What Lies Beneath

Christin Kaiser

© Copyright 2022 by Christin Kaiser


Photo property of the author.
Photo property of the author.                      

The foundation of our old farmhouse was dry laid fieldstone, which Dad pointed in the early 1940’s when he placed a concrete pad for the new furnace. The pad covered the central portion of the dirt floor, leaving much of the rest of the cellar under the midsection and the barn apartment unimproved. Never one to waste builders’ material, Dad pointed much of the stone foundation at the same time, using the remaining mortar.

You entered the cellar of the main house where I grew up by way of a short narrow closet, then down a short flight of stairs to a small landing directly under the second main stairway landing above it; here you’d turn to the left and clamber backwards down a short, steep ship’s stair to the cellar floor. Above the landing was a makeshift shelf where Mother kept emergency rations, in case we were snowed in. A whole tinned chicken, several sauterne jugs full of well water, and assorted canned vegetables were there in case of need. Now and then the chicken would be replaced by a newer one, and we’d have an unexpected fricassee for supper.

The headroom was about 5’8” between the massive cross beams made of squared-off tree trunks, maybe only five feet under the beams. The center chimney sprouted four fireplaces and was supported by a brick arch that my grandfather kept his wine & rum in.

Another entry was from the ‘Ell’, the four room midsection where my paternal grandmother lived. She had a mountain climber’s stair case that twined along and around the bee hive oven & old kitchen fireplace chimney. There was also a huge wash kettle set into the brickwork under the bee hive oven. To get to the cellar you went down a twisting stairway that crossed over the shallow well. Dad had hinged the stairs midway so if the pump leathers needed replacing, it was possible to lift the stairs out of the way. (My Mum did that when needed, after the plumber showed her how. She also fixed other parts of the pump when it broke down.)

This part of the cellar was narrow, and only had a sidewalk of concrete that lead out to the back cellar under the summer kitchen and carriage shed apartment, then into the garage & workshop under the big barn. No windows in the back portion… very scary, as spiders the size of silver dollars and frogs the size of squirrels hid out in the dirt-floored space. An enormous creaky door gave access to the barn undercroft.

Spring brought a small stream trickling through the stone walls and out into the excavated ‘pit’ in front of the garage doors. Dad and friends excavated and reinforced the barn’s south cellar facade to use as a garage after the manure and pigs and chicken pens were retired. He used to gleefully tell the story of pushing his snooty cousin Patsy down the horse stalls’ manure chute. She grew into an even snootier adult then presented my sister and me with even more delicate and snootful cousins!

Come September, several cords of logs would be dumped in the orchard. We stacked the wood and put a tarp on it; during the year it would be ferried load by load to the main cellar to stay dry. The Rumford fireplaces assisted our furnace to keep the house warm. If you banked the fires at night, you’d have enough live coals to restart in the morning. The year my daughter was born I started the dining room fire on Labor Day and it never went out until after Memorial Day. No paper needed… just a bit of pine kindling & some small split logs, then larger logs added after 15-20minutes. Ashes were shovelled up weekly, and often used to make the icy driveway less treacherous.

I cooked many meals over deep coals in that fireplace. A pair of brick blocks held the grill and the cast iron griddle for pancakes. We made toast in a camper’s reflector oven and had tasty fun breakfasts during storms or…’just because’

We hosted a Christmas ‘Grand Illumination’ the Sunday before Christmas. The party was modelled on a Colonial Williamsburg event. I cooked up traditional stews and baked goods to feed the 100 or so people who filtered through the house during the evening. Half the visitors were blood relations or extended family friends. Many were members of the Historical Society, doing their annual bonfire and carolling walk past the house. The dining room fireplace held a huge pot of mulled cider and a smaller one of Swedish Glögg. On the mantelpiece above the fireplace sat bottles of akavit, rum or applejack. No one left hungry, thirsty, or cold.

Below it all sat the old cellar, supplying dried hardwood and dusty forced air from the ancient furnace. ‘Christmas Spiders’ by the dozen waited patiently for us to go to bed before crawling up through the leaky duct work, to spin their webs across the windows, hoping to welcome a late-season fly for their holiday meals.

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