Rural Archaeology – Log Shacks

One of my pastimes is exploring abandoned building and cellar holes. From late fall to early spring I am always keeping an eye out the window scanning the woods on both sides of the roads for old structures. Mostly I see only stone walls, and abandoned road cuts, but occasionally I see something interesting and worth checking out. This summer I moved from Mass to New Hampshire, which brought me over many new roads and into unexplored territories. The main route between the old and the new is Route 119 through Winchester and Richmond. This route is mostly wooded, and goes over some pretty substantial hills. There are few houses outside of a few small pockets of civilization. In the middle of one of the longer stretches of wilderness I caught a small run down garage on the north side of the road. I made a mental note to come back once we were settled in to our new house.

A few weeks after moving, I had a chance to go out and do some exploring. I called up a friend, and we took off to see what we could see. At that time, I couldn’t quite remember where I had seen the building, or quite what the building looked like. All I knew is that there was something I wanted to see out on Route 12. As we headed west, we passed miles and miles of nothing. Just as we were ready to give up, we saw the small log garage/cabin I had seen earlier. It was slightly further away than I had remembered. We pulled over to the side and got out to check things out. Viewers of my web page may remember these photos, as I posted them some months ago, but I wanted to put some stories with the photos. Links to the galleries are at the bottom of the article.

The structure was small, set into the hill side, and had a stone basement/garage, just big enough for perhaps a Model T or Model A, or maybe an old Willys Jeep. There was a small room about 6’ square off the side, which had a chimney, and perhaps heated the place. There was no access to the upstairs from the bottom. An old set of tire chains hung on the wall, and the roof was caved in on the small room. The small room also looked like it was full of rotting scrap lumber cutoffs. I didn’t go inside, as the ceiling was also caving in on the main room. The place was wired for electricity at one time, and had a 2 circuit fuse panel. The doors to the garage were still attached, and they were padlocked at one time.

Above the stone foundation was a single room, with low walls and roof. It was tall enough to stand up inside in the middle of the room. The short walls were made up of a mishmash building materials. Logs for the lower walls, bricks and frame construction for the gable ends. The entire place looked like it was constructed of salvaged materials. The roof was tiled with huge slates, and was largely intact over the main structure. Access to the inside was around the back and up the hill to a stone patio which looked like it was to become an addition to the structure. Inside upstairs were 2 built in single beds, and hookups for a wood stove and possibly an eclectic range. It seemed to still contain many of the personal effects and furnishings of the past occupants. A pipe coming through the wall on the west side turned out to lead some ways into the woods, and seemed to be a water pipe. We were unable to find the source of the pipe, as it went underground and became impossible to follow.

Standing on back patio, we noticed a small man made structure off in the woods. Further investigation turned up the quintessential New England outhouse. A wooden box, 4 feet square, covered in roll roofing with a salvaged 6 panel pine door and hanging toilet seat was sitting on its side, having been tipped over many years ago. From this vantage point we noticed a graded overgrown roadway heading further into the woods. Following this path we came upon a second cabin!

This cabin was slightly larger than the first one, with no basement, but with very similar construction techniques. Like the other one, this one was made of reclaimed building materials such as doors and windows, and had vertical logs 8+ inches in diameter forming some of the walls. While the first building was dark and claustrophobic, this one was light and airy, with many windows and a high ceiling. It was still populated with an iron bed and assorted other furniture. There were also remains of a second bedroom, with a bed frame in the rubble, and a small shed type area near the stovepipe. This seems like a much cheerier place to live, although it would have been very cold in the winter.

Overall I found the building to be very intriguing and had me pondering this history and circumstances of how these buildings came to be. I have been unable to find any information about these two buildings yet, so I have been left to imagine their origin.

Theory one, the more reasonable theory, is that a there was a middle aged bachelor who worked doing odd jobs, or perhaps in seasonal construction or demolition. He bought this piece of land, and started building the foundation of the first building. He spent most of his construction money on beer and concrete. After the foundation was built, he cut logs from the property to add the short walls, and added slate from the old church the tore down that year. Brick from that same building was used in the gable ends. Salvaged windows, appliances, and other materials scrounged from work and the dump competed the building. Shortcuts were taken to finish the building before winter. He used the downstairs room as a workshop and storage for scavenged materials. After living in the small, dark room for a winter, he decided he wanted a nicer place to spend the warmer months, hence the second cabin. This one used French doors and windows from a Victorian house they tore down the previous year.  This cabin became his residence for the warmer months. When winter came, he retreated to his tiny attic room again. Over the years he added rooms to his summer cottage, a second bedroom for the occasional woman friend, and started an addition to his winter home, building the foundation for a back room with a chimney. That winter he passed away in his attic room in his sleep. No one missed him for weeks, when a friend stopped by to drop off some firewood. With no family, the land and buildings sat for years until the town took the property for back taxes.

Theory two, which is less plausible, but more interesting, is that two bachelor brothers pooled their money to buy a piece of land. They were in their late 40s when they bought the land, and spent the first year building the garage and loft. After a winter of living with each other in that tiny space, they nearly killed each other many times over. Of course, being the typical stubborn old Yankees they were, neither was willing to sell out. The younger brother went to work immediately that spring building his own bigger and better house away from the road. The brothers never spoke to each other after that first year, and neither was willing to leave. They also shared the lone outhouse, as there was no point in having 2 outhouses when one would do. They lived out their years living on the same land, and sharing an outhouse, while harboring a deep hatred of each other. The older brother gloated at his younger brother all winter. HIS cabin was tiny, insulated and warm, if not dark, while his brother’s was cold and drafty. All summer, the younger brother laughed at his older brother in his tiny cabin. While the brother younger was sitting in the breeze through his screens, enjoying the sunlight, older brother was sitting in his tiny cabin, which was hot and stuffy, and if he tried to go outside, was bothered by mosquitoes. Heck, he couldn’t even stand up straight in most of the place.

All in all, these two abandoned places are very intriguing to me. They are unusual as they are still more or less weatherproof and still contain many of their furnishings. Most places found around here are either completely fallen down, or empty of any property. It is clear these were both cobbled together from scrounged materials, with a preference for masonry and mortar. The remoteness of the location is also interesting, as the commute to any real job would have been substantial. I will continue to look for more information on these places.

Links to the photo galleries:

Adam’s Photos

Tim’s Photos

Building a medieval siege engine for fun and profit.

The completed machine.

The completed machine.

So, a little background. It was decided one evening that it would be a good idea to build a trebuchet. I have no idea where this idea came from. It probably had some influence from the Pumpkin Chukin’ show on Discover. But it might have predated that, I’m not sure. I made the mistake of mentioning this plan to my 14 year old son, who immediately latched onto the idea and never let me forget about it. Every weekend it was “when are we going to build the trebuchet, dad?”

Eventually the time was right, and my brother and father came over to help. I was able to find very little information in the interwebs on construction of a trebuchet larger than a few inches. The only hard data I was able to get was a 4:1 ratio on the throwing arm, and 100 lbs of counterweight for each pound of projectile. I used this to figure out the length of the throwing arm (governed largely by the lumber I had in the rack) and built the frame around the arm.

Material used were determined by what I had on hand. 2 x 4 pt for the throwing arm, 4 x 4 pt for the uprights, 4 x 8 pt for the skids, 2 x 3 for the bracing. The pivot arm was made from 3/4 steel rod, with the arm centered on the bar with 1 1/2 inch PVC pipe as spacers to keep it centered. I used a milk crate for the counterweight basket, and an old metal downspout for the projectile chute. A leg from a pair of blue jeans was used to make the sling.

If I had to do it over again, apart from building it BIGGER, the only thing I would change would be the milk crate. It just could’ hold up to the stresses involved, or hold enough weight for the projectiles we were using (candle-pinbowling balls). I think a plywood box would be just the thing for this.

After the trebuchet was complete, it was time to test it out. After quite a lot of trial and error, we found a suitable trigger mechanism and sling configuration. This being New England, we started using rocks as projectiles. This, it turns out, is a bad idea. The irregular shape of rocks causes them to release unpredictably from the sling. The rocks went every which way – slammed into the ground in front of the trebuchet, straight up in the air, and even backwards. Very dangerous, and slightly hilarious at the same time. Finally, I visited our local bowling alley, and they were able to donate a few chipped candle-pin bowling balls. These worked perfectly! They launched very consistently and landed in nearly the same spot every time. The only problem was that the milk crate could only hold about 100 lbs of counterweight in the form of hauling chains, and the balls weighed about 4 lbs or so. This combo launched the balls about 150 feet. I never did get around to building a bigger counterweight basket.

I received a lot of comments from the neighbors, and showed it off to all my friends. It was a fun project. Eventually my son brought it to school where they were doing a physics lesson and built different kinds of catapults. Someday we will build a bigger one!

Laying out the foundation of the machine and making the throwing arm.

Getting Started: Laying out the foundation of the machine and making the throwing arm.

Ctrl-Z: 'Dammit, why did you put that nail there?' There was probably a better way to do this.....

Ctrl-Z: ‘Dammit, why did you put that nail there?’ There was probably a better way to do this…..

 Building the throwing arm. : 'Are you going to help, or just take pictures?'

Building the throwing arm. : ‘Are you going to help, or just take pictures?’

Some assembly required: It starts to take shape. Note the committee style work arrangements.

Some assembly required: It starts to take shape. Note the committee style work arrangements.

The second upright goes up: Finally got the help motivated.

The second upright goes up: Finally got the help motivated.

The throwing arm goes in: Note the PVC pipe to keep the arm centered.

The throwing arm goes in: Note the PVC pipe to keep the arm centered.

Adding bracing: We didn't spend a lot of time making it pretty.

Adding bracing: We didn’t spend a lot of time making it pretty.

Below are a few movies of the completed machine in action:





Coo Coo!


When I was very little, probably about 8, my parents would take me to visit Pop. Pop was my Dad’s Grandfather, and everyone in the family called him that. This was his mother’s father. He was very old in my eyes then, but probably only in his late 60′s then. He and his wife lived in a small duplex that was built as housing for the local factory workers. The house was very neat, but packed with many years of furniture and acquisitions. Pop also smoked a pipe, so the house always had the pleasant aroma of pipe tobacco, and sometimes was a little smokey. For much of my youth I didn’t really understand what a pipe was, or how tobacco fit in. All I knew is that he was constantly trying to light it on fire with paper matches. Perhaps he was smoking those?

Pop had a bit of difficulty walking, and was aided by his classic wooden cane with the big rubber tip on the bottom. He seemed to always be sitting in his overstuffed arm chair in the corner of the living room when we visited. Over his head hung a coo-coo clock. I was fascinated with the coo coo bird, the special whistle he made, and how he bobbed up and down and moved his beak when he warbled.

Of course, no 4 year old can be bothered to wait for the hour to come around, or heaven forbid the half-hour, when the bird only coo-coo’d once. “Pop, can i see the coo-coo?” I would say. Of course, like any good great grandpa, he would always oblige me. But also, like any good Yankee settled in his favorite chair, he wasn’t about to get up if he didn’t have to. He would take his cane, and still seated in his chair, take that big rubber tip, and push the minute hand around to the next hour or half-hour to make the coo-coo come out. Sometimes he would do it several times before my Dad would tell me that was enough for today.Looking back on this now, I suspect that clock was never useful for telling the time. Now satisfied, I would leave the adults to talk, and go off to play with some of the toys he kept on a shelf nearby for me to play with.

Pop passed away when I was in my early teens, and this is one of my fondest memories of him. Thanks Pop for making a small boy very happy!

I missed!

Flattened coins.

The first job I had on the railroad was a ‘Laborer’ position. This was the entry level position for unskilled labor at the road. Basically this was a non-technical job, and I spent the bulk of my time pushing a broom in the engine house. The other main task of a laborer was to assist in servicing the engines passing through the facility. While the machinists and electricians were busy checking the oil, changing the brake shoes, replacing light bulbs, and the rest, I was filling the fuel tanks, filling the sand boxes, washing the windows, cleaning the cab of trash, and making sure the cabs were stocked with bottled water and crew packs. ( Crew packs were little packs containing a few napkins, small roll of toilet paper, trash bag, plastic silverware, salt and pepper packet, and a wet nap. Some of the bigger railroads had deluxe crew packs, which had hot sauce, mayo, ear plugs,and other assorted items. ) When all that was complete, we may make a move to the cleanout hose to drain and service the toilets. Just like a RV, we would attach the sewer hose, and pull the valve on the shitter. Rinse, clean, and refill with water and a packet of blue.

The other role the laborer had, if he was out with the hostler at the time, was directing the engine moves to and from the shop, i.e. throwing switches (“You drive, I’ll steer”.) and derails, opening bay doors, and letting the hostler know when to start and stop.

On one trip from the service pit back to the house (ostensibly for light maintenance that wasn’t possible at the service pit, but really because none of us wanted to walk back to the house for lunch), the hostler decided he wanted some flattened coins for his kids. As we pulled up to the overhead door, he set the brakes on the locomotive, and I went to work raising the door, opening the derail, and clearing the way for coming in to the pits. The hostler then placed a series of coins on the rails over the pit: quarter, dime, nickle, and penny. He then climbed back in the cab, and we rolled into the house over the pit. As he shut the engine down, and set the handbrake, one of the machinists ran into the pit and scooped up the flattened coins, and replaced them with a new set of coins: quarter, dime, nickel, penny.

The hostler than climbed down to retrieve his coins, and stopped short when he saw them all still intact. He stood there for a moment, and finally said, “Huh. I must have missed them…….”. He honestly thought he had somehow missed all the coins with all 4 sets of axles! We then all had a good laugh at his expense, and the machinist gave him his set of flattened coins.

A lesson in getting along


Wreck Train


So, we were on a wreck in East Deerfield, Ma. We had both our local and Maine based rail mounted cranes on site. Each wrecker consists of either a 200 or 250 ton crane, stretcher car, cable and equipment car, workshop car, and diner car. We had been on site for about three days, working 24 hours a day cleaning up a 21 car wreck, and it was finally time to send the equipment back to the yard, and the crews home. I was the car shop manager for the local shop, and we had with us our local crew, plus crews from the rest of the system. We also had a few other local managers, yardmaster, and two wreckmasters, who were my immediate bosses. One of the managers had just transferred down to our location about 8 months ago, and had proceeded to make enemies of most the crews, especially the yardmaster. To make matters worse, he had irritated the yardmaster even more during the wreck cleanup.


Finally, after the wreckers were all tied down and crews loaded up, the wreckmaster turned the local wrecker outfit over to me, and the Maine wrecker over to the other manager. We were to make sure the outfits made into the yard without incident, and got tied down (handbrakes set, electricity reconnected, etc). This was the standard operating procedure. I told the wrecker operator from my crew to ride with the crane, make sure it got tied down, and then go home, and call me if you have any problems. I sent the rest of the crew home for rest. I then got in my car and drove to the yard, which was about 6 miles away by car, and about 8 by rail, to wait for the wreck outfit to arrive. As soon as I saw the wrecker enter the yard limits, I knew that it would be tied down soon, and I went home and went to sleep. My operator had everything put away and tied down about an hour after that, and my whole crew was home taking a well deserved rest by then.

The next day I talked with the other manager about his experience. He had decided to ride his wrecker back to the yard himself, and let his crew go to the hotel to sleep. While this might seem like a good idea, keep in mind that us managers were on salary, and our hourly rate was in the gutter by now, the hourly union men were on double time and a half by now, and usually were disappointed to be sent home. He had ridden the stretcher car (an empty flat car that the boom of the crane hung over) partway back, outside and sitting on the edge with his feet hanging over the side, which, in addition to being a bad idea, was probably a safety rules violation. The yardmaster saw this, and told him go inside the car. The manager told him to mind his own business, or something of the sort. Keep in mind that everyone had been up and working for at least 48 hours by now, and not in the best of moods. While talking to the manager the next day, I asked him what time he got home that day. I had hit the sack by 10:00 am, I figured he would have been home shortly after that, as his wreck train was right behind mine. He said he didn’t get home until that evening! He said he ended up waiting out in the yard for hours before he was pulled into the siding where the crane was to be tied up. This puzzled me for years. Usually the yardmasters are very good about getting our wreck equipment serviced and moved. They know we’ve been up for days, and the equipment needs to be serviced and ready to go back out at a moments notice. After all, my outfit had made it back in and was tied down in short order. I couldn’t have asked for better service.

A year or so later, I resigned my position as car shop manager to make a move to a less stressful position in computers, and was having a few drinks with my crew and friends from the railroad. I was having a conversation with the yardmaster, and he told me a little story. He and I, while not best of buddies, had a mutual respect for one an other, and had a decent working relationship. He looked out for me and our crew, and made it a priority to get us and our equipment where we needed to be. It seems that the other manager had so irritated the yardmaster that he had let him and his wreck outfit sit in the middle of the yard for hours before putting the wrecker in the siding. Suddenly it all made sense!

The moral of the story? Don’t piss of the people that you rely on to do your job!