The Red House 1973

Red House and Barns 1972

This is how the house looked in the spring of 1972. You can see that the roof needs repair and that there is a wonky power pole. Inside there were only a few walls and only a few doors and a jar of peanut butter with a knife in it on the kitchen floor.
Maybe you can understand why a kid of 12 years used to suburban life might find this a bit distressing.

My parents purchased the above isolated farm house in the spring of 1972 for a measly $8,000.00 after a scouting trip to see real estate for sale in the area. They only purchased the house and the half acre that it sat on – a local farmer owned the fields surrounding the house and the outbuildings; we had access from the road via the lane.

We didn’t move into the Red House until January 1973. The house had been abandoned for quite a few years so in the intervening months, while we were getting our papers ready to move to Canada, my uncle Lorne took over making the house liveable. He had new power lines run in and a party line telephone hooked up. He hired some local guys to put a new roof on (one of whom was Teddy who teased me mercilessly on the school bus and even set fire to my hair once with his lighter).

He also had a new oil burning furnace installed and an oil burning kitchen stove with a hot water heater attached (both of which never worked – more on that later). A very basic bathroom was jerry-rigged downstairs – it had a sink, a toilet and a small tub (it was too small to lie down in, and anyway, could not be filled due to lack of hot water) and some fake tile pressed board put in around watery areas. Only a couple of rooms had doors – so my uncle made some out of 6″ x half inch boards nailed together – they kind of fit. The roof of the house had numerous lightning rods on it – and we eventually found out why during our first big storm – it being situated on top of a bare hill with a few big trees on either side.

Old abandoned farmhouse showing plaster and lathe

This is not a picture from our house – but it looks enough like our house did for you to get the picture. You can see the lathing and old plaster with animal hair and the wrecked everything.

There were four rooms upstairs in the main part of the house. Only one of these had complete walls while the other three had broken and rotting plaster and old wallpaper and exposed lathing.

To say that the wind blew through the house is not an exaggeration – even after fixing the walls the wind still moved the curtains in the windows in and out on a good breezy day. And it was cold. Maybe the house had a new furnace but it couldn’t keep up with that cold outside and those airy walls.

Antique oak flooring

The floors upstairs had big thick boards like this, and were a mess with paint and wear – we tried to clean them up and then stained them dark and waxed them a bit.

The flooring in the house was original and consisted of very thick old boards upstairs (probably oak) – they were about 2 inches thick and about 12″ wide. And down the middle of the upstairs hall was a mend about 2 feet wide – all the other flooring met up with this seam. It apparently hearkened from the time that the house had been moved across the lake in the winter with draft horses or oxen – and when they pulled it up the hill the flooring split in the middle upstairs. That was the story anyway – and it made sense – it wasn’t very elegant and it did look like a repair job.

Moving House with Oxen

In 1845, Elizabeth Prince Peabody described a house moving she witnessed in Danvers, Massachusetts. “The building came along slowly, drawn by yokes of oxen. Every yoke had a driver beside it with goads, hurrying them with a ‘Hush-whoa’. It seemed as though there were 20 or 40 yoke of oxen.”

Moving House with Horses

Moving House with Horses

As soon as we moved in in January, the first order of the day was to fix the upstairs walls. First we had to remove the old plaster; then put up insulation; then dry board; then patch and tape the drywall; and finally paint. This included dry walling the ceilings too, not just the walls, and none of us had any experience doing any of this.

Removing the old plaster was dirty but very interesting. It was original to the house and consisted of plaster and what looked like cow hair (but I’ve read now that horse hair or hog hair is more common) – usually a reddish brown color. Underneath the plaster we found old pages from books and newspapers – none of them could be recovered but scraps showed the house dated from the mid 1860’s. We also found old boots, and bits of fabric and clothes that people had stuffed into the gap between the plaster and the lathing strips. None of this was saved much to my regret now.

The lathing strips were often just rough wood cut into as evenly made strips as possible – many still had bark on them. The nails from the shingles outside were distinctly poking through.

Drywall finishing how to

Its So Easy to Drywall! NOT…
Our dry walling team consisted of my parents who were reasonably strong and us two teenage girls with measly arms – that’s it. And we didn’t have safety gear like masks for the dust or hardhats or work boots – its amazing we did this ourselves without some medical crisis.

If anyone has ever done dry walling you know how heavy and awkward those boards are – and here we were trying to install these boards up on the walls and ceilings – it was back breaking work trying to hold the boards up while my father screwed them into place.

Even worse was the endless sanding that was necessary – we did a really bad job on the plastering and taping and sanding to be honest and left big lumps and screw heads visible – but at least there were walls afterwards. No one was complaining about quality.

Shrew SGaspensis

There are several zillion type of shrews apparently in North America – this one looks a lot like my little roommates and is actually located in New Brunswick.
Credit: painting by Nancy Halliday from Kays and Wilson’s Mammals of North America, © Princeton University Press (2002)

At night the house came alive with creaking like an old boat. There were various critters living there too- in the walls and in the attic were bats and mice and other things. We had a regular crew of shrews – animals so small but fierce that our big old killer tabby cat left them alone. I once woke up to find a shrew sitting on my pillow next to my face.

And so we had a lot of scratching in the walls, and “someone” was up in the attic above my room rolling moth balls back and forth all night.

I was kept home in the beginning for a couple of months to help with all the work and probably to help me get used to the new life we were leading. It wasn’t til early spring before the road went liquid that I started school. But that’s another story.

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The Great White North

It was mid January 1973 the day the giant moving van showed up at our house in Bronxville, NY.

The moving guys first loaded all the heavy stuff from our house into the truck – boxes of books, boxes of records and the Encyclopedia Britannica set – some wardrobe boxes and a couple of mattresses and some paintings – but then there was no more room for all of our furniture and other belongings. A second truck had to be sent for.

Ford Maverick c 1971

The Safran family car by this point was a Ford Maverick c 1971. I had no idea we were driving around in what is now considered a muscle car. The one shown here is a bit souped up compared to our blue model.

We had a schedule of some sorts, and we couldn’t wait – so we left my Nanny in the house to make sure the rest of our stuff got loaded onto the second truck, and we got into our car with our cat and drove away.

I remember sobbing hard in the back seat – the sight of my Nanny waving goodbye was too much for me – I knew deep down I’d never see her again.

At least we had Babby with us in the back seat in an old green wooden crate. If Babby hadn’t been there I’d have been histrionic – as it was my father yelled at me to shut up and stop crying.We drove out of our neighborhood in silence and onto the highways that took us north to Canada.

We drove all day and late into the night, till it was dark and snowing – I’m guessing we were somewhere in Maine when we stopped. We pulled up to a dark, cold looking motel and got a room for all four of us and then smuggled the cat and his litter box inside and spent the night in there in misery. I don’t remember what we ate but probably cold sandwiches that my mother brought.

Adele Safran, Lorne and Joanne  Bell and Luke the dog

My mother Adele, my Uncle Lorne and Aunt Joanne Bell, and Luke the dog – one of my bestest buddies ever.

The next day was more driving – more roads and endless forest. We arrived at my aunt’s house in Jolicure, New Brunswick, Canada before dinner and it was a relief to be out of the car and into a warm and welcoming home. It was my mother’s birthday the next day  – January 18th.

We spent a couple of days at my aunt’s place as I recall, waiting for the moving trucks to arrive. That was alright by me because they had a barn and a house full of animals to visit including a horse and a goat, cats and a big fluffy dog.

One of the moving vans eventually arrived at my aunt’s farm one day during a heavy snow storm. We all piled in our vehicles and drove along with the van to our new home about three miles down the road into the woods.

The road to our house was a dirt road and deeply rutted and covered with ice and snow. The moving van wasn’t prepared for this and slipped and ditched itself suddenly just below our laneway. The rest of us stopped in horror and stood helplessly in the middle of nowhere in the freezing cold and heavy snow, wondering what would we do? The house was situated up a very long narrow drive up a hill – were we going to have to carry everything out of the truck and lug it there? How was the truck going to get out of the ditch?

The abandoned house down our road

This is a shot taken from our road looking towards the abandoned farm nearby. It was the only house visible for miles. Beyond that were woods – and in the other direction were woods.

Luckily my uncle had it all covered – he drove out to the crossroads and enlisted a few neighbor farmers to come along with their tractors and they managed to pull the truck out of the ditch. (The first of many times the local farmers pulled us out of ditches). The moving truck then actually made it up the lane to the farmyard and unloaded our stuff into the house. Only the first truck had shown up – the second truck didn’t arrive for weeks…

The Red House in Jolicure at dusk

The Red House and its barns in Jolicure at dusk. You can see that the buildings are located on the top of a rise. If you walked over the rise to the other side you’d see Long Lake and forest.

By nightfall we were alone in the house with the kitchen stove burning and the furnace kicking in to warm things up. Thanks to the moving company, we had tons of boxes but little in the way of furniture. So we sat on boxes of books and ate mac and cheese from a mix made in one pot for dinner.

My father sensed that some levity was needed on this night of drama – we had landed in a centuries old house isolated in the woods with no other house or light in sight for miles – the cold was oppressive, as was the darkness outside. So he pushed aside some stuff from the living room floor (the front parlour) and found some old LPs and the record player (which was a big heavy piece of furniture and so had been included in the load) and played records and taught us to fox trot. It is a brilliant memory – the golden light of the only lamp in the room; the 1940s music playing; and dancing with my father in this old farmhouse in the middle of nowhere.

We were in this together now for better or for worse.

Jolicure: temporary mailbox for the Safran family

A breadbox became our temporary mailbox when we moved to the red house in Jolicure. It wasn’t long before the postman refused to go down our road to deliver mail and we had a real mail box put up at the official corners of Jolicure proper.

Let’s Fast Forward to 1972

In the fall of 1972 I entered grade 7 at Burrough’s Junior High in Yonkers, NY. Let’s just say I didn’t adjust to the change…

Betty Safran with hand made model of Parthenon 1972

This is me in 1972 just a few months before entering junior high. I’m shyly posing with my to-scale handmade model of the Parthenon. You can see that I was what they’d call today a geeky kid – thoughtful, sensitive – not a tough nut.

At the time that Burroughs was built about 4 years earlier it was meant to be a revolution in education – take the sheltered middle class kids and mix them with the rough tough kids and things will even out. However the experiment didn’t go well – at least not while my sister or I were there… gangs of kids controlled the halls with violence (I only went to the washroom once at Burrough’s – it was too scary to be alone in the halls and bathrooms) and tormented kids on the buses.

Burroughs Junior High, Yonkers, New York

This is my old alma mater Burroughs Junior High in Yonkers, NY. Isn’t it an attractive prison-like depressing institution?

And one day a mobile race riot came (they were going around in buses) and our school was then surrounded by riot police decked out with all their gear and vans… it was a fun place.

Not only did I develop a strong bladder, but I also started having intense stomach pains that lasted for several years after that…

Betty Safran and Babby

This is sweet me with Babby the neighborhood Tabby.

Things in Manhattan were really devolving too – check out the movie American Gangster by Ridley Scott if you want an atmospheric tour of what it felt like in the city in the 70s.

And in our neighborhood a Mafioso boss broke building codes and built a house across the street from our house and trucks came and went at all hours as did big men (think the Sopranos). We heard from a neighbor soon after we left Bronxville that the guy’s pretty little wife was killed by a car bomb.

And there was a new presence of drugs in the schools and on our quiet streets – I went out to school one day and found a whole pile of used needles on the slope of our yard near the sidewalk….

My parents had been talking about moving somewhere remote and away from New York  for a few years. Real estate catalogues from Ireland, Australia and the rural US, were lying around the house. Even though I hated my new junior high – I didn’t want to leave my home, my Nanny who lived next door, or my beloved Babby, our visiting tabby.

In the spring of1972 my parents decided to go up to Eastern Canada and visit my mother’s eldest sister Joanne and her husband Lorne, and look for some cheap rural real estate that we could move to.

Willy Rayworth house Jolicure

This is how my sister first saw the red house on the hill – from a canoe on Long Lake.

After looking at several remote houses on a windy and open marsh, and a couple of Victorian charmers in small towns, they quickly decided on a red farmhouse about 3 or 4 miles from my aunt’s farmhouse in Jolicure, New Brunswick. This was the house that my sister fell in love with about a year earlier when she was up there visiting.

Locally it was known as the Willy Rayworth House. It had been famous for its spring water and for the dancing parties that had been held in the large kitchen in its heyday. The house when we saw it had been abandoned for some years and looked pretty in a shabby, run-down kind of way.

I guess I didn’t realize at the time that we were going to move to this house forever more. So it came as a shock when it became a reality. I remember lying under the Christmas tree in 1972 looking up at the flashing lights and weeping because I didn’t want to leave, and my father yelling at me to stop – we were moving and that was final.

And we weren’t allowed to tell anyone where we were going…