A House in a Small Town
Back in 1979 I thought I was going to be the king of the old houses. We had taken on the challenge of an old city house in Nashville and won. By using the word "won" I mean "made a profit". Now I know that making a profit isn't always a victory for life but ... back to the story.
I was full of confidence and looked toward the small towns for another suitable old house to buy. A good friend of mine, one of my (grown-up) guitar students, lived in Centerville so I included that town on my "tour of towns".
My wanderings lead me to the office of Leon Coble and Lester Harvill and soon we were making a deal for an old country house in a small town. We went to the First National bank and arranged a 15-year mortgage with half the money down. The price was around 32 thousand, but we had some cash from the sale of the South Nashville house. Our seller was Mrs. Willie Loveless whose folks (The Webb family) had possessed the house since around 1915. They had bought it from one Professor Morrison, the school principal. I don't know the exact year the professor had it built but I know it was just a few years prior to the infamous tornado of 1909. Here is a pre-1909 picture of the house with the family and their borders—apparently eight girls, seen in the front yard and perched on the upper front porch.
Now I'm sure you will notice the front porch looks different in the two pictures. That is because the original double-decker porch, built in a kind of country Eastlake style was replaced by the neo-classical style porch that we found, in need of help, when we bought the house. I once saw a picture of the house just after the storm (don't know where it is now) and the house was still standing, though uninhabitable. It was knocked off its foundation, moved about ten feet, wracked and warped, but still standing. But the front porch, I suppose was reckoned to be not worth saving. The new porch reflected a bow to the more current style—neo-classical, better known as "colonial". A couple of other houses in town, including the one across the road still have their suriviving double-decker front porches with the lathe-turned posts and spindles.
Getting back to our reasons for buying a house in the small town, I had been reading books about preparing for economic disaster and other popular topics and, in my youthful inexperience, took some of it to heart. I wasn't going to be a "survivalist" living in a cave with an arsenal of weapons; I just thought the cities were going to turn to chaos and that we should live in a small town for physical and economic protection. As it turned out, our worst fears didn't really come to pass. But you can't go back, can you?
Centerville was a pleasant looking town—a neat town square, churches, old houses and friendly people. I had one friend already living there, Jim McGinley, a physician who had come to me for guitar lessons several years before.
Our Centerville house was on a sort of a triangular lot in the fork of two roads. Columbia Avenue was the old road from Centerville to Columbia, Tennessee, a larger town about 30 miles away. Morrison Street (named after the professor) led to more homes and a building known as the boot factory a couple of blocks away. The neighborhood had a medium amount of traffic; it was quiet enough. The stone retaining wall running along the Columbia Avenue side of the property was built of very large blocks of stone cut from a nearby quarry. The stones are so large that they couldn't have been lifted by two men or even by four men working together. But I was told by local folks that this wall as well as the other walls along Columbia Road had been built by one black man with a mule and a wagon. Apparently he had a heavy-duty block and tackle (mule powered) mounted on his wagon. And he had the skills to engineer and construct these long-lasting structures.
The house had two stories and was framed with oak lumber. In those days they built them with freshly cut oak lumber. They knew (and so do I!) that the only time you can conveniently drive nails into oak is when it is still green. Another advantage to using green lumber is that once is in nailed in place it is held fast and not as likely to warp or twist. If you want to get nails into the oak while remodeling you may very well decide to pre-drill for your nails. That is, after you have bent up a half-dozen nails and tried in vain to pull them back out again. If you do drill, be sure to drill a snug hole smaller than the nail. Another way to go is to pre-drill and use 3 or 4 inch black screws with a drill-driver.
The outside walls were sheathed with one inch thick chestnut boards applied on the diagonal. Chestnut wood was used for things like sheathing, sub-floors and also doors and some furniture. Chestnut trees were plentiful in the eastern U.S. in the years prior to the 1940s. At that time a blight was accidentally imported to the U.S. that attacked these kinds of trees and wiped them out. I made our kitchen cabinets using some chestnut lumber I salvaged from a house I tore down for a friend. It has a grain a little like oak but with generally wider grains and is more prone to splitting than practically any other wood. But I used loving care and managed to work with it pretty well. This particular lumber had quite a few nail holes but hardly any worm holes. I still have a large stack of that lumber almost twenty years later. I mean to make some little curio cabinets or some-such from some friends and loved ones.
Flooring was four inch wide tongue in groove oak and poplar with no sub-floor. Upstairs we ended up painting the floor because it was too rough to sand. Besides, being as there was no sub-floor we didn't want to weaken it by sanding away an eighth of an inch. Downstairs we had to rip it up because the whole floor system had to be redone and the flooring was so brittle half of it split in pieces while I was taking it up. I didn't have enough to re-do the downstairs so I think I sold what I had left. But I am getting ahead of myself so let me get back to describing the "original equipment" we got in the house.
The siding was poplar weatherboard. It was white but in need ot paint. It was to be about ten years before I would paint it because it was in such bad shape I wanted to get fresh weatherboard before I painted it. When I did get the new I went down somewhere around Florence, Alabama to a mill that would cut the stuff to order. Inside wall surfaces were wallpaper over beaded sealing board. Some of the rooms had already been sheetrocked and had the ceiling lowered, which I ended up ripping out completely. We wanted the ceilings to be the original height so we had our work cut out for us.
Now let me tell you about beaded sealing board. This was the country alternative to plastered walls. Because plastering was such a highly skilled trade there weren't many plasterers working in the country and small towns. At least not around Middle Tennessee. But there was a product made of poplar or pine usually that was 3/8 or 1/2 inch thick and was molded on the front to look like little beads running the length. It was tongued and grooved so it would fit together well without leaking air through it. I remember my grandmother speaking of it from her childhood memories of Texas and Alabama; she said they called that a "sealed house" and it denoted a house that was well-built to keep out the cold. Of course nowadays we would think it was pretty thin and not insulated at all. I took it all down and insulated the walls before putting new sheetrock up. I did save all my beaded board—re-used a lot of it as cabinet backs and things like that. I sold a bunch to my friend Larry also for his new house in the country. You can still buy the stuff at building supply stores to use as wainscoting and such, but it is now cut to 5/16 of an inch. Our house had a thick paper glued over the beaded board and wallpaper over that.
Our roof was a kind of fish-scale patterned metal shingle. They were applied over boards and had been there since the house was new. They had never been roofed for over seventy years, just patched with roofing tar and painted with silver asphalt coating. Unfortunately another painting was not going to save them—many were rusted through and the valleys were not in good shape. By the time we bought the house their life was at an end. I looked into the possibility of replacing them with terne-plated shingles or standing-seam metal, but the cost would have been prohibitive, so I took them down and sheeted over the boards with 1/2 inch aspenite, (as I recollect) and shingled it with brown asphalt shingles.
I want to make it clear that I think we saved this house from the wrecking ball, or in this case the wrecking crew. Probably if we hadn't bought it a local person would have bought the property later for a lower price and had it torn down and a new house put up on the lot. This old frame house was pretty obviously in bondage to corruption (to use a scriptural phrase). I knew it was when I bought it. No one pulled any wool over my eyes. We got no termite inspection or guarantee because the real estate guys knew it had termites. I knew it too. We bought it "as is." I just thought I could repair it, which I could. But the damage was a little more extensive than I thought.
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Commodore Hotel in Linden
Just ten miles from my place. Kathy and Michael Dumont have delightfully redone this small town hotel. It's a great place to lodge in Linden and Perry County.
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