Thursday, October 23, 2014

A Solid Foundation

Isaac Werner's Dream Home
Glued inside the cover of Isaac B. Werner's 480-page, leather-bound journal was the picture of an elaborate Victorian house, the image at right.  When he came to the Kansas prairie in 1878, his first two homes were earthen dugouts.  Most early settlers lived in dugouts, cave-like homes tunneled into the ground or the side of a hill; sod homes built of blocks of tough prairie sod stacked like stone or bricks; or shanties, crude structures built of wood.

By the time Isaac's journal began in 1884 he was living in a house built of wood.  He referred to both a basement and a cellar, although it isn't clear whether those references were to a single thing or two different parts of his home.  He also referred to an upstairs, indicating a 2-story home.  However, none of his references indicate anything so grand as the home pictured in the clipping he had glued inside the cover of his journal. 

House and Barn about 1903
Renovating my ancestral home has taught me about early construction methods.  The barn, (top picture at left), built around 1903, had a concrete foundation.  The house, however, was begin earlier.  The bottom photograph at left shows the original house, the part built in the late 1890s.  Typical of many early prairie homes, it consisted of two rooms on the main level, with two rooms above, and a kitchen left unpainted on a simple, open foundation.  Kitchen fires were common, so kitchens were often separated from the rest of the house and built on a simple foundation to facilitate dragging it away from the rest of the house to save the main residence if there were a kitchen fire.  I first learned about this construction practice when we lived in the South, something fairly common there.

I had always understood that the 1890s house had a stone foundation, but I had no idea of the type of stone used.  A recent small addition that uncovered a partial section of the foundation revealed the stone, and  I was surprised to see limestone blocks carefully laid to support the original house.  Perhaps that limestone block foundation explains why the original part of the structure has experienced less settling than the later 1907 construction with a foundation made of the softer concrete of that time.

Stone foundation with a later concrete buttress
An interesting website sponsored by the Bluestem Quarry and Stoneworks near Lucas, Kansas (with information from "Land of the Post Rock" by Grace Muilenburg and Ada Swineford, published by University Press of Kansas, 1975) describes how stone was quarried in North Central Kansas by early settlers.  The rock bed there is near the surface at a fairly uniform thickness of 8 to 12 inches, and when freshly quarried it was soft enough to shape.  As it was exposed to the air it hardened and became more difficult to shape. A typical 5 to 6 foot block, such as those used as fence posts in that region of Kansas where trees were scarce, weighed 350 to 400 lbs.  I do not know where my grandfather and his mother purchased the stone for the house foundation, nor how the stone was transported to the farm, but I was quite impressed to see the old foundation that had been covered by the gradual accretion of soil, hidden from view for a century!

As the fourth generation to live in my ancestral home, I was moved by this quote from John Ruskin (1819-1900), an English writer from the Victorian period whose interests included art, geology, and architecture, and who is currently respected for his ideas concerning environmentalism, sustainability, and craft.  He wrote:  When we build let us think that we build forever.  Let it not be for present delight nor present use alone.  Let it be such work as our descendants will thank us for, and let us think, as we lay stone on stone, that a time is to come when those stones will be held sacred because our hands have touched them, and that men will say, as they look upon the labor and wrought substance of them, 'See!  This our father did for us.'  

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