Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Spring projects almost done, now that fall is here

The plan last spring was to build a new garden shed and put a field fence around the garden. Then it rained, and summer never came except for that one afternoon in July, and it wasn't until not long ago that the earth began firming up again.

OK,now it's concrete.  I fully understand how the ruts of covered wagons heading west can still be seen a century and more later.  We still have ruts in the garden from that soggy day when I took the bush hog in there to mow down the feral weeds and locusts that had shot up from the never ending monsoon.  I expect they will be there for another six months -- a liability for a feller trying to finish stretching the last of the fence and add a couple steel gates.

One day last week, I snipped the last of the 12-gauge wires and drilled the holes for the L-shaped hinge screws and hung the gates. Simple as that, now that the field has stopped tugging the boots off anyone who walks near it.  So the fences stand more or less vertically, the gates swing as intended and the garden cleanup for the fall has begun.  I've mowed out most of the sorry-looking tomatoes, sorry-looking broccoli, sorry-looking okra, sorry-looking squash vines and the sorry-looking-I-don't-know-whats, and begun removing most of the gizmos that held up the foliage that never really bore anything edible.  Also mowed around the asparagus patch and the blueberry patches, and need to get some mulch on the asparagus ferns before cold sets in.

A bear, or something big and surly, I think, got into our best blueberry patch and laid waste to a couple of bushes, so I've  got some pruning to do there, and if there's time I'm going to get started on transplanting some blueberry bushes from the wrong side of the creek to the west-facing patch. But most of the spring's projects are now about done, so I'm only about six months behind, and catching up.  And beside, wood's up, split and stacked, just awaiting the first cold day.  Time moves on.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Ghostly ruins on the Rappahannock

Since I was a little boy I had heard stories about the old homeplace of my grandmother's family.  It had a name -- perhaps Four Chimneys, or maybe it was Two Chimneys -- but most folks in my family called it Towles Point, not far from where the broad Rappahannock opened onto the Chesapeake Bay.
It had been the place where my great-grandmother, Margaret Delaney Towles, had been born in 1844 and where my grandmother, Mary Atkinson Monie Betts, had perhaps visited her grandparents sometime during her 103-year lifetime since her birth in 1876.

It had been, according to to an aging volume called Virginia Homes and Churches,  "not only one of the oldest houses in Virginia, but is remarkable for having continued for more than two hundred years in the possession of one family." Here's a page from the book that shows what the house looked like when it was still standing:
It was built in 1712 by Henry Towles, and it was occupied until 1933, when my grandmother would have been 57.  Sometime after that the house fell into disrepair, and eventually collapsed. The old ornamental iron gateway disappeared into someone's possession, and the property became overgrown and tangled with the encroaching forest.  My cousin Sid Paine and his brother Christopher had both visited the site decades ago and found a brick and a nail; they recalled there was little left of the place other than a chimney.  Martha B. and I had visited nearby in the 1990s and thought we had gotten to the right site, but all we could see was a jungle there on the banks of Towles Point, just inside Day Beacon 6 a few hundred yards out into the channel.

Then in June, while we were anchored on a sailing vessel with friends across the Rappahannock near Urbanna, I happened to notice on a nautical chart these words: "Towles Point -- submerged ruins" -- just about three miles east. That fired my imagination and made me want to look again. Maybe the foundation of the old house was underwater, or at least partially so.  So when my cousin Sid and his wife Elaine invited us to visit them in a time share at Williamsburg's Powhatan Resort last week, we agreed to make another visit. Towles Point appeared to be about a two-hour drive, give or take a dozen or so stoplights and stopsigns, from Williamsburg.

The ruins were not where we though they were, but they were right where they had been since the house was built 301 years ago.  Someone had bought the place, cleared the undergrowth, built a new house and garage nearby and, apparently, lovingly preserved the ruins, if that's the right phrase, to protect them for years ahead -- capping raggedy parts of the brick and mortar with new concrete, repointing some of the mortar and, I suspect, putting in one new mantle beam to help support what was left. The remaining ruins are well above the waterline and much of the northwest wall, with one standing chimney and at least three fireplaces, showing. Here's a view of the ruins as I first saw them across a wooden fence:

A placard on the bricks reads: "Towles Point Plantation.  Towles Family Home.  Occupied 1712-1933."  The place now belongs to a family from Richmond, according to records at the Lancaster County Courthouse.  I'm glad it's in their hands.  It is certainly better kept than we could have managed, and it still stands, at least in part, on a point of land in a region that has seen momentous events in American history occur on its waters and in its fields and forests. It remains a familiar landmark for the living and for the ghosts of the dead who first settled these parts more than three centuries ago.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Crisp around the edges lately

 Sometime in the past few weeks the wet stormy weather that had vexed us all year turned to something approaching perfection.  Cool days, mostly, with enough sun to remind you it's still late summer but enough nip to the breeze to remind you that autumn is coming on. Thermometer this morning read 53 degrees -- not cold, but enough to grab your attention.

It brought to mind a phrase from something we learned back in high school days in a writing class. I don't recall and couldn't Google up the author or the precise phrasing, but the line was its own form of perfection: "It was the kind of day October served up -- warm and soft in the middle and crisp around the edges."  That used to describe exactly the best days of October down in the Piedmont, but up here around 3,100 feet or so, we're having the best of the crisp around the edges part every day and it's only early September. 

Fine weather has allowed us to catch up on chores interrupted for eight or nine months by heavy rains, dense fogs and gooey ground.  We're about halfway around the old garden, stretching out some 300 feet of 1047 field fence (so called because it has 10 horizontal wires and it's 47 inches high) with a Rube Goldberg rig involving a portable dummy post bolted to the front of our 4WD RTV, two come-alongs and a pair of 45" angle irons bolted to the end of a piece of fencing as a kind of bracket to stretch the fence out tight.  Here's a quick look at the gizmo.
The lower corner

Stretching fence

We're also finding time to clean up some of the old buildings on the property, some of which are leaning badly.  The old homestead down in the bottom has begun losing its rusty metal roof, and siding has exposed a second-story room to the ravages of wind and rain. The first-floor ceiling below it has begun to let go, and I'm trying to salvage anything useful from the old place.
The old place, last October

Awaiting cleanup

 A couple days ago I sorted through the old barnwood that we've stored on the front porch there for years, and I was amazed, once again, to find such wide boards in relatively good shape. I won't know for sure until I plane off the silvered outside wood, but in the past many of these boards have turned out to be American Chestnut -- cut down in the 1920s and 30s after the blight came through, and government officials urged that all trees be brought down before the blight ruined them for any use atall.   I've got some 16 inch-wide planks of what I think is chestnut, as well as some smaller stuff that might be cherry.  Years ago I planed down some barn board and was stunned to find some lovely cherry -- rich in color and still sound beneath the 1/8 inch weathered grain on the outside -- that was used for siding on a corn crib or some such farm shed.

These old boards are treasures of sorts.  They stood up to decades of heavy weather, witnessed the joys and tragedies of generations of farm families and still await further use as sturdy tabletops, chair legs or picture frames.  That'll take some study, figuring out how to make the best use of wood that grew up on this property, helped feed and shelter the hardy folk who lived here and is still good for generations more.  Mute though those boards are, they bear witness to vivid stories of life on the mountain.