When Rita and I moved into our gutted handyman’s special in the
summer of 1971, what the place needed was a total overhaul, a
full-scale renovation in the literal sense of that word: a “making
new” from top to bottom. But all we could do then – and all
we have been able to do ever since – is just make do, not make
new. So what we have worked at over these past 45 years, by fits
and starts, is not renovation but periodic home improvements,
making one thing then another better as time, energy, and bank
account have allowed.
I began right away by replacing the rotten 7x7-inch sills on the
north wall and making a crude (but insulated) studio apartment
out of the spacious kitchen where we could live while we fixed up
one room, then another and another in the following months.
These initial home improvements brought us the gains in
safety and comfort we had hoped they would, but they brought
us some unexpected gifts, as well. As we tore out the old walls
in the post-and-beam half of the house, we found newspapers
from the 1840s still pasted over the cracks between the sheathing
boards. This attempt at blocking air infiltration was largely
ineffectual, but a welcome historical marker suggesting that this
house may have been built during those years. And just about
every major project we’ve undertaken since then – converting
half of the unfinished second floor of the ell into a bedroom,
replacing our rattly old single-pane windows with double-glazed ones – has turned up an item or two that Dana Hamlin,
who lived here from 1905 to 1968, had left behind: shards of a
bean pot, a tea saucer, half-a-dozen teeth for the cutter bar of a
But just this past summer when I asked Luke, our genius of a
young carpenter here in Temple, to replace our ancient, cracked
soffits and insulate the dead-air space behind them, we found
a treasure trove of stuff. How or why these items wound up in
such an unlikely place I leave to greater minds than mine. The
first thing to fall out when Luke started prying off soffit boards
was a rusted 36-inch grass blade for a scythe. Next, in the utilitarian category, came a rusty horseshoe with four shoeing nails
still stuck in it. Then five spools of varying sizes, only one of
which had a legible label stamped into the wood: Belding Bros.
& Co., A, 100 yds., accompanied by a pincushion measuring
about four inches in diameter and two inches thick. Once white
with decorative blue ribbons sewn across it, it was now – after a
century tucked in under Dana’s eaves – a uniform dirty grey.
How do I know that pincushion had been there for a century?
Because not far from it we found a small pocket notebook that
recorded day by day, in pencil, wages at $3 per day that a fellow
named Jack earned in the months of January and February 1918.
The front cover of this notebook was gone, but the text on its
back cover makes clear what kind of product the long-lost front
By Robert Kimber
cover advertised: “The trouble with a great many of you who suf-
fer continually with the stomach and bowels is simply this: your
bowels are DIRTY....You must CLEAN OUT...the bowels. And
once you get the bowels clean, KEEP them clean.”
But life in 1918 wasn’t all about work and purging one’s innards.
We found several items meant for pure enjoyment, too: a brier
tobacco pipe and three of white clay, which I thought had gone
out with the Founding Fathers. And for the kids, a tiny tattered
American flag much like the ones children still wave today at
Fourth of July parades. The prize item in the toy department,
though, was a miniature banjo only 11 inches long. The main body
looks like a tuna-fish can; the neck is a half-inch dowel, the finger-
board a piece of tin bent up at the pegboard end and with slots cut
there for the strings. The tuning pegs look like slightly hefty golf
tees. I strung this mini-banjo with Dacron fly-reel backing, and
the thing actually gave off real, live notes. I could imagine a little
kid – maybe Dana’s son – happily plucking away on it for hours.
The final thing we found was a copy of The Somerset Farmers’
Co-operative Telephone Company’s directory, which lists subscribers from Waterville to Bingham to Stratton and Rangeley
and back, including, of course, our little town of Temple. I count
67 listings. Most of them have “residence” printed next to them,
but a few note professions or businesses. J. A. Brooks was the
town’s stage driver; C. E. Gould, the paper hanger; and our own
Dana Hamlin, the cream collector. I was tempted to pick up the
phone and ask the operator to connect me with Dana’s number:
1-25. I wanted to ask him if that pincushion and that toy banjo
were Christmas or birthday gifts, homemade, as I imagined,
fashioned by a loving hand from materials at hand. What better
unexpected gifts could there be?
Robert Kimber has written often for outdoor and environmental magazines. He lives
in Temple, Maine.