One splinter of experience is worth a whole fixer upper of warning

Our story so far: Are you willing to take on a fixer upper? My husband and I thought we were, and we made a plan to renovate a 126-year-old Methodist church into our dream home.

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Chapter 7

My beloved husband Tyler knew well what it meant to renovate a house and why anyone about to tackle such an undertaking should proceed with caution.

Nearly thirty years ago, Tyler’s first whole-house renovation project began with Boone County’s oldest operational tobacco farm.

He and his wife at the time purchased the property in Northern Illinois for just the price of a new car in the 1980s from the two bachelor brothers who had grown tobacco there for decades. Now in their 80s, one of the brothers was in ill health and living in a nursing home; the other planned a move to join him.

tobacco farm
That’s Tyler there on the left, sawing. His grandfather, in the middle, and a buddy lend a hand to the construction project. The old tobacco barn is in the background.

One of the buildings on the farm was a distinctive tobacco barn with hinged foot-wide openings. They all locked from the inside with a wooden peg. The slates were opened to dry the tobacco hanging inside.

The brothers smoked their product. Every out building had Zig Zag cigarette rolling paper packages stuffed in every crevice.

The farmhouse had no heat except a warm-morning stove connected to a fuel oil tank. There was one light switch in every room connected to a single bulb hanging from the ceiling. Old horsehair plaster was on all the walls and ceilings. The flooring and trim was basic Douglas fir that could be refinished; the baseboards were distinctive. The main floor consisted of three rooms, and a steep stairway led to the second half-story. The basement was a five-foot-deep hole with a dirt floor.

There was no plumbing. The “running water” was a well pump outside. The brothers pumped water and brought it inside for drinking and bathing. When Tyler had the well tested, it was like death syrup, the levels of live bacteria and chloroform so high as to be practically toxic (chloroform was used an anesthetic in the Civil War). The “bathroom” was a two-hole outhouse on skids so the brothers could move it when the pit beneath it filled.

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Tomorrow: Hard physical effort transforms the old tobacco farm. Read it here.

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