Escaping The Upstate Cellar

Gotta love these Upstate cellars.  What cellars?   My point, precisely.  I often think back to those heady land-grabbing days of the early Republic, along with the haste with which people both moved to the big west – New York State – and put timbers together to form all these farmhouses and barns that dot the landscape.  Some of these barns were, and are, fairly nice constructs.  In many cases, these barns are better looking than the houses that accompany them and that’s no coincidence.  A farmer’s livelihood lay in the farm itself.  Without a barn that stored the valuable crops and tools, well, then there was no farm.  The barn got the attention, strange as it is to us today, while the farmhouse received the “good enough” approach to house building.  And that brings us back to the cellar issue.

If cellars exist at all up here, then duck.  I’ve never been in an old farmhouse yet that doesn’t require evasive maneuvers when descending the impossibly narrow or steep stairs.  One good bong on the noggin and you’ll never look at cellars the same way again.  In some cases, you might never look at the world the same way again, either.

The dreaded bumphead - err, bulkhead - door. Copyright James V. Michalec 2015

The dreaded bumphead . . . err . . . bulkhead door.
Copyright James V. Michalec 2015

Often with a dirt floor, built for a population that had an average height of five feet, and never completely extending under the full house footprint, they are the perfect settings for a Stephen King thriller.  To make matters worse, those practical settlers of yore used the material at hand for a foundation.  Around here it’s field stone.  No shortage of that stuff.  It leaks, let’s in mice, and shifts over time, wreaking havoc with the house trying to balance itself on it.  As heard 250 years ago:

Farmer pop:  Dang!  Another rock!

Farmer son:  Gee, Farmer pop, there’s more rock than dirt around here!  We’ll never get this field planted!    Maybe we should’ve kept going west.

Farmer pop:  Can’t do that, Farmer son.  We’ve just finished a barn big enough for all the livestock, farming tools, and the Model T your great-grandchildren will buy.

Farmer son:  What’s a Model T?

Farmer pop:  I have no idea.  Just something that came to me in a dream.  I’m a man of visions, Farmer son.  That’s what brought us Upstate.  This country is going places and we have to make sure we’re in the story.  Besides, Chicago hasn’t been invented yet.

Farmer son:  That’s a drag, Farmer pop.  Well, if we aren’t going to Chicago, maybe we better start thinking about a house.  Looks like rain and you know how Farmer mom hates climbing under rocks when it rains.

And so they built a house that afternoon and almost had it finished before the thunderstorm hit.    I may have taken some liberties here, but this is pretty much they way things were done.  The house got built, fast, and that was that.  Here we are today with the same field stone foundations and half-hearted cellars. Crooked floors and doors that need a kick are the signatures of the Upstate farmhouse.

One of the more serious problems that can emerge with these incomplete cellars is moisture.  Water is the enemy of all wooden structures, making no distinction between a big house or outhouse.  In our case, I’ve been hammering away on renovating an 1837 one-room schoolhouse, turning it slowly but surely into a residence.

New directions for an 1837 schoolhouse. Copyright James V. Michalec 2015

New directions for an 1837 schoolhouse.
Copyright James V. Michalec 2015

As the project has grown, so has moisture rising up into the structure from underneath.  When mold came up through the floorboards we knew something had to give – and we didn’t want it to be the house.  Is there a way out of this?  Yes.  Simply move it.  What’s that?  That’s right.  Move it.  We’ve decided to pick up our dacha, the one-room schoolhouse, and move it to a completely new foundation where only basketball stars will be able to bump their heads going into the cellar.

Preposterous?  Not at all.  A large field lies behind the dacha with no trees or wires to impede a hop, skip, and jump to the hillock that offers a superior location.  On top of this feature, the cost of jacking this house is the same whether we leave it in place or roll it out into the field.

The view from the new site. Copyright James V. Michalec 2015

The view from the new site.
Copyright James V. Michalec 2015

The winter of big decisions now has turned into the summer of the big move.   Ever thought about moving your house?   By the time the summer is over, you’ll have just about everything you need to know right here, bumps and all.  Keep in touch.