This is chapter 11 in my book The Bailey Line Road Chronicles, the 30-year story about moving from the city to live a modern homestead life deep in the country on Manitoulin Island, Canada. Missed Chapter 10? Click here to read it.
In previous chapters I’ve explained the plans my wife and I made to build our house using local stone, and I’ve mentioned a few peripheral things about traditional stonework. Why would I attempt something as impractical as building a house with stone gathered and shaped by hand? Three reasons.
First and foremost, I found (and still find) hand-worked natural stone beautiful in a way that nothing else matches. The right kind of brick comes close, but stone is king in my opinion. I’ll go a long way to capture beauty in the things I make.
Second, stone is durable. All the old stone buildings in the world prove it.
Third, and very important, stone was cheap for me then (and now). Manitoulin is a limestone island and bedrock is never far from the surface. Actually, calling this stone cheap isn’t quite accurate. My supply of stone was free for the taking, though the taking did require some sweat. I know time is money and all that, but one of my weaknesses is to do things for myself to avoid spending money, even when the process takes a long time. Nothing rivals building with stone for taking a long time, and the long time effect began in earnest as soon as I started gathering stone to build the basement.
Have you ever experienced a big, manual task that was boring at first, but then became compelling in a meditative kind of way? That’s what it was like for me gathering building stone for the basement. Once I broke through the wall of boredom after a week or so of the work, my time collecting stone became the centre of a rhythm of work that was surprisingly pleasant. My routine was simple: Fire up the tractor no later than 8am, drive the tractor with trailer to an area with promising exposures of bedrock, pick up every loose rock that could conceivably be used to build a wall, load it on the trailer, then drive back to my building site and unload the stones one at a time onto the ground.
On a typical day I’d collect and unload two or three loads of stone in the morning, eat lunch, then collect three or four loads in the afternoon. Perhaps another load after supper, too. I was by myself in the shed then (Mary was in the city completing her schooling at college), but the weather was warm, I had my loyal (though potentially vicious) dog King with me all the time, and the more weeks I worked the stronger and fitter I got. I’d work like this Monday through Friday, then spend Saturday doing other work around the building site, washing my clothes on a washboard in a wheelbarrow, working on the truck and tractor if necessary and perhaps making a trip into town for supplies. The week would finish with a bath I’d take in the contractor’s wheelbarrow I bought to replace the overly-optimistic wooden failure I told you about before. Sunday was complete rest. I might walk down to the Lake Huron shoreline and take a snooze near the water, or I might hike in my forest and come to know it better. Most Sundays involved a lot of eating, resting and getting ready for the next week collecting stone. It sounds boring and it was at first. But a life like this is something that grows on you, at least that’s the way it is for me. I’m really just a peasant at heart, happy with a peasant’s life.
As much as I came to like the simple, wholesome, energizing work of collecting stone for an entire summer, it would end up being a complete waste of time. Complete. I’d learn later, when I actually started building with stone, that 9 stones out of 10 I collected were useless for construction. My ignorance and optimism led me to gather every stone that was loose, and that was a total mistake. Several months of collecting led to a berm of rock 8 feet wide, four feet high and about 150 feet long. My only indication that these stones weren’t good was when Ivan wandered over one day. My pile was massive by then, he picked up a rock, looked at it, then dropped it, saying “Is this the best you could find?” Then he walked away. Ten years later I’d pay a high school kid by the hour to reload all these stones onto a farm wagon, drive to the edge of one of my fields, then unload them along a fence one by one.
Before I explain why all these stones were no good, let me tell you about the tractor I was using for this work. It was the first major investment in the equipment side of my operation, and finding it has something to teach about the social scene in a rural place such as Manitoulin.
It didn’t take long to realize that as good as my 1968 F-250 Mercury pickup truck was, it couldn’t handle the job of serious pulling in field and forest conditions. I’d need a tractor for pulling trailer loads of stone from the forest, but of course it had to be cheap. Where could I find a good cheap tractor? My first strategy was to make use of the mental database of my old neighbour Ivan Bailey. Did he know of any good used tractors for sale? For a second Ivan got that far-away look in his eyes, then the results came in.
“My cousin, Les Bailey, has two old Internationals for sale. Let me give him a ring.”
It didn’t take long on the phone. One of the things about all the old timers I’ve seen in action here is that they never spend a lot of time on the telephone. And when they do make a call, they never introduce themselves to the person at the other end. Whenever possible an old timer will get his wife to place the call, passing the receiver over the their husbands when the other person is on the line. Ivan’s wife Dorothy was dead by now, so he had to endure the hardship of making his own phone call. Here’s the wording of the call, beginning at the beginning:
“You still got those old tractors for sale?” Pause, then Ivan hung up. That was it.
Ivan didn’t introduce himself, he didn’t say hello nor goodbye, and he spent no more than 15 seconds on the call. Ivan wasn’t alone when it came to phone calls of this style, either. Most other real old timers I’ve seen in action did the same thing. When you’re listening it’s almost like these old guys aren’t entirely convinced they’re actually talking to a person on the other end of the line. There’s a certain mechanical quality to their voice when they’re on the phone. I don’t think this is the case with old guys now, but maybe it had to do with the fact that Ivan was probably 40 years old before he ever used a phone. Within ten minutes of the short, terse call, Ivan and I were riding in my truck to see cousin Les.
One of the biggest differences between city life and country life is the number of people whose lives you come to know intimate details about, without even trying. At the time it seemed incredible to me that Ivan would know about old tractors for sale in some out-of-the-way farm 5 miles away (just like he knew about that pile of old cedar lumber I used to build my outhouse). But having lived deep in the country for 30 years, I understand how far afield you come to know surprising details about people. And it’s not like I seek this sort of thing out, either. It’s mysteriously automatic. I first noticed this effect long before social media, and even today social media has nothing to do with the growing body of intimate knowledge I have about people whom I don’t actually know all that well. Some I’ve never even met.
I came to know, for instance, that Mr. So-and-So who lived 10 miles from my house returned from WWII having lost both testicles in a battlefield explosion. This explained why he and his wife never had children (I believe they married after his return), and why I seemed to notice that Mr. So-And-So had something of a slight, feminine aire about him, even before I knew about his unfortunate injury. He was a great man – very kind and generous. I wondered when I heard the details if anyone on western Manitoulin didn’t know what I did.
Then there’s the curious case of Mr. What’s-His-Name. He was a heavily bearded man, a guy who came to live on Manitoulin from away just about the time I did. I saw him once, he reminded me of Rasputin in appearance and temperament, he lived about 30 miles from my place and he insisted on living completely “naturally”. No electricity, no running water, no car. He built a place way off the beaten track (much more remote than my place) on a dirt cart track that wasn’t cleared in the winter. All the exterior walls of his large, two-story house were built using 2x4s on their flat, one on top of the other, log cabin-style. It was crazy, but the insanity didn’t end there. Mr. What’s-His-Name also insisted on a wide-open fertility policy with his obliging wife. After child #7, doctors explained to Mr. What’s-His-Name that it was too dangerous for his wife to have more children. It was time to retire that high mileage womb. Undaunted, he went ahead anyway and became a father for the 8th time. When it came time to bring his wife to the local 25-bed hospital for the delivery, he loaded her up on the back of an old hay wagon (remember, they had no car), then pulled her and their brood of 7 kids into town with a tractor. The bumpy, suspension-free ride probably took three hours, ending with the tractor and wagon pulled up at the emergency ward door, the one the ambulances use to unload incoming patients.
Not long after, in November, I’d heard that Mr. What’s-His-Name’s 2×4 castle wasn’t yet ready for winter. The roof was on and the windows were in, but wind was whistling through the building. It was unheatable. Although the wall was solid wood, there were cracks between each 2×4, so a friend of mine and I decided to go out and staple up some building wrap on the outside walls. We weren’t really concerned so much about Mr. What’s-His-Name, but we didn’t want to see the kids freeze. Climbing on the ladders as we worked, I could see inside the building and most rooms were full from ceiling to floor with cardboard boxes. Puzzled, I knocked on a second-floor window where Mrs. What’s-His-Name was sitting inside on a rocking chair. “What’s in all the boxes?” I asked loudly through the glass. “Clothes”, she said. “Every week people from churches come by with clothes for the kids.” I guess I wasn’t the only one concerned for the children.
Mr. and Mrs. Dislike are a couple from the east end of Manitoulin that I’ve never met at all, but I know something about their living arrangements. After what was presumably a disappointing marriage, they decided to live separately, but in the same house. They couldn’t afford separate dwellings, but they could afford a roll of masking tape. They used it to divide the house along the middle with a single swath of tape on the floor. Neither person could encroach on the territory of the other. I’m not sure what happened if this rule were broken, and I never did hear who got the kitchen and who got the bathroom. I’m sure they figured something out.
I could go on with many more stories, but the point is simple. For some reason it seems that the fewer people who live in an area, the more you know about them. It’s a strange inverse relationship, and it makes you think there’s a higher concentration of strange people in rural areas, with cities inhabited almost entirely by suave, successful, completely normal people. I’m not so sure this is true. Greater anonymity in the city means that you might not know the name of your neighbour 100 feet away (and her peculiar quirks), while here in the country I somehow know, for instance, of a woman 50 miles away who welcomed the news that her husband was cheating on her, feeling that the variety would improve their relationship. Why is the city so anonymous and the country so not? I really don’t know.
So, back to the tractor quest . . . There I was, shaking hands with Les Bailey for the first time as he gave me my pick of two tractors. Les would have been in his early 50s then, a friendly man with a great head of hair and a big, wide, constant smile. It was heartwarming to be around Les because he was always laughing, chuckling, smiling and good natured. I never saw him any other way. Even meeting Les on the street in town meant you were in for a smile and a friendly chuckle as you walked past each other. I’d eventually learn that Les also happened to be one of the largest beef farmers in the area, and the reeve of our township at the time – a position he held for more than 30 consecutive years.
People tend to hold municipal office for a long time here on Manitoulin Island. Not every politician does, of course, but stories like Les’s are not unheard of. The longest serving politician in Canadian history happens to be the mayor of a township 15 miles east of my place, and still in office. Austin Hunt was born in 1926, he was elected to lead Billings township in 1953, and he still holds this same position as I write this in April 2018. Mr. Hunt is not a tall man, but he is in remarkable health and vigour. Every time I see him I find myself thinking of Bilbo Baggins and the unusual longevity he got from the ring he found. I wonder if there’s a magic ring in Mr. Hunt’s pocket?
Both of Les’s tractors were made by the International Harvester Co, both were new in the 1950s and the price for each was the same – $1000. Back when these classics were made, International gave letter names to their tractors. The bigger of the two Les had for sale was an N. The smaller was a Super H. I was tempted to go for the N – more power for the money – but it was quite a bit less comfortable to drive than the Super H and seemed clunkier. The clutch travel on the N was particularly long, too. It felt like you had to lift your foot way up and press the clutch pedal way, way down to disengage things.
A couple of days later I got Ivan to drive me back to Les’s place with fifty $20 bills in my pocket, pretty much the last cash I had in my bank account. I’d driven old tractors before when I worked on farms near the suburban home I grew up in, but ownership of this old classic made all the difference. There’s nothing like personal ownership to make you feel good about something. Driving back to my property on country roads on my own tractor got me into a very John Denver mood. It felt like Christmas morning. I still love that old tractor and use it all the time today. It’s 65 years old as I write this (it was new when Austin Hunt first held municipal office), it starts easily and runs like a well-behaved sewing machine. It sips fuel frugally, and the engine has a sound I could listen to all day.
A tractor is one thing, but it’s no good for collecting stone without some kind of a trailer or wagon to hitch on the back. I didn’t have one and didn’t even know what kind would be best. That’s when I met a guy named Terry Tom Baker. He was about my age ( I was 23 then), and I met him one day in the little general store in the nearby hamlet of Evansville, about 4 miles from my property. Terry Tom was friendly, he saw that I was a stranger and asked me about what I was up to. “I’m building a place next door to Ivan Bailey”, I explained, “and I just bought Les Bailey’s old Super H to help me collect stone to build a basement.” He was no more surprised about my stoneworking plans than if I told him I was putting up an aluminum garden shed. “I know that tractor”, said Terry Tom. “Do you have a trailer? My dad’s got one if you want to borrow it.”
Just like that, an offer to loan a trailer to a complete stranger with a whacky construction plan. It’s just one example of the heart-warming generosity of many people on Manitoulin. The trailer was perfect for my job, too. Small enough to be maneuverable in tight spaces, yet large enough to hold about a ton of stone. It was a home-made thing, built from an old pickup truck frame. The I-beams of the frame were cut with a torch just back from the cab, then heated and bent so they came together as a tongue. The tires were old, but serviceable. I blew one once, but it was easy to find a replacement from old tires discarded from cars. A tire that’s too bad for automotive use can still have years of life left as an off-road trailer tire before it goes pop. There’s a high degree of backwoods innovation on Manitoulin, and this trailer was an example. When I hitched onto it with my truck a few days later to bring it home, it was just a bare metal frame. I cut some small poplar logs from my forest when I got home, lashed them to the frame, then I was ready to get into the stone collection business. I’d use that trailer for three years before returning it. It hauled the 500 tons of stone I’d eventually collect and use for building the basement.
Terry Tom had what they call “brittle” diabetes. I didn’t know it at the time, but his blood sugar levels were particularly sensitive to getting out of whack. And unfortunately, Terry Tom wasn’t as good as he should have been at managing his diet and lifestyle. About fifteen years after meeting him, I was standing in the township graveyard with about one hundred other people on a cold, wet day as they lowered Terry Tom’s body into the grave. He had a daughter by then, and the whole scene was like something you’d see in a movie. Chilled, somber people, all wearing black, all completely silent, all dripping with water outdoors in the middle of a week day. It was a small village of umbrellas. The only colour was the deep green grass and the occasional light coloured handkerchief.
It wasn’t long after I got the tractor home from Les’s that I realized I needed to apply some tender loving care to the old rig. It ran fine, but ancient machinery like this can often sorrily need oil changes and such. My plan was always to keep the Super H going forever, so I treated it to a change of engine oil and a change of the heavy gear oil in the gear box. My F250 pickup truck had a cap on the back, so it became my rolling mechanic’s tool shed.
My parents had given me a big set of Craftsman socket wrenches, screwdrivers and a tool chest with drawers for Christmas that year, and I used these tools on the tractor in a serious way. And like most jobs of this kind, once you get into it, them the work expands in a way you couldn’t anticipate. In this case the expansion had to do with the charging system.
The Super H is a marvel of simple, reliable engineering. Sixty five years after rolling off the assembly line in Chicago, Illinois, it starts, runs and pulls like a mule. The only weak part of the original design was the charging system. Instead of the kind of 12 volt battery and alternator that’s common on modern vehicles, the Super H came from the factory with a 6 volt electrical system and a generator. Even with the battery in good condition, this system was marginal. That’s why the Super H was made with a removable hand crank on the front, so you could turn over the 165 cubic inch four cylinder engine by hand in the quite likely event the battery would die before the engine came to life. As is common with farmers, a simple and radical solution was adopted by many Super H owners. Remove the alternator, weld up a simple metal bracket to hold a Delco-Remy alternator from a scrounged GM car or truck, rig up some wiring and swap the 6 volt battery for a 12 volt one. The original 6 volt starter motor was robust enough that it happily digests 12 volt current without burning out, and you’ve got yourself a whiz-bang starting and electrical system. Hit the starter on that machine and the engine really spins.
Someone in the distant past had treated my Super H to the old Delco-Remy alternator transplant before I bought it, but like most mechanical modifications completed my non-mechanics, it was crudely done. The system worked, but unidentifiable wires hung loose randomly, there were floppy ends of electrical tape hanging here and there, and the exposed electrical connections were rusty and crusty.
One of my tendencies is to stop and make things right before moving forward, so I began a proper rewiring of the makeshift electrical system from scratch. Things worked fine, so I just replaced each wire one at a time so the system was neater and more reliable. A roll of fresh 16 gauge automotive wire, some electrical tape, spade connectors and two days time had things looking good. Years later, when I made the mistake of leaving the Super H parked overnight in a field with some grazing cattle, the little darlings wandered over and chewed off all the wiring. They ate everything that looked like a wire, including the spark plug wires. And when I say ate, I mean ate. I was finding bits of copper wire and insulation in cow patties for weeks afterwards as I walked the pasture. So now I had to rebuild the wiring system again, but this time without the benefit of having old wiring to follow as an example.
By the time the cattle had eaten their wire dinner, the internet was just getting off the ground. I Googled “Delco Remy alternator Farmall Super H tractor”, not figuring I’d find information on something this obscure. As it turns out, this particular modification is common enough that more than a few helpful souls have posted entire wiring diagrams online for this particular informal upgrade. Following their example I rebuilt the wiring from scratch again, including some snazzy, yellow spark plug wires normally meant for hot rods.
The tractor I bought from Les and the trailer I got from Terry Tom was the workhorse that let me gather my basement one stone at a time. 34-feet x 44-feet x 2-feet thick walls, the basement is a big part of the usefulness of our house. I go down there everyday for different reasons, look at the stone and remember what life was like when it didn’t seem I’d ever finish this work. The foundation sits on smooth limestone bedrock that still shows the marks left behind by the movement of the last glacier. These scratch lines are arrow-straight and point in a north-northeast and a south-southwest direction. I laid the first stone in the basement on July 1,1987 and 2500 hours later I’d have a basement and some stoneworking skill. I consider that project my self-directed stonemasonry apprenticeship. I’ll tell you all about it in the next chapter, and how the biggest discouragement came from something other than the stone and the work.
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