An ox and four men with crowbars
“It probably took four guys with crowbars and an ox to get it in place . . . it took one guy with a yellow ox to move it,” Island contractor John Littlefield says of the large rock lying on the south side of the Historical Society building and a modern-day backhoe — the yellow ox he referred to. He is working on the latest phase of restoring the building, replacing the rotted front porch, decking, supports, lattice, everything under the roof, work funded largely through grants secured by Executive Director Pam Gasner.
John was in the midst of a quick tour for Society Board members after a recent meeting, breezing past the porch roof held up by temporary supports leaving exposed the new pointed stone foundation, which would have been a distraction on another day.
“When I found it I had to call Ed right away,” Littlefield said and board member Ed Northup adds, “And I came right down!”
It was, it turns out, more than just a rock. John thought, and Ed and Geoff Lawrence agreed, that it was an old step, like all houses on Block Island once had. It is not like some of these old steps, a regular slab; rather it is imperfect once out of the earth — level in a fashion only when set by those guys and their ox with its misshapen side turned down, its flatter surface exposed.
“There was one at my grandmother’s,” Ed said of the little house he and his wife Wendy have owned and carefully tended for years. “It was under about a foot of earth.”
This one was under the porch of the Historical Society, found when the flooring was torn up. “They set a cement column on it,” John surmised when the porch was extended. “It’s archeology!” he has often said about working on old houses, looking for clues, the common date on a shingle or newspaper and sometimes finding things not so immediately evident. He proceeded to put together the pieces of the past.
The building began as a Cape Cod, he explained. “Before they had plaster to cover it they just had exposed sheathing, whitewashed, like my father’s house and yours,” he said with a nod to me. “I found those walls when I took apart the north side last year. They were the originals.” Even on a warm September day, the thought of living with so fragile a buffer against the winter is chilling.
John leads everyone back to the front of the building and tells them to look at the structure, the Woonsocket House, built upon and above that original cottage. “It just looks symmetrical, it isn’t when you look at it.” The spaces between the three windows that would have been part of the first addition, the one turning a humble home to a small summer hotel, are even; the gap between the third and fourth screamingly obvious once it is pointed out. The same is true of the second floor and the first floor, the windows and doors below the porch roof follow traditional form excepting that addition on the south.
Turning his attention back to the rock he said, “I figure this was set below the steps before they added the last twelve feet.” John added that there also had been a corresponding addition to the south end of the porch, a detail he often sees when working on old houses that had multiple alternations.
He is optimistic the slab can be used again, with the assistance of a diesel-fueled yellow ox, set as footing for new steps that will lead down from the reconstructed porch. The rock, for now, is basking in the sun after over 100 years in the darkness, under the porch.