Celebrating a 250-Year-Old House | Mary’s Farm

The rise of the fields’ soft curves, the seasons of the hay, the broad reach of the old apple trees, the long-blooming rosebush on the split-rail fence, the in-your-face view of Mount Monadnock, the brilliance of the night sky … These are […]

By Edie Clark

Feb 20 2013

Mary’s Farm Field
Photo Credit : Pedrick, Lori

The rise of the fields’ soft curves, the seasons of the hay, the broad reach of the old apple trees, the long-blooming rosebush on the split-rail fence, the in-your-face view of Mount Monadnock, the brilliance of the night sky … These are just some of the aspects of the beauty that brought me here.

It was never the house.

I knew that if the house had been in better shape, I never would have had the opportunity to buy this property. But, as it was, I joined with my neighbor, Anne Howe, to save this pre-Revolutionary New Hampshire farm from development. She bought most of the land and put it into conservation, and I bought the old house and the fields that surround it. A done deal, 15 years ago. The house, they told me, had been built in 1762, and the long, if incomplete, history of this farm was used to help fight a major highway the state was threatening to build across its fields. Peeling away layer after layer of building materials gave us information and, finally, the glorious sight of its frame, its skeleton, its bones. The splinters of its timbers, protected as they were by those coverings all these years, were almost as if fresh from the adze. For more than 12 years, the house underwent a gradual transformation into the place I now call home.

At first I didn’t know that this house was originally the work of one man. About six years into the job, I learned his name: Benjamin Mason. I often thought about him and his family, living here under what must have been sometimes severe circumstances–no roads, no neighbors, no town. So on I went with that morsel of information, still more interested in where I was going than in where the house had been. But after the job was more or less completed (it’s never over), I realized that pretty soon, the house would turn 250 years old–quite an achievement for a house. Many early houses burned down or were abandoned and fell into their foundations. As well, when I first bought the house, it needed so much work that many people, including two architects, advised me to tear it down and start fresh. I know this is the fate of many old houses. So the fact that the house was still standing seemed well worth celebrating–as were the recent changes I’d made. The house was ready for one heck of a bash. When my neighbor Anne heard of my plans to honor the house’s anniversary, she offered to help. We set a date for summer 2012.

As the year approached, I began digging in the archives to find what I could about Benjamin Mason, who came up here from Sherborn, Massachusetts, to what is now Dublin when he was 45, bringing with him his wife and their five children. I discovered a man I wish I’d known.

I already knew from working on the house that Benjamin Mason had been a master carpenter and timber framer, but I discovered that he was also the framer of most of the houses in this neighborhood (none remain standing) and of the old Dublin meetinghouse (a rock marks its place). He was also one of Dublin’s first three selectmen (the house was built before the town was incorporated), a builder of roads (including the same one I now call “the road home”), a town constable, and a leader of the Dublin church choir.

Finally, I learned that he was an acrobat. Dublin’s town history said of Benjamin Mason that he “was distinguished for his agility, fearlessness, and self-possession.” But reading further in the Mason family register, I found this: “He was a man of uncommon agility and once, having raised the frame for a barn of ordinary size, he walked the whole length of the ridge-pole upon his hands, having no other support, his feet in the meantime upended in the air.” I tried and failed to imagine such a thing, hoping as well that it was the barn here (since removed) where he’d performed such a stunt. History being what it is, I’m free to believe that.

I was well aware that I hadn’t rescued this house all by myself. There were so many people to whom I owed a debt of gratitude, oh so many, for jobs big and small. So we carefully crafted our guest list and selected the appropriately sized tent (let’s just say Barnum & Bailey would have found it adequate). My sister would fly in from Washington State not only to join the celebration but to help get it ready. As well, my six cousins planned to come from all points. It was suddenly dawning on me that hosting more than 100 people for lunch on my lawn would be no small endeavor.

We asked the Dublin General Store to bring us some good food, and I would augment the feast with baked beans, a few salads, and the famous family iced tea. In the archives, I’d found a recipe for ketchup from one of the early Mason residents. I had a lot of big ideas about how to make this a memorable event. I was even thinking about fireworks.

I wanted to share the property’s history with my guests. I thought a self-guided tour would be the best way, so I mapped the high points all around its many acres: the original house site; the site of the pre-Revolutionary English barn (which I’d sadly had to have taken down); the brickyard across the road, where bricks were fired and used, in some measure, to build the mill village just a mile down the road.

The evolution of a house of this age is far more than a short story. I made signs and stapled them to wooden stakes. With my lawnmower, I cut paths to each site and pounded the signs into the ground, so that the significance of that piece of ground would come alive, just for that day. On a special table in the barn, next to the serving tables, I arranged the square-cut nails, the pottery shards, the two old spoons, and a broken brick I’d pried out of the ground–all the little archaeological bits and pieces that I’d collected over the years–and made a little label for each token. I was creating a small, one-day museum.

Inside the house, I printed and posted narratives in each room, explaining how the house had evolved: where once was a living room, now was a kitchen (which, before that, was probably the original kitchen); where now there was a dining room, once were two bedrooms; where once two sisters had lived almost exclusively, now was a separate apartment. On and on.

In the scope of the history of this country, this is not a significant place. This is no Sturbridge, no Deerfield; nothing terribly dramatic ever happened here. The house, a typical New England big house/little house/back house/barn, is quite ordinary and without flourish. My digging turned up no diaries to explore or other caches of historical pizzazz. Plus, I’ve changed the house so much that it’s not historically recognizable. There were only two old photos to be found in the archives, both taken in 1946, so I was lacking graphics and visuals; imagination was all I had to work with. But this place represents the extreme efforts of one man, one continuous family, the fortunes of time and the elements, and the determination of an aging woman, Mary Walker, my predecessor on this land, who wanted to leave it better than she’d found it. It was all worth one glorious day of celebration.

The day before the party, my sister and I were busy in the kitchen, preparing food and drink. The list of things to do was very long, and my brain was scrambled. How could it all possibly get done before noon the next day, when guests would begin to arrive? Around 4:30, we sat down on the lawn out front to watch the oncoming storm. Thick and powerful lightning bolts shot into the trees across the field. We took shelter inside and resumed watching the storm march down the mountain toward us. When it finally arrived, the rain was torrential. We couldn’t see anything except a gray wall of water. The electricity flickered and then went out.

Late in the evening, my cousins arrived, and once they’d all piled into the house, soaking wet, we gathered for dinner by candlelight and exchanged stories of our adventures–so far. After dinner, I put the beans to bake in the oven overnight–and then slept soundly for an early rise.

The day of the party dawned like a stage set. The tent was standing ready. The power was back on. The smell of baked beans filled the house. My sister and I set about to decorate the tables beneath the tent with Mason jars filled with Joe-Pye weed, goldenrod, Queen Anne’s lace, and black-eyed Susans, all cut from the roadsides. In the cool, dry, blue-sky morning, we transported all the platters and drinks and jugs of iced tea to the tent. My friend Jonathan set up a sound system, hanging the speakers from the apple tree, providing music and also a microphone so that I could say a few things. I wanted to thank so many people who had helped me all along, and I wanted to raise a toast to Benjamin Mason and what he had started here so long ago.

A stream of guests arrived, happy in the warm August sunshine. Under the shelter of my barn, food and drink were arranged on several tables. I felt a happy, festive mood all around me. After everyone had enjoyed a good meal, I got up to take the microphone, but as I did so, my friend David came over to me and showed me the weather map on his smartphone. “I don’t mean to alarm you,” he said, “but you might warn people that they have about an hour before this hits.”

The blue skies above us belied what showed on his screen. I didn’t need to look hard at the device to see that a huge storm was headed right at us. So I didn’t get to say all that I wanted to say. I said a few things, most especially the expressions of gratitude I wanted to make, and then I told everyone to hurry and take their tours of the house and grounds–because a big storm was coming.

Everyone fanned out toward the various highlights of the old farm. The hour passed swiftly. Even with our warning, the skies turned black and the thunder rolled in with such swiftness that it still seemed like a surprise when the storm arrived, with bucketing rains, lightning, thunder. I watched as my guests headed for their cars and hoped that everyone would stay safe. The power went out again, which made clean-up a challenge. I kept thinking what it would have been like if that storm had arrived even one hour earlier, while we were serving lunch–and what it would have been like if we hadn’t had that warning.

The next day, a friend called to tell me something else. She and her husband had fled in the storm, perhaps a bit ahead of the others. They’d driven through the downpour a very short distance down my road–the one that Benjamin Mason originally built–when there to one side a tree was on fire, a brilliant blaze. While they watched it spread to the next tree, despite the torrents of rain, they called 911. A wire dropped into the road. Then, in one single moment, a huge billowing cloud of steam burst upward as the pouring rain finally extinguished the blaze at once. “That was a supernatural ending to your party,” my friend told me.

I wish I’d seen this brilliant flame turn to steam in the driving rain. It made me think about the order of things, how there had been so many obstacles to pulling this party off, how we had somehow managed to schedule it for the weekend when we were to experience two of the most intense storms of the summer. I was especially intrigued with the loss of electricity two days in a row–two very important days in the life of this house that Benjamin Mason built. We don’t lose power very often in the summer. But as we’d lit the candles for our meal the night before, I was reminded that Benjamin Mason had never had any power to lose.

In so many ways, we had summoned Ben Mason into our present, into our 21st-century reality. Maybe he was answering back–maybe throwing a lightning bolt down into the trees to give us the fireworks we lacked–maybe doing some handstands up in heaven.

It might have been the beauty of this land and its dramatic sky that brought me here, but the house, its history, its voices, the thought of the many feet that have touched its floors, this is what is so meaningful to me now. I’m only here to make it better, to make it last.