made easy.. no wormholes, no standing stones required.. and you’ll be back to work, on time, on Monday.

homefarm4It’s not just an idyllic childhood, everyone I know who grew up with a second home, or created one for their children, looks forward to retiring.. to the cottage by the lake or the house in the mountains.  Instead of a weekend visit to that other time, stored carefully within the walls of their cottage, they will open the door on the first day of their retirement and, finally, settle in for good.

And now, quite without intending it, we seem to be blessed, through an accident of abysmally poor timing, with two homes, allowing us to spend weekends visiting the 21st century.

So we go up on weekends to mow the lawn, weed the gardens.. and apply paint to the walls. My husband revels in windows that open and heat that comes on with the flick of a switch.  His eyes shine with visions of cooking in a modern kitchen equipped with steel appliances and new countertops.

It’s a nice place to visit, this new home in its different time and place, and I think I better understand why my little road has three year around residences on it.. and three second homes.  Even with the tedium of painting and the necessity of mowing there seems to be just that much more time to spend chatting with a neighbor, to stop in at the general store, or visit the farmers market.

I’ve decided it is a matter of scale. Everything there is smaller than it is here, and, for my second home neighbors, here is much smaller than where they come from.  Stowe’s farmers’ market is a local marvel if you’re from a large urban setting.. the one in the North East Kingdom on a magnitude smaller yet, is all the more charming if you’re accustomed to Stowe’s busy market.  There is dramatically less traffic here in Stowe than there is around any New England urban center, it’s a positively relaxing experience even if you do have to wait a few minutes to get through an intersection.

Go north and there is so little traffic people turn without signaling because everyone knows where they live, or are likely going.  And they wave, even if they don’t know you, because when there are fewer of you, everyone seems that much more important.

It’s all a little bit magical, even if the house is uncomfortably ensconced in the 21st century.

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