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Summer Kitchens & Treasures of Antiquity

Michael Hillman  

Well winter is upon us once again, and once again, I and all our animals descend upon the old summer kitchen - now the warmest, and coziest part of our home.

When my wife and I first toured the house 14 years ago, the former summer kitchen was described as "with potential." As its name implies, the room had originally served as a summer kitchen on what had been a tenant house on the old Zacharias Farm. Measuring approximately 14 by 12 feet and with a ceiling of 7 feet, it chief feature was a six foot wide, five foot high red-brick fireplace.

Some years back, the summer kitchen was attached to the house with the connector serving as a mud room. Around this same time, the interior of the summer kitchen was redone, to make it a true 'room'. The fire place was blocked off and a wood burning stove installed. The concrete floor was covered with linoleum and the old pine boards that had made up the walls and ceiling were covered by cheap paneling and square ceiling tiles. On either side of the fireplace were closets, formed by dirty curtains that had been haphazardly hung.

While probably never really handsome in its time, years of neglect took even a further toll on the appearance of the room. By the time we purchased the farm the flooring under the linoleum had long since developed severe buckles, the paneling had grown dark and dingy, and the ceiling tiles had begun to fall. In short, it was dark, dirty and dingy. When guests entered our home, its door was always conspicuously closed. The only thing that gave it any worth was the fireplace, and even that soon lost it luster. Especially since the fire place refused to bow to my engineering prowess and work.

Having bought the house in winter, I was in a hurry to have my first fire. Scrap wood from around the farm was quickly collected and pilled in the fireplace, and a match put to it. Within minutes, the room was full of smoke. In desperation, I open of the room’s two windows, but that achieved nothing. After half an hour of futile attempts to make the fire place draw, I capitulated and hurled the burning boards out the window into the snow and spent the remained of the night trying to convince my wife that I indeed did have half a brain ...

Every time I lit a fire, the room immediately filled with smoke. Back in the days when it was used as a summer kitchen, no one cared if the room filled with smoke - and if it did you had yourself a smoke house at no extra cost! But attached to the main house as it was now, a smoke-filled room had severe drawbacks.

Perplexed, I began to read every book and manual on fireplace operations I could get my hands, some dating back as far as 1800's. As I soon discovered, because the fire place was built without a damper, and the 12 by 18-inch unlined flue was way too large to heat up effectively, the chimney was never going to draw. While every book offered a fix, each met the same result: a smoke-filled room and one very upset wife.

Eventually I resigned myself to the reality I had bought a house without a working fireplace and with a million other projects to do, I closed the door to the room and turned my attention elsewhere. With Yet even with the door closed, the room still managed to draw the heat out of the main part of the house, and every winter, we froze.

Every year I found reasons to procrastinate on ‘fixing’ the room. My wife, having long since recognized that only my hatred of spending money could drive me to do something, eventually bought two electric oil heaters for the room. Ineffective in their ability to heat the room, or stemming the heat loss from the rest of the house, they still nevertheless managed to double our monthly electric bill.

While the outrageous electric bills go my attention, it was my every growing collection of old book, and its need to find them a permanent home, that finally drove me in the depths of a winter night, to finally do something with the room. And like most of my projects, this effort quickly grew all out of proportion.

My original goal was to merely tear down the curtain closets and build a wood bookcase on either side of the fireplace. While doing so, I decided that the room’s sagging ceiling tiles had to go also. I would have considered keeping them, had they all been of one style, but no two appeared the same, as if someone had collected throw aways from construction trash bins.

With the ceiling tiles removed, the original tongue-and-groove ceiling was once again revealed. Unfortunately, the multiple layers of paint that coated its surface made refinishing it to its original condition out of the question. Drywall soon replaced the tiles, as it soon did the room’s dark wall paneling, however not before I pried away some of the original wall boards where I discovered a treasure trove of stories placed there by its original owner, a very, very long ago.

While brighter in color, the room seemed colder. While the walls and ceiling were now straight and smooth, they lacked any distinguishing character. The room need something, and that something was real paneling. I began to cast about the farm for old wood to create the paneling. Eventually my search led me to the crawl space above the ceiling of the summer kitchen, whose floor was of twelve to sixteen-inch wide, fourteen feet long pine boards.

The boards, cut from old growth pine, had breathtaking grain patterns, which had gone unappreciated when they were laid in the dark, generations ago. Cut to waist high in height, each board soon found its place. Soon the room boasted, from the floor to one’s waist, solid wood paneling, that could be found nowhere else.

A wooden floor, new moldings added to the room’s lure. A wood burning stove chased away the room’s cold. Having by now begun to realize the scope of our farm’s history I set out to build a mantle with a story worth telling. For as long as current memory can recall, horses have been part of our farm, and with them, a board fence. So I planed down the oldest fence boards and molded a pattern in each one. Stacked and glued together, they formed a mantel as unique as the room’s paneling, or the room’s history, or the very farm it’s self.

But it was the installation of the bookcases however, my original object itself, that was crowning event. Made from the old boards that had been hidden for over a century from the light, they were perfect for showcasing treasured works of antiquity, themselves, too long hidden from sight.

On the night of the first frost, as we have done ever since, we lit a great first fire and basked in its warmth, reading books written by authors, who had breathed their last breath long before the first settlers had set foot in the valley were our now farm sits.

One learns more, and feels closer to the source, when one read their words of wisdom, and insights of life, just as had they might: In the bright light of a fire, in a room warmly finished, on cold windy winter night.

Read other stories by Michael Hillman