A few years ago, driving around, doing nothing in particular, I saw an old man digging a posthole at the foot of his driveway. I could see that the hard packed road bed and his advanced years were making it a rather tough go. Not really pressed for time this day I turned up the drive and offered my assistance, which after a handshake and exchange of names was accepted. We didn’t say much as we took turns digging, other than a few comments regarding the weather and how fine it had been this summer . After a while we reached a satisfactory depth and the old man placed a hand painted “For Sale by Owner” sign which had been laying nearby into the hole, pushed the dirt back around the post and packed it in. After dusting his palms off on his pants he again shook my hand, thanked me for the help and asked if I wanted to come up to the house for a beer. Before I could answer he was heading up the drive, assuming I imagine that no one would decline an offer of a cold beer after digging a hole in hard ground under the the hot sun. Without a word I followed him up the hill.
Although the old man had what looked like at least three decades on me he moved quickly, and by the time I had lumbered up the steep hundred yards or so to the house, he had gone inside and returned with a couple of cold ones just in time to meet me breathing hard and sweat soaked at the front porch. He pitched one of the cans to me and motioned toward a couple of old kitchen chairs in the yard where we sat down and popped the tops. The old man hadn’t spoken a word since the invitation at the bottom of the drive, so searching around for a conversation starter and noticing an old square house on the highest point of the property adjacent to the house we were currently sitting next to I asked “What’s the story with that old house up on the hill?” After rubbing his chin for a while and taking a couple of pulls on his beer, I was starting to think that the old guy wasn’t much into talking and that maybe I should just down my beer and get going. “It was my father’s house. He bought it in the Sear’s catalog in 192o for 600 bucks. Came with paper instructions so he and my mother built it themselves.” The beer returned to his lips and he again went silent. Just as I was about to rise and thank him for his hospitality, he looked over in the direction of the old house and said “Want to take a look?” Again before I could answer, he rose from his chair and started walking toward the old place, so I followed along.
The house while in bad shape had obviously been solidly built, with the old dimensional lumber roof rafters visible under the eaves and the quarter sawn oak floors still tight on the sub-floor after 85+ years. It was a simple design, as the homes of working people tended to be in times past, square, with a perfect four side pyramid roof. No dormers or fancy front porch. Just two bedrooms, a parlor, a kitchen, front and back doors. Each room with a small window that looked out over the remaining 9 acres of what had once been the original 166 acre homestead, now mostly taken up by the intersection of highways 3 and 303. There was a basement of sorts. More what they used to call a root cellar. A dirt walled room where canned goods and perishables were stored out of the heat of the day. As he showed me around, the old mans tongue started to loosen up a little and he reminisced on his childhood spent in the house. Showing off the room he slept in and the remains of the bed his father had built with his own hands. The parlor where they would entertain guests. The kitchen where he, his sister, and parents ate every meal until he graduated high school and went to work on his own. Proudly remembering and telling the story of his folks receiving the pile of lumber and paper instructions shipped by train from Sears & Roebuck and how they constructed the simple house all on their own in the summer of 1920. As we stood in the root cellar, the old man was really starting to talk a blue streak, smiling while telling tales of playing hide and go seek with the neighbor kids and how no one could find him when he would come in here and squeeze behind the canning racks and shelves.
As we were climbing out of the cellar, I noticed a few very old hand hewn beams and posts lodged into the dirt walls that didn’t appear to be a part of the Sears and Roebuck house, and were charred from a long ago fire. The old man saw me looking at them and stated matter of factly that “This wasn’t the first house built here. My grandad built on the same spot in 1905. Him and grandma homesteaded in 1901. Took them four years to save enough to buy the lumber. Towed the logs by row boat five miles from where they were felled and milled it all on site. Had to hide that boat and logs good in the rushes too or the Indians would steal em before we could mill them up. Built a beautiful home from what dad says, but it burned down the next year when an oil lamp tipped over and caught the curtains on fire. Grandad got burned pretty bad and didn’t last but a few years after. Grandma died about the time we built the Sears house. They’re both buried up on the hill out back.” No longer smiling, rubbing his chin and sort of talking to himself under his breath, he climbed out of the cellar of the old place and headed back down to his house without so much as a so long. He went inside and that was the last I ever saw of him. He had told his story and that was that I guess.
The old square house is gone now. Along with the barns, out buildings, and the newer house that the old man lived in. Replaced with a large storage building of some sort for highway maintainance trucks. I don’t know what became of the old man. Maybe moved. Maybe dead. I got the feeling he didn’t have any family to fall back on. I’ll never know why he chose to share his story with me that day but I’m glad I took the time on that hot summer day to stop and help him out. For the cost of an hour or so of digging, I received a cold beer and an old man’s memories of a life gone by. Pretty good trade.