The Haunted Milk House (part two)

The old Milk House had only a tar paper roof, so leaks were a constant problem. My father bought many cans of tar and some kind of silver sealant to fix the roof. The building was never considered valuable enough to shingle or replace the roof. I do not think Dad ever considered that human feet rather than water were responsible for the chronic infiltration that ruined the ceilings and walls.

The scary interior presented the most danger. Photo by Holly Rudolph on Unsplash

My brothers and I walked on the roof with frightening regularity. We did not even need a ladder. It was easy to vault onto the roof of the tool shed and then hoist oneself onto the top of the Milk House. The roof was a great place to make myself scarce if my mother required something of me. When I heard her voice, I would lie flat and still on the side, away from the house, until she stopped calling. Because the house was her sole domain, I cannot recall that she ever caught me. She assumed I was somewhere out on the farm or at a neighbor’s house. I had considerable freedom in my youth, although I did not think so then.

I was never injured from a fall off the roof. The scary interior of the structure presented the most danger. 

Water and smoke had tanned the once-white walls, cracked from the entire structure slipping into the deep clay soil. A network of deep crevices covered the whole floor and exposed dirt the builders had poured upon decades before. Meanwhile, refuse of years clogged the floor drains. I imagined others were as terrified as I would be to clear those broad drains for fear of what they might find. Useless and corroded electrical wires hung from disconnected fixtures. No one could remember a time when the lights worked. Two double and two single windows, all cracked and missing panes and glazing, provided daylight as long as the yellowed paper shades were up. But the latter did not work, so someone had torn a few rollers from their hardware. The ceiling panels of paperboard were suspended intact upon a suspended wooden gridwork. The panels made a complete set that hid the forgotten attic, but water damage had bowed each of them so that they looked like the underbellies of pregnant sows. Adults warned me never to succumb to the temptation to poke the bellies for fear an ancient witches-brew of stagnant water and bat guano would gush upon my head.

While this house had not stored milk for ages, it was the repository of family cast-offs. My inventory of the remembered contents includes a clothes press, a chicken plucker, paint cans, snow tires, bicycle skeletons, salvaged exterior lumber, and turn-of-the-century armchairs. Nobody cared about the things that we stored here except that they did not not care enough to junk them. My dad almost had exclusive rights to the salvage man who hauled away the burn barrels, old cars, farm machinery, and rusted implements that were the never-ending projects of the hobby farmer. Yet the contents of the Milk House were never touched.

Camp NaNoWriMo Challenge

Abiding clutter took on a mystical quality that fueled my fear by association because of what surprised me when I entered the building. The floor was sometimes covered with mouse or rat feces, and my job was to sweep it up. I gagged from the smell of dead birds that would get in but could not escape. I learned that mice love to die in old tires. On several occasions, I found their soft mummified corpses when my father asked me to haul out a snow tire. Worse was the dead body of a large gray cat, decomposing in an old, bald whitewall. But what could have given me PTSD if I had known what it was in the 1960s was that dratted Great Western Duplex cabinet heater. To me, that stove was the Prime Malevolent Mover of the haunting.

[Next post: The Great Western Cabinet Stove.]

What’s this? Ale for Easter?

Every Anglophilic fan of Miss Marple knows about the church jumble sale phenomenon. To raise funds for the parish, a church may collect donated used goods and sell them as a special event. One might ask why this communal yard sale flourished in England. And the answer seems to be that this cultural commonplace came about because of urbanization and industrialization. Cities had larger consumer pools. Industrialization spawned piles of castoff manufactured goods. More importantly, what preceded jumble sales in history, and what does it have to do with Easter?

The Church Ale

In early modern (1450-1750) England, it was not unusual for a local congregation to hold a “Church Ale” on Easter Sunday. Preparation for this event took about a week. Proud locals would offer favorite recipes from barley or malt mixed with water, yeast, and spices. Homemade ale was warm, dark, thick, and spoiled quickly. Ale was an essential accompaniment to the other outdoor social activities and entertainments that made up Easter weekend. It may have been a significant draw to church services! The reformer German Martin Luther (1483-1546) understood the demand for a good drink in the sixteenth century:

When a good beer is available at a certain place, everybody runs there without delay, knowing that the supply will not last long. This commodity is not to be had every day; therefore, people get it while it is to be had. If it could be obtained for a long period of time, our appetite would become surfeited, and the beer would not be prized. (Luther, Works, Vol. 23, p. 262).

Church Ales managed to survive the English Reformation. They faded into oblivion with the industrial revolution when tavern-goers left brewing to specialists who supplied busy city-dwellers. Because we tend to see the Protestant church’s social behavior through the filter of eighteenth-century Pietism, this is surprising. Later in America, through the influence of pietistic Methodists and Baptists, teetotaling became the mark of the Christian.

Church Ales. Could it be that the time has come to bring back this old idea? This is only a pondering. You didn’t hear me suggest it.

Of ale, taxes, and the gospel.

Two final notes. First, a loyal subject of the monarch (who was the Supreme Head of the Church of England) would prefer ale. The hopelessly xenophobic Renaissance hobbits considered beer to be a suspicious foreign concoction. The inclusion of (Egad!) hops sullied beer’s reputation. They considered hops a “wicked and pernicious weed” (Unger, Beer, (2004), p. 100) even though their Protestant counterparts in Germany preferred beer because the pope did not tax hops. They could drink their fill without supporting the Roman church! Second: Luther’s quote above illustrates the preaching of the gospel. He says the gospel of grace is a limited-time offer (like the excellent beer). We should not become complacent, thinking it will always be available!

Could the time have come to bring back Church Ales? This is only a pondering. You didn’t hear me suggest it.