Saturday, September 26, 2009

A Deep Breath Day

This time of year reminds me of preparing for a long race. You are getting ready to put in hours of physical exertion. Just before you start, you take a deep breath, clear your mind, focus on what needs to get done, and then go - slowly at first, but smoothly you build speed.

Fall is in the air, and I start to think of all the things I need to do to get ready for winter. I know, its only late September, but the cold is coming quick.

The leaves are changing and already dropping from the trees. I have lowered the mower deck 1/2 an inch so that when I rake it will be easier. I brought 2 loads of wood pellets into the house today - we are already running the stove (it was ~ 40 deg F this morning). I will be pulling the garden up and turning it over in a few weeks. My compost bins are ready for the leaves. We have pulled our potted herbs inside to beat the coming frost. I'll trim back a few of the overgrown areas where we have day lillies so that they have nothing in their way next spring. I'll be bringing the lawn furniture into the old chicken coop soon (we use it as a shed now).

By early November, I'll be removing the mower deck from the tractor, putting on the plow blade, and putting the chains and wheel weights on the tractor. I be pulling out the snow shovels and salt bucket.

I look around and think of the things I did not get done this year. Well, all the important jobs got done. I'll paint the deck next year, trim back those hollies, grab more river rock for a wall by the road. I have got to leave something for next year . . .

The Case of the Missing Church, Part 2

We were at a water committee meeting this week. One of the local patriarchs, Ray S. was there. He lives just a few hundred yards from where the church I found on a map would have been. I asked him whether there was a church / house of worship in the area where the 1904 map showed. He was not aware that there had been a church there. He thought that another local patriarch, Jerry C. might know. Jerry and his wife Ethel had the farm nearby and have been very involved in the local history society. I'll have to get a copy of the 1904 topo map for Ray.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Shaving Horse

Shaving Horse at the Old Sturbridge Village Museum

Fall is officially here (hooray!) and I will start to think about indoor projects. One of the projects I hope to get get done this fall is to build a shaving horse.

A shaving horse is use to hold a piece of wood in place so that you can use draw knives and spoke shaves to work the wood. I always found them to be interesting. Seems like I have accumulated a number of shaving horse pictures when I go to museums. Here is a picture I took this past summer of a shaving horse at Sturbridge Village.

There are a lot of plans available. Many of the shaving horses I have seen are different. Some are very primitive, while others are quite finished. I'll probably keep on the lookout for old draw knives and spoke shaves.

I also want to build a spring-pole lathe. Such a lathe uses foot power to spin the stock. If you are a fan of the Woodwright's Shop, you will see Roy Underhill build all sorts of things using simple / primitive tools like a spring-pole lathe. I wish our local PBS had this show on, but you can see it on the internet. I guess I'll also need to look for old chisels and gouges for the lathe. . .

Monday, September 21, 2009

Move the Workshop

Original Workshop Space

I currently have my workshop in the second level of the main barn. However, that space is very large and difficult to heat in the winter, it is somewhat dark, and the bats tend to leave droppings everywhere (I don't want them on my tools!).

I realized that I could move the workbench, tools, etc. into the second level of the milk shed. It is unused space, it is much smaller (I can heat with a simple kerosene heater), and there is no evidence of bats! I spent a lot of time last year cleaning up this space, fixing the flooring and the windows.


Space in Upper Level of Milkshed

I'll tackle this after I get the stairway to the lower level of the milk shed opened. It has been nailed closed. The stairs look to be in good shape. Hopefully I won't find any 'problems' in the stairway. It should only take a few hours to move the workbench and tools into the milk shed. Luckily, there is a doorway / access from the top floor of the barn to the milk shed. This is a good task as the colder weather moves in. I'll have to get the wiring fixed. It is a much brighter space, so it should be good for the workshop.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Typical Weekend

My work schedule gives me every other Friday off. Unless the weather is lousy, I am usually busy with all sorts of chores. Let's see . . .

Friday -
Exercise (row 20K meters (I do indoor rowing on a Concept2 rowing machine))
Scrape paint
Prime bathroom ceiling
Trim the boxwoods by arbor and the holly bushes by the deck
Mow half the yard (started to sprinkle)

Saturday -
Exercise (row 15K, mountain bike ~ 1 hr)
Some weeding of side yard garden
Put some dying annuals into compost bin
Trimmed back bleeding heart (the recent cold weather has knocked it back)
Consolidate compost into 1 bin
Finished mowing the yard
Put screen on bottom of north door to barn lower level (those rascally rabbits . . .)
Went out for a late lunch (Italian - yum)
Ran errands (shopping in the city)

Sunday -
Exercise (row 10K, road bike 32 miles)
Scraped and painted door on garage
Cooking (made salsa with the remains of this years tomatoes, pork medallions on the grill, apple and brie quesadillas)

Yep - this is a typical long weekend.

I sit here typing in the late afternoon with a cool drink beside me. Thanks to the technology gods for wireless computing - I can be outside enjoying the day. Soon it will be too cold. Enjoy the outside while you can!

Friday, September 18, 2009

Plane Talk

I received a few old tools a few weeks ago. My wife had been visiting my daughter and son-in-law and had stopped at a giant flea market. They bought me a wooden clamp and an old wooden bench plane. The clamp is in good working order, though the plane needs the iron sharpened. The wooden body is worn, so keeping the iron blade fixed may be a challenge. I started to sharpen the blade, but I will have to bring it into the barn and work in the vise first before I can tackle it with the oil stone.

I came across a few good site on older tools and prices. I am sure I will follow these sites. Maybe I'll start to collect some old tools just to see how well they work and what it takes to care for them.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Where's the Church?

I came across a topographic map from 1904 of the area on the web. On it I noticed an old church site noted just down the street from our house. My wife volunteers with one of the local historic groups. She asked if they knew the history of the house of worship. They were unaware of such a building. In looking at recent aerial photographs, it looks like this area is now wooded. It is near a residence. I'm going to have to poke around sometime and see if there is any evidence of a church there . . .

The Barn Layout

Our barn is split into 6 major sections:
  1. Lower-level of main barn with 4 stalls
  2. The lower-level entrance / tool shed
  3. Milk shed lower-level
  4. Gym (used to be a shed for tractors)
  5. Upper-level of main barn (aka hay mow)
  6. Milk shed upper-level
I started to list all the things I've had to do so far by section:

1 - Main barn lower-level
  • Repaired / replaced all windows
  • Built staircase to upper-level
  • Patched concrete floor
  • Stained siding
2 - Tool shed
  • Repaired / replaced all windows
  • Fixed rotted post
  • Replaced loose post
  • Framed and built new entry door
  • Stained siding
  • Installed metal roof
3 - Milk shed lower-level
  • Stained siding
4 - Gym
  • Stained siding
  • Added gutters
5 - Main barn upper-level
  • Clean, clean, clean
  • Replaced windows
  • Replaced missing floorboards
  • Repair siding
  • Replaced missing battens
  • Covered knotholes in barn boards
  • Stained siding
  • Built work bench
6 - Milk Shed upper-level
  • Clean, clean, clean
  • Fixed broken windows
  • Installed support post
  • Covered flooring with plywood sheathing
  • Painted flooring
  • Stained siding
  • Added gutters

So whats left this year?
  1. Get Gym and Main Barn reroofed
  2. Open the doorway / staircase from the lower-level to the upper-level of the milk shed
  3. Install / improve wiring in barn
Wish me luck!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Mulch Musings (aka the Compost Chronicles)

There are four things I don't do enough -

Drink plenty of water
Take my vitamins
Stretch before and after I exercise

and finally

Turn over my compost.

I have three compost / mulch bins I picked up at Agway. They are made of wire and come in 3 ft x 3 ft sections. They fit together into neat little boxes. I fill them every year with yard waste - hoping to have that wonderful, dark compost gardeners prize.

I am not one of those active composters. I don't save every cucumber peeling, torn lettuce leaf, apple core, or dirty onion skin. I collect up as many leaves I can fit into the mulch bins. As I weed some of the garden beds during the year, the unfortunate, undesireable plants find their way in the bins with last fall's leaves. Once in a while a wilted vegetable or sickly house plant comes to visit the mulch bin, never to leave.

I know I should turn the bins over every few weeks, but I am lucky if I do it every 2 months. They need to get turned so that the plant matter decomposes, making it the nice, dark garden food it aspires to be. It is the plant form of resurrection.

I did turn the compost piles over last weekend. I had three full bins earlier in the year, and now I have 1 1/2 bins. I had just one bin's worth last year. I suppose I'll get down to 1 bin by late October (I better - I need to put the leaves somewhere!).

As I was looking at the mulch, I was pondering what I did with last years mulch? I did not work it into the garden beds. I used a little to fill in an area where I had dug in the yard. Where did the rest of the mulch go? Maybe someone is sneaking into my yard to steal my mulch.

I will have to pay more attention next year to see where my mulch goes.

Monday, September 14, 2009


I had to go on a business trip to Massachusetts. As I drove thru the Catskills and Berkshires I admired the scenery as the colors were on the cusp of changing. It always amazed me that some small, unassuming branch would be the first to change. It seemed to me that these branches were on smaller, weaker trees. I found it comforting that nature would favor the weaker trees by letting them grab the glory of changing color first.

But why is this a comforting thought?

Nature is not fair. Nor does it have favorites. Nor is it predictable.

Why would the changing color give me comfort?

People look for fairness. We impose rules to make sure that things are predictable. How many times do you get mad when someone else got a bigger piece of cake than you did, or that the guy in front of you did not get the speeding ticket, or that the person in the cubicle next to you gets the same pay even though they don’t work as hard or well as you? We make rules to make the world fair – yet nature is not fair.

Nature does not make rules. There is no arbitration in nature. Maple trees don’t get to petition some higher court if they can’t get as much water as a willow. There is no recourse for sea turtle if their eggs are disturbed. No committee determines which of the weakest gazelle should become the food for the wolf pack.

As I drove along pondering this issue, I did not at first understand why the changing colors made me feel good. Nature is not fair. Yet, we strive for fairness, but it is an unachievable goal. No matter how many rules we make, there is always something about the world that the rules don’t fit. Maybe your child could read and write their name at 3 years, could time their shoes and tell time at 4, and knew how to add all the numbers up to 20. Yet if your little boy or girl was born 1 month to late, they have to wait 1 more year before they could start school. That doesn’t see fair. The rules are too crisp, too rigid.

We think about the laws of nature. Survival of the fittest. Only the biggest, the strongest, the fastest will survive. Yet nature is unpredictable. Sometimes a smaller buck gets his chance at the does when the bigger bucks are locking horns. Sometime the smallest seed can find its way into a crack in the sidewalk and sprout. Maybe the weaker tree prepares for winter by putting on its falls colors early. In doing so, it improves its chance of survival. There is balance. No matter what the rules are, there is a chance that the unexpected will get through. It is not in the rules that the chances lay, but in the variation.

This is where the hope is.

This is where I take comfort.

This is what I see in the first colors of fall.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Thoughtful Places

"All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone."

— Blaise Pascal

When our daughter was little she used to sit quietly in the backyard on a rock in the corner of the yard. Like Winnie-the-Pooh, it was her thoughtful place, a place where she could collect her thoughts, organize her dreams, and create her wishes. I have always liked quiet places – mountain tops, sedate gardens, the banks of rivers.

When we moved to the house, there was an old bench and an arbor on the property. Both were in need of repair. I tackled the arbor first. A lot of the wood was rotted. I brought it into the barn, pulled it apart in three sections, and replaced all the old wooden slats. A coat of paint, and it was good as new. I set it up near a concrete pad on the property that used to be the walkway to a trailer. We have silver lace growing on it now, and it is a pretty place to sit. I took a short walk outside last night and found myself sitting there. My wife stopped to sit there today after she took a walk. I am glad to see it get used.

The bench was a simpler fix. I got some 1 x 4s and ripped them down to ~ 3 inches wide. After reassembling the seat with new carriage bolts, it was just like new. It now sits by the creek. I love sitting there at nite and listening to the water babble by.

Varmints, Squatters, and Interlopers

When I am home, I like to open the barn to let it air out. Today, I had opened the barn, and then went back to get a rake and wheelbarrow to do some yard work. Too my surprise, a small rabbit was in the barn. It saw me and scurried out the under door on the north end. This reminds me that I have to put some chicken wire on the bottom of the door to keep the critters out.

We have had our share of varmint issues. The rabbits took to eating our peonies, silver lace, and garden herbs. To adapt, we grew herbs in pots on our deck this year. I resorted to putting wire cages around the peonies and silver lace (which worked great). Before I closed in the barn and repaired the siding and replaced missing battens, we had grey squirrels getting in. We even had a family of red squirrels in our basement last winter (I am sorry to say that I was able to get rid of them – but have-a-heart traps sometimes are not so humane…). I am always on the lookout for starlings, which nest in the most amazing places. We have a robin that makes a nest in one of our holly bushes every year. We actually look forward to her visits and seeing the new babies. We even get a robin to nest on a second-story windowsill on the milk shed. I knock the nest down every fall, and they rebuild it every spring.

The Color of Change

I went for a leisurely 25 mile bike ride today by one of my favorite routes. It has a short climb over a hill through the country. The height enhances the cold, and I could see snatches of fall colors in the trees, particularly in the sumacs.

As fall approaches I always look for the changing of the sumac. Once their leaves burst out all red, I know we have entered autumn. As I think about it, I realize that red is the color of change. In the fall, I look for the sumac to change. Winter starts with the holly berries, Santa’s red suit, and even shiny reindeer noses! Spring starts once I hear the ‘shwoo shwoo SHWEE’ of the redwing blackbirds. Summer is the time of sunburn, tomatoes, and juicy red watermelon. Indeed, red is the color of change…

Saturday, September 12, 2009

What’s a Farm without a Silo?

Next to the barn is an old silo ring. It was full of debris and overgrown with weeds. For a few years I would go and trim the weeds. I thought about turning it into a flowerbed, but I still did not want to weed it or water it. I had some lumber left over from some barn work and decided to just cover it up. I painted it with deck paint, and now it is low maintenance. Next to the silo ring is a concrete pad for the grain handling equipment. If you come across a silo ring, you will usually find a concrete pad close by. We had stayed at an old in last weekend which was adjacent to an old farm. I pointed the old silo ring out to my wife and also pointed out the pad for the grain elevator.

A local history buff in the area stated that the barn probably had a silo made by the Unadilla Silo Company. They were started in Unadilla, NY in 1909 and have produced many of the silos used across the state and the country. They are still in business and build silos. Given the vintage of the barn, I assume the silo was wooden, like the one I show below.

Wooden Silo Next to a Bank Barn

The silo would have been held together with metal hoops. I have not found any evidence of the silo hardware – it, like the rest of the silo, is long gone. There are still wooden silos around. I’ll have to inspect a few when I get a chance – before they are gone also!

Bits ‘n Pieces, Odds ‘n Ends

As I work around the property and in the barn, I’ve run across a lot of bits and pieces to old farm equipment. I understood that the owner of the farm back in the 1950s and 1960s did some tractor repair. The farm was over 300 acres once, but now we have but a small piece of that land. I’ve found a disc from a wheel harrow, bits of chain, rusty pulleys, horse shoes, and cast iron weights. If you look closely in the barn, our porch, and even the garage, you will find little thermometers with various company names on them. Several trees and posts along the property lines have barbed wire nailed to them. I’ve even found an empty can of Genesee beer (circa mid to late 1970s) in the barn.

I came across a strange item last summer sticking out of the bank in the creek. It looks like some kind of screw-driven mechanism for moving fluids or a slurry. It might be used to grind material. It is made of both metal and wooden parts. It is about 3 ½ feet long. There appears to be a rotating metal parts inside the wooden body. I’ve looked in the library in old farm catalogs to see if I can identify it, but to no avail.

The Whatsit

One of these days I’ll buy a metal detector and poke around the property. I’m sure to find a lot of nails, pull tabs, and other assorted bits of junk. But you never know – I might find more bits ‘n pieces that tell the story of this place.


We had drainage problems around the barn. The addition on the southwest corner was not allowing water to drain away from the main foundation of the barn. We had water collecting in the lower level of the barn. I trenched around the foundation, layed in heavy plastic, and carted in 20 wagonloads of field stone to line the trench. This allowed water to flow away from the foundation. When I was putting the drain in, I ran across a stand of plants stalks about 6 feet tall. I also found them along the creek. At first I could not figure out what it was – but in time I learned about it – it is Japanese Knotweed!

Japanese Knotweed

Japanese Knotweed is a non-native species which was brought from Asia. It is an extremely aggressive species. It can grow as much as 18 inches a week. It likes wet areas, like the side of creeks and areas of poor drainage. Japanese Knotweed can grow to be 8 feet tall. It can send roots down over 6 feet. I even found shoots growing into the second floor of the milk shed! Because its roots are so deep, it can’t be pulled. It does respond to some herbicides, but I did not want to use them near the creek.

Luckily, knotweed is easy to cut. Its stalk looks like bamboo, but is very soft and usually full of water. Cutting it with a string trimmer works, but the watery-filled stalk tends to spray water all over. I’ve found the best tool is an old-fashion scythe.

The Knotweed Slayer

I bought a scythe at an auction for $15. It was in good shape, and with a little tightening and blade sharpening, I was ready to tackle the knotweed. I have to cut the weed back every three weeks, or it grows so tall that we can’t see the creek. As long as you trim it, it stays in check. In time I also learned knotweed has 2 enemies – Japanese beetles and cold weather. It seems very few animals eat knotweed. At least Japanese beetles are good for something. As far as cold, once the first frost kicks in, the knotweed turns brown and dies back.

Now that I know what knotweed is, we see it all around the area. We were in Vermont last weekend visiting friends, and even noticed it there. I know I’ll never rid the property of knotweed (it’s all around every stream in the area). The battle of the knotweed won’t end – but I’ll keep fighting it.

My Old Barn

The Barn

Ever since we moved into our house 3 ½ years ago, I’ve spent a lot of my free time fixing up the barn on the property. The main house was built around 1810. I estimate the barn was built prior to 1910. The barn is a traditional side-entry bank barn. Such barns were common in the mid 1800s thru the turn of the century.

The main barn is sited north/south with the ramp to the hay mow on the west side. There is a two-story milk shed on the south gable-end with an additional room to the west of the first floor of the milk shed.

Main Door to Hay Mow

The barn is of traditional post and beam construction. It has 3 bays in the upper level with a single bay in the lower level. There are 4 stalls in the lower level. The barn was part of a working farm until the early 1970s. There still is a portion of the hen house on the property. Our neighbors tell us the farm raised cattle, a few horses and even foxes.

The Chicken Coop - Now a Storage Shed

Needless to say, the barn needed a lot work. There were drainage problems near the south side behind the addition; it was missing siding, doors and windows; it had rotted flooring in the second floor of the milk shed, and there were no stairs to the second level from the first level. The barn was filthy. It still had hay in the mow that had scraps of newspapers in it from the 1960s. There were dead birds in the barn and bird and bat droppings everywhere.

There is a remnant of a silo ring on the east side of the barn which was filled in with debris and weeds. Needless-to-say, I’ve spent a lot of time the past few years getting the barn back in shape and useable. Follow along and I’ll let you know what I’ve done and learned.