By Sandra Hutchinson
A version of this essay was published in The Chronicle newspaper, on September 29, 2016.
My dream home is an old house.
I grew up primarily in New York’s northern Westchester County, in several different mid-20th century houses. My father died when I was 14, and two years later, after my mother remarried, she decided to buy a rambling historic house and nearly 200 acres upstate, in rural Montgomery County, near my grandparents’ farm, where she had been born and raised.
So she and my new stepfather and my 16-year-old self moved from Chappaqua, New York to an isolated 18th century home with six working fireplaces, drafty single pane windows, only an oil-fueled generator for electrical power, a big Dutch door, and ghosts. To say that the move necessitated some adjustment on my part would be a gross understatement.
There were no flues to stop bats from flying down the chimneys. My fearless, raised-on-a-farm mother would catch them in fishing nets and release them outside.
The gaps in the floorboards allowed the occasional critter (including a snake once, in the formal dining room) to venture up from the cellar, with its porous laid stone foundation.
The history of the place was palpable. Our property was originally part of the lands of Admiral Sir Peter Warren, which became managed by his nephew, William Johnson (later, “Sir”). Legend had it that one wing of our house was used as a cheese factory during the Civil War.
The nearby Schoharie Creek, replete with smallmouth bass, would periodically threaten to overflow its banks and flood our house and barns.
Our nearest neighbors were over a mile away, up the rutted dirt road that cut through a steep ravine. They lived in a house believed to have been built in 1758, that had a secret compartment where the family could hide from Indians. The original owner of that house died at the Battle of Oriskany in 1777.
When it snowed, and the town plow hadn’t yet made it down to our house, I still had to get to the school bus that stopped two miles away at the end of our road. My stepfather would put his Land Rover into low-range four-wheel drive by turning the axle bolts, and hope to get up enough momentum to roar up the ravine. If that didn’t work, there was the snowmobile.
As a 16-, then 17-year old, it was at times more than a bit annoying to live (and sometimes be stranded) there. But as time wore on, I began to realize how special this place was. And I grew to love it.
My mother and stepfather renovated the house — first project, getting on the Niagara Mohawk power grid.
We were designated a New York State Tree Farm because of our selective tree management, and were told the big black walnut tree in our woods was the largest in the state.
My stepfather tapped the sugar maples and each spring would stay all night at his huge iron cauldron at the edge of the woods, feeding the fire to boil sap down.
He collected black walnuts and did the time-consuming and painstaking work cracking them and then picking the edible nutmeat out.
Our floodplain fields were highly fertile, and we rented them out to a farmer who grew green beans for Beechnut, which made baby food down the valley, in Canajoharie.
When a mother raccoon was hit by a car on my girlfriend’s farm, leaving a litter of kits, I was able to take one of the youngsters and raise it at our house. When Rocky was able to fend for himself, he moved outside and slept in the crook of a large locust tree at the edge of our lawn, keeping an eye on us.
So living there, on what we named Schoharie Farm, was more than just about the house. It was about the experience of living in an historic home whose original owners were buried in a family cemetery at the end of the road, and about being good stewards of the land and forest.
I grew up hearing stories of my mother’s life on her parents’ farm; this was almost like sharing in that experience, except we didn’t have dairy cows, pigs or chickens, like my grandparents, and of course, we didn’t have to use an outhouse or go to the one-room schoolhouse. It was a connection with my roots on my mother’s side; it was a way to actually continue the thread.
So I suppose my search for an old house and property over the years since I’ve had my own family has been an attempt to get back to those roots. When my mother sold the farm, while I was my mid-twenties, I was heartbroken. A number of intervening events in our lives necessitated the sale, and I’ve long held out a secret hope that I could someday buy the place back, which is completely irrational.
So my search, however futile, continues. My husband and I have seen some wonderful historic properties over the years that have been for sale, but for one reason or another they didn’t fit us, or it would have been impractical for us as we age. When our children were younger, we didn’t want to uproot them, and we have always wanted to be close to our office in Glens Falls for reasons of convenience and necessary quick access.
But I still check the real estate listings and get more than a bit excited when I see an historic home that comes on the market in our region. None of them though, I’ve learned, will ever be the same as the one I was lucky enough to call home.