"The Wisconsin Years," from
My First Eighty Years (and then some!)
Lyle Arthur Seefeld
Copyright Ralph L. Seefeld and Carol
Howman. This book may not be reproduced or copied
in any manner without the written consent of Ralph L. Seefeld
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Chapter 4: Our House on Prospect Avenue
|The house I grew up in is located on the
south side of Prospect Avenue, between Second and Third Streets, on the third lot from the
corner of Second and Prospect.
The little house to the east of ours was occupied by elderly Mr. and Mrs. Cronkrite, who were the grandparents of Horatio and Bonita Steele, and of Earl, Sybil and Mae Cronkrite. Mr. Cronkrite was blind, but could often be seen out in his back yard, splitting wood, strictly by feel! Across the alley to the south is the house where elderly Mrs. Olson lived. She was the grandmother of Deva Roehrborn, who was in my classes at school. Across the fence to the west were the afore mentioned vacant lots, which belonged to the Lamberts, who lived in the corner house across the alley. Across Prospect Avenue to the north was a roughly triangular area, about half a city block in size, which sloped down to the Wisconsin River, and which was covered with grass, green in spring and yellow-brown in late summer and fall. There still are no houses on the north side of the street in that block, but the area is now covered by a thick evergreen forest, so you can't even see the river from "our house".
From the front of the house one could see, where the grassy bank met the river, a row of five or six boathouses, one of which was ours. Across the river there were some old, crumbling stone foundations, the remains of a box factory which burned down in the middle of one night when I was only a few years old. I remember waking in the night and looking out at this huge fire, which gave me the scare of my young life. From the west side of the house, one could see the "slough", a shallow section of the river separated from the "main channel" by a quarter mile long mostly submerged "island" of cattails and small bushes. This swampy area was home to innumerable red-winged blackbirds and other bird species. I can still hear the blackbirds' "song". It went something like "gurgle gurgle-thrrreeee". Beyond this "island" was the C.M.& St.P. railroad bridge (now part of the Hiawatha Trail). Just the other side of that bridge was a big sawmill, with its tall smokestack and a huge cone-shaped sawdust burner. About half a mile beyond that mill was the M.T.& W. railroad bridge across the Wisconsin, while in the distance, if one had sharp eyes or a telescope the M.T.& W. railroad bridge across the mouth of the Somo River could be seen. This bridge, which was quite near what was to become the Seefeld farm, was unique in that the two wooden trusses which were its main structural members were enclosed in much the same way as the old-fashioned covered highway bridges, except that each truss had its own separate "house".
Our original house was a one-story three room building with a stone foundation and no basement. The roof was covered with wood (cedar) shingles, and the outer walls were finished with "drop siding", boards thinner on the top edge than at the bottom, and applied like long shingles. The siding was painted green and the trim was white. There was a "front room", or parlor, the bedroom on the south end, and in between was the kitchen-dining room. The back door was in the east wall of this room, and opened into a shed-like wood storage area. That's where that photographer took that picture!
When I was about six years old (1911) four more rooms were added to the house, so Grandmother Seefeld could live in three of them. The fourth became our new kitchen. This addition was of the same type of construction as the original, except that the siding was narrower than on the old part, and was painted white. An additional result of this "building on" was a mysterious five or six foot square area on the west wall of the house, conspicuous because it was white while all around it the wall was green. Closer inspection would reveal that the siding on this part was similar to the narrow siding on the new part of the house. It could be that there had been a window (or windows) there that had been used in the new part. And it could be that wide siding wasn't available to match the old part, and it could be that green paint wasn't available, either, so white was used instead. These things will remain mysteries, since I didn't ask about them, having learned at an early age that my questions often elicited evasive or noncommittal answers.
While we are on the subject of windows, I mustn't forget the twice yearly window changing ritual. During the hot summer months, it was often desirable to have some windows open to provide ventilation and perhaps some cooling. To let the fresh air in and keep the flies and mosquitoes out, screens were placed on all the windows and held in place by small black turn buttons. Then, in the fall, in preparation for the long cold winter, the screens were replaced by storm windows, held in place in the same way. All the windows in that house weren't exactly the same size, so each had its own screen and storm window set, causing a great deal of window juggling until we caught on and numbered the sets!
Suppose the year is, let's say, 1915, and you have been invited to tour our house. So you walk up the dirt path between two tall Lombardy poplars (no concrete walk), up the steps and knock on the door. (No door bell, not even a "knocker"). Someone lets you in, and you find yourself in our seldom-used "front room" or parlor. This room is about twelve by sixteen feet in size, has a thin nine by twelve foot rug on the floor, and has wallpapered walls and ceiling. The door you just entered is in the north part of the east wall. In the north wall is a double window, covered by lace curtains, with green shades pulled part way down. In the center of the room is a "parlor table", about two feet square on which there is a "parlor lamp" sitting on a crocheted doily. This is a kerosene lamp, and has a big spherical "hand-painted" glass base which hides the kerosene reservoir, and a spherical glass shade, also hand-painted, which almost completely hides the lamp "chimney". On the shelf below is a large conch shell, also on a doily.
In the northwest corner of the room is a bookcase, with bamboo corner posts and three or four shelves. There aren't many books, though. There is a dictionary (non-Webster) with black flexible covers, a fancy edition of Pilgrim's Progress, and a Robinson Crusoe. There is also a large paper back about the disastrous fire on the excursion steamer General Slocum, which burned in New York's East River in 1904, in which more than a thousand perished. Gruesome pictures! Also there is another large paper back with pictures of Cuban scenes and people. I especially remember a picture of a Cuban native who had twelve toes and eleven fingers (or was it eleven toes and twelve fingers?). And then there is a black hard-covered "Standard Dictionary of Facts" which the folks bought from a salesman who came to the house. This book was supposed to make me a genius. (I still have it, and it hasn't happened yet!) On one of the bookshelves there is a stereoscope complete with a number of the picture cards to go with it. There are views of the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair, and several supposedly illustrating life in turn-of-the-century Japan. This viewer intrigued me, not so much for the pictures as for the optical system and its seeming ability to put me right into the scene.
To the left of the bookcase is a window complete with lace curtains and partly drawn green shade. In front of this window is a huge pot or tub containing an oleander. This plant is about four feet tall, and occasionally produces large red-orange flowers. Sharing the spot by the window is another big pot with a Christmas cactus, which has many pink flowers every year, but never at Christmas time! Between the west window and the "archway" into the dining room is my desk. My Dad made this desk for me for Christmas one year, using good solid pine which he stained and varnished to resemble walnut. I did my homework on it until I built my first radio, and then it became my "radio desk". It had a large sloping front which dropped down to form a horizontal writing surface, held up by two chains, one on each side.
Through the archway in the south wall you can see the double window in the west wall of the dining room. this window is also equipped with lace curtains and green shades partly drawn. The window sill has a shelf in front of it to make a place wide enough to hold several potted house plants. I don't know the names of any of these plants except the geraniums. As close to the windows as possible are two chairs facing each other. Mother's is a wooden rocker with cushions tied to the seat and back, while Dad's is a "Morris" chair, with upholstered seat and back. The back can be made to recline, all the way to horizontal, I think. In the corner is Mother's sewing machine, a Montgomery Ward "drop-head" machine with a large shelf which folds over to form the top cover when it isn't in use. When there is a lot of sewing to be done, the machine and one of the chairs exchange places, so as to take advantage of the good light from the windows.
In the southwest corner of the dining room is a triangular "corner cupboard" with wood-framed glass doors above and wooden doors below. The top part holds fancy plates and other dishes, while the bottom stores tablecloths and napkins. There is also an open shelf in the middle, which is a place for curios and "knick-knacks". Against the south wall of the dining room between the cupboard and the door to the bedroom is the dining table. This is a heavy, square, quarter-sawed oak five-legged extension table which stores two extension "leaves" under its top. Around it are heavy oak high-backed dining chairs, which once had caned seats that wore out from much sitting, and which have been covered by varnished hardwood plywood replacement seats. Of course, the table is covered by a linen tablecloth, and in the center stands a simple clear glass kerosene lamp with a clear glass chimney.
Across the room, at a safe distance from the north wall, is our heating stove. Its nameplate proclaims it to be an Acme Oak, from Sears, Roebuck and Company. My copy of the Sears 1902 catalog has an excellent photograph and description of this exact stove! It has a square cast iron base about two feet across, with fancy iron legs at the corners. Sitting on this base is the round corrugated cast iron firebox, with a heavy sheet-iron shell above it. The front of this shell is an iron casting with nickel-plated ornamentation. At the top is another iron casting, with a removable lid like on a kitchen range, an ornamental swinging top and a collar over which the stove-pipe fits. The front of the base opens for access to the ash pan, and there are two "feed" doors in the front through which many cords of firewood have passed! The main feed door and the ash pan door have sliding draft controls, and a similar slide-covered opening is situated on the back just below the stovepipe collar. An additional, very important control is the damper in the stovepipe itself, operated by a nickel-plated spring-like wire handle on one side. Completely surrounding the firebox are four fancy nickel-plated foot rails, which are often used as drying racks for wet socks, gloves, mittens, and even shoes and boots. The stove has its four fancy feet firmly planted on a "stove board", a board somewhat larger than two feet square, covered with sheet metal and enameled with a fancy brown design. This board protects the floor from any sparks or coals which might escape from the stove while its doors are open.
Along the east end of the north wall is a black leather (?) couch. This couch has no back, but one end is raised in a graceful curve. The surface is upholstered in a series of deep tufts which give it a decidedly "knobby" appearance. Definitely not made for comfort! On all the dining room walls, about five feet above the floor is a dark varnished wooden "plate rail". This forms a long six inch wide shelf with almost endless storage and display possibilities. On this rail at about the center of the north wall is our eight-day clock. It is, of course, a "wind-up" clock, which says "Bing-bong" at a quarter after, "Bing-bong, bing-bong" at the half hour, and "Bing-bong, bing-bong, bing-bong" at a quarter to the hour. On the hour, it says "Bong, bong, ....bong", one "bong" for each hour. Elsewhere on this shelf is a miscellaneous collection of cups, saucers, souvenir plates, and other "collectibles".
The east wall of the dining room has two doors in it. One leads to my Grandmother Seefeld's rooms, and is kept securely locked at all times because of what could be called a family feud. The other door leads to the kitchen, which we will explore in detail shortly. First, though, we go through the door in the south wall into the bedroom.
The bedroom is about ten or twelve feet square, with wallpaper on the walls and ceiling. There is a window in the west wall and another in the center of the east wall. Like the other windows in the house, they are covered with lace curtains and have green shades pulled part way down. The door is in the east end of the north wall, and as you enter, there is a "commode" on your left, with a big drawer, two lower doors, and a towel bar (wooden) high on the back. On the top, on a large embroidered or crocheted doily is a huge white china basin with a large white china pitcher sitting in it. Straight ahead on the south wall is the dresser, which matches the commode and has a large beveled plate glass mirror. To the dresser's right, with its head against the south wall, is the bed. This bed is the third part of a matching bedroom "suite", and has a high, elaborately carved wooden back. In the northwest corner of the room is a tall wooden wardrobe which has two doors decorated with wooden carvings. Between the wardrobe and the door is the space where my folding bed used to be, before I grew too big for my bed.
I can't show you my room because I don't have one. When it is warm enough, I set up a cot in the "parlor". In winter it is set up in the dining room near the stove. I have even been known to sleep on that knobby couch!
Now we go through the doorway into the kitchen. I call it a "doorway" because it would accommodate a standard size door, but there is none there. This, then, makes it possible to have a "bracket lamp" on the door frame, so arranged that it can be swung into either room as necessary. It is, of course, a kerosene lamp, and can be removed and used elsewhere when necessary, such as in the bedroom to heat a curling iron! On the same door frame, just below the lamp, a "tin" "match holder and safe", which holds a whole box of two hundred "strike anywhere" kitchen matches. The kitchen is a rather narrow room, probably no more than eight feet wide. As you walk in from the dining room you are immediately confronted by the black and nickel-plated wood range. Its firebox is on the left, and is accessible from the top through two cast iron "stove lids" by using a lid lifter, and from the front through a cast iron fire door hinged at the bottom. Below the firebox door on the front is a side-hinged door which opens to reveal the ash box, which must, of course be emptied now and then. (My job!) At the center of the front is the oven door, which is hinged at the bottom. Below the oven door is a small lift-off door which permits access to the interior space under the oven. The soot and ashes that accumulate in this space can seriously affect the baking qualities of the oven, and must be removed quite often, using a special, made-forthe-job metal scraper, about one inch by four or five inches, with a long stiff wire handle.
At the right end of the range is the reservoir, a rectangular tank holding perhaps five gallons of water, which is heated by the hot air and smoke which circulate around it before going up the chimney. The stovepipe goes up the middle of the back, and through an elevated "warming oven", accessible through a wide door which swings up and in. The cooking top has, in addition to the two lids over the firebox, four more removable lids, making the interior accessible for cleaning. Several kitchen utensils are heated on this range so frequently that they are almost always kept there. One is a heavy cast aluminum tea-kettle with a lid that swings open sideways. Another is an aluminum percolator, whose ability to squirt coffee up into the little hollow glass knob on its lid fascinated me when I was little. And there is a set of Mrs. Potts' "sad-irons" (flat-irons) which have a home on the stove top behind the back lids. These irons are somewhat unique in that they have no permanently attached handles. Instead, there is one handle which is clamped to the iron in use while the others are heating. On the floor, near the firebox, is the "woodbox" which must be kept filled with wood of the proper size. My job!
To the right of the range, against the east wall is the "kitchen cabinet". My 1902 Sears catalog shows and describes a cabinet just like it. It is essentially a wooden table four feet long and somewhat more than two feet wide, with slide-out "bread board" and "meat board". Below these boards are two shallow drawers with fancy brass "pulls" (handles). Under the drawers are two tilt-out bins, which are hinged at the bottom and have two stable positions, fully open and fully closed. Attached to the back of the table top is a high wooden cupboard with wood-framed glass doors.
The left-hand drawer in this cabinet is where the Seefeld "silverware" is kept. It is, of course, not really silver, not even silver plate, but what the Sears catalog calls "Alaska Silver". This, I think, is a nickel-chromium alloy which does not tarnish, and is an early attempt at making stainless steel. There are knives, forks, teaspoons, and tablespoons, all neatly arranged in wooden partitions. On one side there is a smaller knife, fork and spoon set of silver plate -- mine! A wood handled paring knife is usually kept in this drawer, and way in the back behind everything else, are several fancy-handled nutcrackers and matching nut picks.
The right-hand cabinet drawer is sort of a catch-all or miscellaneous drawer. In it you will find a nutmeg grater, a larger vegetable grater, a Dover eggbeater, various shapes and sizes of cookie cutters, and a can opener. This can opener is, of course the old-fashioned hand operated type which, when the can is finally open, leaves it with extremely sharp jagged edges which threaten to mix human blood with the beans or corn or whatever. And there is a special wrench for tightening and/or loosening fruit jar lids, and some spare fruit jar seals or "rubbers". There is a steak pounder with a wooden handle, a small tack hammer, Mother's "butcher knife", a pancake turner and a double-bladed "mincer", used with a wooden bowl to cut vegetables into small pieces. And way back in one corner are several different sizes of steel cutters for the food chopper, which at our house is called the "meat grinder".
The food chopper itself is too large to fit in the drawer, so it is kept in the right-hand tilt-out bin. Also kept in this bin are the wooden rolling pin, several pieces of folded wrapping paper saved from the last shopping trip, and along with them the ever-present ball of string. The left-hand bin is devoted entirely to flour. Pillsbury's Best to be exact, which comes in forty-nine pound cloth bags (why not fifty?) one of which when emptied into the bin leaves just enough room for the flour sifter, which is always kept in this most convenient place. The empty flour sack, being made of cloth, is washed and used as a dish towel, or perhaps made into an article of clothing.
Along the opposite (west) wall of the kitchen is a Dad-built storage cabinet with a rather narrow work top, shelves below hidden by wooden doors, and two open shelves up above. Since these upper shelves have no doors, there are cloth curtains (Mother-made) to conceal the contents. Most of the space on these upper shelves is taken by the usual staples, such as XXXX (Four-X) coffee, tea (not in tea-bags!) Baker's cocoa, Calumet baking powder, Arm & Hammer baking soda, brown and powdered sugar, flavorings such as vanilla, lemon, almond, etc. There are also spices (including stick cinnamon, which I raid occasionally!), and mustard, which often ends up on Dad's back as a mustard plaster for aching muscles. On the right end of one of these shelves are the family's other medications. There is castor oil (which I could never get down!), oil of peppermint (for upset stomach), Mentholatum, that smelly stuff for head colds, goose grease (for chest colds), senna tea (a mild laxative), a cherry-flavored cough syrup, and oil of cloves for toothache. And then there are the tonics, which live on one of these shelves, but which appear on the dining table at mealtime. For Dad, there is Peruna. For Mom, there is Wine of Cardieu. And for me there is Maltine with Cod Liver Oil. Of the three, mine is probably the only one that does any good!
In the lower part of this cabinet you will find bread pans, cake pans, muffin tins, "spiders" (cast-iron skillets) of several sizes, a pancake griddle, kettles and long-handled sauce pans. There is also a cabbage shredder, used once a year for making sauerkraut. And, because they are too large to fit on the upper shelves, there are two pails of Karo syrup, a half-gallon of the "white" or clear variety and a whole gallon of the regular kind which is brown. These are sturdy "tin" pails, and when they are empty find many uses, for berry picking, for holding "angleworms" when fishing, as a lunch bucket (half-gallon size!). The number of uses is limited only by the ingenuity of the user. On the narrow work top of this cabinet there is a large "tin" canister where sugar is stored, and alongside it is the coffee grinder. This is a wooden box perhaps six inches square with a rounded funnel at the top. A steel shaft with a crank attached sticks up out of the funnel. Coffee beans are poured into the funnel, and vigorous turning of the crank produces a satisfying grinding noise, and reduces the beans to a form suitable for coffee brewing. Removing a small drawer from one side of the box reveals the coffee all ready to use. My 1902 Sears catalog lists a "coffee mill" just like it at a price of thirty-eight cents!
Between this cabinet and the back door there is a small table or bench with an oilcloth cover. On it are a pail of water with a "tin" dipper in it, a blue enameled wash basin, a soap dish, and above it all, a towel rack. This about concludes our tour of the house, so now we can examine the woodshed, Dad's shop, the garden, and the rest of the yard.
Just to the left as we go out the back door to the porch is our "old faithful" water pump. All cast iron, it has a long curved handle and a spout on which a large pail can be hung while it is being pumped full of water. Sometimes, if it hasn't been used for a long time, the pump loses its "prime", which means that all the water in the cylinder has leaked back down the pipe into the well, and it pumps nothing but air. Pouring water down into it to fill the cylinder restores it to normal operation. The other problem with the pump is that it often freezes in winter. When this happens, the handle refuses to move because the water inside has frozen solid. In this case, water is again poured down into it, hot water this time. After a short wait while the ice melts, the pump is back in business. But, boy, is that handle cold!
Just to the left of the pump is the trap door which provides access to our cellar, where potatoes and other root vegetables are kept in the winter, where some home-canned foods are kept, and where the three of us huddled one night while a tornado did its thing overhead.
The woodshed is a building about ten by twelve or fourteen feet in size, about twenty feet from the house, on the west edge of the lot. It is simple in design and construction, made of unpainted boards which have weathered to that familiar silvery-gray color. It has a tarpaper roof, dirt floor, and a door in the northeast corner, nearest the house. Inside, beside wood, are kept the necessary tools: axe, bucksaw, sawbuck, and a chopping block. This chopping block is a part of a tree which has resisted all efforts to reduce it to burnable size, and so is put to use for holding the wood which does consent to being split. In the summer, garden tools like the rake, spade and hoe are also kept here.
The wood? We have two basic kinds. One is slabwood from the sawmill where Dad works. It is simply the leftovers which result from cutting rectangular shaped boards from round logs, and is cut to sixteen inch lengths at the mill and dumped in our back yard by the delivery wagon. Then it is my job to move this mountain of slabwood into the woodshed, pile it in neat piles, and then to split it into pieces suitable for the kitchen range, and ultimately to maintain a suitable supply in the woodbox. The other kind of wood we burn is hardwood, usually hard maple and birch. It comes from the woods in four-foot lengths, most likely because it is sold by the cord, a cord being a pile four feet wide, four feet high, and eight feet long, i.e. one hundred and twenty-eight cubic feet. It is piled up out by the alley until a saw rig comes by and cuts it into usable lengths. These saw rigs are fascinating machines, mainly because of the engines used to run the saws. The typical power plant is a single cylinder water cooled horizontal gasoline engine with two huge cast-iron flywheels and a pulley which harnesses it to the saw shaft by means of a long flat leather belt. The speed of these engines is controlled by a governor, which, when it reaches a certain speed, cuts off the gas, and turns it on just enough to maintain that speed. So, between saw cuts, and the engine just idles, it says "Putt ................ Putt ................ Putt ..., but the instant the sawing starts, it settles down to a steady "Putt-Putt-Putt-Putt, only to revert to "Putt ............ Putt ............... Putt ........ Putt when the saw cut is completed. This behavior has led to the rumor about the engine that fired only once every two days! Most people have their wood cut into sixteen inch lengths, or two cuts per four foot piece. Because our heating stove has a small firebox, however, our wood is cut to twelve inch lengths, or three cuts per four foot length.
After it is sawed, this wood must, of course, be stored in the wood shed so we won't have to dig it out of the snow later on. So it is another of my jobs to load up our Dad-made wheelbarrow with as much wood as I can handle, haul it to the shed, and pile it neatly.
Beyond the woodshed is Dad's shop. This is a building about fourteen feet wide and eighteen to twenty feet long, in the southeast corner of the lot, right on the alley and up against the fence around Lambert's two vacant lots. There is a door in the east end of the north wall, and there are at least two windows in the east wall. Under these windows is a long, narrow workbench, with a wooden vise at the end nearest the door. Racks at the back of the bench are filled with chisels, gouges, screwdrivers, auger bits and the like, and up on the wall there are shelves where Dad keeps his planes. There are planes of all sizes, from a small (five inch) "block" plane to one that must be at least twenty inches long, called a "jointer" plane, used to prepare the edges of boards which are to be glued together to make a wider one. There are two special planes, called rabbet or dado planes which are used to make tongues and grooves and other special types of edges on boards.
On another part of the wall above the bench are the saws. Rip saws, crosscut saws, a fine-toothed "back saw" which is used with a miter box for making precise cuts at predetermined angles, mostly 45 degrees. There are compass saws (commonly called keyhole saws), a hacksaw for cutting metal, and a "scroll" saw, similar to a bucksaw but much lighter in weight, which has a narrow, very sharp blade which can be turned to saw in any direction. Just right for making the many curved cuts involved in boat building.
Also on the wall are the squares; a steel carpenter's square with one twenty-four inch blade and one sixteen inches long; a small "try" square used to determine if the edge of a board you just planed is square; and a "T-bevel", something like the try square except the blade can be adjusted to any angle and locked there. And, hanging on a nail up there with the squares is Dad's level. This is a wooden level, made of nicely finished mahogany, is about an inch and a quarter thick, three inches wide and two feet long. It has a "bubble vial" set into the center of one edge, another set into a hole near one end for determining if a vertical surface is "plumb".
Hanging on a different part of the wall is Dad's "brace", used for turning "auger bits" when making holes in wood. For making small holes, such as for screws, there is a "Yankee Drill". This looks like a nickel-plated screwdriver, except that instead of a blade at the business end it has a chuck for holding drills. You put the drill point where you want the hole, hold it perpendicular to the surface and push down on the handle. This turns the drill, and an internal spring brings the handle back up. After sufficient up and down motion, and providing the drill is still intact, there's the hole!
Somewhat similar in principle to the Yankee Drill is Dad's spiral screwdriver. It takes both hands to operate this one! You keep the blade in the screw slot by holding a sleeve or collar with one hand, while moving the handle up and down with the other. It can be set so that pushing the handle drives the screw in, or so that pushing it turns the screw the opposite way, removing it. Or, it can be made rigid, so it can be used like a common screwdriver. Before we leave the subject of screws and holes for them, I must show you Dad's gimlet. This is a slender steel rod about five inches long, with a T-handle on one end. The other end looks somewhat like a wood screw, so that turning it drives it into the wood. It has a cutting edge too, though, so it cuts a tapered hole, just right for starting a wood screw. This pilot hole, along with a little soap (Fels Naphtha) makes screws much easier to drive into place, especially in hardwoods. Way up there, hanging from two nails, is Dad's draw knife. This is a very sharp steel knife blade about ten inches long, with a wood handle at each end. This is useful for quickly removing excess wood from curved shapes before chiseling and planing them into final form. It is most likely kept up so high on the theory that by the time you are tall enough to reach it, you are probably careful enough to use it safely!
Speaking of sharp things, Dad, like most craftsmen, sharpens his own tools. Chisels and plane irons are sharpened on an oil stone, which is gray, about two inches wide by five inches long and sits in its own little mahogany box. A drop or two of oil from a nearby oil can prepares it for use, the chisel or whatever is placed at exactly the proper angle on the stone, and then moved in a figure-of-eight pattern until its edge is sharp. Saws are a different matter. They are held in a special "saw vise" which in turn is clamped in the bench vise, while a triangular file held at exactly the proper angle files the teeth. Dad is usually alone while filing saws, because sometimes if the file isn't held just right it produces a loud metallic screech which can be heard all over the neigh borhood! For sharpening large tools, like axes, there is the grindstone. A stone wheel, about two inches thick and perhaps sixteen to eighteen inches in diameter, is mounted on a shaft on a stand, with a crank for turning. The lower edge of the wheel runs in a shallow trough with water in it, which keeps the wheel and the tool wet and the tool from getting hot enough to perhaps draw its temper. When this happens, the metal turns blue, and is so soft that it won't stay sharp. (Wonder who turned the grindstone before I was big enough?)
Enough about tools! Now let's turn our attention to their reason for being here. In the middle of the shop floor, propped up on three sawhorses, is the skeleton of a motorboat Dad is building in his "spare" time. It's upside down right now because Dad is working on the bottom, putting on the "planking", or outside boards. The keel is that long, heavy piece of oak which forms the backbone of the boat, and to which the oak ribs are fastened. The front or "bow" end of the keel curves up to form the "stem". The keel itself is too thick and heavy to be bent into that shape, so the stem is made from two separate pieces of oak, sawed and chiseled to the proper shape and then finally bolted to each other and to the keel. At the back, or "stern" is a wide oak board, called the "transom", which is fastened to the keel by a wooden bracket called the "sternpost"
The ribs of this boat-to-be remind me of the pictures I've seen of whale skeletons. These, however, are made of oak strips which have been steamed in Dad's homemade steam box until they are almost as flexible as rubber, and then bent around previously prepared forms which hold them in the desired shape while they dry. Most of the ribs are one piece of oak, fastened to the keel by screws. Those up near and in the bow, however have to be made of two pieces fastened together and to the keel.
In Dad's system of boatbuilding the term "planking" is almost a misnomer. The "boards" he puts on the outside are three quarters of an inch thick by only about an inch and a half wide. They are beautiful, long, straight grained knot-free cedar strips which have been milled to his order at the mill where he works. One edge of these strips is rounded to a semicircular shape, and the other edge is hollowed out to almost, but not quite, a mirror image of the opposite edge. Now when two such pieces are placed side by side, the rounded edge of one almost, but not quite, fits into the hollow edge of the other. This "not quite" fit leaves a little enclosed space into which Dad puts a string of candle-wicking which has been saturated with white lead and linseed oil, making the joint waterproof. Also the curved edges and narrow shape allow two pieces to fit together as nicely on a curved surface as on a flat one. This feature is important because the shape of a boat is really only a series of compound curves.
When most of the planking is on, the soon-to-be boat will be turned on its side to make it easier to work on. As the planking goes on, the nails which hold it in place go through the oak ribs and are long enough to protrude a fraction of an inch. These are bent over (with a hammer) flat against the wood, or "clinched". Then, when they are all in place, it's my turn to go to work. My job is to hold a piece of iron against those bent-over nails while Dad pounds on their heads with a hammer and a small punch called a "nail set". This way we make sure that they are all tight, and that their heads are well below the outside surface, away from the plane that is used, along with sandpaper, to make it smooth enough to paint. That piece of iron, which is just a short section of railroad rail the track builders cut off a rail to make it fit, sure gets heavy after I hold it in place for a while!
After all the planking is on, and the boat is again right side up, the ribs and any excess planking are carefully sawed off on a line which determines the shape of the top of the boat. Next a series of wooden brackets (oak of course, and each hand-shaped with Dad's scroll saw) are fastened to the inside of the upper side of the hull, using brass wood screws. Those brackets from the stem back about three or four feet support the curved crosspieces on which the forward deck boards are fastened. At the stern those brackets support similar crosspieces on which the aft deck boards are fastened. The remaining brackets between the decks support a long curved board (oak, of course) on each side, which finishes off the top edge of the hull and supports a vertical board (oak!) on each side. The inboard edges of the fore and aft decks support similar boards, called "coaming", whose purpose on sea-going boats is to prevent waves big enough to wash over the decks from getting into the inside of the boat. All the oak boards will be stained a "dark oak" color, given several coats of varnish, and the outside of the hull will be painted white with real white-lead paint.
The purchaser of this boat will be able to customize it to a considerable degree, selecting and buying the engine of his choice, and specifying custom seating arrangements, etc. We have a catalog of marine hardware from which to select cleats to which to which mooring lines are attached, brass "chocks" to keep the lines from rubbing the varnish off the decks while moored, flag pole sockets, (a vertical one on the bow and a slanting one at the stern) and the wheel. On boats and ships, that round thing with spokes and handles with which one turns the rudder is never called the steering wheel, just the wheel!
When the engine arrives, it will be fitted with a custom made wooden mounting base which is bolted to the boat bottom in just the right place. The engine will sit at an angle sloping toward the stern, so the propeller shaft can extend through the bottom into the water. The necessary hole in the bottom is sealed by a brass or bronze "stuffing box". This device, fastened to the inside of the keel, has a circular space around the shaft which is filled with candlewicking and grease, squeezed tight by a threaded ring. Thus the shaft is permitted to turn and the water is kept out. A brass or bronze propeller is fastened to the end of the shaft with set screws. To provide support out near the end of the shaft, a strut is fastened to the bottom of the boat. A piece of heavy strap iron is bent, beaten, and otherwise cajoled into forming this heavy bracket with an approximately circular opening through which the shaft goes. After everything is properly lined up, the shaft opening is poured full of babbitt metal, melted in an iron ladle by a blow torch. When it solidifies, it forms an excellent bearing for the shaft. The strut is often extended below the shaft, to hold a "propeller guard". This is a heavy iron bar fastened to the boat bottom, slanting down to where it is supported by the strut, and extending under the propeller and the rudder. This protects these items from damage in case of (perish forbid!) an accidental grounding.
Marine engines are water cooled, but do not need radiators, because of the inexhaustible supply of cooling water right under the boat. All that is required is a small pump (built right into the engine) which takes water from the inlet under the boat, circulates it through the cooling passages, and returns it to the river. The engine does require a fuel tank, however, and this is generally placed up in the bow (high enough to ensure gravity feed to the engine) with a filler pipe accessible from the deck. There is no fuel gage, so to find out how much fuel is in the tank, a clean stick is lowered into the tank until it hits bottom and then removed, at which point the depth of the fuel in the tank shows on the stick. From there on, a knowledge of the tank dimensions enables the operator to estimate the amount of fuel he has.
Well! That's most likely a lot more about boats than you ever wanted to know. So, before you leave, let's take a quick look at Mom's vegetable and flower gardens. Way over there next to the fence on the east side of the lot, there are currants, both red and white (really a pale yellow). Right in with the currants is a lot of rhubarb (Mom's "pie-plant"). Most of the rest of the space between this and the woodshed is devoted to rows of radishes, onions, carrots, beets beans, peas, tomatoes, lettuce, and a few cucumbers. And in a small raised bed all by itself is a clump of chives (Mom's "onion grass"). Between the garden and the porch is a grassy space under the clothes lines. These lines are strung across the yard which puts them across the walk to the woodshed and shop, so, on wash day one must sometimes dodge frozen long johns!
At the south end of the old section of the house there is a garden of old-fashioned flowers. Nasturtiums, pinks, pansies, phlox, babies' breath, a few sweet peas, and others I don't know the names of, live here. Between the west side of the house and the fence there is a path and a few small trees, some tiger lilies, and a medium-sized box elder tree. One of those small trees grows close to the bedroom window. And one night recently a wind came up, and Mother said there was something outside the bedroom that sounded like it was saying "Shave me! Shave me!". Dad lit the kerosene lantern, went out there and cut off the tree branch which had been rubbing against the window screen, putting the "spook" to rest!
Our front yard is almost completely covered by grass, and isn't very neat looking, because we don't have a lawn mower. There is a small maple tree in the northwest corner, and there are the two Lombardy poplars flanking the path from the front gate to the house. And so, we are back where you started. Hope you enjoyed your tour of "our house" and weren't too bored. What, your horse and buggy are gone? The horse must have grown tired of waiting and ambled back to the livery stable. You turn right at the next corner and go about two and a half blocks. You can't miss it!