Severson Dells Notes: Our farmhouse

Our farmhouse is a two-story wood frame structure built around the turn of the 20th century. I know this from the dates on old newspapers found placed between the walls for insulation.

Many farm homes like this can be found throughout northern Illinois. The house has had several additions over the years, no doubt reflecting the family growth and prosperity of its respective owners.

I can identify two distinctive additions to ours—a kitchen and a bathroom, the latter which exiled the old outdoor privy west of the house. As a concession to comfort, a paved walkway was added for the 50-foot distance from the back door of the house to the privy. This was no doubt a windfall for those family members and guests who needed to use this facility in the winter.

Originally, the house was heated with one or more wood stoves, including the cooking stove. Two unused chimneys within the house give evidence of former stoves.

A round, cement cistern is still immediately outside a kitchen window. This cistern is 12 feet down into the ground, and once supplied some of the water needs (non-drinking).

A deep well is east of the barn, near the milk house and 120 feet from the home. This was equipped with an electric pump, but originally with a windmill that stood 60 feet high and was removed before we bought the farm.

Similarly, remnant windmills can be found throughout northern Illinois and into the neighboring state of Wisconsin. Only the bent-over feet of the windmill remained for us to see.

The original cellar was small and probably used for storing produce that was home-canned vegetables, fruits and meat as there was no refrigeration, or indeed, no electricity until World War I. The walls of the cellar were made from field stone mortared in together. Later, the basement was expanded to double in size with poured concrete floor and walls. The original stone walls continued to leak like a sieve whenever the ground water table was high.

The expansion of the basement was to accommodate a more modern furnace facility, which progressed in sequence from coal to fuel oil and finally to gas in 1975.

A sump pump had been installed in 1950, to protect the furnace; however, even then, the furnace had to be mounted on a foot-high concrete platform to protect it from a wet basement floor.

The height of the basement ceiling was a modest 6 feet, and the heating ducts brought this down low enough so I would sometimes bump my head. My children said this is how they learned swear words from me…the sound traveling clearly through these ducts to the upstairs rooms.

The seasonally wet basement attracted several species of local wildlife, especially the American toad and the spotted salamander. These were able to gain entrance through the three window wells, which also would sometimes fill with rain water, providing a sort of proprietary Shedd Aquarium, or the beginnings of our own zoo. This became a herpetological training place for the children, who would often collect creatures from the basement and take them proudly to school. Even a predator was once captured in the basement in the form of a weasel in full-white winter garment. Predators were not to be discouraged, as they could perform a useful control over not-so-welcome guests, such as mice and rats. Even these rodents had some utility after son Kevin acquired a 6-foot boa constrictor. He was kept busy trapping rodents both on our place and the neighbor’s barn to provide sustenance for Oscar, the boa.

Bruce Muench is a retired IDNR Biologist and volunteer at Severson Dell Nature Center, 8786 Montague Road, Rockford.

from the July 22-28, 2009, issue

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