Saturday, September 6, 2014

LIVE LIFE THE OLD FASHIONED WAY: MORTGAGE FREE! (And save history in the process!)

So what’s a southern gal to do when she wants to stretch her family’s renovation budget enough to restore an abandoned, historic home without the assistance of an enormous loan? In my case, I turned my back on a financial establishment that was really no help at all.  I began researching websites, reading message boards, pouring through magazine articles, and watching YouTube videos until my eyes were red-rimmed with exhaustion.  I learned how to tile and grout, saw, drill and hammer, and by the time I started on my kitchen renovation I was clever (and resourceful) enough to cut an antique upright piano in half and create the prettiest little kitchen island/piano bar (complete with oven and dishwasher, mind you) south of the Mason-Dixon line.  And in my successful attempt to make my home restoration fit within the strict guidelines of my ridiculously small budget, I discovered firsthand that anyone can afford to restore an abandoned historic home without taking out a loan from a bank—just so long as they’re brave, creative, and they refuse to believe the people who tell them it’s not possible. 
I'm a Disabled Veteran, y'all.  My monthly income places me on the poverty line, though I manage my money fairly well.  (Honestly, I could do even better!)   I work part-time and bring in a small supplemental income by teaching, so for the most part this renovation is (by necessity) FREE.  Yes, you heard me right.  It's FREE.  And no, I have never received a single grant to help with this restoration.  So how do I do it?  I don't take out loans.  I put the money I would pay a bank mortgage back into this house every month, and stretch those dollars by doing the work myself.  I work my butt off, and so do others in my life who believe in the old-fashioned American dream.  
My kiddos, my boyfriend and I have been tearing down another abandoned house (with permission, of course) and we use every little thing we salvage to bring this home back to life.  And we are blessed beyond measure--not with money, but with things that are much more valuable than dollar bills.  Allow me to explain, because here comes the really cool part...

There's a link between the house we're tearing down and the dogtrot that we're restoring, y'all.  And it sends chills down my spine when I think of the past and the present merging in such a way that makes the word "coincidence" seem trite.
Mintie Simms Robinson (and her husband Willie) inherited THE HOUSE AT SUGAR CREEK in 1912.  They abandoned their former house, with four kids already in tow, and moved into this dogtrot immediately.  When I heard of the house that they abandoned for this dogtrot, I assumed that it was a little shack.  And I also believed that it would be termite-infested and of little architectural significance.  SILLY ME.  I couldn't have been under a more wrong impression.
Last year, Jack-Jack and Debbie (the last owners of this dogtrot) asked if I wanted to go take a peek at Mintie and Willie's old house before the new owners burned it down to make way for a little cabin.  I said yes, of course, but when we passed through the gate, drove into the woods, and then came upon the old home my eyes almost popped outta my head.  It wasn't a shack.  It had been a mansion in its day, and within a few minutes Debbie and I had made our way to the 2nd floor of the leaning structure.  
Two things I knew for sure: 1) the house could not be renovated without a million-dollar overhaul, and 2) I wanted to salvage as much as possible.  The new owners of the house agreed to let me salvage whatever materials I could manage to free of the leaning structure.  Honestly, I thought that my best work would produce only a few rooms worth of salvaged wooden walls.  But then my sweet boyfriend Christopher had other ideas.  He wanted to salvage EVERYTHING from the rustic tin roof to the beams beneath the house.  And he has really been a Godsend on that project.  (And in many other ways!)
As of this moment, we have salvaged the entire roof and ALL of the 2nd story.  It's a one story house now, after a LOT of work to make it that way, and I honestly don't know if we're finished reclaiming materials or not.  It's incredibly tiring work, but so far we've brought home (and used) tens of thousands of dollars worth of material.  

 Miles, age 12, and Pres, age 8, 
hauling salvaged materials from 
Mintie and Willie's first house to the truck.

We even save the square nails, and it's eight year old Preston's job to straighten them out for reuse.

Preston is learning that hard work is good for the soul!

Now for the creepy (and awesome) coincidence... my grandparents were not wealthy.  But they did save as much money as possible, and just before I was born a lady approached them and asked for their help.  She was newly widowed, and she couldn't afford to live in the house that she and her husband had shared.  It was an old plantation, located almost an hour's drive away from my grandparents' home in Cullen, Louisiana.  She wanted them to buy it from her and made them an offer that they could not refuse.  I was born after Nanaw and Papaw purchased the old homestead and made it their weekend home.  

I fell in love with historic houses because of Nanaw and Papaw's "farm" on Arizona road.  I spent hours and hours and hours touching the old wooden walls, opening the little door beneath the staircase and going through the vintage items left behind by the previous owners.  I wandered the woods and gasped when my cousin showed me the old slave water well.  I saw my first ghost there.  And from that point forward, I was hooked on history--the good, the bad, and the ugly.  I wanted to know it all.  And I've never stopped feeling this way.

My grandmother (Lonna Alice McGough Tripp)
with my Momma (Paula Palmer Tripp Wright) and 
a baby version of me in front of the old plantation 
my grandparents bought before I was born.

Between the main road and Nanaw and Papaw's old plantation there stands a very special chimney.  Though the historic marker was stolen long ago, the legend lives on through people in our community.  Stories still run rampant in our community about the factory that once surrounded the enormous chimney, for it was the very first major factory in northern Louisiana.  Though the factory never had the chance to go into full production because of both war and poor shipping capabilities, I've loved that chimney since I was old enough to toddle up to it and place my little chubby toddler-sized hands on the well-worn brick.  I didn't know the historic significance of the stories-high brick tower, and I certainly didn't know that it would have a direct effect upon my life when I grew up.  But I know now that this chimney has a  connection to THE HOUSE AT SUGAR CREEK, the amazing dogtrot that my family is restoring.

Here comes the creepy part.  When Willie Robinson decided that he wanted to marry Mintie Simms, he was short the cash that he needed to buy a home for them to occupy.  He needed a miracle to earn the moolah required to take Mintie's hand.  And so he helped tear down the old factory, loaded the bricks into a wagon, and sold them in Homer, Louisiana.  He salvaged the old factory so that he could marry the woman he loved.  And today, all that remains of his salvage job is the old chimney that is on the property my grandparents bought before I was born.

We have been salvaging the old house that Papa Willy bought with the money he earned by salvaging the old factory on my family's land.  And so life has come full-circle through many, many generations.  When we're pulling down boards, I know that we're doing something very important.  My family is now a part of the history of these old structures now, just as much as Papa Willie and Mintie, and just as much as my Nanaw and Papaw.  And this "coincidence" is one of the coolest things that has ever happened to me and my kin.

Low-cost restorations are important, y'all.  We live in a society where the majority of Americans are struggling to pay for basic necessities, and the majority of historic preservationists are at a loss for words.  Architecturally significant buildings are being destroyed because the average American believes that historic renovations are cost-prohibitive—and with self-help television shows, magazine articles, and books reinforcing the notion that restorations are for the wealthy and not the middle and LOWER classes, it’s no wonder that so many of our historic structures are being razed.  Americans have come to believe that the old fashioned homestead was just too much work.  We no longer grow our own fruits and vegetables, opting instead for spray-painted, herbicide and pesticide riddled fruits that are shipped into our local markets from thousands of miles away.  We visit psychologists an beg for help to finding inner peace, when all the while it is waiting for us in the countryside.  Life doesn’t have to be this way—the mindset of America can change.  The restoration of abandoned historic homes and resurgence of small homesteads in rural America, particularly the Deep South, can transform not only the landscape, but also the overwhelming sense of economic hopelessness that is sweeping across this country. 
I don’t quite know how or why it happened, but I truly understand that our founding fathers and mothers—those tough men and women who carved a place for all of us within these tall, summer sun-baked, vine-wrapped forests—had strength of character that is rarely seen in modern society.  Somewhere between the day that the first boatload of pilgrims floated their way to America and the day that Sears & Roebuck stopped selling DIY home kits in their mail-order catalogues, something dreadful happened to Americans—and no, I’m not talking about the war between the states.  In the olden days, men and women could cross half the country by covered wagon, pick out a nice spot on a hilltop in a barely tamed land, cut down gigantic trees by hand and saw those logs into lumber, help build their own houses, sew their own curtains and quilts from scrap material, plant their own gardens, pluck the feathers of their own chickens, and give birth to a dozen kids without the help of an epidural.  But as the years passed and each generation of Americans inherited less and less of our paternal and maternal heritages, our definition of what it means to be an "American" has changed drastically.  

Modern day Americans don’t bat an eyelash when it’s time to pay for the extras that we consider necessities.  From two hundred-dollar a month phone bills to seventy-five dollar Internet plans, we’re stuck in a rut of unnecessary debt.  We write checks for our mortgages and swipe our debit cards for dinner, and all the while we’re content to drive at warp speed and text even faster. And in our hurry to buy the "life" of our dreams, we don’t take the time to make certain that we can really afford the payments.  

As a single mother, living in the rural woods in an old abandoned house that my children, my friends, my family members, my boyfriend and I are renovating ourselves without the assistance of a construction loan, I have the keen awareness that I am challenging the societal expectations of other Americans.  I find the bewildered expressions on the faces of many modern men to be very amusing.  Many people are completely surprised when they see me working on this old house.  But I LOVE doing it.  And more than I love the deep, woodsy, musty and yet somehow sensual scent of reclaimed wood—even more than I have come to cherish the history that I am saving with every square nail that I tap back into these reformed walls—I am enamored with the sense of accomplishment that can only be achieved by a woman who is on a mission to define the difference between being in debt to societal expectations and being indebted to the strong-willed spirits of our ancestors.

Please believe in yourself.  If I can do it, YOU can do it.  You can live a mortgage-free life.  You can save our history, y'all.  You can reinvent the American dream.  We can save our struggling economy.  And we can save ourselves in the process--I know this for sure, because it's the life that I am leading. 

With peace, love, and light....


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