Wednesday, January 13, 2016

* Snug Harbors *

Just the other day I read a description online of an old house with a snug harbor.  Now if you were to look up those words online, you'd likely find names of brands and businesses but no description of such a space.  A snug harbor is a tiny room, a walled-off space behind a chimney.  It would be used in emergency situations where warmth was life-saving like childbirth, illness, frostbite.

Way-back-when, folks had practical ways of dealing with cold conditions but today, thanks to our modern conveniences, we seem mostly to have forgotten why people used to do what they did.  You can learn a lot about how our ancestors faced the discomfort of cold when you have the chance to live in an old house like that one; that's how I learned about such things.

I remember staying with my aunt in Maine for quite awhile when I was little.  She lived in an old farmhouse with a barn attached to the side of the house; it was used (before my time, of course) for horses and carriages.  It was easier for the farmer to take care of livestock and not get snowed in during a heavy winter.  It was a fascinating house really--it was so old that it had Indian blinds for the windows (few people now remember what those were either!  but it ought to tell you how old the house was if you recall your history lessons about the French and Indian War), and it had a triple level basement--there was a safety hide-out room below the root cellar that was below the regular cellar.  That house also had once had something else that was quite clever:  heating by cow and poop!  

The farm house was built into the side of a hill with the back face of the house on the downside so that it was possible to have outside access below the first living level (think of those mid-Century split-level type houses to imagine a similar layout); that lower portion was the cow barn--you couldn't see it from the front of the house.  I remember that the floors in the stalls were slatted so that the cow poop could be swept through to be cleaned out later from underneath, and I remember that those slats were worn soft and deeply grooved from the hooves of many cows over many decades.  But the important point here is that the warmth generated by the cows rose upwards to add just a little extra heat to the house.  And the farmer cleverly had a bunch of manure composting down there under those slats--that also makes heat (this could be a little dangerous as that stuff can get too hot!) and it would be useful for enriching the soil for the next summer's garden.  

I've lived in lots of different houses in nine US states, and every place has its various ways of dealing with the local weather. 

Here in the South, the focus necessarily tends to be more on the heat than the cold.  Instead of the nine months of winter that Maine gets, Mississippi has nine months of summer.  So I'm sure that the clever folks who built my small older house were thinking of keeping cool and not worrying about what happens when it gets cold.   It's a Florida-style stucco built from cinderblocks, one level low to the ground.  It's inexpensive to air condition and keeps cool nicely in summer.....unfortunately those uninsulated hollow walls mean that this place is pretty much just a great big refrigerator during the cold days. 

Thanks to the cold snap this week, it has been refrigerator time!  The cold just seems to rise up from the concrete slab and it hangs in the air around my ankles before rising to bite my nose like the nasty creature cold can be.  Truly I can't bear to be chilled; my fingernails turn blue!  

I try to keep warm by doing fairly typical stuff:  closing all the blinds and curtains when the sun goes down, putting draft stoppers (I made them from rolled small throw rugs filled with clean kitty litter) at doorsills, and pulling English-style portiere curtains over the outside doors (those help keep heat at bay in summer, too).

But I still need a snuggery.  The study lacks a door, so I hang temporary portieres on cold days and that helps retain the heat generated by the computers.  The south-facing window means that the rooms stays bright all day; that adds a little warmth, too.  I heat an electric oil-filled radiator for just an hour or so in the morning.  And the room, very simply, stays toasty all day (sometimes almost too toasty).  These small changes actually make a large difference.  Central heat keeps the house at about 65 but the study stays at warm at 76 (even when the radiator is off).   

It's a nice way to survive the few chilly winter days that we have here in south Mississippi.  Although I can see why and how our ancestors coped in the snowy north, I surely couldn't do it.  I'd be taking over that snug harbor permanently!

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