Published in Northern Home, Garden & Leisure
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By Joshua Miner
Photography by John Mitchell
It was 1995, and Bill and Scarlett McBride had just closed on a house in Peru, New York. They weren’t just purchasing a home, though. In all reality, they were opening a time capsule. Over the course of the next five years, the McBrides would ultimately find themselves transported to the early 1800s, when both the United States and the Village of Peru were still in their infancy.
In 1875, John Cochran founded the Village of Peru, building a home and gristmill along the banks of the Little Ausable River and laying the foundation for a thriving economy. The population had begun growing by 1808, when his son, Robert Cochran, built his own home, which would go on to be a stagecoach stop for weary travelers. To this day, the carriage stone leading to the front steps of the home proudly displays the Cochran family crest.
Starting with only a spattering of settlers, by 1810 the village would grow to 1,923 residents. By 1820 that number would grow to 2,710. While Peru expanded, the Cochrans were well on their way to establishing a name for themselves. Another of John’s sons, Capt. David Cochran, would go on to lead the Peru militia against the British in the War of 1812. Two years later, Capt. Cochran’s men would go on to fire the first shots against the empire during the famous Battle of Plattsburgh.
As the British invasion was successfully repelled, life for settlers in the North Country began its return to normalcy. Flush with spoils from the Colorado gold rush, a man named Fitzpatrick bought the home in the late 1800s, expanding its size and establishing the property as a successful farm.
In 1900 Fitzpatrick added the front porch, putting to work his son who had chosen to neglect his schooling and instead spend his days at home. He was soon tasked with carrying large, flat stones from the fields and placing them within the cinder-blocked outline of the porch, after which the space was filled with cement.
“Needless to say, Mr. Fitzpatrick’s son returned to school shortly thereafter,” Scarlett said.
The farm would continue to thrive, growing corn and raising pheasant, turkey, chicken and cows. Ms. McBride continues to keep that tradition alive. To this day her family raises their own chickens, although they eliminated one of the two floors of the chicken barn.
Putting It Back Together
During their time, the Fitzpatricks would expand the home to a total of 15 rooms, with the entire back half of the house constructed solely for the use of hired farm hands. With two bedrooms, a living room, pantry and kitchen, the servants’ quarters were quite spacious for the time and comparable in size to the main home. Until renovations were made by the McBrides, that half of the building was not accessible from the main part of the house, as the hired hands had a separate entrance in the rear of the building.
The Fitzpatricks lived in the house until 1932, and for much of their long tenure there it served as a refuge for weary stagecoach travelers stopping overnight in the middle of a long journey. William Covel would next own the property, refusing to put as much as a single fresh coat of paint on the home. Last painted in 1917, it wouldn’t see another fresh coat until his daughter, Isabel, painted parts of the porch many years later.
“Mr. Covel refused to have the house painted in all the years he lived there and said it was a waste of time and money,” Scarlett said. “As long as the interior was neat and tidy, who cared what the outside looked like?”
Daughter Isabel Covel, who would later become Isabel Young, lived in the home until 1993 in what was, essentially, an enormous bathroom in the rear of the home. Mrs. Young had everything she needed in the space, which was much bigger than the master bedroom that would remain empty during those later years. Still, when the young McBride couple bought the home two years later, it was in dire need of modernization.
“We were buying the property only — the house was of no value,” said Scarlett, adding that when they bought the home from Mrs. Young she was then in her later 90s. “She thought someone was going to come down and just raze it. So we were telling her that we were gutting it out, and we were going to put it back together. She was really happy about that.”
The property also featured a stone milk house, where the dairy was skimmed, stored and converted into butter. The stone structure remained in great condition, with the exception of the roof, which the McBrides restored in 2001.
Unfortunately, the nearby corn crib and greenhouse were too far gone. As the McBrides demolished the crib, they found the space stored not only corn but quite the large collection of antique beer bottles as well. During a time when the thought of recycling was far from most people’s mind, the boozy remnants of previous owners was a humorous treat for the McBrides — the discovery revealing the story of a favorite hidden drinking spot so many years ago.
“We had mentioned to Mrs. Young that, when we were tearing the corn crib down, there were an awful lot of beer bottles there,” said Scarlett with a laugh. “She would tell us how her Papa and Mr. Manning used to sit behind the corn crib and drink beer.”
In a spot perhaps hidden from their better halves, it would have been just the place to catch some shade and refresh oneself after a long day working on the farm.
A Beacon of Love
Throughout the renovation process, Scarlett kept a journal of its progress, collecting notes and tidbits of history to keep the house’s many visitors up to date on the history of the property as well as the path the renovation was taking. Referring to the period dating back to September and October of 1995, she recounted the daunting task involved in cleaning the yard.
“The grass must have been two feet high,” she said. “We are only able to work on the house on weekends due to each of our jobs. The whole family is involved in cleaning up the farm house: Mom, Dad, sister Katie and her husband Ed and their children — Eddie, Shawna [and] Michael. Being [that] Papoose (Katie) is too small, she keeps us entertained when we take a break.”
McBride, finding holes in the linoleum floor of the pantry, decided it was time to rip it out. To her surprise, she peeled away seven layers, followed by burlap and potato sacks. What they found next was a true snapshot in time, as they discovered issue upon issue of the Plattsburgh Daily Republican and Plattsburgh Daily News dating from 1934-1936. They would continue to find newspapers throughout the renovation, the pages serving as makeshift insulation for the past 60 years.
During the renovation, the McBrides had no telephone or electricity hooked up at the home. Mrs. Young had rudimentary electric before they bought the home, but the shoddy work served as more of a hazard than a convenience. Instead, Scarlett illuminated the home another way.
“I was putting lighted candles in all the windows of the farmhouse,” she wrote in her journal. “Of course, they were run on batteries being [as] we did not have the electricity turned on. Bill was saying I was driving him nuts because he would go with me to turn them on, then I would make him drive down the road towards Plattsburgh, [and] then turn around so we could go by the house and see the light shining. It was beautiful.”
A shining symbol of the McBrides’ love, determination and tireless efforts, the house became a beacon for all who passed. “I would turn [the candles] on almost every night,” Scarlett said. “Needless to say, stock in the Duracell and Energizer batteries must have gone up for as much as I went through them. But it was worth it.”
One of the interesting features of the home, which served to show the Fitzpatricks’ wealth at the time, was the double outhouse attached to the rear.
“Everybody would joke about how this was a very rich family, because there was a two-hole outhouse attached to the house. If you had one hole attached to the house, that was really something. But if you had two…” laughed McBride, showing pictures of the old bathroom. “Not that you’d really want to go to the bathroom next to somebody, but I guess if you gotta go, you gotta go.”
During this time, much of the home’s past had remained a mystery for the couple and the McBrides had no idea quite how far back the history of their new property stretched. That would all change when, nailed in the rafters above the living room, they discovered a curious wooden plank. The board was hand-carved, giving the McBrides first-hand insight into the history of their new home. Scratched out in old piece of board read the following words:
“Rebuilt in 1875, Willie Rivers aged 18 is with me now as hired by G.M., C.A. Bowman, age 27, Coopersville, Clinton, New York. Who find this printed are in the rafters if you please for G. Manning. Rebuilt, repaired in 1875 by C.A. Bowman, Esq. This building was first put up by one of the first pioneers of this place, Robert Cochran of Connecticut in 1808 making the building 67 years old at date. This winter there has not been over 10 days sleighing. U.S. Grant is president – G. Manning – age 36.”
The plank was a surprising revelation for the McBrides. “That was so exciting,” her journal reads. “I never thought that the house was nearly 200 years old. I estimated that it had been built around 1850-1890, but not in 1808.”
By 1998, the home had been all but gutted as they had a contractor come to help them finish their vision. By 2000, the McBrides had sold their property on Howard Drive and officially moved into their new home. With all their hard work now paying off, they finally saw their dream become reality as they nestled cozily in their own piece of living history.
The home had originally been heated by four wood stoves when the McBrides began renovation, including one for the farmhands’ side of the house. The stoves and chimneys were removed, however, as they elected for more modern methods of heating. There were also four hand-dug wells on the property, which Scarlett explains were the cause of an early frustration for the couple.
Unfortunately, their basement became flooded with several feet of water during this time. As it was spring and the house was on a slope, they had assumed it was runoff. They would soon come to find one of the wells had broken and was gushing water directly into the basement. Scarlett’s father would help them pump the water out and, with the assistance of her nephew’s Beekmantown football team, the floor of the basement was dug up and all four wells were filled with cement.
The couple then had the fortune of tapping into their own artesian well soon after, through which ice-cold spring water now flows year-round.
Everything but the Staircase
The McBrides had considered registering the home with the local historical society; however, they were concerned that, in doing so, they would have been restricted in their ability to make planned renovations. They found other ways to publicly share the history of their home. Anytime friends or relatives had a fundraiser, for example, the McBrides would host a spaghetti dinner for four during which they gave guests a tour of the house. They were always more than happy to regale visitors with the history of the place, as well as a rundown of the all the hard work required to transform the house into it the beautiful home it now was.
While much of the inside of the house has been replaced, the antique stairs were kept just as they were. Scarlett estimates that the stairs may now be more than 200 years old.
“You just had to see the place when we got it,” she said, laughing at the memory. “When Bill’s mother saw this place, she had asked us if we could just tear it all down and just keep the staircase. Bill’s father wanted the front porch.”
The porch and staircase were kept, as well as the front door and screen doors, although the family removes the screens and winterizes the front of the home during the colder months. The downstairs features beautifully spacious dining and living rooms, while the upstairs features a full bathroom, sitting room and office (which were the hired hands’ pantry/closet and two bedrooms, respectively) in the back of the house and two bedrooms and the master bedroom in the front of the house. Separating the two halves is a beautifully unique curved-ceiling hallway.
“The ceiling is the only part of the house that still has the lathe up there. So that way when the contractors came in, they would know the shape of the ceiling.”
The house’s high ceilings have also resulted in great acoustics — accentuated by the constant sound of music as both of Scarlett’s children play string instruments and even have their own music room, found in the attached garage.
Meanwhile, the master bedroom boasts its own master bath and roomy walk-in closet. Mrs. Young’s expansive bathroom/bedroom area in the rear of the home was shrunk into a proper bathroom. Despite its functionality, it is a charming space through which the McBrides continue to pay homage to North Country history.
Today, the room features a gorgeous claw-foot tub the couple acquired from the Flanagan Hotel in Malone. The porcelain tub appears to be right at home here given the presence of two other artifacts of practicality — a pull-chain toilet and a dry sink (a basin with a pitcher of water). Collectively, the three set-pieces enable the bathroom to successfully bridge the gap between history and modernity.
The area was originally home to a summer kitchen for the servants, located at just the right angle to catch the wind. You can almost imagine the pies cooling on the window sills all those years ago, observed Scarlett.
Although the space was converted into separate rooms, the renovation plan made sure to keep the breezeway heading out to the garage. As the floor of what had been the servants’ side of the home was dug out, it became clear that the foundation of the room was essentially just unfinished logs on top of dirt. The logs and dirt were ultimately removed, and the area was replaced with a full foundation.
“From the kitchen, right back, it was nothing but logs just thrown on the dirt,” said Scarlett, laughing while she described the primitive nature of the floor as she and Bill found it. “The logs still had the bark on it!”
Continuing to the back of the home, you will find a two-car garage. Now devoid of cars, the garage has been transformed into a massive lounge area for her kids, as well as what was once a hair salon for her daughter, Maddie, while she was attending CV-TEC cosmetology school. Their in-ground pool is located right behind the garage, allowing the kids easy access in the summer without dripping water through the rest of the house.
They Walked the Line
Scarlett and Bill McBride took on the monumental task of restoring the home knowing full well it wasn’t going to be easy. On the contrary, they bought the property knowing the task would take untold hours of manual labor and backbreaking effort. However, as a labor of love taken on with the help of friends and family, the McBrides walked the line between preserving the rich history of our region and constructing a beautiful, modern home that will be cherished for generations to come.
One day, perhaps 200 years from now, another family will renovate the home. Only this time, two planks will be discovered. One will explain the state of affairs in 1875. The other will be dated to the end of the 20th century, with the McBride name having proudly carved out its own spot in North Country history.
Check out John Mitchell’s photography at www.silverliningphotovideo.com
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