When people ask that ubiquitous question, “What did you do on your summer vacation?” this year, my husband, John, has to say, “I did a lot of digging—in the cellar.” It’s an answer that always brings a laugh or raises an eyebrow or both. But I assure you, it is meant in the most innocent of ways. Yes, John also took hikes, grew sunflowers and swam in the ocean. And he really did spend a good part of the summer in the cellar of this old house.
In the valiant effort to keep this 160-year-old house standing, John embarked on a campaign against our ever returning carpenter ants, which included a side project to reroute heating ducts. Like many old buildings, part of our house (formerly the “summer kitchen”) rests on the ground with no foundation. The mission was to dig out underneath to see just what condition those old hemlock floorboards were in.
I’m happy to report that the floors are still sound and dry and we now have a tunnel to replace the crawlspace. My son, Sam, carted away the rocks that didn’t fit back in place after all the digging and shifting was finished. However, we are now sprouting mushrooms down there.
John also unearthed a lot of strange midden—old bits of china, bottles, the soles of old shoes and many bones. We think none are human. (Although the story goes that an old woman, who was reputed to have been denied burial in the cemetery due to some old church politics, was consequently buried under the porch. If so, I am happy to host her bones.)
There are also the plastic-tipped ends of Tiparillo cigars to be found everywhere on this property. The house’s former owner, Jesse Mills, was never without a Tiparillo in the side of his mouth.
This house was built in 1853 by my distant cousin, Jean Baptiste Prosquine (later changed to Proskine), who had emigrated from France in 1831. Reputed to have been a personal bodyguard to Napoleon in his youth, Jean Baptiste came to “French Settlement” (now known as French Woods) in 1841 and began a farm. Little remains of the log cabin he built, in what is now our lower field, before he constructed this house on the hill. (Still, we can find pink, French roses growing wild in the field, escaped from the original homestead.)
This house was eventually handed down to Lucien Nearing, also a cousin of mine, and then sold to his nephew Jesse Mills for $1 and the right for Lucien’s spinster sister, Claudine, to remain living in the house. (This was a short-lived arrangement that didn’t much suit Jesse’s wife Gertrude.) We bought the house in 1998 following Gertie’s move to a nursing home.
This August we finished paying off the 15-year mortgage on this house—and we celebrated with cake and the bottle of champagne saved from our wedding, as well as a traditional mortgage-burning bonfire.
We own this old house now—mushrooms, carpenter ants and all. And we hope it will outlast us. It is a lovely house—small and worn, but warm and filled with the light of us.