John O'Hara: The Cabin I Built
Updated: Mar 20, 2022
Now, then, I recall the day in 1851 I brought my bride, Mary Haggerty, home to the log cabin I built on the Mexico Road. The cabin was one room, 16 by 20 feet. There was a fireplace to one gabled end, with a great hearthstone that we had pulled from the fields. Oh, the stones! The stones we pulled from the earth to make room to grow hay! You could have built a bridge to Ireland with them!
I’ll tell you what it was like inside that cabin. Well, I’ll tell you first, what it was not! ot wet. Not cold. Not dark. Back home in Ardee, we had one window in our hut, and we blocked that up, for they placed a greater tax on a home with a window! I put two winders in the front of the cabin, and one in the back. There was light for sewing and peeling, on the darkest of days. There were no great trees right by our cabin. They’d all been shipped off as potash that they used to make glass, long before we came. The stumps now, they left. We near killed ourselves, pulling out roots. Those trees must have been kingly when they stood: hemlock, maple, oak. Didn’t they do the same to Ireland in the old days: stripped the forest from the land, leaving only stumps and stones.
But, since there were no great trees near the house, ah the sun! It shone through the small glass panes and fell on the table where I would work. I could feel the heat of it on the backs of my hands.
To the side of the cabin, I made a little wall of stones, and Mary and my mother planted potatoes, turnips and cabbages, like we did at home, and some things we never ate before. Things that people from Prussia eat. At least, it was Mrs. Miller who helped them to grow the rhubarb and the carrots, the tomatoes and the beans. The Millers lived across the Road. The Millers, somehow, wound up on the part of Mexico Road where all the Irish settled, rather than down by Curtis Corners, where the Germans made homes. I don’t know why. I’m glad they did.
I’ll tell you more about the cabin. You could stand in the front doorway and see out the back window. To the right of the door, as you came in, was a cupboard I made out of wood I got from the Baldwin’s sawmill, in exchange for work. In the bottom, my mother kept the linens she took with her from Ireland. She’d worked on them, herself, when she was a girl. Every girl made cloths for the table, and napkins, and night caps and bed linens to take to her marriage. Things she’d never sell, at any price. Although, I’ll tell you, there were times when we would have given them over to anyone who could give us the food to last through the hungry season, or to buy passage to America for one of us. But, things were so hard by then, there was no one to buy. We were lucky to have enough money to get me to America in 1844, and it was my job to see that, one by one, I brought my mother and siblings to this side of the water. I left before The Great Hunger. The rest of the family was not so lucky, but everyone was here by 1851. By that time, “The Famine” was abating in Ireland.
To the other side of the linen cupboard, there was the window, with a little rocking chair beneath it. There my mother sat, many a time, working at her sewing. She knew how to make the tiniest stitches in the straightest way. She’d run the needle down up down up down up down up, and then pull the thread just so it was smooth—not taut. Then, down up down up down up down up, and pull again. She made aprons, waists and skirts, dresses and coats, petticoats and camisoles, shifts and shirts, trousers and caps. Caps! We boys never were content with her caps! Every one of us wanted a store-bought cap. She never made any sense of that.
Beyond the window, there was a corner cupboard where we kept the outside clothes: shawls, coats, hats, and boots. It was also where, in the winter, we kept the harness when it needed working on, the shovels that needed sharpening, things that I would take care of in the evening by the fire. On the other side of the fireplace, we kept a cot for sleeping. I made a frame for it so it could be hidden with a curtain. That’s where Mary and I slept. The rest of the family slept up in the loft.
INSERT SKETCH OF FIREPLACE.
Mary brought to the marriage a feather bed. You never saw such a thing in your life! She loved it as much as anything she ever owned. She set out to raise geese when she was fourteen, just to get the down for her mattress and a comforter made of blue and white ticking cloth. It turned out to be a quilt that was the envy of all on Mexico Road!
Now, between the bed and the back door, I had placed another window. It was a decision I suffered over. The more windows, the more the draft. I don’t have to tell you northeastern American people about the harshness of the winters along Mexico Road n Salisbury, New York. In the end, cold notwithstanding, light won out over draft. There was a window! It looked out to the first of my fields, to the north, and beyond them to the mountain wilderness. I built a table that came just to the sill, and a stool to go with it. The stool had a little back on it, to give Mary and my mother comfort while they worked at peeling or husking or cutting for our meals and jars of preserves for our root cellar. The table was about two feet wide, and the top was made from a single slice of a maple tree, about six inches thick. Every time they used it, they cleaned it first with a stiff brush and lye soap. And when the work was done, they cleaned it again.
Now, here’s the back door. There’s a flat stone, not as great as the hearthstone, as you step out, then two lines of small, flat stones leading in two directions: one to the little apple trees we planted, where a bench sat; the other path led to the privy. At first, it was only a one-seater, but it was improved greatly over the years. It was far enough away from the house for sanitary reasons, and too far from the house for comfort!
On the other side of the back door, there was a narrow little stairway with no bannister, leading to a loft that ran from front to back on this side of the cabin. Underneath the stairway, there were little cubbie holes where we kept bits and pieces of our lives: books, candles, towels, brushes, and so forth. Moving along from the stairs, on the wall opposite the fireplace, was a long bench with a back to it, with open shelves underneath it. We’d keep afghans and lap robes on those shelves, and sometimes, we’d move the whole bench across the room and put it right in front of the fireplace. It can get really cold, sometimes, in the Adirondack foothills. In front of that bench, there was a little bench-table. The top was half a log, with splinters sanded down somewhat. Not so fancy you couldn’t put your feet up on it. That was portable, too, and went from fireside to outside, depending upon the doings of the household. Underneath the front window on this side of the cabin stood a three-legged table with lamp upon it that was kept lit until the last one was home at night.
In the middle of the room, beneath a hanging wrought-iron candle holder that I got at the blacksmith’s in exchange for work, stood the table. It was as plain as they come. The pine planks were the same as the ones I used for the floor. I built it large, as if I knew how many O’Haras would be pulling up the benches to that board.
The inside walls were chinked with white, between the yellow pine logs. The fresh smell of the forest was rich in those days, and come back to you whenever you cut into that woody flesh to hang a shelf or a peg. Now, many cabins had dirt floors, but not ours. I had listened to someone wiser than we were, and put in a pine floor, with a trap door leading to a root cellar beneath it. I built better than I knew. That little cellar served well, giving us potatoes to plant in the spring, and keeping our preserves cool, even in the summer. The floor could be swept and scrubbed; that made the heart of two Irish women glad.