When I was a kid, my parents lived in an old Colonial house built in 1759 in the Catskill Mountains of New York state. The house was incredible for a kid! There were secret hiding spots everywhere -- from the stone cistern in the basement, to the hidden attic door in my closet.
I loved learning about the home's past from my father as he slowly unearthed its secrets. The small town we lived in was apparently incorporated at a meeting in our house that George Washington himself attended. The property line was marked by a centuries-old, sturdy, dry-stacked stone wall. All fun stories and bits of history. But the stories that I discovered myself were the most intriguing.
One time while I was mowing the lawn I noticed a flagstone peeking out from the grass. Curious about what it was doing there, I cleared away the grass to find it was rather large. I proceeded to poke around the area and see what else I could find. I soon came across another flagstone laid in line with this one just a couple feet away.
I continued my excavations and after awhile had uncovered a flagstone path that started from the back of the house and led out about 75 feet before my mom made me stop. I never did find out where that path led, and sometimes I still wonder about it today. Where did it go? Who put it there? When? How long had it been buried? I was like an explorer uncovering uncharted territory and it was exciting. I wanted to know! I still do.
Old houses tell a story. They have a history. There is something about running your hand down a banister that generations of people have held in their hands for centuries. It gives you a sense of place and time, and a perspective on where you fit in this huge, sometimes impersonal world. You are a part -- a small but important part -- of a much greater story.
My parent's house has stood there, unmoved and mostly unchanged while the world has changed around it, from colonial struggles of a home on the frontier to a small and burgeoning nation. People living in that house lived through the birth of a nation, the struggles of the War of 1812 when our nation's capital was burned, and the Civil War. They watched as horses and buggies turned to cars and trucks. The world grew up, and the inhabitants of that house watched it all through the wavy glass of its old windows.
A history book contains pictures and stories of what life was like in years gone by -- but those stories are locked within the boundaries of the binding. A museum displays actual artifacts from these times, but they're roped off and safely guarded behind glass.
But walking into a historic house is like stepping back in time and being wrapped up in the pages of that history book, being a part the of the history. As tactile beings, the ability to touch and interact with pieces of history is the most profound way to connect to the times and places they came from.
Each historic home I work on has its own story -- and though I may make my living as a carpenter or tile layer or glazier, I'm really just a reader of homes. Stepping into each old house is like opening a new book. And as I read, I learn more and more until I feel comfortable enough writing my own chapter: leaving my mark along with the artists and craftsman of the past whose work I respect so greatly, and hoping that my own meager contribution will be of a quality they deem worthy of inclusion in their book from so long ago.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.