I recently completed repointing the last section of the wall that I could get to without removing the fence, which meant it was time to remove some fence.
I got out the big ladder and removed the downspout, cut out the section of fence nearest the house, and pulled the fence post out of the ground. This allowed me to repoint the last little section of the lower rear wall of the house.
At first, the repointing work went about as I expected. Some of the mortar was rotten, some of it wasn't, but the wall wasn't in horrible shape and mortar removal wasn't too difficult. Eventually I ran into some cracked bricks, and loose bricks, and crumbling bricks.
That's when things got interesting. I discovered a giant metal shaft of some sort in the wall, presumably driven from the interior side. That had caused one of the exterior bricks to crack into about a dozen different pieces, and I have no idea what purpose that steel rod served.
I also discovered - if hiding in plain sight counts as "discovered" - some big ol' nails that I assume held a downspout to the wall at one point. After looking, the nails continue off and on all the way up the wall where the current downspout is.
I went on about my business for a little while and then when I stood at just the right angle, I could see something else in the wall, in one of the removed brick cavities. I got on my tippy-toes and looked closer...it was a wad of newspaper.
It looked to be pretty shredded and my first thought was...mouse nest. But then it occurred to me that the super tiny print meant the newspaper was really old and it had probably been used as backing for some interior plaster repair. I carefully removed the newspaper, which absolutely crumbles with just the lightest of touches, and put it in a bucket for further investigation.
After work that evening I set out to see if I could determine what date the newspaper was from. Of the entire wad of newspaper, I was only able to successfully salvage maybe 10% and after a quick first glance, I didn't see any dates...but I did get a few clues that made figuring things out pretty easy.
I spotted a few mentions, fragments of mentions anyhow, of "St. Louis Globe-Democrat", which was one of the city's big papers for many, many years.
I also spotted a little clip that referenced October 12, with what I assumed was the word "tomorrow" above it, which meant I was probably looking at a newspaper from October 11...but what year?
I grabbed a few more of the larger newspaper crumbs and looked for unique words or images that I could easily reference on newspapers.com. At first, I didn't have a lot of luck; I was getting thousands and thousands of search results, way too many to read through. But I kept trying, and eventually I came across this little fragment:
The word combination of "Sportsman's Park", which was home to a number of professional baseball teams going back as far as 1867, and "Buffalo Bill's" were unique enough when thrown into newspaper.com's search engine together that I only got a handful of results, all from 1885.
I started looking through the search results while studying my little newspaper scraps to see if I could find something that matched. This was the scrap that solved the riddle:
See the little flag on top of the building? It says "Barr's". People local to St. Louis, and of a certain age, might recognize that as the Barr from Famous-Barr, except back in 1885 Barr's was known as the William Barr Dry Goods Co. and hadn't yet been merged with Famous Clothing Store (that happened in 1911).
I'm getting off track. The point is, I had seen that same advertisement image in one of newspaper.com's search results. The date? Sunday, October 11, 1885.
After a few more comparisons of my newspaper pieces and the October 11, 1885 edition of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, it was confirmed...the newspaper stuffed into the wall of my house is from October 11, 1885, which is kind of mind boggling.
Here are the full newspaper pages the scraps were once a part of:
1885 was a looooong time ago, and even in the ridiculously fragile state the little newspaper crumbs are in, I really can't believe - given how much water had gotten into the wall and rotted out the mortar - some of the newspaper wad survived all these years.
I was able to salvage a few more newspaper pieces than what I displayed here, but the Photoshop work involved in digitally laying my scraps over the full page takes forever so I stopped at four of 'em. I don't know what I'll do with the newspaper scraps or if it's possible to do anything to preserve them, but I'll definitely hang on the them.
Now I'm kinda wondering if, when I get into some of the interior walls, I'll find any more...
With the garden complete and everything growing, I turned my attention back towards the cistern area of the yard. Some brick repointing was part of the overall plan for that space and I figured I might as well knock that out - it's messy work - before I got the cistern fully demo'd and buttoned up.
The brick that REALLY needed to be repointed was under the 2 bedroom windows, primarily due to water infiltration around the window sills and subsequent moisture in the wall. The area under the left window, which I redid a couple weeks ago, was mossy and the mortar was rotten, but the wall was otherwise still fairly solid.
The area under the right window had a bunch of stair step cracks, it had definitely been (poorly) repointed in spots previously, and if I tapped the wall with my fist, I could feel it vibrate a bit -- aside from the cracks, the lower section had delaminated.
The arched section bowed out of the plane of the rest of the wall by about 1/2" and I knew that once I started raking out mortar, the bricks would be pretty easy to pull right out of the wall.
Those areas where the mortar looks a little smoother and flatter than the rest of the mortar, that's where somebody repointed previously. Given the shallow depth of the repointing and incorrect mortar (way too hard), it wasn't a real surprise that the wall cracked and delaminated regardless.
As I suspected would happen, it didn't take long to pull the arch apart.Those arches are super strong when fully assembled and working as a unit, but once a single brick gets loose, the whole thing becomes a house of cards. Also, as suspected, the inner wythe's mortar was garbage as well.
I was surprised to discover that the wall is 3 bricks (wythes) thick; every other wall I've gotten into so far is only 2 bricks thick. Once I got about as many bricks pulled out of the wall as I could before things got sketchy, I started repointing the exposed part of the interior wythe and then resetting the exterior bricks.
Before I started resetting the arch bricks, I ran a little self-adhesive flashing over the top of the basement window. The bricks sit on that, and I'll replace the whole window before too long so it was kinda moot, but you really don't want bricks and mortar sitting right on top of the wood; the masonry has a way of wicking moisture and if it's in contact with wood, the wood will rot eventually. The flashing provides an impervious separation between the wood and the masonry.
I also used a little house wrap to do the same thing where I didn't have enough space to finagle the sticky flashing.
Once the arch was reset, the work went quick. Unfortunately, I kept finding bricks that came out of the wall way too easily and I wound up having to reset about a dozen bricks above the arch.
I eventually removed mortar from every joint in this little section of wall. Mortar removal is a lot like using a nail gun...fun to pull the trigger, but pretty easy to shoot 17 nails when only 3 or 4 are needed. Sometimes I get a little carried away with the mortar removal but...if I'm gonna do it, I'm gonna do it.
The repointing effort turned out pretty well. No more vibrating wall, no more cracked joints, no more delamination. I still need to reattach the coaxial internet cable, but that can wait for a minute.
The mortar is different colors due to one side having been curing several weeks longer than the other, but it'll even out in a few days. And the best part? Aside from this section of wall being super solid, I'll NEVER have to repoint it ever ever ever again.
Now I can get back to the cistern, finish 'er up, and then replace a little section of fence...
A couple weekends ago I started building a raised bed garden. The goals for it were to 1, be squirrel-proof, 2, be big enough to reasonably contain all the seedlings I'd already planted indoors, and 3, be not so large that it would eat up a dumb amount of the yard. This was the design I came up with (a modified version of something I saw on the internet):
12' long, 7' wide, 6' tall. I used 2x8s for the raised bed (wider boards woulda been better but lumber is still halfway expensive), 4x4s for the vertical supports, and 2x4s everywhere else. I used plain 'ol pine - instead of treated lumber - for anything that was above ground. I didn't want to invest any more money than I had to in something I may decide to change up next year.
There's nothing fancy about the construction, and I made a solid effort to not get hung up on every last little detail being perfect. That said, I wanted the thing to be level and plumb so there was a lot of temporary bracing until I got everything locked into place.
As usual, I had my trusty helper supervising the work every step of the way.
Getting the hardware cloth installed was easily the worst part of the job, and my first plan of attack didn't go real well. Long story short, I ended up adding 2x4s on top of the 2x8s to both raise the bed elevation a bid and give myself a little more surface area to staple the hardware cloth to. Unfortunately, the change in installation plans meant I didn't have enough hardware cloth so I called it quits for the weekend.
Since I had the bulk of the job under control, I decided to start the following weekend by taking the dogs out so Roscoe could try out his new wagon. He was my hikin' sidekick for about 12 years, and now that his back two legs are essentially paralyzed he's stayed home when I take Freckles on outdoor excursions (his choice, not mine). I hate that he can't walk, but the truth of the matter is that over his 14+ years of life he's gotten every last mile outta his legs that he possibly could, and not too many dogs - or people - can say that.
But I got to thinkin', which is always a dangerous endeavor...he can't NOT go on the hikes, he just can't WALK during them. Hence, the wagon. I wasn't sure if he'd be chill in it or if he'd be all squirmy and scared, but he handled it like a champ.
We went out to Glencoe, MO, to a trail we've hiked several dozen times over the years. It's pretty flat and relatively smooth, which I figured would make the wagon-pulling halfway easy. It was a good 4-mile adventure, complete with me wiping out in slimy river mud while trying to carry Roscoe down to the Meramec. I even let Freckles, the 75-pound tank of a little girl, pull Roscoe for a minute; she didn't hesitate nor did she have any problems.
After the hike I picked up more hardware cloth and got back to work on the garden.
Getting all the little seedlings planted took a minute, but it all kinda came together eventually.
So that's the garden. Peas, bell peppers, broccoli, carrots, basil, and 1 cantaloupe plant just to add a little chaos to the mix. All organic, all heirloom. We had some insane wind for 2 straight days after I got everything planted and I'm not sure the peas survived, but that's how this farming stuff goes...🤣
Due to the recent rain, and because my work schedule is a little funky this week (off Friday, NOT off on Easter Sunday), I decided to skip the cistern work this weekend. The ground over there is nothing but mud, and I used Friday to do a bunch of adult stuff, like an oil change for the truck, I needed to get done.
One of those Friday tasks was going to one Home Depot to buy some ramps for my truck bed, and another task was going to a different Home Depot to rent an aerator. I don't like to patronize Home Depot, but sometimes...ya gotta do what ya gotta do. Even with the ramps, getting that almost-300-lb machine in and out of the truck was no fun.
I aerated the yard and planted grass seed, but between Freckles' running and my complete lack of knowledge and skill when it comes to make things grow, there's no telling how any of it'll turn out. I'm just glad the aerating was over with quickly; having the aerator drag me around the yard wasn't real cool.
Saturday I dug up a bunch of random flowers, mostly lilies, leftover from a previous owner's landscaping efforts and replanted them where I thought they should go. I also trimmed a couple tree limbs on a backyard oak tree, raked up mountains of pine needles, and edged and cut the little strip of grass in the front yard. Everything is starting to grow and it was time to get the yard lookin' right before it inevitably becomes almost impossible to keep up with.
The other big event on Saturday was digging up a big bush thing in the back yard that had started out as a weed and just took off some time before I bought the house. It was in the way of where I think my little garden will go, which will be part of next weekend's fun...building and planting a raised bed, squirrel-proof garden.
Oh, and the cistern...I gotta deal with it too. Hopefully by this time next week it'll all be filled in and graded so I can move on to replacing the travesty of a fence on that side of the property...
I was born with somewhere in the neighborhood of 18x more stubbornness than the average individual. This has been both a blessing and a curse.
The cistern story, at least the part where I'm involved, starts a couple years ago. A funky little depression I'd noticed in the brick paving behind the house led me to pull up a couple bricks and stick a shovel in the ground.
Long story short, the dirt under the removed bricks fell into some kind of void and, after additional digging and poking around, I realized that I'd discovered the house's cistern, still fully intact (but only partially filled in).
What's a cistern, you might be asking yourself? It's basically a big underground tank that holds water, and was entirely essential for sustaining life before the advent of indoor plumbing. How'd the water get there, you might be asking yourself? Rain would land on the roof, travel to the gutter, travel to the downspout, and the downspout would be piped underground into the cistern. It wasn't the cleanest of water, but it was water. A hand-operated pump above ground would bring the water up and out of the cistern.
The cistern at my house is shaped about like this, although when I started digging I had no idea the thing was 6' deep (and 7' deep at its peak):
Anyhow, up until yesterday, that section of the yard - and cistern opening, a 24" diameter brick-lined hole - looked like this:
There's a litany of projects to be undertaken in this part of the yard and I didn't want to deal with the cistern until I was ready to tackle everything else, so I left it as-is. Until a couple days ago.
On Saturday I pulled up all the bricks in that part of the yard, and foolishly had high hopes for fully excavating the cistern over the next couple weekends. See those bricks in the left center of the pic? That's the cistern opening.
I knew there were tree roots growing across the top of the opening. They're the reason I didn't cover the opening or do anything to keep something from falling in; everybody that lives here is much too large to fall through that web of roots.
My goal was to find a spot outside the cistern, dig down 3 or 4 feet, and get a good look at the structure from its exterior. I can't explain why, maybe it's my engineering background, maybe it's my infatuation with old school craftsmanship, but I wanted to see the thing before I demo'd it.
I felt like the greatest chance of dodging oak tree roots while digging was to dig on the side of the cistern opposite the tree, so I cleaned up the cistern opening a bit and started digging in that direction. And of course, tree roots. Everywhere.
I dug about as far as I could and then tried a few other spots, trying to avoid tree roots. No luck. The oak tree roots crisscross and zigzag all over the place. I tried, and I tried, and I tried - remember that stubbornness comment I made to start things off? - but I just couldn't find a patch of dirt without tree roots.
Also, due to recent rain, the ground was super saturated and digging up nothing but mud pretty much sucks. I started to question how much digging I really wanted to do, and how much room I realistically had to do so. It's pretty cramped over in that part of the yard and having the energy to dig up many cubic yards of dirt is one thing; having a place to dump it is another.
After about an hour of walking laps around my little excavation while rationality and stubbornness - I did NOT want to give up on my original plan - waged war against each other in my head, I decided to resort to the backup plan. I decided to collapse the top of the cistern, fish out all the brick, and make the thing safe to work in.
I told myself that, at the very least, if I wasn't gonna get to see the exterior face of the cistern wall, I was at least going to remove all the dirt from inside the cistern and see its bottom (and maybe some rad leftovers from the 19th century). I went inside, grabbed my big pry bar, and figured I'd have the cistern's lid popped apart in no time. In terms of this line of thinking, mistakes were made.
Many, many mistakes.
I underestimated the cistern's strength by comical proportions. Just getting a couple dozen bricks removed from the cap was WORK. I've repointed a lot of the brick and limestone throughout the house and about 50% of the time, the existing mortar is absolute trash. Somehow, the mortar used in this structure, below grade and subject to dirt and water every bit as much as, say, the side of the house, is stupid solid.
After a couple hours I had at least widened the opening enough that I could safely stand inside the cistern and work from there, but the big pry bar wasn't cutting it. I went inside, grabbed a hammer and cold chisel, and figured - again, ridiculous amounts of incorrectly - I'd plow through the rest of the cap in no time.
Truth is, a demo hammer would have been the perfect tool for the job but I don't own one, it was too late in the day to go rent one, and I didn't want to drop $800+ on a tool for a job this small. So I kept banging away with the hammer and chisel.
Once I got enough brick and dirt removed to where I could crouch down and halfway comfortably see the walls of the cistern, I noticed the inlet pipe. The other end of it is very much sticking up above ground at the corner of the house where the existing downspout drops from the gutter.
I also noticed one of Freckles' footballs; she must have dropped it down there while chasing squirrels or, more likely, the resident neighborhood possum.
I swung that hammer until my arm started cramping up and my swing-and-miss rate got a little embarrassing. Once you start hitting your chisel-holdin'-hand more than the chisel, it's time to call 'er a day.
I still have a couple courses of cistern cap brick to get rid of but I got a lot done this weekend. That said, I'm going back and forth on my plan to remove the dirt from inside the cistern.
I was expecting the cistern to be 3 ft., maybe 4 ft. deep, but it's not, it's every bit of 6 ft. deep. In its shallowest spot. By my math, that means there's about 10 cubic yards of dirt in the cistern.
My stubbornness is making me want to give 'er a go and dig out the 10 yds. of dirt, although having a place to dump it is a whole other issue. By the end of each work day my ambition isn't so high and I feel like maybe whatever's at the bottom of the cistern - which may be nothing at all - should just stay there.
Either way, I've still got some tough, tough labor ahead of me to just remove the cap brick, so I have some time to give it all a little more thought...