Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Alternative to Restoring a Historic Property

From time to time, I think of Land's End--the lovely little home (and by little, I mean HUGE) on Long Island that inspired F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby.  Can you imagine standing before the enormous house, watching party-goers of the Flapper era as they sipped on champagne and danced the Charleston?  If you were fortunate enough to stand before the house and dream of days gone by, you have something money can no longer buy.  Land's End is just a memory now, after being razed last year to make room for modern homes.  (Click on the link to learn more about the destruction of the home behind The Great Gatsby.)

Sometimes I worry that Americans have lost touch with the importance of saving historic structures.  It literally breaks my heart to see the homes of our past crumble to the ground.  I guess that's why I blog about the restoration of THE HOUSE AT SUGAR CREEK.  In my own way, I'm trying to help encourage other people to save buildings that would otherwise be destroyed.  Whether you're saving an old farmhouse or restoring a mansion that inspired one of the most popular novels to come from this country, every moment you spend doing historic preservation work is important.  If you don't believe me, take a look at the alternative.

Goodbye, Land's End.  If you had been in the rural south, and if you hadn't been so expensive, I would've done everything possible to save you from such an awful fate.  

Monday, October 22, 2012


I don't know if it's possible to explain the number of insects that come with an abandoned house.  Try to imagine what it's like to move into a home that hasn't been lived in for years, and you'll probably imagine spiders, scorpions, mosquitos, and the occasional bee.  In my mind, I thought we'd be battling tiny creatures for a few months and then everything would be okay.  And for a little while, I was right.

Summer hit with an intensity that took us by complete surprise.  We imagined the high temperatures outside and inside of the house, and we welcomed the challenges of taming a little home in the middle of the wild woods.  But good Lawdy, we couldn't have possibly imagined the number of red wasps that called THE HOUSE AT SUGAR CREEK home.  By early May, the wasps had completely taken over the front porch.  By June, we were going through a can of wasp spray a day.  And by July, we couldn't so much as swing a hammer without irritating our unwelcomed houseguests and finding ourselves under the constant airstrike of miniature Kamikaze pilots.  I used one four-letter word at least a zillion times this summer: OUCH.  And when the wasps seemed to double, then triple and quadruple in numbers, I knew that it was time to call for professional help.

I guess this sets us up nicely to tell the story of one crazy day in July.  The birds were singing, the sky was a crisp blue, and there were approximately eight hundred and one redheads in my house.  (Me and eight hundred red wasps!)  I had spoken with VEXCON and knew that BILLY THE EXTERMINATOR was on his way to THE HOUSE AT SUGAR CREEK, but I knew that my red wasps were going to give Billy a run for his money.  Billy's a trained professional and all that jazz, but our red wasp infestation was no joke.  We were being stung at least once a day, and I had the strange feeling that Billy wasn't going to be impressed with our wasp collection.  In all honesty, I didn't know if he could actually kill them all.  There were so many red wasps that I didn't think ANYBODY could accomplish such a feat.

The camera crew arrived first, and they were all grins right up until the moment that they stepped out of their cars.  It only took a few minutes for the wasps to make their presence known--they pegged a few members of the crew and the hollering began.  Our neighbor (JACK JACK) rushed to the aid of the surprised crew with kerosene and cotton balls, and that seemed to help.  But within a few minutes, everyone on the set looked like this:

I have to admit that I giggled when I saw Billy walking up to our little dog-trot home.  I  was impressed with our local reality show superhero, of course, but I couldn't help myself--my twisted sense of humor took over when I saw his eyes grow wide as he started counting the number of wasp nests on the front porch.  

You know it's bad when a trained professional is surprised by an infestation, and within a few minutes Billy said that we had the worst red wasp problem that he had ever seen. 

I don't know how long Billy typically stays on a set when he's filming for BILLY THE EXTERMINATOR, but I can tell you that he and the crew were here all day and late into the evening.  They arrived around 10:30 in the morning and didn't leave until the sun went down, and they were an absolute riot.  We were literally sad when they left, because we loved the entire crew!  And though I honestly didn't think it was possible before Billy arrived, by the time the crew packed up and left the wasps were dead!  Billy did every bit of the work himself, too.  The crew simply documented every step he took.  In short, Billy is the real deal.  We adored him.  He's incredibly smart and quick-witted, and he packs a mean punch when it comes to wasp infestations.  Shaun and I are definitely fans for life! 

There were so many things that didn't go into the show.  I can't imagine how much work it was to take the hours and hours and hours of video and compress it into an eight minute summary, but the crew did an amazing job.  Our episode (# 75) is titled WASP WARFARE, and the title is no joke.  We love the way it turned out, and we're so happy that we have such wonderful documentation of the unrestored sections of the home.  

Here's Billy with the great-great-grandchildren of Mintie Robinson, the last Robinson to live in our dog-trot full time.  Buzz and Kate were thrilled to meet Billy, and our kiddos are extremely jealous that they weren't here.  (Miles and Preston were visiting their grandparents in Indiana when the wasp infestation got out of hand, thankfully!)

There were a few things that you didn't get to see, of course, so I'll share them with you now.  For one, Billy is incredibly smart.  He knew things about historic architecture that I never expected him to know.  You've got to remember, y'all--I'm a history junkie.  I love it.  I live it, breath it, and write it down.  Billy is the same way, too.  He knew a lot about local historic sites and even told me a few things about THE HOUSE AT SUGAR CREEK that he couldn't have known in advance.  He clued right in to the original builders and showed me the tell-tell signs of Masonic roots.  The Taylors were Masons, but Billy didn't have any way of knowing such a thing.  Like Billy, I was saying WHOOOOAAAA when we were talking about history.  

So from the bottom of our hearts, we'd like to send out an enormous THANK YOU to the cast and crew of BILLY THE EXTERMINATOR.  You guys rocked it out at Sugar Creek!

Tuesday, October 16, 2012


We have big news, y'all.  THE HOUSE AT SUGAR CREEK is going to be on BILLY THE EXTERMINATOR!  Billy and his crew rescued us from a kabillion angry red wasps, and the episode will air on A&E this Saturday, October 20th.  To see a preview, visit the BILLY THE EXTERMINATOR page on A&E's website and click on Episode Guide.  Our episode is called WASP WARFARE.  We had a blast, despite the ridiculously hot temperatures and the hundreds of angry wasps--and with Billy's help, we were able to get back on schedule again.  The house already looks way different, so we're incredibly grateful to have Billy not only kill the red wasps, but also document this house in the pre-restoration state.  THANKS, BILLY!  WE LOVE YOU AND YOUR AWESOME CREW!


It's not a secret--I love historic homes.  Especially abandoned historic homes that are in danger of being lost to history.  So when I ran across yet another article about free historic abandoned houses, I immediately knew that I should share it with y'all.  Click on the link and prepare to be amazed by some of these properties in Detroit.  I wish that I could pick up a half dozen of these gorgeous homes and bring them to Sugar Creek, but I'm afraid it's not in the budget--maybe someone out in cyberspace can read this article and bring one of the jewels back to life again.


Monday, October 1, 2012

ON THE MENU for the first week of October

This month is going to be the craziest month of our restoration project, hands down.  With a chilly breeze already sending chills up and down our spines, we're battening down the hatches (quite literally!) and replacing missing window panes, missing windows (yes, I'm serious), and repairing the missing sections of siding in the back of the dog-trot.  With winter quickly approaching, we're getting serious about insulation.  So what's a busy couple to do when there's little or no time to cook, and no kitchen to make it all happen?  The answer has been the same since last spring: CROCK POTS.

Here is this week's crock pot menu.  Y'all feel free to steal our recipes and/or make your own heavenly fall foods this month... and also feel free to send me your very favorite crock pot recipes.  My email is lewisfamily1908 (at) bellsouth (dot) net.  Happy fall, y'all!

Love and hugs,



GREEN BEANS with creole-mustard infused BACON
This recipe is super simple.  Open your favorite package of bacon, cut it into one inch squares, and throw it in the bottom of a crock pot.  Turn the (large) crock pot to high.  Add four tablespoons of creole mustard (wet, straight from bottle) to the top of back and stir the mixture every hour.  Cook for four hours, then add (3) 28-ounce cans of whole green beans.  Add lid.  Cook for an additional three hours, stirring ever so often.  You won't believe the flavor that the green beans absorb... it's delicious.  I don't cook with salt, but feel free to add salt and pepper to taste.

You've heard the old nursery rhyme a million times... Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.  But have you ever wondered WHY Peter picked them?  The answer is simple: he wanted to make BBQ sandwiches!  His recipe is super simple, and the flavors are delicious--y'all are gonna love this one.  Buy your choice of beef roast and place it in the bottom of a large crock pot.  Add one half of a jar (8 ounces) of Mezzetta SWEET CHERRY PEPPERS (found beside the pickles in your grocery store) and half of the juice.  Add lid.  Cook on high for eight hours.  Remove roast and place in large dish.  Shred the tender meat with two forks, remove stems from pickled peppers and shred the cooked peppers.  I keep the seeds in the recipe to give my BBQ an unexpected punch.  ADD your favorite BBQ sauce (hickory smoked sauce works especially well) and add 1/8 cup of honey.  Stir and add BBQ sauce until you get the desired consistency.  I like really wet BBQ, so I often use to bottles for this recipe.  For the bread, I use either homemade rolls or Sister Schubert's frozen rolls from my grocery store.

 I know what you're thinking--it's impossible to make peach cobbler in a crock pot, right?  Wrong.  It's as easy as pie.  (Actually, it's a bit easier.)  Add (1) 28-ounce can of low-sugar peaches and their juice to the bottom of a small crock pot.  Add 1/2 of a butter cake mix and spread dry mix across top of peaches.  DO NOT MIX.  The dry cake mix will float on top of your peaches.  Cut one stick of IMPERIAL butter into 1/4" thick squares and spread evenly across top of dry cake mix.  Add lid.  Turn crock pot on high and cook for eight hours.  I kid you not--it's delicious.  WARNING: I make this recipe in the small crock pot because it works much better.  When I've tried to double the recipe in a large crock pot I have been sorely disappointed.

BREAKFAST casserole (good morning, noon, or night)
This recipe is so incredibly simple that it makes me feel guilty!  Open one package of frozen hash browns, dump into crock pot, and chop one white onion.  Spread onion across hash browns.  Mix nine large eggs in a bowl, adding pepper, just as if you're going to scramble them.  Pour eggs evenly over hash browns and onions.  Cover with one large ham steak and add lid.  Cook for six hours on high.  Remove lid, add cheddar cheese to top (I put 8 ounces, but you can add more), and cook for an additional half hour.  If you're southern, serve with ketchup.  (I ain't kidding.)

That's it--everything we're making this week in our crock pots.  But the microwave the toaster oven are a different story entirely.....

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Throne Room: breaking the rules in modern bathroom design

Allow me to introduce you to a little shabby room that has come a long way.  The photo below was taken during the very first week of our DIY restoration.  I vaguely remember taking the picture--though it seems that I've already forgotten the old paint, dust, and cobwebs.  Staring at this photo now, I can barely believe that it's the same room.

When we began this restoration, Shaun and I knew without question that we would need a bathroom.  But imagine what it would be like to walk through a dust-covered, abandoned home and choose your future bathroom from the empty rooms.  Hubby was completely overwhelmed.  Should the downstairs bathroom, or bathrooms, be near the bedrooms?  And which rooms should be our bedrooms?  Where should we put the kitchen?  Should we knock out walls and have an open space for the kitchen and living room, or should the two rooms be completely separate?  The questions were endless.  But to be honest with you, I knew from day one that THIS room would be absolute perfect for our future bathroom in the moment that I saw it.  I could immediately envision a claw-foot tub in front of the historic nine-over-nine window.  I could imagine double sinks, a bathroom cabinet in the form of a repurposed antique, and a modern toilet hidden away behind the bathroom door--but the decision wasn't mine to make alone.  

It took months for both Shaun and I to agree on the location of our future bathroom.  We had plenty of time to hash things out though, because we were busy restoring the Master Bedroom a few doors down.  But when we would leave the dog-trot at the end of every weekend and return to our home in historic Minden, I would submerge myself in a sea of magazine photos, design books and pins on Pinterest, until at last the bathroom had completely taken form inside of my head.  But how does one get the bathroom out of her head and into a room like this one?  The answer is simple--you work like a dawg.  

A little more than a year later, the former bedroom turned dream bath is nestled in the front of the home, with a door opening to the dog-trot hallway and two enormous windows taking in views of the grassy field beside THE HOUSE AT SUGAR CREEK.  I can't even tell you how many hours it took us to bring the dream to reality.  The walls, ceilings, and floors of the former bedroom are all original and wooden.  Just as in the master bedroom and laundry room, I had to remove old nails, fill the nail holes with wood putty, sand, and scrub.  And just when my arms were beginning to show hints of muscle tone, the hard work began.  I started painting.  And painting.  And painting, and painting, and painting.  I painted the floor.  I painted the ceiling.  I painted the walls, the trim, and then I painted the ceiling again.  (HINT: In the end, we learned that it was important to use a paint and primer mixture that we purchased at Ace Hardware as opposed to normal paint.)  

The last step of the painting process involved covering the floor in several layers of polyurethane.  I lost approximately three pounds in the process, and my arms began to change shape; my reflection was changing almost as quickly as the house surrounding it.  

Here's a photo of hubby working to install the plumbing through the "new" bathroom floor just after I finished painting the bathroom.  At the time the picture was taken, we were only a few weeks away from moving into the house, and we were working at breakneck speed.  Our goal was to finish the bathroom before our move-in date, and we almost succeeded.

So there we were--we had finished painting the bathroom and hubby was installing the toilet when a dear friend mentioned that her mother had one of the original claw-foot tubs from the MINDEN FEMALE COLLEGE in historic downtown Minden, Louisiana!  My friend's mother had realized that the bathtub was going to be trashed when the historic MINDEN FEMALE COLLEGE was being demolished, so Mrs. Carolyn had it moved to her basement where it has been safe and sound for forty years.  The following photo features the Alumni of the 1875 Class of the Minden Female College at their 20-year reunion.  (Courtesy of Webster Parish Historian John Agan.)  The MINDEN FEMALE COLLEGE is in the background.

I can't really explain how I felt when Mrs. Carolyn said that we could have the bathtub from the historic school if we'd simply take it out of her basement.  I was beyond ecstatic, because my great-great-great grandmother was a student at the MINDEN FEMALE COLLEGE until she eloped with my great-great-grandfather and began a new life for herself.  (Her family wasn't happy--they were wealthy Californians, and my grandmother's choice for a husband wasn't what they expected.)  As you can imagine, I was floored by the opportunity to restore an original bathtub from my gr-gr-gr-grandmother's Alma Matter.  The tub wasn't there in her day, of course, but it's still an exciting prospect nonetheless.  

Here is a photo of the bathtub on the day we moved it to Sugar Creek.  My husband was more than skeptical and had turned the tub restoration over to me completely.  He wanted to buy a full-sized shower from a home improvement store (gasp!!!) and I was terrified that if my project failed, Shaun might get his way.  So what's a southern gal to do when she needs to perform a miracle?  Yep--you guessed it.  She turns to YouTube and Pinterest for advice.

The first step of the restoration was to clean the tub, and amazingly enough my hubby felt sorry for me and decided to help with the process.  Shaun and I cleaned the outer surface with a special chemical (purchased at Home Depot) and a set of wire brushes.  (Warning: this process required a ventilator to protect us from the harmful fumes.)  My Dad helped with the broken legs by reforming them and welding them in place.  Two legs had been completely broken off, and one was missing... but fortunately, Mrs. Carolyn had picked up a similar leg years ago and gave it to us with the tub.  It's a teeny bit shorter, so my Dad had to work some magic for me.  

Here are the markings I found on the bottom of the old tub after we cleaned it and Dad finished welding the legs in place.  

Next we sprayed the exterior surface of the tub with a paint designed for metal tubs.  When the painted surface was dry, we began working on the porcelain.  It was in fairly good shape, though it was far from being beautiful.  We bought a porcelain tub refinishing kit from Home Depot and I spent an entire week mixing the epoxy kit, spraying it evenly over the surface, and touching up any bobbles I made during the process.  It took almost a week to cure, and then we were ready to install our new faucet.  Don't get me wrong--the restoration was an enormous pain in the butt.  It took an entire week of my time.  Yes, an ENTIRE week.  It wasn't a difficult project, but it wasn't what I'd call easy.  On a difficulty scale of one to ten, I'd give this project a seven because of the weight of the tub and the time it took to turn it over FOUR DIFFERENT TIMES during the painting and refinishing process.  Ugg.  On the last few days of working on the tub, I decided that it would have been worth paying someone else the fourteen hundred dollars required to have a professional refinish the tub for us.  But in the instant that the tub was finished, I changed my mind.  The following photo is the tub after the first step of our porcelain restoration kit.  Talk about a difference!

The tub had to cure for a week after the final coat, so I busied myself with finding a new faucet.  I was in for quite a shock, too.  OH MY LAWD those things are expensive!  Never in a million years would I have imagined that a wall-mount faucet would be in the two thousand dollar range.  And neither hubby, nor I, were going to blow that kind of money on a flipping FAUCET.  We had been given a wonderful claw-foot tub, we had restored it ourselves, and suddenly we realized that the FAUCET was going to be the deal breaker?  I couldn't accept it.  I was not going to have a stupid plastic shower in my dream bathroom.  But if I couldn't find an affordable faucet, Shaun was going to pull the plug on my claw-foot tub project.  

My left eye started twitching that week.

Let me just say that buying a faucet for a historic clawfoot tub is one of the most horrifying experiences we've gone through in this restoration.  We restored the tub ourselves, saving a whopping $1300 in the process, and brought the tub back to life for only one hundred dollars.  But afterward, it took me THREE WEEKS to find an affordable faucet.  Thank heavens for Ebay.  I bought our new faucet (and the pretty drainpipes needed for the plumbing) for less than three hundred dollars.  If you're looking to restore a historic tub yourself, don't dare go to a home improvement store for the faucet and the plumbing parts.  Save yourself a lot of money (and the headache of walking aimlessly down the long aisles) by using Ebay.  It may take longer, but you'll save an enormous amount of money.

Here is our tub during the installation of the faucet.  We had to grind a little on the original faucet holes to install our new faucet, and it made quite a mess in my newly restored tub.  I was not a happy camper until we cleaned the iron shavings and I saw, with certainty, that the tub had not been scratched during the installation of the faucet.  

The next step involved really making my husband angry.  Not only did I want to move the heavy bathtub inside, but I also wanted to play house for a little while.  For nearly an hour, we moved the refinished tub to every single corner of the room.  I tried placing it in front of the windows, alongside a wooden wall, behind the bathroom door, and every possible combination imaginable.  

Hubby was patient for a good twenty minutes, but then he lost his cool.  "It's just a bathtub, Jackie.  Come on."

I wasn't happy.  "It's not just a bathtub, Shaun.  It's THE bathtub.  And it's going to sit in the same spot for the rest of our lives.  This is important!"

It was about that time that my hubby's eye started twitching.  We had come full circle.

Here's a photo of the bathtub during the evening of "location scouting" that involved moving not just the tub, but every other piece of furniture around the room to see how things would work together.  It was not a pleasant night.

When the final location had been chosen, hubby started smiling again.  He installed the plumbing and our new faucet, which is the most amazing faucet that I've ever seen in my entire life.  I don't know how I lived without one of those handy little hand-shower thingies that looks like the handle to an old telephone.  It's the greatest invention ever made, y'all--I ain't kidding.  I can wash a dog in two minutes flat now.  I don't even have to yell down the hall when I'm washing Montana and beg for someone to bring me a cup from the kitchen cabinet.  This faucet was worth every penny!  

Next we installed the matching pedestal sinks.  I wanted his and hers sinks to flank a piece of antique furniture that would serve as our bathroom cabinets.  The cabinets I initially chose did not quite give me the effect that I had in mind, but that problem was easily solved by taking an enormous primitive piece out of my office and using it for display shelving.  Isn't it gorgeous!

Open shelving in a bathroom is asking for trouble, I suppose.  I couldn't very well have all of my extra shampoo, conditioner, lotion, and body wash bottles there in the open.  I don't care how cute the rest of the bathroom looks, if you've got a dozen bottles of Irish Spring cluttering up your open shelves it's going to look tacky.  So I thought for a while and came up with this solution... Mason jars!

Hubby and I poured all of our excess shampoos, conditioners, lotions, and body washes into these handly little Mason jars and then ordered Mason Jar lid pumps.  I have to admit that I love this idea so much that I can't imagine using a normal bottle of soap ever again.  Look how cute my soaps and shampoos are in their little cubby holes!

My friend Vicki gave me two hand towels embroidered with THE HOUSE AT SUGAR CREEK for my birthday, and they're absolutely adorable in our "new" bathroom.  We're still not completely finished--we need electrical outlets, new windows, and we need to install quarter round around the baseboards and put crown moulding around the ceiling.  But the vast majority of work in the downstairs bathroom has been finished, and we're delighted with the outcome.  We have effectively mixed antiques with other antiques to create a space that is both functional and inviting.  What do you think about my crazy mustard-colored walls?  I love them with all of my heart.  

Here are a few additional photos of the finishing touches.  I absolutely adore my "new" bathroom!  Believe it or not, the total cost for the bathroom renovation was less than a thousand dollars.  The lovely wash stand beside the bathtub (also bought at auction) was only $40.  I did some work on it to make it come to life again, but it was in fairly good shape when we bought it.  The bathtub was free, plus the hundred dollars to restore it, plus the cost of plumbing and the faucet.  The sinks were less than a hundred dollars apiece, bought at the Home Depot, and were very simple and basic.  The faucets were very inexpensive as well--around thirty-five dollars per sink.  Paint and rollers, brushes and tape came up to a whopping $200.  (Like I said--buy paint with the primer IN it and your life will be much easier.)  The primitive cabinet didn't cost us a dime because we already owned it.  The curtains were on clearance for around $10 per panel.  The rug was given to us by our neighbors, but we will replace it after the construction is over.  It's already covered in sawdust from the living room/kitchen project we're working on now.  The chairs were only $5 each, and I already owned all artwork.  The quote transfer sheet (below) was around $15.

It IS possible to renovate a historic home and have magazine-quality results without spending a mint.  You can absolutely do what we've done--you just need to think outside of the box.  Stop worrying about what other bathrooms are like and start imagining what YOUR dream bathroom looks like.  Create it inside of your head and then go make it happen--and when you're finished, send me a picture of what you've accomplished.  We really do hope to inspire others to tackle projects that they're afraid to begin.  Just remember: if we can do it, so can you!  Happy renovating!

These two historic chairs we bought for $5 each at a local auction--ironically enough, they belonged to the Robinson family.  (The Robinsons bought THE HOUSE AT SUGAR CREEK from the Taylor Family in 1902.)

Quote from a transfer sheet that I adore.  I found it at ROSS, but it was one of my favorites long before I transferred the letters to our bathroom wall.

These curtains from JC Penney are just the right length.  If you have windows that are more than 84" tall, visit their website to find affordable curtains in your desired length.  It's the ONLY place I've found on the internet that sells the 110" panels that we need for this old dog-trot house.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

I THINK I'M GONNA HAVE A HEAT STROKE (or, "How I accidentally lost ten pounds.")

There was a time in my life when I didn't go outside at all.  I sat, cool and quiet during the hot, oppressive Louisiana summers, tucked away inside of our house in the city while all of the world outside seemed to go on without me.  I had become a victim of technology, a broken-thermostat of a woman that drove around for twenty minutes until she found a parking spot near the grocery store entrance.  I had come to see air conditioning as something that was not negotiable.  I was terrified of the heat, so much so that somehow I forgot that in the deep, stormy south, heat was once a part of daily life.  But I was about to learn a very powerful lesson, and now I want to share it with you.

Our lives have changed completely since we moved into this old dog-trot home.  I remember a certain day in late March/early April, when my husband looked at me and sort of winced.  He was worried about the heat that would soon reach down from the skies and take over our sweet little house in the woods.  I, however, was busy trying to face the changing of the seasons with optimism; I tried to ease his fears by promising my husband that I could "take it." I knew that our month-to-month restoration budget was terribly small when compared to the overall cost of a new HVAC system, and besides that we still had a lot of renovating to do before we even reached that point, so I convinced both myself and Shaun that I had the solution.  "We just need a few window units, and we'll be fine."  I actually said those words, and at the time I believed them.  We bought a couple window units and installed them in our boys' bedroom and in my office.  The rest of the house was to remain air-conditioner free, because somewhere deep in my heart I wanted to know if I could make it through until the fall.  I wanted to see what it was like to live "back then."  I was determined--I was going to beat the heat, and the heat was not going to beat me.  I was going to prove that I could have survived in the 1800's.  I was going to be a modern-day settler--a hippie, of sorts, unafraid of mother earth.  I vaguely remember saying something about how the human body had evolved through the years and learned to adapt to earth's climate, and that we shouldn't be afraid to experience the wonders of our climate.      

Everything was hunky-dory when spring came and blew gentle winds through these old hallways.  I made it through the upper sixties, then the lower seventies, and I was just fine.  "Isn't this lovely," I thought when the grass turned a bright shade of green and the little wildflowers started to bloom in the field by our house.  And then, just as suddenly as they had appeared, the seventy-two degree days evaporated and summer was here.  The temperatures inside of the old dog-trot climbed to the upper eighties, and I proudly kept my chin held high.  At some point in that brief window of time before I began to melt--quite literally--I remember thinking, "I'm awesome.  It's hot outside, and I'm just fine."   

That's when it hit.  Just as I convinced myself that I had conquered my greatest fear (having no air conditioning), a heat wave hit and the temps soared to above one-hundred degrees.

If you've never lived in Louisiana, let me break it down for you.  Summer here is akin to a barbecue--only forget the chicken and the steak.  In the deep south, you're the one being barbecued over open flame.  The heat is so obnoxiously oppressive that it's almost laughable.  When exposed to a southern summer without the aid of cold air, normal life comes to a halt.  Ice melts so fast that you wonder if you put any in your tea at all.  The clock on the wall seem to slow down its frantic pace between the hours of 12 and 6 PM, when the day is so sticky and humid that your body actually stops allowing you to think because your brain is consuming too much of the precious energy that your body needs to cool itself down.  

Sometimes I think about the glorious, sweaty-smiled summer that all of our literary greats talk about in books--only I know the truth now.  Those brilliant authors  slant their words in such a way that the heat sounds magical, perhaps even friendly, but summer down her ain't a thing like they describe.  The truth of the matter is that without air conditioning, your diet drastically changes and you drop a lot of weight.  (I think that I've lost ten lbs, but I'm not sure because my scales melted in mid-June.)  Don't believe me?  Allow me to explain.  After the hour of 7 AM the thought of drinking a hot cup of coffee makes you break out into a sweat.  After noon, the thought of drinking cold coffee makes you want to vomit.  Hot soups?  You can keep them.  If you're living without cold air, your diet should consist of fruits, veggies, and popsicles of any color but purple. (I don't know why, but purple popsicles make me cough.)  But that's not all that I've learned about summer since the season unleashed itself upon this little house.  You know those little spaghetti-strapped sundresses that skinny teenage girls wear?  When you're in a house that has no air conditioning, those dresses become your best friends.  Suddenly you find yourself loving those little cotton, sleeveless numbers that once made you feel as though your arms were the size of tree trunks.  Your perception of what you look like, and what you should/should not wear is forever morphed.  I sooooo get it now when I see an elderly woman standing in Walmart wearing a dress she bought in the junior's department.  In fact, I feel like high-fiving those women and asking them to welcome me into their ranks.  

It was some time in late May when I discovered that my mascara stopped working.  I opened the little tube, fluttered my eyelashes while looking into the mirror and opened my mouth wide.  (We all do that when we're applying mascara, don't we?)  I began to wave the little wand this way and that, expecting my eyelashes to turn dark black and appear to be much thicker than nature had intended.  But to my great surprise, nothing changed.  I shoved the little stick back into the tube, tried again, and realized that something was wrong.  I read the little fine print on the bottle and laughed out loud.  Keep stored in a cool, dry place.  What was I supposed to do--keep my make-up in the refrigerator?  In the end, the answer to that question was a resounding yes.  But in the end, I also decided that wearing make-up in extreme heat was pointless anyhow.  It's like having your hair styled right before you go water-skiiing--utterly pointless.  

But despite the drastic changes in my diet, my wardrobe and my appearance, there have been a couple of advantages that I have discovered in this unforgiving summer heat.  For starters, I now know that I can do it.  I can survive in the heat, I can make it until fall.  I might look a bit wilted, and I may need to bathe several times a day to make myself feel human.  I may have no choice but to put my organic deodorant on the top shelf and place the "real stuff" on the bathroom counter.  But I now know that can make it through, and the knowledge is so freeing that I no longer fear June, July, August and September.  During the fall and winter months that preceded our move into THE HOUSE AT SUGAR CREEK, I had this wonderful notion that I wanted to go without air conditioning just to "see what it was like to live back then."  Now that August is upon us, I can honestly answer that question.  I know what it's like--and to be perfectly honest, it's not as bad as I thought it would be.  Yes, it's hot as Hades.  But it's not the end of the world.

So just how did "they" do it back in the good old days?  I'll tell you exactly how they did it--they didn't know any better.  But they also had another advantage.  The climate was a wee bit different in Louisiana one hundred and fifty years ago.  It wasn't as hot, but in the winter things were a bit colder.  A few months ago I read an article about a blizzard--yes, a blizzard--that swept through this area only a few years after THE HOUSE AT SUGAR CREEK was built.  I can't even begin to imagine what it was like to live in this house during that year.  Summer would have been horrifically hot, and then winter would have swept through the center of this house and frozen the Taylor family to the bone.  Temperatures during that blizzard were in the -10s and (gasp) below.  I can't even fathom a one hundred plus degree difference between summer's high and winter's low.  And I sure the heck can't imagine what it would have been like to live through those conditions in this house.  But by the time winter's over, I may be singing a different tune--we'll just have to wait and see.

Hubby gave me a strange look a couple of days ago.  "Winter's comin', ya know," he said as he looked at me and sort of winced.  "It's gonna get cold in this house.  Are you sure you wanna work on the kitchen next instead of getting the HVAC installed?"

"I can take it, Shaun," I said as he laughed.  "We just need a couple of heaters for the boys' room and my office, and we'll be fine.  And besides--I wanna see what it was like to 'live back then.'"

Friday, June 1, 2012


On Easter weekend, the kids, hubby and I moved into THE HOUSE AT SUGAR CREEK.  The house wasn't really ready for us to move in, to be perfectly honest with you.  But WE were ready to move in, and we had a really great attitude about living primitively.  One week prior to the big move, we finished installing the toilet and two sinks in the bathroom, and we were so excited that we honestly believed that it would be enough to sustain us for months.  On paper, we looked at our situation and thought that it would be perfectly manageable.  We would move into our dog-trot, renovate a room of the house every month until at last the work was done, and voila... the home would be restored.  

In case you didn't realize that hubby and I are restoring this home ourselves--one room at a time with no loan from a bank--then let me explain why we decided to do it this way.  We visited our local banks--the same banks that had happily given us money for our previous homes--and were surprised to learn that the loan officers of each bank thought we had lost our minds.  All four of the banks that we approached said the same thing:  

"You mean to tell me that you want to take a loan out to restore a home that hasn't been lived in full-time by the previous owners since 1959?  Why would you want to do that?"

"Well technically, people have lived in it since then.  The Robinsons let a family friend and his wife stay there after their home burned, and..."

I kept talking for a while, but it was pointless.  In short, the banks laughed at us.  They didn't "get it" when we explained that this beautiful old home needed to be restored, and that we wanted to borrow the money and then do the work ourselves.  They wanted us to have a contractor and crews to restore the home for us, and that was going to a) cost more money than we were willing to spend,  b) cost WAY more money than we were willing to spend and c) result in a product that we did not create ourselves, with our own hands.  Now don't get me wrong--I would probably look at another young, crazy couple the same way if I were the loan officer and I learned that said couple wanted to restore an abandoned home all by themselves (without a contractor) and borrow my bank's money to do so.  But that's not the point.  The point is that we REALLY wanted to restore this old house, and the banks really wanted to lend us the money for anything BUT the restoration.  

While speaking with a bank one day, I actually was told, "Well we can work with you if you'll tear it down and build new.  We can give you a loan for new construction, but we can't work with a home that doesn't have a deed."  (Yep, the house is so old, and has been in the same family for so long, that it doesn't have a deed!) 

I almost vomited.  

The thoughts began to race through my mind.  

"I'm sorry, but this house is a very important piece of north Louisiana history, and I would rather gnaw off my own arm than tear THE HOUSE AT SUGAR CREEK down and build a new home in its place."  

The thoughts were coming a mile a minute, and I said actually those words to a loan officer before I realized that my being fussy wasn't helping the situation at all.  In the end, the banks stood their ground.  But I did, too.  Hubby and I decided that we would restore THE HOUSE AT SUGAR CREEK without the bank's money.  But there was one little glitch... we are not wealthy people.  We are middle-class, regular Joes to say the least.  So to make our dream of restoring THE HOUSE AT SUGAR CREEK happen, we came up with a plan.  And now we're ready to share our crazy plan with you.

The first step toward our renovation-induced insanity (haha) was to make the decision to restore one room at a time, one month at a time, and use our cash flow to fund the renovation.  We had already learned (in our previous historic home) that labor costs are the vast majority of the expense in renovating a home.  We knew in our hearts that paying someone else to do the work wasn't going to be an option if we were going to pay for the restoration ourselves, and we loved the house so much that we were okay with that.  It took us a few months to realize that the banks had done us an enormous favor... for we made a detailed plan that showed we could do the work ourselves, paying as we went, and complete the house in two to three years!  The idea was genius, really.  We could work really hard for a few years and then kick back with no house payment for the rest of our lives... and now we're actually bringing the plan into fruition.  Will it work?  We think so.  You can be the judge if you'd like, but in the end the hubby and I will be the jury.  (And with all the money we'll save over the next fifty years or so, we can pay the jury off!)

So what does one start with when it's time to begin renovating a home this way?  We looked at the entire house and picked the one spot that we needed the most to live, and we settled upon a bedroom.  We figured that if we did the bedroom first, we'd have a place to sleep when we were drop-dead exhausted from working on the other rooms.  We chose wisely, too.  You've seen photos of the master bedroom already, but if you didn't the post I wrote about that room will give you a nice little breakdown of how much we spent to renovate the room and show you what a lot of time and a little money can do in a historic home.

So once the master bedroom was finished, we started on the bathroom.  We renovated the entire room, though you haven't seen the finished product on our blog yet because we still have a few steps to complete before it's ready for a proper unveiling online.  We had a bedroom, a bathroom, and.... oh, wait... that's all we had.  (And at the time, we were only a few weeks away from time to move in!)  It was around that time that hubby and I began to work even harder.  We finished renovating the future parlor and turned it into a temporary bedroom for our boys to share, and then it was time to move in.  We busted our butts in preparation for the big move, never realizing that the hard work would begin AFTER we moved in.

That's when it happened.

We moved to THE HOUSE AT SUGAR CREEK and realized that not having a kitchen was going to be WAY tougher than we had imagined.  But there was something that was even worse than not having a kitchen--and that something was quite a shock to us.      

Once upon a time, I hated to do laundry.  No, really--I hated it.  I didn't like the idea of lugging my children's clothing to the laundry room, and I liked washing my own clothes even less.  And folding... oh, the dreaded folding... it was one of my least favorite things to do in the whole world.  But you know what?  I have COMPLETELY changed my mind about the clothes-washing process.  Because I have now learned that not having a laundry room is WAY worse than not having a kitchen.  So hubby and I sat down with a notepad and adjusted the order that we had written down prior to our big move.  The laundry room was very quickly placed at the TOP of the list of priorities.  

This is what the laundry room looked like one year ago.  Notice the floor, because the room is so dark that the floor is pretty much all you can see!  On our first weekend working in the house, we officially nicknamed the room "the bat cave" because... well... I'll let you figure that one out.  It's fairly self-explanitory.  

Here's a photo of the room after we filled in nail holes, sanded the walls lightly, and painted the beautiful old cypress wood.  It had been previously painted, though the paint was incredibly faded and difficult to see.  I wanted something minty green in honor of Mintie Robinson, one of the previous owners of THE HOUSE AT SUGAR CREEK.  This photo also shows the unpainted trim and the termite-riddled window that we KNEW would be a problem.  At the time of this photograph, we weren't certain whether we should replace the window with a new window, completely wall it up and then cover the walls of the room with drywall, or perhaps replace the window with an exterior door that could lead outside to my clothesline.  What would you do if you had the choice?  Our decision was relatively simple.

We settled upon an eight foot tall door with glass panes to let the sunlight in the tiny room.  Here is a photo of hubby (inside of the room) watching our neighbor Jackie and his good friend Wilbur using a door position realignment device.  (Giggle, giggle.)  This was hubby's very first time to install a door, so we were very grateful for all the help that we could get!  

The door installation was VERY simple.  I've asked my hubby to write down the steps for you, so here is the renovation in his own words.  

Step one: find door at home improvement store.  
Step two: argue with wife about buying door until she's really mad, and then tell her to go ahead and buy it.
Step eight: Trim outside of door, on both exterior and interior of house, insulating beforehand.  Step nine: install door locks and knobs.

Step ten: install laundry lines just outside of door before wife finishes the first load of laundry in her new laundry room!  

Here I am applying the stain to the original wooden floor.  We stained it, let it dry for about two days, then sealed the floor with polyurethane.  

After staining and sealing the floor, we painted the trim (and one of the doors) white and left the original dark paint on the ceiling.  The ceiling paint is original to the 1800's and is still in great shape, though we do need to give it a thorough scrubbing.  We also added a shelf above each door (for holding my collection of quilts!) and placed matching shelves above the doorways in our master bedroom, too.  

Here's an up close photo of our gorgeous plank floor.  (I bought the tiny rug at Lowe's Home Improvement.)  

Here's a photo of hubby and his clones while we were buying the supplies to plumb the washing machine.  With any luck, our kiddos will grow up to restore historic homes of their very own!

So after a long, tiring month, here is the finished product.  We still need to build a wall (on the left as you're viewing the photograph) to hide the staircase behind it and have custom cabinets built for said wall.  But otherwise, we're finished with this darling room!  I simply wash our laundry, open my awesome new door and step outside to hang my clothes on the line.  After we have new electrical in the house, we'll install our dryer on the opposite wall from the washing machine.  It will be lovely to have the dryer for rainy days, but truth be told we'd much rather hang our clothes out to dry on the line.  In 2009, I wrote an article called LAUNDRY'S DIRTY LITTLE SECRET that went on to win the 1st place award for "Best Investigative Reporting" through The Lousiana Press Association.  It's on page 22 if you click on the link below, and you'll learn why clotheslines are the BEST way to dry your clothes, hands down.   

So now we get down to the really, really good stuff.  Wanna know our budget?  I can't give you all the details, but I can tell you that we paid for paint, floor stain, polyurethane floor sealer, and a door that was on clearance at The Home Depot.  We still need to build a wall and have custom cabinets installed, but so far we're sitting somewhere in the $600 price range, including the plumbing.  Not bad for a month's worth of work!  The shelves we bought on clearance for a whopping $5 each.  I don't remember what they were normally, but it was somewhere in the $80 apiece range.  (The idea to mount the shelves above the doors and use them to store my quilts came from Pinterest.)  The awesome door was a special order that someone decided to leave behind at The Home Depot.  The store marked it from $400+ down to $220, which was a STEAL of a deal when you consider that the door was 8' tall and was the PERFECT size to replace our nine over nine window.  The polyurethane, stain, paint, and plumbing ate up the rest of the room's budget, and we had enough left over in the month's restoration budget to buy custom curtains and valances for our master bedroom.  I can't wait to show you that room... but that's another story.

Thanks so much for stopping by to check on THE HOUSE AT SUGAR CREEK!  Y'all come back again soon... we hope that we'll inspire you to save a historic home of your own one day.  Hubby and I know that we're saving a piece of north Louisiana history, one room at a time.  And it feels GREAT!

Saturday, May 26, 2012

FREE historic homes!

Look at the article my hubby sent me on email this week... it details programs that are saving neglected historic homes on the east coast!  It's BRILLIANT!  I wish our state would do something like this in north Louisiana... I can think of at least thirty homes in our local area that I would want to be placed in this program!

Wednesday, April 25, 2012


We've all been camping.  More than likely, you've stood before a campfire with a stick in your hand, waiting for the wiener or the marshmallow to cook above the heat of the fire.  It's fun, right?  I think so, too.

Now imagine that you've moved to house that doesn't have a kitchen.  It might be easier to imagine camping full-time, only in a very old house instead of a tent.  There's no oven, no stovetop, and no cabinets.  There's no awesome kitchen sink with a sprayer nozzle for rinsing dishes.  Nope... it's just you, a blank room with shelves that you once used as bookshelves, and a few basic cooking essentials.  You can have a mini-fridge and a hotplate.  And while you're at it, plug in a microwave, a crock pot, and a toaster oven--- only one appliance at a time, though.  You don't want to ruin your one working wall outlet.

Sound crazy yet?  We'll you've basically just taken a tour of our current kitchen.  

Now before you rush off to call social services, let me assure you that Hubby and I are both brilliant people.  We both have college degrees, and we both knew what we were getting into before we made the decisions that have led us to this point.  I thought this out LONG AND HARD before moving to this ole' dog-trot.  I knew that we wouldn't be able to remodel the entire house in a timely manner unless we hired people to do most of the work, and Shaun and I simply enjoy renovating WAY too much to allow someone else to come in and steal our fun.  Plus, we're dedicated to keeping this renovation AFFORDABLE, so that we can use this house as an example of what's possible for those who dare to try.  So.... with that being said.... we estimate that it will be four to six months before we finish the kitchen.  But because of awesome websites like PINTEREST and the Food Network, we can still have wonderful meals even though we don't have a stove or an oven.  You see, I decided that it would be possible to feed my family without the help of a modern kitchen. And believe it or not, I was right!

Yep.  You heard me.  I was right.  One does not need a modern kitchen.  I'll even go so far as saying that one does not need a large kitchen full of appliances as long as one has a crock pot and a toaster oven.  I've devised enough recipes to keep us eating very lovely foods until the new kitchen is finished, which should be done between now and Thanksgiving.  (It had better be finished anyhow, because I can't fit a turkey in a toaster oven!)

So how'd I do it?

Allow me to introduce you to a lovely product line called SISTEMA.  They make it easy to prepare lunches, but we're going to use these systems for almost every meal in our temporary kitchen, up until the day that our new kitchen is ready.  After that, we'll use these systems for the boys lunches for the rest of our lives, because they're just that awesome.

Ready to see a picture?  Here goes nothing.  This is my super easy meal of the week... grilled steak salad with sliced strawberries, feta cheese, and creamy balsamic vinaigrette dressing.  YUMMIE!  We grilled steak and chicken in one night and prepared awesome lunches and dinners in our SISTEMA containers.  The strawberry/feta/steak container snaps onto the top of the lettuce container, then it all snaps together with an airtight lid.  And the fork and knife are snapped onto the underside of the top container.  When we're finished eating, it all closes again and it's airtight until we visit a friend, neighbor or relative's house to wash dishes.  We should have the temporary kitchen sink in by the end of this weekend, so things will be a little bit easier for us very soon.  But honestly... how AWESOME is this SISTEMA container!  And the price is really nice as well... 4 container systems for $10 at our local Black and Decker outlet store.  

I would give you the recipe, but it's self-explanatory.  (grill steak, wash, cut and add ingredients, eat.)

Another great recipe is a crock pot idea that I found on PINTEREST.  It's now a no-kitchen-needed staple in our diet.... CHICKEN SOFT TACOS.  Want the recipe?

Add the following in a crock pot:  6 chicken breasts, 1 jar of salsa, 1 packet of taco seasoning.  Cook for 6 hours or so, stirring occasionally, and use as the taco meat.  I served this yummie chicken meat with sour cream, flour tortillas (soft tacos), diced tomato, shredded lettuce, and a mexican cheese blend.  We had it for dinner one night and then packed the leftovers (I made a double batch) in the SISTEMA containers.  I also added a cookie and a drink mix to the lunches, and I received a standing ovation from the boys.  This recipe is easy as pie!

For those of you who are seriously considering the crazy lifestyle that we now lead, which includes finding an old house and living in it while you're restoring it, allow me to show you what our temporary kitchen looks like.  Correction: allow me to show you what PART of our temporary kitchen looks like. You can't see the full room until I have an "after" photo that makes me feel better about it.  So here's a pie safe that was in our youngest son's bedroom, holding his toys and books.  Now it's one of our temporary kitchen cabinets.  CRAZY, HUH!

The wall behind this pie safe will be removed and this will become our kitchen/living room.  We'll be using an open floor plan for these two rooms, and this is the only wall that we're opening up in the entire house.  (With the exception of the currently enclosed porch, which will become an outdoor porch again.)

Last but not least, allow me to introduce you to the breakfast version of the SISTEMA containers.  These are awesome!  Two containers, one spoon, and a very easy way to allow little kids (aka Preston, age 6) to make their own breakfast without making an enormous mess.  Plus, cleanup's a snap.  And these can be used for breakfast cereal and milk... the kids just pour the milk out of the top container and then eat up!  They even like to take them to school for lunches, despite the fact that these are meant to be eaten at breakfast.  

Above is my whole grain oatmeal... one cup of oatmeal, and in the top container I add maple syrup and brown sugar.  Who needs those little packets with powdered ingredients when it's just as quick to make the good stuff in advance!

I can honestly say that I've never really been one to organize my life this thoroughly.  But in a situation like this one, where we're renovating one room at a time, organization is KEY.  I can stand living in a house with no kitchen.  I can stand taking cold showers in the days before the water heater is installed.  I can even stand being chased by the occasional skunk.  (long story!)  But there is one thing that I cannot settle on... I must be able to give my children delicious meals, or I will go insane.  And thanks to these time-saving containers, I can do that without cooking very much at all.  The kids are THRILLED.  They love their lunches and dinners, and they tell me that I'm a great cook.  Little do they know that I'm spending less time in the kitchen than ever before.  :)

Leave it in a comment and I'll give it a try!