Prelude to the First Edition
1. Flight from the City
II. Domestic Production
III. Food, Pure Food, and FreshFood
IV. The Loom and the Sewing-machine
VI. Water, Hot Water, and WasteWater
VII. Education--The Schoolof Living
IX. Security versus Insecurity
X. Independence versus Dependence
FOR many years, shelter for us hadmeant the four walls of an apartment in New York City with all the conveniences andservices which were included in the rent we paid. We took electricity and gas, runninghot and cold water, steam heat and modern plumbing, and janitor service, quite forgranted. It is true that a few years before our flight from the city we had movedinto a house in Flushing, a half-hour from the center of the city. We then made thediscovery that it was possible for us to run a house and that we could have muchmore room, for the same rent, if we were willing to burden ourselves with the responsibilityfor producing our own hot water and our own heat in the winter. This experience helpedto get us into a frame of mind in which we could seriously consider living in a housein the country in which there were none of the comforts to which we were accustomed,until we installed them and maintained them for ourselves. The purchase of a homein which they were already present was out of question because our funds were toosmall, and besides, that would have reduced the field in which we might experimentwith building and making things for ourselves.
The house on the place which we purchasedwhen we moved to the country twelve years ago--our present home is not on the sameplace--was in part very old. Hewn timbers, fitted together with wooden pins, hadbeen used in the construction of one part of the building. The newer section musthave been added many years later, since the timbers were regulation stuff. In addition,this new section must have at one time been a separate building, because the ceilingsin the two sections were of different heights with the floor levels of the secondstory varying correspondingly. The entrance was at one side of the house and thefront door decorated with a stupid little porch. Study of the lines of the buildingled us to the conclusion that the door would have to be shifted to the center andthe window in the center moved to where the door was. The front porch, we decided,was an anachronism which had no place in our picture of the sort of house we wanted.At the back was a door which for some unknown reason opened into the thin air witha sheer drop of three feet to the ground. There were partitions inside where openingsshould have been, and doors had been cut where there should have been solid walls.
There was no electricity, no gas, nobathroom, no heating system. There wasn't even a fireplace, something for which wehad romantically hungered. The only thing approaching a convenience was an old-fashionedhand suction pump in the kitchen connected to an iron sink. But we found out thatit didn't work, and besides, that it was connected to a cistern in which there wasrarely any water.
To make this house over into what wouldfurnish us the equivalent of the comforts to which we were accustomed would haverequired the employment of carpenters, of joiners, of plasterers, of plumbers, ofsteam-fitters, of electricians.
To us these necessary alterations loomedup portentously. If the house was to be made livable, all of them would have to bemade, and since we lacked the means to employ contractors to make all of them forus, there was only one way out of the dilemma, and that was to undertake to makemost of them myself. An initial experience with contractors helped to strengthenour determination in this direction. We had purchased an electric range--price $75--foruse in the country. We made arrangements with an electrician to install the rangethe day after we arrived, and received a bill for $35 for the work--nearly half thecost of the range. Whether the charge was exorbitant or not, it seemed to us high,and to me it did not seem to involve much in the way of skills which I could notmaster.
I began to accumulate tools from thatmoment, and decided to train myself for the job of jack-of-all-trades by undertakingto build something on which my 'prentice could do no irretrievable damage. A newchicken-house was elected. The shanty we had found on the place, and which had beenused for a chicken- house, was such a dirty, hopelessly inefficient mess that ithad to be torn down. With what could be retrieved from the lumber in the old chicken-houseand a few new two-by-fours and boards, I began to build a chicken-house.
The building of that chicken-houseproved a liberal education. If it did not make me into a finished carpenter, it atleast gave me the courage to undertake the remodeling of the house, and eventuallymake it over to something nearer to our idea of what a modest country home shouldlook like.
In the course of the year during whichI spent all my spare hours remodeling the house, building in cupboards and closetsand furniture, putting in electric lights, installing an automatic pumping system,I acquired a wholesome confidence in my ability to work with tools. I learned thatdeficiencies of experience and skill could be offset by the time and pains put intoeach job. Before I was through with my building operations on "Sevenacres,"I came to the conclusion that most of the work which we think only skilled mechanicscan do is quite within the capacities of any intelligent and persevering man. Whilesome of the work which they do, and certainly the speed with which they can work,requires years of experience, most of their skills involve relatively simple techniques.The mysterious knowledge which makes the average city man, in his ignorance, telephonefor an electrician whenever a fuse blows out or an electric light fixture fails tofunction, and to hunt for the janitor or call for a plumber when a faucet leaks,hasn't the right to be mysterious to anyone over the age of fifteen.
The effort to produce shelter for ourselvesin this way produced a number of dividends upon which we had not counted in the beginning.We, of course, counted most upon reducing the cost of shelter. In the city, a fullquarter of our income had been spent for rent. By owning our home, and above allby making our investment small because we were willing to put some of our own laborinto rebuilding, we cut down the cost of shelter to not much more than I earned byone or two days' work a month. That left just so much more of what we used to spendfor rent available for other purposes than shelter; we had the income for from fourto five days more each month to save or spend.
One of the dividends upon which wehad not counted was that of health. We found that this sort of work, if it was notoverdone (of which there is a real danger when one's enthusiasm is great), furnisheswholesome and necessary exercise. And instead of being just the mechanical exerciseof gymnasium work, it is exercise for the intellect and the emotions as well.
Another dividend was the discoverythat building could be fun. Slowly but surely the things we conceived first as anidea finally became realities embodied in sticks and stones. The space where we decidedthat a cupboard was needed was eventually occupied by one, and the cupboard we dreamedand designed on a piece of paper eventually grew into a real cupboard which serveda functional purpose in our lives. The satisfaction of standing off and looking atit when the last stroke of the paint-brush had been laid upon it was emotionallymuch the same thing felt by an artist when surveying a painting which he had finallyfinished. The creative artist and the creative carpenter are brothers under the skin.Creating and making things has its pains, no doubt, but it has pleasures so greatthat they offset the pains.
One dividend upon which we had notcounted was the discovery that the right kind of machines often made up for the lackof skill--and the lack of strength--of an inexperienced craftsman such as myself.A concrete-mixer can furnish the strength for mixing sand and stone and cement toa man who ordinarily never does any work heavier than shoving a pen across the paperson a desk. And an electric saw can furnish him the skill to make a square and plumbcut on a rafter which he might never be able to acquire with a hand saw.
Out of this discovery grew our workshop,equipped with all sorts of power-driven machines which furnished skill, suppliedstrength, and saved labor. In spite of the fact that in my case I had to start withzero in the way of experience in buying tools and machines, most of the purchasesmade for the shop have proved to be paying investments. I use the term workshop symbolicallyrather than geographically, for many kinds of work are done and many of our toolsare kept outside of the workshop itself. Our shop now includes equipment for buildingwith stone and cement, for carpentry, for plumbing and steamfitting, for electricalwiring, for painting, and for heavier work such as hauling, grading and excavating,pulling stumps, and even blasting. We ought to have, but haven't as yet, a forgeand a lathe. When we install these machines for metal-working we shall be able todo almost any job which may develop in connection with the running and developmentof our homestead.
"Dogwoods," the Main House on the Homestead. Oneof the Wings Contains the Workshop, the Other, the Loom Room. Designed and Builtby Amateur Labor. Even the Wiring, Plumbing, and Steamfitting Were Done by What Canat Best be Described as Semi-sklled Labor. The Stonework in All the Houses on "Dogwoods"Was Put in by Amateurs, Using a Modification of the Flagg Method of Wall-building.
This equipment wasn't all purchased atonce. It was acquired piece by piece as necessity dictated and as our purse permitted.I never, however, hesitated to buy a piece of machinery on credit or installmentsif I felt confident that it would pay for itself eventually out of its savings. Theconcrete-mixer, for instance, was purchased when we decided to build our new homeof stone instead of wood. It has been used not only to build one house, but fourhouses, and the last considerable job for which it was used was the mixing of theconcrete for our swimming-pool. This was built almost wholely by our two boys, andbut for this piece of machinery and the tractor and scraper used in excavating theground, it would have been an impossible task for them. The mixer has paid for itselfover and over again, and it still stands, old and battered, it is true, but readyfor the same sort of service it has furnished us in the past.
Another piece of machinery which servedin many different ways was a combination circular saw, planing-machine, and drill.These combination machines are, on the basis of my experience, a mistake. Separatemachines are better in the long run, even though the investment in them is somewhatgreater. We have used the drill on this combination hardly at all, and a separateband saw and separate planing-machine would be better than the machine which we purchased.The band saw can handle heavy timber as well as ordinary lumber, timbers for whichthe circular saw is too small. Nevertheless we have used our saw machine on manyjobs, though it is now relegated mainly to the job of cutting wood for our fireplacesand kitchen stove. Recently we managed to rig up an attachment which enabled us touse a much larger saw on this machine, and we have discovered that it is possiblefor us to rip boards up to six inches in width out of logs grown in our own woodlot. In our section of the country the blight has killed all the chestnut trees,and we have quantities of this fine hardwood which we were burning until it occurredto me that we might use this chestnut for making furniture. By this coming winterwe shall have accumulated a quantity of chestnut lumber and shall then turn in earnestto furniture-making.
Our circular-saw machine was supplementedafter a time with an electric hand saw--one of the most useful tools on our place.It has proved not only a great time and muscle saver, but has added immensely tothe skill of everyone who has used it. It takes a skilled carpenter to make a perfectlysquare cut with a hand saw. The electric saw makes it possible for any handy manto do an extremely workman-like job. And of course when it comes to ripping boards,the speed with which it does the work delights the heart.
An equally useful tool has been ourelectric hand drill. It has, for one thing, almost relegated the brace and bit tolimbo. We never use so slow a tool except for holes too large for our electric drill.We use this tool not only for drilling in wood and iron, but also for reaming pipes,and sometimes for sharpening tools. We have other machines which are not quite sooften used--a sander, and a paint-machine, for example. As all our houses are builtof stone, we do not have much painting of large surfaces with which to bother, sowe have not the need of a painting machine which those who build of wood would have.Taking them as a whole, these machines have made it possible for us to build up ourplace steadily, and to add improvements during odd times which would otherwise bewasted. It is largely because of these machines that we have built four stone houseson our places--three residences and a stone barn.
Our determination to build in stonedates back to discovery of Ernest Flagg's experiments in the building of attractiveand economical small houses. Flagg developed a system of building out of stone andconcrete, using forms in which to lay the walls, which greatly reduced the cost ofstone construction. Relatively unskilled labor could build Flagg walls which wereattractive, which were sound, and which were true. As a result, we found ourselvesbuilding of stone--the natural building material for a county with the name Rockland--ata cost not much higher than that of good frame construction.
My enthusiasm for many of Flagg's ideashas not abated. For instance, he calls attention to the absurdity of cellars underhouses built in the country. The cellar usually represents a fifth of the cost ofthe house. For much less money, the storage space ordinarily furnished by a cellarcan be provided by adding to the area of the building. Except where the contour ofthe ground calls for a basement or cellar, all our houses are built on what are virtuallyconcrete platforms, over which the regular floors have been laid.
Another idea of his has been the buildingof one-story houses, without attics and with low walls, using dormers over doorsand windows to secure height where height is needed. This makes it possible to buildoutside stone walls which are not more than four or five feet in height for the mostpart, so that stone and concrete do not have to be carried up to a considerable heightand scaffolds erected on which to work. The use of what he calls ridge dormers orridge skylights makes it easy to ventilate these one-story houses in summer.
But one of the things most attractiveto me in Flagg's type of construction is the number of designs which can be builtaround courts, section by section. This makes it possible to build a part of a houseto begin with, and add to it as means permit. When we started to build our main houseon the new place, we first finished one wing of the house, and lived in it untilthe main part was finished. That took us over a year. The whole house is not evennow finished--nor do I see any reason why it should ever be. A home, it seems tome, should grow like the human beings it shelters. Building one's shelter in thisway, section by section, made it much easier for us to finance the building of thesort of home to which we aspired. And it should make it very much easier for thosewho have not enough money at the beginning for all the home that their vision paintsfor them.