This Old House

Back in February we started a renovation on our farmhouse. It was time to update the house to include modern conveniences like insulation, a stairwell that was up to code, and windows that we could open and close. The deed to the house says that it was built in 1893, however, when our contractors were tearing out the plaster and lathe they found a newspaper attached to the wall that was dated 1882.

This home was built by the Elcocks and it stayed in the family until we moved here in 2011. The original two story house was around 240 square feet on the main floor, and another 240 feet upstairs (the vaulted ceilings make it seem much smaller) and a cellar that is accessed from the outside. As the family grew and prospered, so did the house. Additions included a larger kitchen, indoor plumbing, and another bedroom on the second level. In total, the house is 1200 square feet.

The footprint of the house hasn’t changed and 1200 square feet is plenty of room for the two of us to live here, especially now that we are able to go up and down the stairs without fear of falling down them. People were definitely shorter 100 years ago. The stairs that lead to the second level of the house were short and steep. Getting down them was only possible by walking sideways. In order to get the stairs up to code, we had to eliminate walls which included the 7×11 foot bedroom on the main floor. Opening up this space makes the living area seem huge-even though it’s less than 200 square feet- and we also gained a closet. The house didn’t have any closets prior to this renovation. I guess people in the 1800’s didn’t have possessions that required their own room. They certainly didn’t need storage lockers like their descendants do. 

Two years ago we put on a new roof and cedar siding and replaced most of the house’s 21 windows. This did make the winters a little more comfortable as it cut down on the wind blowing through the house. I remember my Dad telling me about the farmhouse that he grew up in. During the winter if he fell asleep with a glass of water by his bed it would be a glass of ice by the morning. That only happened out here once but it was not uncommon on a cold winter day with a north wind to have the temperature in the house be in the low 40’s. Now that we have insulation and all of the windows have been replaced the house is comfortable and the guys from Farm Gas Co-Op don’t have to stop as often to fill the propane tank. 

The people that lived on the prairie during the 1800’s were hardy folks. They lived in small spaces with no electricity or indoor plumbing. Social distancing wasn’t recommended for their health, it was just their way of life. They kept busy surviving and planning for a future that was as unpredictable as the one we are looking at now. When the builder of this house glued that newspaper from 1882 to the wall, did he/she do it with the intention of it being found? Or was there a practical purpose to that paper being there?  My hope is that years from now as the new owners of our farmhouse tear away the walls, they find that newspaper from 1882 glued to the wall and if they keep looking, they will also find one from 2020. The parallels from these two time periods won’t be obvious to the new owner but the fact that the house and the farm are still here will be a testament to our ability to adapt and thrive. The future is ever-changing, and thankfully so are we South Dakotans.