This Old (Milk)House

Handy:  hand•y [han-dee]
adjective, hand•i•er, hand•i•est
1. within easy reach; conveniently available; accessible: The aspirins are handy.
2. convenient or useful: A typewriter is a handy thing to have in the house.
3. skillful with the hands;  deft; dexterous: a handy person.
4. easily maneuvered: a handy ship.

None of these really describes me. Of the many words that might be used to describe me, handy wouldn’t be anywhere near the top of the list. It’s not so much that I can’t be, but overcoming the inertia, intimidation, and…. well, fear, that I’ll really screw something up means I don’t try very often.

We moved into our current home fourteen years ago. It’s an old New England farmhouse dressed up with some Victorian details, but I wouldn’t really call it a Victorian. In fact, the farm it once served as the house for was established two hundred fifty years ago. This house has only been here 150 to 175 years or so, and, along with the ell, a 1960s or 1970s attached garage, and two outbuildings, is all that’s left of a prosperous two or three hundred acre dairy farm. One of the outbuildings, which would have been on the other end of this former connected farm, is the milk house.

Without getting too deeply into historical or architectural trivia, we received a photo album/scrapbook from a previous owner when we bought the house. Along with the photos were clippings from local newspapers featuring our house, which had been cited as one example of the connected farm in the book Big House, Little House, Back House, Barn. As if finding our home featured in a book weren’t enough of a surprise, years later when cleaning out my grandmother’s house when she moved into assisted living, we found a copy of the book in her attic. My grandfather was an avid reader, but we were astonished when we found Big House with books on the history of agricultural tractors and other rural lore, and added them to our home library. We had to, it was just meant to be.

Back to the point of this post, when we first moved in we thought the milk house might make a nice little playhouse, or at least a useful outdoor shed. It was kind of cute, had a small sliding barn door on it, and was in decent shape. Was. The years of thinking we ought to do something with it but never really having the time, money, and ambition all at once took their toll. Most of the windows are broken or rotted out. The roofing has blown off, and the resulting water damage along with a few gusts from Tropical Storm Irene a couple of weeks ago made the decision for me.

With years of watching This Old House under my belt, and actually helping someone build a basement office in our previous home, not to mention that there seemed little to lose, I decided to tackle repairs to the milk house before it really was too late. I sized up the damage, made a mental list of what I would need, took a trip to Home Depot, and spent the afternoon measuring twice and cutting once.

I’m sure I didn’t get the framing exactly right. I had to deal with the dimensional differences between old and new lumber, tying the repair into the existing, and overcome my own lack of experience and handiness with tools (mostly of the hand, not power, variety). All of that taken into account, I was pretty pleased with the progress by the time I was done on Labor Day. There’s still more to do, more building materials left to buy, and plenty of work ahead if we’re really going to save the milk house. But it was satisfying to do all of this myself, and not only still have it standing, but have it looking a little better than it did. And maybe, just maybe, we can make a serviceable shed or workshop out of it and preserve a little bit of New England architectural history at the same time.


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