NEW LIFE FOR OLD TIMBER By George Laurence Nelson
Note: This is an excerpt from George Laurence Nelson's
memoir of his love affair with the ancient old house
in Flanders, Kent, CT. New Life for old Timber is available
for $6 through the Kent Historical Society Gift Shop.
Introduction: Helen and Laurence Nelson were warm and
colorful participants in all the activities of Kent
during their life in the town. Their talents contributed
to a lively interest in music, town history, the Library
Fairs, Community House programs, the Art Association,
and endless personal relationships.
In addition to their gifts as writer and artist, their
garden, full of color, unique in its small-scale plan,
drew admiration. Laurence's fine voice, accompanied
by one of his musical instruments, and his gift for
storytelling, made any gathering at the Old House a
delight. They made "Seven Hearths" a charming center
for their family and friends by the warmth of their
personalities and their affectionate understanding of
The Historical Society, of which they were charter
members, is honored to be chosen as the means of preserving
"Seven Hearths," one of the early Kent Houses in the
Historic District, as the headquarters of the Society
and as a memorial to Helen and Laurence.
The Old House, as Laurence lovingly referred to it,
had its high and low periods, from the time John Beebe
Jr. built it, through its occupancy by several other
Kent families to its low ebb as a tenant house before
its revival by Helen and Laurence.
We hope you will enjoy "Seven Hearths" and find in
it some of the flavor of the old village, the warmth
of its last occupants and rewarding art study.
We bring you "New Life for Old Timber" as a delightful
picture of the old house and village in 1919 with the
flavor of Laurence in its telling.
Emily M. Hopson Kent Historical Society, 1982
"When the old house first came into our possession
it had been waiting patiently while the quiet life of
the hill country passed it by. That was nearly thirty
years ago, and for an appreciable period of time, the
surge of life within had ceased completely. Bleak and
gray, it hid its dejection effectually beneath the great
maples. They spread their branches in a towering profusion
of green that rustled about the eaves, and reached out
to envelop the two great chimneys that dominated the
steep pitch of the roof. Dense lower branches concealed
the opalescence of the many-paned windows, and almost
hid the lean-to in the rear which sheltered the well,
the old milk room, and the kitchen pantry. Needless
to add, the interior remained in constant twilight relieved
by a timid spot of sunlight.
"The appearance of the surrounding land completed
the picture of abandonment. Everywhere thistles, nettles,
burdock and plantain competed with the grass which had
grown to the height and volume of a sturdy crop of hay.
This growth attempted to conceal the haphazard confusion
of sheds and chicken coops, cluttered with an assortment
of junk and wire, which the grass seized upon and bound
tightly to the ground. A vine which we never did identify,
bearing the clusters of minute purple and white flowers,
enveloped the fences. It twisted its hardy wood stems
about the wire and clinging to the ground shot out in
all directions to reappear wherever it found support
on a plank or tangle of chicken wire. Here and there
currant bushes struggled amidst the nettles and the
flamboyant rhubarb leaves alone succeeded in retaining
a place in the sun. A few old-fashioned roses revealed
where a garden might once have flourished, and a clump
of day-lilies managed to raise their clear yellow blooms
above the confusion.
"Apparently there comes a time in the life of a community
when a period, or manner of living, draws to a close
and another begins. This change is imperceptible at
first, but gains momentum over an appreciable number
of years. Such a period had come to the community in
which our house had played an important role and families
which had lived on the land for generations were fading
out completely. Some of these folks were childless,
and when they passed away, the auctioneer was called
in to dispose of the accumulation of the years. Others
sold out and departed; they were leaving the land and
many an old farm and house were to be had for prices
that today would hardly pay for a new heating plant,
or for the building of a garage.
"But this changing cycle worked to the advantage of
artists like myself, who were searching for a studio
home for the summer months or for year-round occupation.
The old places were intriguingly quaint, and often afforded
studios in the house or in barns close by, readily convertible
to the painter's needs.
"The glamour of that first day as owners of a house,
of soil and trees, lingered a whole summer as we explored
the labyrinth of rooms, knocking out partitions, opening
papered-over doors and fireplaces, cleaning and fumigating.
As fall drew near enough had been achieved to enable
us to look forward to occupying part of the house upon
our return the following spring, when the real work
of painting and papering would begin. There were scores
of broken and cracked window panes to replace and broken
plaster needed mending. I was soon to discover what
it meant to become a 'Jack of all Trades' with the necessity
of mastering more than one.
"There are two ways of attacking a restoration project;
one includes a complete job done as a single operation,
and enough money to pay for it; the other, a gradual
process by trial and error, and largely through one's
own effort manually - we chose the latter. And today,
when reviewing the past, this choice seems the more
justifiable, as much might otherwise have been done
to destroy the quaint atmosphere of the place.
"The second summer saw Tim Bissel with a couple of
his boys brushing on the first coat of paint. The weathered
siding drank it in like blotting paper, but the house
began to emerge with a silvery sheen from beneath the
maples. With this emergence began a succession of visits
from those who had formerly shared in the life of the
old house. Some of them made nostalgic pilgrimages;
others came inspired by curiosity; still others offered
assistance and advice. Just when Myra Waldo entered
this friendly surge from the past would be impossible
to recall, but as her great-great forebears had kept
store in our house we mutually began to assume a vicarious
relationship, however, tenuous, and she was soon known
to us as Cousin Myra. From our first contact we felt
that she belonged to the house as much as the stately
paneling belonged to the dining room and parlor. Even
her appearance evoked a kinship with the house; it revealed
itself perhaps more as a spiritual relationship with
the period in which her forebears lived ruggedly and
"We would find Cousin Myra lingering a moment at the
massive front door, her deepset eyes affectionately
following the grain of the old pine, etched in deep
lines by the impact of the weather; with her strong,
capable hands she would be fondling the brass knob that
moved the amusing see-saw latch, a unique contrivance
much like the rocking beam of an old side wheel river
boat. It was then that her faded gingham dress, trimmed
about the neck with a bit of heirloom lace, and her
square toed, low heeled shoes, seemed to belong quite
as much to the old doorway as the huge granite stone
with its soft velvety carpet of moss. On the few occasions
that Cousin Myra did wear a hat it must have been taken
from an attic trunk, for it was always in keeping with
the style of an earlier generation. It would be tilted
to the back of her head and resting on a bun peremptorily
drawn up for convenience. The graying, tawny hair, however,
remained unruly, and rebellious strands framed in her
face and the back of her neck. But there was always
an impressive dignity whether she appeared with marked
pride holding a gigantic Paul Neyron rose from her garden
or chuckled with quiet glee over the foibles of the
male population of the town.
"When I needed someone to jack up the sagging floors
before proceeding with the repair of the walls and ceilings,
Cousin Myra recommended Ward Thomas as one who understood
old houses. Ward was not only carpenter and plumber
but the undertaker as well. His roots too were deep
in the soil of New England, and although aging, he had
preserved the powerful frame of earlier life due, perhaps,
to the necessity of retiring between jobs to tend his
hardware. Repeated appeals failed to obtain his help.
He was enjoying the comparative ease of his shop where
he could tell his men off to their work each day, and
set his books in order, or dig down in the basement
to bring out a choice engraved lamp globe, or a piece
of hardware still in stock since his father's days.
This below-floor stock was reached through a trap door
that opened behind the counter, and only favored customers
of Ward could gain access to it.
"Once, however, he had come at a moment's call and
Cousin Myra had brought it about by planned strategy.
Her water supply had ceased to flow into her house and
Ward was the only one who knew where the underground
pipes were concealed, having sunk them originally. She
called the store and after repeated ringing by the operator
a man's voice responded. To be certain she asked for
'Yes,' came the reply.
'Ward Thomas himself?'
'Yes, Miss Myra' - the voice registered anticipation.
'Well,' rang out Myra's high soprano note of urgency,
'I'm dead, come at once!'
There was a moment's pause and an appreciative voice
came back with deliberation:
'All right, I'll be over right away - shall I bring
a cooling board?'
"Cousin Myra never enlarged upon the matter of the
'cooling board,' but Ward made his only quick response
to a call not connected with his capacity as an undertaker.
"I found that it was not necessary to be too specific
as to one's needs when calling the Thomas hardware store,
for when Ward did respond to my appeals he came with
a helper and an inexplicable quantity of tools. To be
sure tools were one of his specialties, besides pots
and pans and coffins, but he seemed to be tool conscious
to a degree that made him wish to have a complete shop
at each job; and as he agreed to clean the old well
at the same time, the equipment included a pumping outfit,
buckets and rope. All this gave me a feeling of pending
achievement and confidence. What a man! What equipment!
But once his jacks were in place and the floors began
to creak upward in two or three locations, the house
neither saw nor heard more of Ward Thomas for two sad
months, during which the summer passed quietly into
fall. The tools, however, remained in neat piles as
a mute promise that, like the return of Spring, Ward's
return would be merely a matter of time. Perhaps if
I had called for a 'cooling board' he might have responded
sooner, but nothing I did do succeeded in bringing him
back before the first chill breath of autumn. Then with
the cooler weather the jacks began to exert their irresistible
pressure, and the house groaned and heaved and cracked
with sudden jolts. My nice 'plaster work' as Ward called
it, shot off the walls and had to be done over again.
"Meantime the pump was working away at the well with
a rhythmic chug-chug, and buckets of silt were being
hauled up at regular intervals. I knew that the early
dug wells were seldom known to fail, abut ours seemed
to have too small a supply of water and to be easily
exhausted. Elsewhere I had descended a well to clean
and scald the interior after a woodchuck had chosen
it as ideal for suicide and I found the bottom had been
dug down to flat rock. As our well gave no evidence
of a hard bottom, the work of cleaning it out had been
decided upon with the result that over four feet of
fine silt, as smooth as talcum powder, was brought to
the surface. Then followed a collection of hand-made
tools: hammers, screw drivers, and meat hooks, all quaintly
different from our present machined varieties, were
brought to the surface. There were also some tin milk
pails which had partially disintegrated instead of rusting
away, and augmenting this collection of antiques were
a three-pronged fork and a broad-ended knife, undoubtedly
handy for scooping up peas, or for balancing a fried
egg on its tip. Last but not least, a nicely turned
earthenware jug, and a few ham bones, were recovered.
As the silt diminished a second pump had to be added
so that the man at the bottom could work free of water.
The vein had opened up and water rushed in with a freedom
that the silt formerly held back and the bottom was
cleared at last.
"Only one who has been down in a well can know its
penetrating chill, especially when descending with the
light clothing coincident with warm weather. Besides
high rubber boots, rubber jacket and hat, the man at
the bottom fortified himself internally with plenty
of warming comfort. Its aroma ascended to the air at
the crown of the well and attracted the attention of
three surprised kittens, Patty, Doodle and the Blond.
In spite of the activity of the men, the noisy pumps,
the slop and the mud, they returned again and again
to sniff with evident relish. Doodle, the largest of
the three, craned his neck over the dark abyss so far
that he almost fell in when a neighbor's dog suddenly
joined the enchanted circle. While he and Patty scampered
off to the kitchen for safety, the Blond, smallest of
the three, arched up into a ball of fury, and defiantly
held her vantage point. The dog, more used to telltale
fumes, left in evident scorn.
"Unused for many years, the old windlass was still
in place under the lean-to roof. The rope for the well
bucket had once been closely wound around the broad
wheel, and a pull chain still hung within easy reach
to check its too-rapid revolution. From the evidence
produced, it was clear that the well had been used to
keep food cool. It was also evident that meat and milk
let down beside the bucket had often landed unceremoniously
at the bottom, and I wondered how many times the bucket
had to be drawn up and emptied before the water was
drinkable again. Perhaps such small deflections from
the sanitary path were ignored in those hardy days of
the survival of the fittest; perhaps charcoal was thrown
in to sweeten the water.
"The well was but a step from the kitchen door and
could be reached on rainy days without getting feet
or clothing wet. But this concession to domestic convenience
was all the house offered; not even a kitchen sink or
drain pipe had ever been installed. Against one wall
was a table-like trough which served to hold dishpan
and dishes, and at one end of it was a hole through
which excess water might drain into a bucket. The plank
wall back of this excuse for a sink was covered by an
accumulation of grease which had become so hard that
no amount of washing was adequate to remove it. After
I had scraped it off a solution of lye had to be used
before paint could be applied.
"The kitchen, large and high-ceilinged, was blessed
with nine doors. One led to the cellar, another to the
front hall and one to the adjoining bedroom. There was
a door to the backstairs, and in passing on around the
room were the doors for the broom closet under the stairs,
the pantry, the milkroom, and the large entry door.
The ninth door opened upon a little passageway past
the chimney breast and dutch oven, leading on to the
dining room. As the kitchen enjoys two windows, the
only space for the range was in front of the great fireplace
which had to remain closed. There was no question of
an electric range as electricity was not yet available.
For years we used the soft light of kerosene lamps to
read by in the evenings and candles to go to bed with.
That period was indubitably one of romance, enhanced
by contrast with the life in a New York City apartment.
The children of our guests were eager for bed when allowed
to lead the way with a lighted candle, and as there
was a wide choice of style and size among the candlesticks
their selection became an added inducement. When electricity
eventually came with the new cement highway, we were
content to remain for a few years longer with our lamps
and candles, our oil-fed kitchen range, and the iceman
who filled the box. We were not, however, as 'sot in
our ways' as the old lady on the hill who waited three
years before she decided to drive down in the buggy
to see the new street lights in the village.
"Paperhanging bore no affinity to the techniques I
had learned during the early days in the art schools
here and abroad. I had, however, seen it done from time
to time, and fortunately had made mental notes of its
intricacies. As the house stood wide open during most
of my operations as a paperhanger, people were popping
in and out, singly and in groups, and I received plenty
"There is undoubtedly great social significance to
wallpaper; the lure of new designs and the look they
give to rooms is irresistible to most people. But in
spite of pride in my new vocation the day finally came
when I had to lock the doors and get on with the job.
The first problem had been to find a table long enough
to facilitate pasting the strips but narrow enough to
move readily from room to room through the many door
and passage ways. It was solved, however, when a large
painting arrived from the city; the long thin match
boards of the case served as a removable top for the
table. With the rest of the lumber I made up the stretcher
and leg ensemble narrow enough to pass anywhere that
it was needed.
"Apparently the house has no lines that are plumb,
nor any that can be defined as the shortest distance
between two points. The great projecting timbers are
generally boxed in, but some have been plastered over
and cause an irregularity along the top of the walls.
To make the paper fit into these uneven places, and
to match the pattern over the many bulges and cavities
of the old plaster required all the patience and ingenuity
I could muster. One neighborly mother of a large brood
strolled in one day with a baby in her arms to remark
that the walls would always look pockmarked. But new
walls would have wiped out the agreeably old textures
and Helen often came to help place a rebellious strip
of paper, especially when they were being hung in the
stairwell reaching from the ceiling of the second floor
to the wainscoting of the first. Long strips sometimes
have an impish way of curling up and pasting themselves
in positions other than those intended.
"We followed a general plan of contrasting warm and
cool colors, which allowed one to pass from a gray room
to a yellow room, or from cream to one in pale blue
and white. Most of the rooms open into each other and
these contrasts are stimulating to the eye, especially
on a sunny day. This plan also made it easier in the
first place to decide upon a choice of paper. As the
years passed the closing of the house in winter caused
much of the paper to peel off, and after repeated attempts
to make it stick we abandoned the paper for paint, retaining
the general color sequence. Oddly enough, the one room
which has remained intact as I originally hung it is
the parlor, and it is the only room in which the overall
pattern did not get matched correctly. Fortunately no
one seems to notice my mistake. Although it was obtained
locally, many have supposed the paper to be that of
an early period……"
Our excerpt from "New Life for Old Timber" stops
here, but Nelson continues his narrative with amusing
and affectionate portrayals of his new friends and neighbors
as well as more description of the house renovation