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The Old Tenant House

Michael Hillman

Read Part 4

Part 5: The addition's foundation

With permits in hand it was finally time to start work on the addition to my old tenant house. The plan was to tear down an old one-story cinder block addition on the north side of the house that contained the heater and its oil tanks, and replace it with a two-story structure, the first floor of which would be an office for my wife. The second story was to be an old-fashioned covered summer porch.

The northwest corner of the house was also going to be removed, replaced by a 12 foot wide addition which would include a basement for a modern heating system, a plant room, and space for the expanded kitchen.


When word got out that I was planning on spending the weekend tearing down the cinderblock addition, every neighbor with a grudge against something or other volunteered to swing a sledge hammer. Things might have gone more swiftly had I not also stocked a tub full of beers, but suffice it to say, within a hour of the first swing, the building was nothing more than a pile of rubble.

I have to admit, up until that time I had always found solace in the fact that, had I wanted to, I could always call off the renovation, but with the building coming down around me, I had crossed the 'Rubicon' so to say, and whether I liked it or not, the addition was now officially on.

The cinderblock rubble quickly became much-needed fill at Joe Wivell's farm. As the last truckload was removed, Eric Baker of Baker Tree Service, pulled into the driveway. Knowing that we where going to have to cut one of the four principal roots to our old English Walnut tree to make way for the addition's foundation, we had sought out a licensed arborist. Everywhere we checked, Eric's name came up at the top of the list.

With the skilled hands of a surgeon, Eric cleared away the dirt from the root to be removed, and when ready, made one clean cut. Next Eric turned his attention to the tree's branches, and removed those that projected into the planned addition. In doing so, he minimized the damage and stress the tree would suffer, and ensured the tree would provide many more years of mouthwatering walnuts.

With the tree safely out of the way, it was time to begin digging the foundation. Fortunately Emmitsburg has a plethora of backhoe services, including Roddy McNair and Leo Hobbs. But for the addition, I turned to Dicky Seiss who had long ago gotten used to the particular ways of me and my wife.

Skillfully maneuvering his backhoe around my wife's many prized flower beds, Dicky quickly dug the pit for the foundation. Much to everyone's amazement, as the ground around the house was removed, it became apparent to all that the existing foundation for the kitchen, which we think was added to the original house in the 1920s, was only three feet deep. This would account for the kitchen's 6-inch drop from one side to the other!


The next morning was spent framing the forms for the concrete foundation. At noon, the cement truck pulled in, and left less than 30 minutes later. For the next three hours, Dicky and Buzzy smoothed the surface of the floor for the new basement, and at 4, the county inspector showed up, nodded his approval and headed off.

We had two days to lay 500 cinder blocks before my brother's farming crew show up. We all knew we were pushing it, but so far things were going according to plan.


Buzzy called at seven. "Mike, I just got a call from my blocklayer. Sorry, he's sick and can't make it out today. I'll try to find someone else, but if not, we're going to really have to hump it tomorrow to make schedule."

My sweat glands went into fast speed. Laying 500 cinderblocks in one day was going to be a monumental task to say the least. I crossed my fingers.


The blocklayer showed up at seven along with five day laborers to mix cement. I took a deep breath. At eight, I poked my head out to see how he was doing, and blinked in disbelief … only twenty blocks had been laid! For once in my life I resisted the urge to interfere, and went back into the house. When I went out at ten however, and noticed that only sixty blocks had been laid, not even two full courses of what was to be an eight-course wall, I couldn't help but inquire as to his apparent lack of pace.

"Union rules," he said,. "one block every five minutes."

I stared in disbelief. "Umm… but we have 500 blocks to be laid, how are you going to get it done in one day?"

"I'm not. It can't be done. I work by D.C. union rules," He said matter of factly as he sat, taking a drag on his cigarette.

"But this is not D.C.," I said."

"Doesn't matter," he said and slowly took another drag on his cigarette.

The day laborers looked at me with despair. Unlike the block layer, they wanted to work, but had nothing to do.

I called Buzzy, who after a heated argument with the blocklayer, came into my house shaking his head. "He won't budge his pace. If we're going to be ready for your brother tomorrow, we're going to have to come up with some more block layers."

For what seemed an eternity, Buzzy and I worked the phones, calling every past, present and future blocklayer within 40 miles. Unfortunately, the housing industry was at the peak of the building boom, and just about everyone was overbooked.

Things were looking pretty grim when the blocklayer called it quits for the day at 3 p.m., with only three of the eight courses done. But he had no sooner pulled out of the driveway when I received a call from a local Emmitsburg blocklayer looking for some extra work.

"Do you mind if I bring a friend?" he asked. "He works with me laying blocks and could use the extra money."

Half an hour later they pulled in and assessed the situation, looking back and forth between the mound of blocks still be laid and the unfinished foundation.

"Hmm," he muttered. "That's a lot of blocks to be laid. It's not going to be cheap."

"Define cheap," I thought to myself. "Five Hundred dollars? A thousand?" I would have paid them two thousand had they asked for it.

"How about $100 apiece?" he asked.

"It's worth $150 if you start right now, $200 if you can finish it." I replied.

Without so much as a yes, the two nodded at the day workers, jumped into the foundation and blocks began to fly. A few moments later, another local blocklayer showed up, and joined in. Even the ever-present Joe Wivell and Brian Reaver joined in. For the next three hours the wall grew in height like a film in fast motion.

Buzzy and I poured ourselves a stiff gin and tonic. We were going to make it, thanks to Emmitsburg craftsmen who understood time, cost, and most importantly, schedule.

In the end, I paid the blocklayers $250 each. They had earned their pay, not to mention my gratitude and respect.


Mark Zurgable arrived at seven, accompanying the tractor trailer of his lumber supplier. Mark had made it clear to his supplier that he only wanted the very best of wood, and he did not disappoint.

With the horses safely sequestered into the paddocks adjacent to the barn, the lumber was offloaded next to the house and sorted into piles. At noon, my brother and his framing crew pulled into the field. At one, the paddock fence between the house and field was cut down, and the framing of the addition commenced in earnest.

Read Part 6: Framing the Addition

Read other humor stories by Michael Hillman