And here is a sunrise to set on your sill
The ghosts of the dawn moving near
They pass through your sorrow and leave you quite still
Sitting among souvenirs.
Dan Fogelberg, “Souvenirs”
When I first moved to the Stonebridge farmhouse, two of my favorite things were the ornate brass doorknob and backplate on the old French door leading to one of the bathrooms. I assumed they had been part of the original house so recently, when we remodeled that bathroom, we planned to use the knob and plate on the replacement door that better fit the new opening, itself a vintage pine door scavenged from my grandparents’ farmhouse in North Dakota.
But yesterday when I took the knob off the original door, I found a “Made in China” sticker on the back of the plate. I had to laugh at my antique assumptions but I polished the brass and put the knob and plate on the bathroom door anyway because they had been a part of the farm for at least 20 years and still look right to me.
This farm has many ghosts living in the spaces of the house, barn, and outbuildings. Some of the ghosts I know but most I have never met. As we’ve remodeled this old house, we’ve come across many souvenirs of previous owners or tenants in the 100-year history of this place.
In the bathroom we just remodeled, for example, we uncovered several layers of wallpaper: the familiar pastel lily pad pattern of the 40s, a lighthouse scene with seagulls from before that, and a red calico print underneath it all, probably from when the room was a laundry and washroom rather than a bathroom with plumbing. Here the original farmhouse walls are plaster and lathe, uneven and heavy in their mass, nothing like the lighter, smoother drywall of today. These old walls were built to withstand northern Colorado winters and the spring Chinooks that follow, as well as cool the house in the summer for sweating farmers coming in from the fields.
When we remodeled the kitchen, we took sledge hammers to some of those walls in order to open the room up to the living room and adjacent pantry, which itself had probably been a small bedroom off another bedroom but had been walled off from that room and joined instead to the kitchen later. We found a recipe for green beans in one of the walls, although how it became emtombed between the lathe slats I’ll never know.
As we’ve remodeled, we’ve added windows throughout, some double-paned modern types that open easily and some antique stained glass we’ve found at flea markets, all bringing brighter light to corners previously shadowed, not to scare away the ghosts but to let us see them more clearly.
But besides adding more light and space, we haven’t tried to make the farmhouse look like a new house. Even if it were possible, we like our old house with its unsquare corners and less-than-level floors. We like our old windows with the wavy glass even if they’re a bit drafty in the wind. We’ve just weathered a terribly frigid winter by heating with our woodstove and a few electric heaters when needed. On the coldest morning this season, the indoor thermometer read 53F and we shivered while we waited for the fire to heat up the kitchen and living room, but it wasn’t so bad and I think the ghosts must appreciate our fortitude in living within the comfort the house provides.
We’re pretty much finished with the changes we’ll make to this farmhouse and we’ve done lots to the other buildings as well. There’s still a second round of reconstruction on the barn to do, having shored up its sagging beams a decade ago and adding a sandstone floor a few years later.
While searching for the door from my grandparents’ farm last weekend, we came upon a few more old windows up in the barn rafters and decided to use them in the back of the barn when we remodel someday. More light can’t hurt, we figure, as we bring currently underused space into the everyday flow of our farm work.
After I retire from my other job next year, I plan to do some historical research on our farm. I want to find out more about our ghosts and how they lived and loved on this land. Someday we too will be ghosts here and I’d like to leave a record of what Stonebridge has given us for future folks who sit among our souvenirs.