Cider House, Part 8

Now that it is blisteringly hot, it’s time to work on the sunny side of the cider house. Actually, Virginia and Michael have been working on this side in Part 7, it just seems particularly cruel that they are here again in July. Now they are replacing the rest of the sill on the west side and repairing and rehanging the sliding door.

They have decided that they will do the interesting stuff whenever I walk away for a few minutes to check on sheep or spin or bake bread. That’s why I missed the toppling of this post. Both of the posts here have been cut off for reasons I can’t explain and so they must be lengthened. This one could be removed to be repaired because there is no tie beam attached to it. That makes the repair easier. The corner post has to be repaired “in situ”.

Toppled post

A concrete and stone foundation wall that was built under these posts has been demolished and will be repurposed as a small mountain for the sheep to climb on. That’s good for their hooves.

Broken concrete wall

The corner post was sitting on an upended stone which itself was just sitting on the ground. After taking the weight off of the stone, Michael trimmed it to begin repairing it in situ since there is a tie beam attached to it.


While I stepped away to collect eggs or pull weeds or trim all those boxwoods, they put it the rest of the sill on this side of the cider house. It seems a little bassackward but now Virginia is placing stones under the sill for the foundation. Whatever works.

Building the foundation

Once the corner post is repaired, it is secured to the sill. Then the repaired center post is put into place.

This completes the structural repairs to the west side of the cider house so the rigging can be removed. Now you can see scarf joint in the sill and the three repaired posts.

The south half of the upper level of the cider house

Now we need some siding. Virginia dragged old floor boards from the north end of the upper level and power washed them to make “new siding”.

So then I sent off to do some plying with Red’s help but she just doesn’t seem to understand how the process works.

Plying with Red’s help

When I came back a drainage ditch was dug, the large doorway was framed out, the siding was up and they were repairing the old barn door.

After adding a plywood backing and replacing the bottom of the door, it was very heavy. Fortunately, Michael read a book about how to move heavy stuff.

And it works!

Closing the barn door

Although the south end still needs a new sill as well, this won’t require lifting it, it’s already where it belongs. So Virginia can now finish repairing the siding, install windows and paint.

The front (south side) of the cider house now has windows and Virginia has replaced some of the siding around them. The door is original and has the date “1859”. With a fresh coat of paint/stain, it’s almost as good as new.


The east side was finished some time ago but has now been painted and looks really spiffy.

On the north side, the door will get a small roof to keep the rain from getting on the sill and prevent the rot that destroyed the old sill.

North side

Finally, the west side, which faces the house, has a person door and the large sliding door.

The room in the south half of the upper level still needs a floor so there will be another post once we get the flooring and joists from the sawmill. And the cider house will also get a new metal roof, but that will be next year.

In the meantime, here’s Ivy out grazing with the lambs.

Ivy and the lambs

Cider House, Part 7

Now that the long, cold, snowy and thoroughly depressing winter is over, it’s time to move upstairs to add the floor above the lower level. Then we can have barn dances and parties and such. But before Virginia and Michael can do that they have to replace another sill and somehow get the last floor joist in.

The last joist goes just inside here

There are several problems to deal with here. The new sill is almost in place but must be shoved under this post over the interior stone wall. On the right, behind the staging, there is another post that is too short. Then the new joist has to go inside behind these posts.

Ironically, the sill goes in first to sit under and support the posts. A cant hook and mallet do the trick.

The short post gets an extension so it will sit on the sill. The other post is securely locked in place.

The left end of the sill will be attached to what’s left of the original sill. Here you can see the gap where the last joist has to go. It will be partially supported by the dropped header below.

The sill in place

Now, on to the joist. First Michael gives it a few final touches with a chisel while Virginia finishes rebuilding the stone foundation under the sill.

Using log rollers, timbers and various tools, Michael aims the joist toward its final resting place and shoves it in.

After a lot of finagling, the tenon on the end of the joist sits above the mortis where it’s supposed to go. Using the staging and the hoists, Virginia maneuvers the other end while Michael pries the tenon down towards the mortis.

All seems to be going well and they are ready for the final push.

No one panic

Not to be deterred, they use the hoists and a rock bar to get the joist back into position. All that’s needed now is a little nudge.

Stoppa stoppa

With the one end in place Michael lowers the other end onto the center stone wall. Originally, there was a mortis and tenon on this end as well but the stone wall works just fine.

Pusha pusha

It’s still stuck, but with Red supervising all it takes is a final stomp to get this end in place.


With all the sills in this half of the cider house repaired or replaced and the joists in, the floor can finally be laid down using new 1 1/2 inch planks. The old floor boards have been power washed and are now being used as siding.

For the first time I can stand in the middle of this room and look up at the beautiful interior structure. Happy days.

Now that the north half of the cider house is just about complete, Virginia, the former scenic artist, starts the onerous job of painting it with a combination paint/stain. Barn Red, of course.

Cider House, Part 6

Belt and suspenders.

Today is not about restoration but about shoring up the floor system in the north bay. Although three floor joists will have been replaced, and two others sistered when Michael and Virginia are done, it is safer to provide some extra support for the large span. Besides, I’ve been told I am not allowed to set up a horse driven cider mill like in the old days.

This was the most amazing thing I have seen Michael and Virginia do on the cider house so far. Michael has built a two-part dropped header to support the joists of the floor above. The first part was done while I was busy with the sheep, but from this you can see what the goal is for the second part, which I will show you.

The each part of the truss assembly is composed of a dropped header held up by a post sitting on a concrete footing with braces, all pinned together with wooden pegs. The far end will also be supported by the stone wall. The two parts will then be joined together with a scarf joint.

The first truss in place

To set up the second assembly, Michael and Virginia first raise the second dropped header so the post and braces can be joined to it with mortises and tenons.

Raising the second dropped header

With the second dropped header at the height of the first one, you can see why I think this is so impressive. This is called a scarf joint. It allows you to make a long timber out of two shorter ones. To get the timber on the left on top of the timber on the right, it must be slid about two feet to the right so the scarf joint closes and the supporting post sits on the concrete footer.

Scarf joint

But first the post and braces had to be fitted to the header with mortise and tenon joints.

Virginia used a come-along to lift the the post and braces so the tenons slid into the mortises of the header, which was suspended from the joists above.

Lifting post and braces to the header

The final step was to slide the post+braces+header about two feet to the right so that the two headers are joined at the scarf joint with the post sitting on the footing. Phew! The bottom of the post has a slot that will slide over the knife plate on the footing. It also has three holes that must line up with the holes on the metal blade to accommodate metal pins.

The footing ready for the post

So here is the entire structure ready to be moved into place. You can see why it was necessary to use the scarf joint to install this support structure in two stages.

The whole structure

Using the come-along, Michael very slowly and very carefully slid the structure into place.

Sliding the structure into place

With some encouragement from a mallet, the post slid over the knife plate on the footing.

The post in position

And the scarf joint closed, needing only a couple of whacks with the mallet. Now it is perfectly aligned and level. Magic.

The scarf joint perfectly level

The final steps where inserting wooden pegs into all the joints and shims between the dropped header and the joists above. The metal pins at the bottom of the posts were hidden with peg nubs.

Pegs, shims and floor boards

Next, work moves to the west side of the cider house where another sill must be replaced.

Cider House, Part 5

Time for some siding!!! First, Michael and Virginia cannibalized the old bead board flooring from the other side of the upper floor.

Flooring removed

Second, now that the plywood has been removed, Michael used the “commander” to pound on the outside of the repaired sill to give it a final nudge into place

Pounding the sill into place

Next, Michael power washed the floor boards to make them beautiful even though they are over a hundred years old.

Power washed floorboards for siding

Then, he frame out some windows, which were found for free, and made the cider house beautiful.


From the inside, the two upper level, floorless rooms look like this.

There is one last job to perform on the lower level, a matter of belt and suspenders.

Cider House, Part 4

The lesson for today is how two, not-very-burly, people can move an 950lb timber into the lower level of the cider house, hoist it to the main level to replace a missing joist. This is one of three missing joists. Once they are all in place the new floor can be laid down and we can have a barn dance.

Rollers under the timber

A couple of strategically placed rollers under the timber made it possible for Virginia and Michael to move it around. However the timber must be snaked through the staging that was still needed in order to lift the joist up to the upper level.

So the first thing was to pass the timber under the staging. Then it was pivoted around shoved into the cider house.

Next it joist was hoisted up to the upper level. But, it’s a tight fit.

No, no, no ,no, no, no

Originally, the joists would not have been installed like this. They would have been brought directly into the upper level from above before the walls and roof were built. However, by some miracle it just fits, until it doesn’t.

What to do? With a little digging and some shoving, Michael and Virginia get the joist free. And then up it goes.

Hoisting the joist

You may be wondering what the strategy is here. Shouldn’t they be raising the joist into the space where it is to eventually go? Unfortunately, it’s more complicated than that. This 950lb timber must be securely supported as it is lowered into place. So they must first set it on top of timbers laid across the existing joists and then slide it into place.

I didn’t get a picture of this, so imagine that there is a timber lying across the top of that staging and that the joist was slid onto it. Using the jacks on the staging Michael and Virginia gradual lower this end of the joist. You can see the mortise in the sill above the cripple wall where the tenon on the joist is to go. And here it is slipping into place just like it knew where to go. Notice the studs for the cripple wall are wider at the top to provide extra support for the joists. Belt and suspenders.

At the other end, they just have to lower the joist onto the foundation wall. Michael used a pry bar to shove the tenon further into the mortise at the other end. You can see the old mortise where the tenon of original joist fit.

Now all the structural work on this side of the cider house is complete so the staging can be removed. Here are the new sill, cripple wall and joists.

It only remains to add some framing for the siding and some old windows found on the side of the road.

The Cider House, part 3

Well, I thought the worst was over when Virginia and Michael replaced the 26 foot sill on the east side of the cider house in Part 2. Now I’m told that the most dangerous step is the next one, rebuilding the cripple wall on the north side. The sill above it was repaired in Part 1.

The first step was to jack the sill up off of the old supports and then remove those supports, which included an ancient rusty jack that was cemented into the foundation wall.

Removing the old cripple wall

Michael cut a bunch of studs that flare at the top so that they will support both the sill and the joists on the inside. Then they assembled the cripple wall on supports just outside of the foundation wall.

Assembling the cripple wall

Once assembled, the pieces were pegged together.

Before the cripple wall was slid into place, Michael cut a cog into it.


Then ever so slowly with a lot of banging and pushing, the cripple wall was slid into place between the foundation wall and the sill. You can see the cog in the upper left hand corner of the picture.

Cripple wall in place

With the sills now at the proper height, the corner of the cider house has been raised about a foot.

Old height of the bottom of the sill

This is why this step of the restoration was so dangerous. Over the course of several days the corner of the cider house was jacked up an inch or so at a time and allowed to settle into the new position before being raised any higher. If it was raised too quickly, something could have snapped. It had to be coaxed ever so gently back into a position it hadn’t seen in decades.

The final step was to cover the opening with siding. The old flooring that was pulled up on the upper level was power washed to remove over a century of paint and crud. These boards were then used for the siding.

“New” siding

Tar paper was slipped under the old siding above the opening and in front of the bottom timber of the cripple wall. The siding above was bevel cut underneath so the “new” siding could slip behind these boards to keep water off of the upper edge of the new siding.

And if, someday, someone should remove the siding they will discover the initials and date: VG MMXX.


The Cider House, Part 2

The sills and joists have arrived! One sill is 26 feet long and you’ll see it magically lifted about 8 feet and slipped into place on the back of the structure. But first they need to be shaped and hewn so they can replace missing or rotted timbers.

Joists and Sills

Virginia has been acquiring axes just for this purpose. She even has two “Gifford” axes. One is stamped “Iohn A Gifford” and the other is stamped “I A Gifford Troy”.

A Slight Diversion

I was very excited and immediately started looking for the family connection. I found no iron works in Troy, NY, but I did find one in nearby Hudson run by an Elihu Gifford. He was also the father of Sanford Robinson Gifford, the Hudson Valley Artist. The iron works passed down to Elihu’s sons and grandsons and eventually became the Gifford Wood Company. But there was no John Gifford involved.

The only iron works connected to a John Gifford was in Lynn, Massachusetts in the 1600s. The Company of Undertakers of the Iron Works in New England, founded by John Winthrop the Younger and several other colonial entrepreneurs, was established in 1645. John Gifford became managing agent of the works in Lynn in 1650 and had frequent clashes with the company, which was sold in 1658.

But the demise of the Lynn iron works at the end of the 17th century resulted in the disbursement of the skilled iron workers throughout New England. On a side note, the Lynn iron works have been restored and can be toured at the Saugus Iron Works National Historic Site. I don’t know what happened to this John Gifford.  But Virginia found the will of a John Gifford who died in 1788 in Little Compton, RI. The significance of this John Gifford is that he specifically mentions his “blacksmith tools” in his will. 

But this doesn’t get us to Troy. Then Michael found that there was another Troy, not in Ancient Greece but in Massachusetts, not far from Little Compton, RI. For thirty years, from 1804 to 1834,“Troy” was the name of what was previously and subsequently Fall River. Not only that, but the Fall River Iron Works were established by Richard Borden and Bradford Durfee in 1821. So now I have another iron works in Troy, but only from 1821 to 1834. This narrows the date of the axes.

If Iohn A. Gifford worked in this iron works then we have our maker of the axes. Unfortunately, or fortunately,  the early Giffords were prolific so there were many John Giffords but little information about them. So this must remain a mystery for now. However, before I return to the cider house, I just want to mention one last thing. Remember Richard Borden, the co-founder of the Fall River Iron Works?  In 1892, Borden’s grandson was murdered, along with his wife, apparently by his daughter, Lizzie, with an axe.

Back to the Cider House

Before the timbers can be lifted into place, they must first be shaped. Here Virginia is creating a flat surface on the log by chopping off the sections between the cuts that Michael made with a chain saw. Then she uses a hewing ax to smooth the flat surface. Behind her you can see the ruin of an early stone structure that she and Michael plan to rebuild.

Here is the 26 foot sill that will be replaced today. Bonus discovery: Alexander Higgins carved his initials around 1860 when he placed a new support beam under the rotting sill. This support beam has now rotted as well and will be removed.

Virginia and Michael maneuvered the new sill down to the back of the cider house and into place below the old one. I think they must have had some gremlins helping when I wasn’t looking. Then Michael and Virginia cut the old sill and support timber to free the rotted section.

Finally the magic happens. By some sorcery that I do not comprehend they gently tug on these chains and the sill and timber float to the ground.

Removing cider house timbers

After settling these on blocks the process is reversed and the new sill floats into place.

Raising the new sill

Here you can also see the wide opening on the lower level that made such a long sill necessary. Alexander Higgins went to great “lengths” to preserve this opening by lifting that huge timber into place below the rotting sill. He could have just put vertical supports under it.  But this large span was itself necessary to allow room for a horse driven cider mil on the lower level. 

Horse-driven apple press and duck

There was fine tuning needed on the upper level to get the various timbers in alignment. Now it’s safety pinned together while they move on to the knee wall. 

And they did all this without disturbing the bats. 

The Cider House, Part 1

This is not a wreck. This is what remains of an old distillery operated by Alexander Higgins, who owned the farm from 1856 until his death in 1905.

The Cider House

When we first bought the farm there was a family of turkey vultures living in it. The baby finally grew up and left. Now the dogs keep them away.

A previous resident

We have two clues to the age of the cider house. One is the 1877 Hunterdon County map where the distillery appears at its current location next to the house.

Hunterdon County 1873 Beers, Comstock & Cline

The other clue is a “date door” (there’s no date stone) inscribed “AHMSWERER 1867” which I have made every effort to interpret as “Alexander H Higgins” to no avail. However the structure appears to have been cobbled together from other older ones so there may not be a definitive date.

“Ahmswerer 1867”

I’ll leave the technical description to Michael Cuba who is helping Virginia restore the cider house. I’ll just give you my impressions.  Here they have removed the floor boards to allow for adding supports for some of the joists. You can also see the scaffolding that takes the weight off sills that will be repaired or replaced.

Here you can see the support added to joists

This sill had extensive water damage from the door above it. Part of it has been replaced. The completion of this requires some delicate hand work.

Repaired sill

Virginia is doing the handwork to make pegs to pound into holes to hold the whole Jenga tower together. She’s also making shavings for kindling.

Making pegs

With all the pieces in place Virginia uses a leather mallet to pound the pegs into place. Michael supervises.

Pounding pegs

This giant sill is being held up by this rigging until it can be replaced. This sill provides a very wide span in the lower level. Such a large open area may have been needed for a press if it was driven by a horse or steer walking in a circle. We just don’t know.

Damaged and supported sill

This stone wall at the back of that large area in the lower level had collapsed eons ago and Virginia has partially rebuilt it. It will eventually go up to support the sill above it when that timber is replaced.

Repair of collapsed wall

Virginia dug a trench outside the rebuilt wall to divert the rainwater. You can see the support taking the weight off of the damaged sill.

Drainage trench

Virginia is placing more stones and lime mortar on the wall. She has also rebuilt the section of wall behind her to restore support to the repaired sill.

Rebuilding collapsed wall

Here Virginia has rebuilt an entire corner of the foundation. 

Restored foundation corner

This rigging takes the weight off that corner of the foundation so it could be rebuilt.

More rigging

There is still a lot of stone work to do to repair the lower level stone foundation. Virginia does all of these repair with lime mortar to prevent further damage to the stones.

Up next: The new sills and joists arrive. Somehow Michael and Virginia will move them around to the other side of the cider house and lift them into place. I think I’ll find some place else to be that day.