I love old houses. I love the character and personality that comes with an old house—the wide pine floors, the detailed molding, the old-fashioned doorknobs. I love the staircases, with their carefully crafted newel posts and banisters worn smooth after years of hands running their length and generations of children sliding down them. I love the windows with their divided panes, despite how frustrating they are to clean. I even love the sloping floors and the sounds of scratching coming from the attic every fall. Our old farmhouse has loads of character and personality. It once was heated with coal-burning stoves on the first floor, with ducts that carried the heat up to the second floor. Those coal-burning stoves are long gone, but I am reminded of them every day I look down: Every room on the second story has a hole in the floor with the simplest of wood detail surrounding it. It’s beyond charming and reminds me that my home has a past. So many families grew up here; so many memories were made under this roof.
If you are a homeowner, perhaps you know your home’s previous occupants. We are supremely lucky to live right next door to the people who last farmed our property. If you’ve ever owned an old house, you may have had the pleasure of having a past resident or their descendant knock on your door and ask to come in. That happened to us while living in our first home in Gloucester, Massachusetts. One day, I heard a knock at the door and it was a young woman that timidly explained that her grandparents used to live in our house and that she remembered Christmases there…would we mind if she came in to have a look? Of course we didn’t mind and thoroughly enjoyed hearing her stories of her then-departed grandparents. The woman seemed happy to capture some lost memories, but I felt that day that we had gained so much more: We got to learn a little about the history and the character of our home.
Moving to and taking over an old, established farm is altogether another experience. This makes sense, of course, because oftentimes multiple generations and even multiple families will occupy the same house and farm the same land for a century or more. That is certainly the case with our farm. Our first week after moving in—boxes everywhere—we were visited by a man named Steve Salanco. He was tall, slender, probably in his mid-80s. He told us he was born in this house, and that his parents and grandparents ran a small dairy here many years prior. Using a cane, he walked through the house, room to room, smiling and telling us all about his family and how many children were born and grew up here.
Steve was a regular visitor to our farm those first few years. We learned that when the old barn had burned down in the 1920s, his family rebuilt using what was then cutting-edge design. As I scraped layer upon layer of wallpaper off the walls in the house, he told me who had put each of them up. When we removed a small bathroom from the first floor, he told us about the elderly aunt that had lived in our “new” dining room. When I asked for old photos of the place, his wife Rosemary had me over for coffee while we poured over ancient photo albums. When our children discovered the wild leeks growing in our woods, Steve told me about the wild leek festivals they used to hold…and how not much digging of leeks actually took place.
Steve’s son Tom came by, too. When we removed the old chimney, we found his initials and he told us about building that chimney as a young boy. He warned us to be very careful if we ever removed a very old maple tree in the yard—he had filled it with a bucket of nails one hot summer day. Tom’s cousin from Albuquerque simply showed up in our driveway one day and was dying to see where he once milked cows with all his cousins and where they had stacked tens thousands of bales of hay over the years. Steve’s nephew Ken visits us nearly every week to buy eggs. I know he enjoys the eggs, but I suspect the farm itself and his connection to this place are what bring him here time and time again. Tom’s ex-wife even popped in one day to introduce herself. They had divorced long ago, but she had always loved this farm and was dying to see what we had done to the place.
Certainly, part of the reason these visitors come is to satisfy a curiosity. (“What are these people doing to our farm?”) My husband grew up on an old farmstead in Wisconsin, but his parents did not farm it. The former owner popped in from time to time and my husband, even at a very young age, could tell there was an air of disapproval from the retired farmer. My in-laws were making choices and changes that he did not quite approve of, but would never dare say so out loud. I always thought that was so bittersweet: The old farmer clearly cared very deeply for his former farm and was heartbroken to see it fall out of use.
Sadly, Steve, and then Rosemary passed away a few years ago. We are lucky to have learned so much about the history of our wonderful home from them in the time that we had. But the visits have not ended! I could have never guessed that we would continue to see their extended family—long-lost nieces and nephews and great-great grandchildren pulling into our driveway or sending us emails and messages on Facebook. I never anticipated the joy we have seen in their eyes when they connect to this place—this farm, and by extension its former caretakers and their children, all who cared for it and loved it just as we do now. They are happy to see that we are still farming it. For the generations that know what agriculture used to be in this area, they are pleased to see the land and barns still in use. But even more so, they are thrilled to see their great-grandparents’ hard work carried on. The same outbuildings they either built themselves or repaired are still standing and housing animals. The same hayfields are still producing and haven’t been lost to scrub. The water lines they dug by hand are still bringing life to the farm. All that hard work, all that love and dedication…it wasn’t for nothing. Quite the contrary; as this farm’s current caretakers, we’ve benefitted tremendously from their grit and determination.
My own children slide down the banister now and help with the chores, adding the next chapter to this farm’s story. I don’t dare wonder what the next 100 years will bring, but I sure would like to hope the farm will carry on.