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I Bought the Farm - Remodel and Restore an old farmhouse

Updated on August 24, 2012
the farm with Christmas lights
the farm with Christmas lights
sketch of a typical period farm house
sketch of a typical period farm house

If a comfortable abode is your desire, then don’t buy a farmhouse. I live in an old farmhouse on 10 acres in Southern Michigan that I purchased about 22 years ago. The house was built before 1874, which is the date of the earliest plat map that shows a dwelling on this property. We found through conversations with people in the area related to the builder and first owner, that he was in the Kaisers Army in Germany. He lost a leg in the war and apparently his hearing from being strapped to the wheel of a canon cart as punishment for some misdemeanor. Apparently he was a carpenter and he must have been good at his trade because this house still stands after nearly 140 years.

One day a few years after we moved in a lady who was in 80's appeared at our door. The house had belonged to her grandparents and she remember coming there as a small child for Sunday dinner with her family. They would take a horse and buggy from town and spend the day on the farm with her grandparents.

She came in and told us how what was now the kitchen used to be a bedroom and a wood fired cook stove was in what is now the dining room, which explains the burned spot on the floor. The bathroom was a pantry and our library was another bedroom. Our living room was a formal room, like a parlor, with a seprate entry door next to what is now or main entry. The old entry is now just a tall window. The upstairs was mostly unfinished and used as a spair room for the kids to play and the boys to bunk in at night. She enjoyed the visit and verified for us some of the history and age of the house.

hand hewn beam
hand hewn beam
plaster and lath in basement stairway
plaster and lath in basement stairway
mortise and tenon joint in the barn
mortise and tenon joint in the barn
framing joints in the barn
framing joints in the barn
residual fire damage from vandals
residual fire damage from vandals

The house is timber framed with hand hewn hardwood beams and rough cut true 2X12 floor joists. The flooring is 6 inch wide heart pine planking and the walls are plaster and lath construction. The barn is framed with mortise and tenon construction with pine plank siding. The barn is covered on 3 sides with old license plates dating from 1917 to 1936.

One of his sons lived in the house for years until he died. He was known to be a hermit. He did not believe in electricity or plumbing. He used an outhouse, kerosene lanterns and had an old cast iron wood stove for heat and cooking. The house sat empty for a few years and vandals set fire on the floor. In 1963 electricity and plumbing was installed, and not expertly I might add, when a family purchased the house and moved in.

milk snake
milk snake | Source

When I tell people about my house they think how charming and sometimes say “I’d like to live in an old house like that”. Well, some women(and men) change their wishes when I tell them this story:

One morning I was standing in the kitchen sipping coffee and talking to my son standing next to me. In my peripheral vision I saw something drop from the ceiling and heard a smack when it hit the floor. I looked down to see a 2 foot snake at my feet. Spilling coffee on my shirt as I pranced about and shrieked like a helpless little girl, my son came to the rescue and clubbed the snake with a wooden stool. It had crawled out of an opening around the electrical box underneath a ceiling mounted light fixture.

drain field on the southern side
drain field on the southern side

It hasn’t been all about just dealing with snakes, spiders, rats, mice and other unwanted pets. There have been lots of opportunities to experience the joys of home maintenance, remodeling and repair. Like the time our septic tank over flowed to soak the yard with sewage. I once saw my father digging up a septic tank to clear the out flow to the drain field from roots that had it plugged. I thought that must be the thing to do. After digging in hard clay for several days I discovered the outflow to the drain field was non-existent. There was only a short piece of field tile running out of the tank about 10 feet. No drain field. My kids had fun playing in the huge pile of sand the contractor brought before the new septic system was excavated and installed.

basement wall - stone construction
basement wall - stone construction
looking into the crawl space
looking into the crawl space

The house is on a Michigan basement, which means half is over a stone or concrete basement, the other half is over a crawl space and dirt. Ours is stone. No tile was installed around the foundation so when we get a heavy rain, water flows into the basement and is pumped out by the sump pump. I should spend the money for more excavation and have tile installed, but I’ve heard stories of foundation collapse when that was attempted. I’m thinking of planting trout in the stream flowing through my basement anyway.

trap door to cistern
trap door to cistern
new kitchen
new kitchen

When we moved in the small kitchen had no cupboards. The sink was on counter that protruded from a corner capturing nearly all the limited floor space. The first task was to remodel the kitchen. I installed new counter tops and cupboards, a window, dishwasher, and spent a week of my vacation crawling under the house in the dirt, becoming friendly with the spiders, and waiting for a snake to crawl up my pant leg. I also found that the walls were not square, after test fitting an L-shaped pre-fab counter top. After several more weeks of evening work we finally had a new kitchen.

In the basement is an old cistern. It was used to hold rainwater which was collected as it flowed from the roof through gutters and downspouts. We still have a trap door in the floor where a bucket could be lowered for ”fetchin’ a pail of water for warshin”. It is now just an empty concrete lined hole with a portion of the wall missing.

When we moved in the bathroom had a home-made round wooden tub with a shower head. The walls were covered with cedar shakes, and the sink was a small steel bowl with a couple of faucets. The cedar shakes didn’t smell like cedar, the smelled like urine. Guess what. Another week crawling in the dirt with the spiders, and fitting plumbing and routing wiring laying on my back in the dark with a flashlight in my mouth. I re-located all the bathroom fixtures and toilet, installed a neo-angle shower stall, old iron claw foot tub, new sink, ceiling tile, window and wallpaper. After several more weeks of evening work we finally had a new bathroom.

living room with plaster walls
living room with plaster walls

Other things we’ve don’e (…errr I’ve done) :

remodel the dining room, removing tile that covered the heart pine sub floor

replaced deteriorated asphalt shingled roof with aluminum standing seam panels at 3X the cost

installed a new wood/fuel oil furnace and oil tank

rebuilt the front porch

refinished the floors twice

installed plumbing and wiring for an upstairs laundry

had all new modern replacement windows installed which greatly reduce the winter breezes we felt inside

had a two stall two story garage built

replaced the barn and small outbuilding roofing with steel panels. It was asphalt shingle covering cedar shingles

build numerous horse fences, and a chicken barn

remove a broken down hot tub, a rotted wooden playhouse

insulate and drywall the knee walls and ceiling in our upstairs bedroom

installed two new double hung windows in our bedroom, it was originally only a storm window

I do enjoy our 10 acres of property which backs up to a 7 acre pond and is surrounded by about 600 acres of wooded farmland. Besides not having the income to do the major renovations I’d like to, I have spent many hours with my children fishing in the pond, many hours playing in the yard with kids and dogs or shooting baskets on the driveway, many hours deer and turkey hunting….and most hours just trying to earn a paycheck.


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