I’ve back-dated this post. Looks like it didn’t come through when sent from my phone on the front porch, 12 hours after the fire.
I’m not going to post a lot of photos from the interior. There’s a grim surreal beauty to it, which is not lost on me; but for me those will be easier to look at once the restoration gets well down the road. I’ll save them for then.
For now, here are just a couple from the Living Room. The fire started in the outside wall at the sill, in the floor between this room and the basement. Lots going on there – three iterations of electrical wiring going back to maybe the ’30s (the house was built in 1919), plus the chimney, plus rodents coming in from the snow, etc.. Inspectors say they may never know for sure what caused it.
Astute followers will recognize this view, though somewhat altered. There were once over 2,000 books here and in the next rooms, which I’m told unsulated the house structure from the worst of the fire, all gone now.
We’re presently living in a cozy little two room cottage about a half mile away, where we may remain throughout the yearlong rebuild process.
This is a story within a story about one of the few things saved from the fire.
A few years after college I moved from Savannah back to Virginia to look after my maternal grandmother. She was living alone and having heart and hip problems. I was still untethered enough I could pick up and move easily – all my possessions fit in Mr. Earl, a trusty old ’67 Ford LTD.
I moved into the basement where, like our basement, decades of life collected. Among the many things I found stored away was an old cedar lined blanket chest. It was in bad shape. Pieces had fallen off, veneer chipped, the varnish black and bubbled. I had nothing but time, so described it to her an asked about refinishing it. She couldn’t remember which one I meant, but said sure.
When the project was done, I brought it upstairs. She looked at it for a long time, remembering, and told me the story of the chest, and why it had been kept all these years.
She and my grandfather lived in Arkansas during the Depression. She was a young school teacher, and he pumped gas at the local Esso station.
As the Depression deepened, and became more dire, they were among the only people with a job, and they had two. What little money they had was the only money in their community. Sometimes men – formerly proud and skilled men – came to the door with things they had made, hoping to sell them for whatever they could, to buy food for their families. So they would buy these things when they could. She pointed to a tiny delicate side table that had been in their living room as long as I could remember. It had hand carved legs and parquet inlay. It had been made by one of the elders of their church.
On Christmas Eve it was cold and snowing. My grandfather was late coming home. They couldn’t afford a car then, so he walked home from the gas station. It grew dark, and she was worried, so walked out to the road to look. Finally she saw my grandfather walking down the road through the snow, struggling under something large and heavy. He carried this hand made blanket chest on his shoulder.
They set it down in the house and brushed off the snow. He would not say where he got it, only that this was their Christmas gift to each other this year. And it meant someone else got a Christmas, too.
The chest had been at the foot of our bed, piled high with folded clothes not yet put away. Those clothes protected the chest from the worst of the fire, so it can be saved.
Watching the progress in battery and motor technology over the past ten years, I thought we had come a long way. But every time I look back at what they were doing in the late 1800’s I’m amazed at how little we’ve advanced since then. Or rather, how far ahead they were back then. Those bowler hatted bustle wearing Victorians really had it going on.
A college dropout, living in his parents’ basement, in the late 1800’s Andrew Riker began experimenting with electric vehicles, starting with bikes. In 1884, he designed and built an electric three wheeled car using an English Coventry tricycle. It had a 40 volt lead-acid battery bank under the seat, driving a 1 hp motor, with a 25 mile range at a speed of around 25mph.
Basically, the same thing I’ve come up with 150 years later.
In 1888 (there’s that year again) he founded the Riker Electric Motor Company in Brooklyn, NY, and became the largest manufacturer of electric vehicles at the time. One of his production trikes won a race at Providence, Rhode Island, setting a record for the fastest mile in 2:13, with an average speed of 27mph. It was also one of the first uses of electric lights on motor cars instead of traditional kerosene or coal oil lamps – which tended to be somewhat hazardous during collisions.
These are photos of that production model electric trike, from the Henry Ford Museum. Maybe I should upgrade to leather suede seats and brass gauges . . .
Back when I was building the Melonseeds, I frequently got lost down a rabbit hole of history, thinking about all the things going on in the world at the end of the 19th century, in 1888, when the plans from the boats were drawn. Was a fascinating time, undergoing rapid change as fast as today. The transitions from sail to steam, agriculture to industry, rural to urban, were as transformational to society in that era as the computer and internet have been in ours.
On this day in 1889, Nellie Bly – a single young woman, 24 years old – set off alone from New York by steamship to set a record for circling the world, by ship and train and any other convenient conveyance. With just two days notice. She took the dress she was wearing, a coat, some underwear and toiletries, and a bit of money tied in a pouch around her neck.
The goal was to best the fictional Phileas Fogg, protagonist in a popular book of the time, Around the World in Eighty Days, written by Jules Verne. She would meet the author along the way, pausing in Paris long enough to interview him.
She was a young journalist who had talked her way into a job at The World, working for Joseph Pulitzer. Her first assignment had been to convince people she was insane so she could be committed to a women’s lunatic asylum. This was after talking the paper into accepting the project in the first place, to get the actual job.
She spent 10 days in the asylum. The exposé she wrote about the experience made her famous, and the ensuing outrage prompted improvements at mental institutions.
This race around the world was just a different kind of crazy. She sent back dispatches on her progress from remote places around the world, all published in the paper, using what was then the first modern form of worldwide communication – by telegraph. She crossed Europe, passed through the new Suez Canal, was delayed by problems with the trains in Asia, visited a leper colony in China. In Singapore, she bought a monkey. In Hong Kong, she learned that another woman had set off just behind her in the US, and was traveling the opposite direction, trying to beat her time, making it a real race.
Bad weather slowed her Pacific crossing, threatening to make her miss the 80 day deadline. Pulitzer chartered a private one-time train run, dubbed the Miss Nellie Bly Special, to speed her from San Francisco to Chicago, traversing 2500 miles in less than three days – a the fastest train trip ever. To spur the crews along, she presented each railroad superintendent on the with way with a bottle of expensive champagne.
She arrived back in New York after only 72 days, setting a new record for circumnavigating the globe. Which, alas, would be broken over and over again as travel improved, but it was quite a feat at the time.
A few years later she married a 73 year old millionaire, who promptly died and left her all his money and his steel manufacturing plants, which she ran successfully until she died in 1922.
On the way to our local farmer’s market, we told ourselves, again, not to buy more vegetables than we can use. It worked this time.
After breakfast in town, we stopped to look at the river, part of the Saturday routine. We passed our friend Stuart out spreading mulch. Out the sidewalk on sawhorses he had a canoe with a for sale sign, and we stopped to chat. Said he’d only used it three times, and needs room for more toys. Comes with two nice wooden paddles and seats.
We realized we had not told ourselves not to buy more boats than we could use.
After a few minutes at the landing watching the river flow by, as the summer heat and the cicada buzz swelled, we agreed we should reward our temperance over vegetables with a new boat. Within the hour we had it on top of the car and were headed for the river.
After weeks of flooding the river is still a little murky, but nearly back to normal levels. We paddled upstream to what remains of an old island at the confluence of Totier Creek. After a swim to cool off, we left the main stem of the James, now flooded with tubers and fishermen, and paddled up into the quiet creek.
Immediately the raucous river party fell away, and was replaced by sun-dappled silence, Great Blue Herons, crows, song birds and gar fish.
Around a few bends we came to the old colonial era aqueduct. A stone arch over the river that dates back almost to the Revolutionary War. The Kanawha Canal ran along the James, and every stream had to be crossed with one of these bridges for canal boats. We floated underneath on the creek – the canal boats floated across overhead, where now the railroad runs.
Returning to the James, another swim, and a float back home.
Some extraordinarily well-preserved film footage shot of New York city in 1911.
The most striking thing is that the broad avenues and boulevards are filled with pedestrians. This is not one of those rare festival days when they shut down the streets for people to use – this is normal, every day. The streets were made for walking. Horse carts, cars, and trolleys all share the road. All move at a walking pace, which is why it works.
Also, the windows of the skyscrapers are open. There is no air conditioning in 1911. People live in apartments on the upper floors, with the windows thrown open to the breeze and the sky.