OUR OLDE HOUSE
by: Gerald Kerner
Miss Sherry and I live in a circa 1863 house in Olde Towne, Clinton. Our house has had at least two major extensions and several interior rearrangements during the past 158 years. As we are taking our turn at caring for this part of Clinton’s history, we have learned to accept that there are no simple fixes to anything that needs attention or updating, and that whoever last fixed what we are fixing again did their best with what they had at the time; judge not, lest ye be judged.
November 6, 2021
Mississippi has a lot of trees. I love trees. Miss Sherry has a few oak trees and probably the largest black walnut tree in Mississippi in her yard. A very large pin oak on the property line was dropping some pretty big limbs a couple of years ago for no apparent reason. The tree is away from our house so we did not have any roof damage from falling branches.
When I first arrived in Mississippi I used to tease Ms. Sherry about her never having seen a ‘real’ tree, and by saying that I meant a Sequoia Redwood. I told her there were lots of them twenty feet in diameter at the ground and over ten feet in diameter two hundred feet up, I even showed her some pictures but she did not seem impressed. The largest ones are thirty-five feet in diameter, still no big deal to her.
I realized that these trees are unbelievably huge and that they cannot be comprehended by description or even a two dimensional picture, so a few years ago we went to California to see the trees and my family. And to have some tortellini and Mexican food, but I digress. We drove up to Yosemite Park and stopped at the first Sequoia grove, which is just inside the park. When she walked up to a twenty footer she stopped and stared straight up for a long time. I eventually told her to touch it; the bark is at least four inches thick, fireproof, and soft to the touch.
We drove to Sequoia Park on another day to see the biggest of the big trees. All of the largest trees have names, and the largest tree in the world by volume is the General Sherman tree, more than thirty-five feet in diameter and over two hundred feet tall, being shortened by several lightning strikes over the past two thousand years, or so. You cannot avoid being stunned and impressed in their presence, and probably asking “What was God thinking when He made these?” I do not know, but it was a good thought.
Back in our backyard I was eventually inspired to walk down to the oak tree for a closer look to see maybe why it was losing limbs. Well, on the side of the tree away from the house there was a hollow place in the trunk maybe eight feet high. It did not look too wide but we decided that we should have the tree removed so it could not fall on anyone or anything.
We had the tree guys leave the stump so Ms. Sherry could plant stuff in it since it is about three and a half feet in diameter. When I saw the stump I could see that the solid tree layer around the perimeter of the stump was about six inches wide; only God knows, literally, how that thin veneer of oak continued to hold up a seventy foot tree, but I appreciate the feat.
There are some very large pecan trees next door and across the street, maybe seventy or eighty feet high and truly magnificent. I had a pecan tree in my yard in California, but it is a different kind than here; I thought it was large at maybe fifty feet tall and almost round like a cartoon tree, but it pales in comparison to the pecan trees here. It looked exactly like the black walnut trees there, also different than our black walnut tree here, except the pecans were oblong and the black walnuts were round.
The squirrels in California ate the pecans while they were very green, and spit the shell bits on the roof and ground; charming. Rarely did a pecan ever hit the ground. It is true, that only
God can make a tree, and He sure has some outstanding examples scattered around this great Country of ours.
October 12, 2021
Oh rats, actually rat. A few weeks ago I saw another rat under the house. This may sound like a big “so what” but when you have Civil War insulation, a rat under the house will soon be a big problem; all rats have friends.
I have spent literally several years, though it seems longer, closing all of the holes that lead under the house; well obviously not ‘all’ of the holes. When I arrived we had cats, raccoons, possums and rats under the house at various times and for varying lengths of time.
Before the Civil War, apparently air and convection was the technology used to accomplish insulation and air conditioning, respectively. The exterior walls of our olde house do not sit on top of the subfloor, but instead are open to the crawl space and to the attic, so whatever animal is under the house can climb up into the attic.
I am guessing that the air inside the exterior walls was the insulation and the hotter air in the attic caused the cooler air under the house to be drawn up inside the walls and into the attic, sort of like air conditioning or a very slow fan. Not 100% effective at cooling the house.
For those of you who are thinking that we now could blow insulation into the outside walls to help our actual air conditioner during the eleven summer months, that answer is no. Been there, done that, or tried anyway. Yes you can and we did blow insulation into the exterior walls but it all ended up in the crawl space under the house; doing this again definitely will earn you a Mr. SmartyPants award and a round of sarcastic applause.
After stalling for an appropriate amount of Dad time, I crawled under the house to set an electronic trap for the rat and baited it with sunflower seeds. Since we have a double dose of ants under the house I quickly learned that any ant edible bait is a very bad idea, and the popular “use peanut butter” is just plain dumb and stupid. Sunflower seeds work great; they are dry so they do not short out the rat trap and apparently ants do not like them.
I have a camera under the house pointed at the rat trap so I do not have to crawl under the house to check the trap; trust me, you do not want to leave a dead rat under your house for days during the summer so you need to retrieve it soon after its demise.
The camera can “see’ in the dark and also has a motion detection feature which is how I discovered that just one more rat had made its way under the house. Any rat, or moth for that matter, will trip the motion detector and the camera DVR will record a couple of minutes so the source of the movement can be quickly identified.
After the trap was baited and set, the rat returned. Rats are incredibly smart; I could see the rat, recorded by the camera, discovering the sunflower seeds and deciding how to get them for a snack. It is very cautious and approaches the trap very tentatively for a couple of days. I also learned that if anything moves, even slightly, the rat will stare at that area and not approach the trap.
I made some more trips around the house, looking for that “last” hole allowing the rat to gain access. As always, I found some likely candidates and plugged them or covered them with small mesh wire. I persuaded myself once again that I must have found and sealed the last hole.
On the fifth day the rat convinced himself that the trap was indeed safe and started to eat the path of sunflower seeds inside the trap. After a few minutes he ate his way far enough into the trap to trip it; I removed him from the trap the next morning and reset and baited the trap again just in case I was seeing more than one rat.
I do not understand how the rats can see under the house, at night, but they can walk on the water pipes without missing a step. I do not understand how the rats survive before they get under the house with the various cats and possums that are always around the house at night. And yet, there they are, although much less frequently than before.
September 14, 2021
“Mississippi has a lot of bugs.” Before I lived in the South I had heard this expression, but I really had no idea what a “lot” of bugs actually meant. This is not a complaint or criticism, just simply a statement of fact that is lost on those who do not live in the South.
I have a riding mower for the larger areas of “green stuff” in our backyard, and a battery powered push mower for the edges and small spaces. I decided to push the little mower around the backyard one afternoon last June so I went out to our mower barn in the backyard and dragged it out.
As I pulled the little mower out the door I noticed a large dark spot under where the mower was parked. Since it is electric there is no fluid to leak and make a spot so I looked closer, at which time I noticed the spot was moving. Ants. Great, I decided to simply mow the yard as planned and deal with the ants after I finished; another simple plan doomed to failure.
Well, as I pulled the little mower the rest of the way out of barn and bent down to push the battery into it, I felt something on my hands. More ants. This was a first for me, I have never had my lawn mower attacked by ants before.
I knocked the ants off my hands and arms and sprayed the mower with ant spray. The ants stopped moving for a moment, but then there were more ants coming from underneath the mower. I turned the mower on its side and sprayed again and the ants stopped moving for a moment, but then there were more ants coming from under the motor cover.
I removed the motor cover and discovered ant heaven, or at least a satellite chapter, living on and in the electric motor. There were ants covering everything all running in circles. More ant spray but the herd seemed endless. Finally all of the ants stopped moving; clearly this was not a simple ant attack on the mower, it was an occupation.
Now I had my little mower covered in ant spray, and not-moving ants, so I did not want to touch the poison or start mowing. I decided to rinse off the not-moving ants and residual ant spray so the little mower would be safe to use. I gingerly pushed the little mower into the middle of the green stuff, got the hose and gave it a good rinse. Success, I thought, but no, not yet.
I dropped the battery into the little mower and stepped back to avoid the whirring blades, but no sound, no whir. I remembered from somewhere in my past that water and electric motors do not mix, or whir. Well, I should be able to dry the motor so I got my leaf blower and blasted the motor from all directions. I dropped the battery back in and what do you know, whirring.
I remembered the dark spot in the barn, so I pulled the battery out of the little mower and went back into the barn. The dark spot was now a sea of ants running in circles. I pushed the riding mower out of the barn and sprayed the entire floor. Just to be sure I got an ant bomb, put it into the middle of the barn, set it off and closed the barn door. I decided to set off another ant bomb under the house to deter any ant stampede between the barn and the house that was being planned.
I never did mow with the little mower that day, or for several days after that. I managed to push the riding mower and little mower back into the barn that evening, and shut the door behind them; I will mow later. Mississippi has a lot of bugs, and I seem to have a double dose of ants under the house and in the yard.
August 9, 2021
Miss Sherry had a 30’ x 20’ backyard wooden deck built about fifteen years ago; it was professionally done, a very nice two-level design with two diagonal steps down into the yard in front of the side gate. About five years ago the wooden deck started to sag next to the house in a couple of places.
Unfortunately for me the wooden deck had been nailed to the house along the edges; this is not the best design because the wood will eventually rot and break away from the house. Since this was one of my first home improvement projects on this house I decided to complicate it by replacing all of the wooden decking with new “plastic wood” decking at the same time I added pier supports along the house.
I measured the existing boards, went to the home improvement store and ordered an equivalent number of plastic wood decking for just the top level of the deck since that is where the sagging was occurring. The plastic decking is very nice because it does not get moldy/slippery in the winter like the wood, and I can power wash it clean so it looks like new. The brochure said plastic decking it is not as strong as wood but I chose to ignore that hint.
I removed all of the wooden decking, added some piers along the house and thought I would then just lift the deck frame onto the new supports. I tried using a long 4x4 to get enough leverage to lift the deck frame edge, but the frame did not budge with the 4x4 stressed to my limit. Oops.
Maybe the car jack would work. I did not try this since it seemed extremely likely the jack would kick out and hurt me especially since there was no way to firmly attach it to the deck frame. I had a large floor jack but it was too big to maneuver under the deck frame. I saw an advertisement for a very small floor jack that looked promising; said it would lift two tons for $40, so I got it.
That little jack worked perfectly, and next to my chop saw is my favorite tool now. I have no idea how much the deck frame weighed but that jack lifted it without effort or straining and the deck frame was quickly attached to my new piers making a very stable and sturdy deck.
The plastic wood decking was installed over the frame fairly easily, it uses some special fasteners that hook the boards together, all without any nails through the decking; this is one more very nice advantage of plastic wood decking over wooden decking.
Another five years passed which brings us to present day, specifically the extreme heat we experienced over this past month; one part of my plastic wood decking started to sag apparently due to that “plastic decking is not as strong as wooden decking” hint I ignored.
Since the plastic wood decking is installed sequentially from one side to the other with fasteners, it is not possible to remove one or two boards from the middle; I would have to start at one side and remove all of the boards up to and including the desired boards. That seemed like a lot of work so I decided I would try to add another support under the sagging part by gaining access where the upper deck met the lower deck.
I pried off my access board and saw that there already was a joist under the sagging part, it was just not quite long enough to reach the support on my end, thus allowing the plastic deck boards to sag. OK, back to the store to get some bricks to make a pier under the short joist. I had to cut a hole in the lower deck so I could get the little jack and bricks under the upper deck.
As I brushed away the leaves under the deck so I could stack up support bricks I saw there was concrete, the original walkway from the house to the gate, a perfect foundation for my bricks. I used my little jack to raise the short joist to the correct height, pushed my brick tower under it, lowered the jack and the boards were a perfect match.
I noticed the two plastic decking boards behind this end board were still slightly sagging, probably due to some stretching in the heat. I made another brick tower, jacked up the boards, pushed the second tower under the boards, but the top brick made it too high. I used my chop saw to cut a piece of old wooden decking which was just the right height to finish the support tower. I lowered the jack and had perfect alignment for the whole deck now.
I replaced my access board with a new pressure treated 2”x6”x6’ board and reconnected the deck fasteners to the new board. I cut a piece of exterior plywood to temporarily cover the hole I cut in the lower deck.
I am very pleased that I could use both my little jack and chop saw on this project since they are my favorite tools; being able to use the walkway for a foundation made the repair much easier and more stable. Now I am ready to replace the lower decking with plastic wood decking to complete the decking replacement project.
June 24, 2021
A week ago my wife noticed that the refrigerator was off; obviously not good. I reset the circuit breaker a few times and the refrigerator would run for a few minutes or a few hours and then trip the breaker again. Since this is an old house I decided (hoped) it was a bad circuit breaker, so off to the hardware store to find a new breaker for a simple fix.
I found a similar but not identical circuit breaker and plugged it in. Worked fine for an hour and tripped. Reset it, and it was working fine after three days so all seemed well, and we went out to dinner. Of course when we returned the refrigerator was off. Reset the breaker and it would trip in 10 seconds. Put the old breaker back in, reset it, and it would trip in 10 seconds. My next guess was a short in the twenty year old refrigerator, probably fatal for a thousand dollar fix. It was late by this time, so we moved what we could from the refrigerator into our little fridge and little freezer overnight.
The next morning we called appliance repair who suggested we plug the refrigerator into a different circuit to see if maybe the plug was bad, and not the refrigerator. I mentioned that the refrigerator is plugged in behind the built-in dishwasher so I would need to disconnect the dishwasher and remove it from its cabinet to do that. The repair lady said if they came out they would have to charge us to remove the dishwasher so they could plug the refrigerator into another circuit to troubleshoot the problem, so I said I would pull the dishwasher out and test the refrigerator with an extension cord to a different plug.
This is when I realized that once again, this was not going to be a simple fix. This house is a lot like Columbo, as soon as you think you are finished with a problem there is always just one more thing.
I went under the house hoping that there was a separate water valve for the dishwasher which I found and turned off; best news so far. As I glanced at the wiring for the dishwasher under the house I noticed about 6 inches of insulation missing, apparently a rat snack. This turned out to be actually good news but for some reason I did not immediately recognize it that way. With power and water off to the dishwasher, I disconnected it and pulled it out of the cabinet so I could test the refrigerator.
As I tried to focus on the simple task of plugging the refrigerator into a different circuit I noticed that the outlet tubing from the dishwasher was cracked and about to break which would cause a flood, and the power cord to the refrigerator had a scrape in it exposing a tiny spot of hot wire. Focus is important so I ignored the growing list of easy fixes in front of me, plugged the refrigerator into another circuit and voila the refrigerator worked. Excellent news, with not having to buy a new refrigerator and all.
The refrigerator was running again so I had time to make the few fixes remaining. Back to the hardware store to get an appliance extension cord so I could plug the refrigerator in behind the refrigerator, some house wire to replace the chewed piece, and a new dishwasher outlet hose kit.
Back home I repaired the refrigerator power cord. I routed the wiring from the refrigerator outlet to a new junction box under the house which is connected to the wire from the circuit breaker. Circuit breaker reset and on, and we have power to the refrigerator. I replaced the dishwasher outlet hose, connected the dishwasher to the hot water, pushed it back into the cabinet, turned on the water valve and circuit breaker and we have a dishwasher; test rinse cycle and no leaks.
I am grateful that we did not need a new refrigerator. I am grateful that I repaired the refrigerator power cord before it shorted out. I am grateful for finding the failing dishwasher outlet hose before it caused a flood. And I am most grateful to God who sent the rat to chew off the insulation which led to my discovery of several issues (conveniently located next to each other) that were easy fixes before any or all of them became a giant oops. We love our olde house.