Have you ever wondered what it’s like to live in a house built during colonial times? For over 60 years, my aunt and uncle and their children lived in a brick farmhouse built in 1779 in Pennsylvania. As a frequent guest, I had a unique view of the old house and its history.
Acquiring the Land –
In 1773, John Montgomery acquired farm land in Northumberland County, Pennsylvania. Located near the center of the state, this area was part of the American frontier. After choosing a site for his house, John and his sons began clearing the land, using some of the cut trees to build a log cabin. A spring located about 80 feet away from the house provided the family with fresh water.
The Scary Summer of 1779 –
During the summer of 1779, British troops, allied Indians, and Tories terrorized this area, burning settlers’ cabins and barns and massacring those who resisted. Hearing spirited gunfire from nearby Fort Freeland on July 28, three miles distant, John sent two sons to investigate. Upon their return, the boys reported that the small fort was under siege by a large group of Indians, British, and Tories. John promptly loaded his wife and children into the wagon along with the few possessions they could grab and fled to the safety of Fort Augusta, some 25 miles away.
A New Beginning –
When peace was restored to the area, John and his family returned to their farm and found their cabin in ashes, the British and Indians having burned it the same day of the Fort Freeland attack. Close to the site of the log cabin, John built a two-story brick home. As a child, I marveled at the 1779 date carved into one of the house’s foundation stones.
A Wedding Gift –
When my aunt and uncle married in 1944, they were given the farmhouse and adjoining farm as a wedding present from the groom’s parents. This generous gift provided over 60 years of incredible experiences for my aunt and uncle, their children, and their extended family.
The Kitchen –
The house’s original source of heat was a large brick cooking fireplace in the kitchen. During the bitter Pennsylvania winters, heat produced in such fireplaces went straight up the chimney and left the room cold and drafty. At some point, possibly in the 1800s, a wood burning cook stove was installed to the right of the fireplace, replacing the hearth cooking. After 20th century renovations, an electric stove replaced the wood burning cook stove.
The Pantry –
Food was stored in the pantry, a large room separate from the kitchen. Along three walls, numerous ten-foot tall doors covered ceiling-to-floor shelves of home-made canned goods, dry goods, and kitchen equipment. My aunt’s delicious homemade cookies were kept in a cookie jar on the counter. I accompanied my older cousins on many daring cookie raids while Auntie was occupied elsewhere in the large house.
Heat and Light Come to the Old House –
During the early 1940s, electricity was installed throughout the farmhouse and a coal-fired furnace was set up in the basement, providing heat for the first floor only. The second floor was never heated.
Running Water –
Until the mid-1960s, the only indoor plumbing consisted of a small metal hand pump and sink in the kitchen that had been installed around 1900. Because its water source was the natural spring close to the house, the water was c-o-l-d year round. In order to get water for drinking or chores, one had to prime the pump (pump the handle numerous times) until water traveled through the pipe from the spring to the pump in the kitchen where it poured out of the spigot. The water drained from the sink into a pipe that exited the house and ran above the ground to a nearby muddy leech bed, a trap for the shoes of unsuspecting city cousins.
The Secrets in the Wood Paneling –
The kitchen wall containing the fireplace was covered with wood paneling, but a close inspection revealed two doors cleverly hidden in the wood work to the left of the fireplace.
The Necessary Room –
Behind the small hidden door next to the fireplace was a tiny walk-in room, about 4-feet wide x 4-feet deep x 4-feet high. Due to its low ceiling, a child could easily stand while an adult had to bend. Coat hooks protruded from a wood strip along its three walls. Because no plumbing had been installed in the house when I was a little girl, a chamber pot sat in the middle of the floor. As a toddler, this “necessary room” was my first introduction to colonial life. And hardship. During winter, a person could choose whether they used the chamber pot in the cramped room or braved the bitter cold in the small unheated privy that stood in a corner of the rear yard, about 200 feet from the house. As a small child who lived in a house with modern conveniences, neither choice looked good to me during a visit on a severely cold Christmas Day, nor was I anxious to return until warm weather arrived.
The Hidden Staircase –
To the left of the necessary room, another door concealed a narrow curved staircase which led to the master bedroom directly above the kitchen. This room received heat from the brick kitchen chimney, although in the middle of winter, the lack of insulation in the house walls, basement, and attic still made the room unbearably cold.
Unheated Bedrooms –
Because no heat had been installed on the second floor where all of the bedrooms were located during the 60 years my aunt and uncle lived in the house, people only went into their bedrooms to sleep. As one of my cousins explained, “Before going to bed at night, you laid out the next day’s clothing so you could jump out of bed the next morning and dress as quickly as possible before hurrying downstairs.” After one teeth-chattering over-nighter during the winter, I saved my long visits for summer months.
Wavy-glass Windows –
Single-paned wavy-glass windows were equally spaced in each room on the first and second floors. In winter, heavy curtains vainly attempted to stop cold from entering through the thin glass and wood frames.
The Secret Ingredient in the Plaster Walls –
Original plaster containing protruding horse-hair covered the interior walls.
Priceless Handmade Chestnut Flooring –
The floors were made of wide chestnut planks, burnished to a honey-gold patina through the years. Due to shrinkage, there were gaps between the floor boards. Square nails held the boards to large beams in the basement that still carried axe marks.
A Time to Say Goodbye –
Several years after my uncle passed, the house, then 228-years old, was sold. While I’m no longer able to spend time there, I’m grateful for my many memories.
Please note: the photographs are not of my aunt and uncle’s house, but of houses similar to theirs.