Old house razing entertains, educates Basswood brothers

For these four lads it was a chance to wreck something for praise, not retribution

The author, centre, with his parents, in front of the white picket fence built with reclaimed boards from the razed house. photos: submitted

The Mennonite brethren may be known for their barn raising, but in the summer of 1975, four Manitoba brothers gained notoriety for an old farmhouse razing.

The farmhouse, along the main entrance to Basswood, and just off the Yellowhead Hwy., was a perfect spot for villagers to witness the destruction. In fact, we could have rented lawn chairs, peddled sodas, and sold hotdogs to curious locals.

This story began five years earlier when Mom and Dad bought out elderly neighbours. Their 250 acres squeezed between our land and the hamlet. So Dad just made a few “cuts” through the overgrown road allowance, and we had great access to the new addition. Handy.

The couple negotiated with Mom and Dad to remain in their modest farmhouse. My parents gladly granted them that privilege.

Their farm matched ours: rolling hills, a big lake in the middle, and it bordered the Yellowhead Highway to the north. However, just west of Basswood was a notch cut out for the cemetery.

Dad made cemetery jokes like, “Why are there fences around cemeteries? People are just dying to get in.” Huummm. Not that funny to us youngsters.

The land addition was ordinary, but it had two small tracts north across the Yellowhead. That meant we could “show off” by hauling big hayrack loads through Basswood, often to Dad’s annoyance. Those power lines sag lowly, he observed.

In July of 1972, this story endured a tragedy. The elderly folks perished in a car accident northeast of Erickson. Dad mentioned loose gravel and an obscured intersection as the culprits. Sad news. Mom and Dad had enjoyed the company of this “adopted” couple, visiting them for conversation and coffee. The farmhouse warmth had welcomed them in many times.

The Basswood sign, on the Yellowhead Highway. The small bluff of trees to the left marks the spot where the old house stood. photo: Submitted

Three years later, after we completed the haying in early August, our parents announced they were going to tear down the old house, “before the rodents could take over completely,” I remember Mom saying. Fair enough.

Older brother David had just obtained his driver’s licence and he could legally drive our blue pickup through Basswood. My older sisters had recently graduated from high school and had moved west to Alberta. The house destruction assignment fell to us four brothers, aged 10 to 16.

Mom and Dad immediately planned a week-long vacation. They had heard of wild blueberries in the Swan River/Minetonas area and they wanted to scout them and pick. Dad did mention that he expected to see work done when they returned.

Mom reminded us to “Be careful!” and to “Be kind to one another.”

On Monday, we went to the house and started pulling nails. And we had a revelation. This was more fun than it was work.

I suppose most young boys have a destructive urge. This may have been the ultimate manifestation. Wreck this house and we’d receive praise instead of retribution. Upside down, yes – but crazy good.

The humble house was maybe only 800 ft. sq. on a main floor and had an attic. In the space of a long day, we had the roof stripped off. We even cleaned and stacked the used lumber.

In the days that followed, the walls yielded their wood-shavings insulation, their slat-board plaster, and we pulled up the linoleum floors. We tossed it all into the empty basement.

When the parents came home (with blueberries for jam), not only had we kept up with the chores, Dad claimed we had made great progress on demolition. And Mom noted that while she had heard vague reports of quarrels, the older brothers had not bullied the younger ones. That was the progress she wanted.

The poor lady’s kitchen was in shambles though. We lived on jam sandwiches, raw carrots, and gluey macaroni. Plus, we let the dishes pile up. The demolition was a higher calling, we decided.

For the next three weeks, and mainly without Dad there, we kept at it. You could say we acted out episodes of TV’s “This Old House” in reverse – wrecking things, not fixing them. We were wanton junior carpenters run amok.

If we broke a light fixture, big deal! We tore out windows and threw the whole frames into the basement with a loud smash. And we hung from cupboard handles until the whole door broke loose. We knew Dad would pack down the debris with his heavy 955 Caterpillar track loader, cover it with dirt, and then scatter brome grass/alfalfa seed. Who would be the wiser come spring?

We had little aggression left when school began again in September. Who were these four mild Basswood farm boys? Instead of placing rivals in headlocks on the bus, we’d just as soon read them poetry.

We salvaged most of the lumber and hauled it home. After the harvest, Dad started two modest projects: a lean-to shed for the mix-mill and tractor, and a smaller garage-type structure for the hay baler and for his brand new sickle mower.

The bonus for Dad was that he now had four experienced sons who knew how to use a gooseneck wrecking bar, a hammer, and other carpentry tools. I’m sure he smiled as he fitted a board and a chorus of hammers nailed it down. The buildings weren’t fancy – gravel floors, a few rafters were 2x4s spliced together – but the shelters were practical and sturdy against Manitoba rains, winds and winters.

A year later, we brothers built a classic white picket fence around Mom’s garden using more reclaimed lumber from the old house. She was thrilled.

In a familiar almost comforting way, the old boards from the old house now had new life.

In a few years, David left home and began to apprentice as a carpenter in Alberta (and he became a journeyman). I worked through four college summers building and renovating houses. My younger brothers, Tim and Ron, have successfully tackled home fix-it pro­jects.

Perhaps we could credit all that to lessons learned from that razed farmhouse. And if not, we sure had fun anyways.

Mark Kihn writes of his Manitoba memories from his home in Calgary.

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