There were two attics in our farmhouse -- one above the kitchen, the other above the upstairs bedrooms. Attics can be interesting places and, when bored or on a rainy day, we explored those recesses. Some such places have no flooring and you can walk only on the joists. Most of these attics are equipped with a "push open" small doorway in the ceiling of a hallway or closet, which can be accessed by a ladder.
Our attics were basically unfinished rooms with rough flooring. At the top of the stairway to our bedrooms was a door which literally stayed closed all the time. However, when we were "checking things out", we did open that door. I do not remember if we needed to ask permission to explore that attic area but we did it nonetheless. This was the attic over the "kitchen wing" and it was the smaller of the two. Inside that space it was very quiet; the floor and wall area were filled with odds and ends of items no longer necessary or only needed seasonally, such as winter coats and boots. The room smelled of stale air for the one window at the end of the gable was never opened. The floor was reasonably clean. Perhaps my mom, who was a "cleanaholic" swept it out on occasion.
In the middle of the room was an old trunk which we liked to open and remove the contents one by one. The most interesting items were my mom's wedding gown, veil and shoes (I have no idea how she ever walked in them; they had a medium high heel and were made of very heavy satin). Her dress had yellowed with time but still looked very attractive -- and small. Since there was no electricity, the only light came from the one small south-facing window which gave an eerie look to the atmosphere of the room.
There was also a large slab of slate leaning against one wall. We would bring small chunks of chalk which we confiscated from someplace and play tick-tack-toe or simply draw pictures. My sister, Elda, was gifted with artistic ability; some of her drawings were exceptional.
The second attic was much larger and used more frequently. This room also had a doorway off the upstairs hallway but, when you opened the door, you were immediately faced with a flight of stairs. At the top of the stairway sat my grandma's spinning wheel which, I understand, she actually used to spin yarn (I wish I could have seen her do that). That remarkable antique is now in the home of her great-grandson.
The attic room was large for it covered all the area above four bedrooms. Here, also, there was but one window at the north gabled end. This window was larger and let in a bit more light. There was a definite smell to the place -- a pungent, stale, old, smoky smell which was not all that unpleasant and always the same. The walls were completely open to the studs.
Clothes lines were strung from one end of the space to the other. In the winter months, my mom hung clothes (for seven of us) here to dry, which meant she carried basket after basket of wet clothes up three flights of stairs (we were usually in school or we would have been called upon to help). Since there was no insulation anyplace in the house, sometimes the clothes froze and simply hung there until they thawed. When we came home from school, it was our job to retrieve our own clothes. There was also a collapsible drying rack that was used for lighter weight items; that rack was put above the furnace register in the bathroom.
My parents butchered a pig each year, which meant one less pig for market but it provided some good meat for the family. There was a smokehouse on the farm and the hams, together with the home-made sausages, were subjected to a given time of curing. Once they were completely cured, they were taken for winter storage to the attic where they were hung until needed. That accounted for the smoky smell which stayed within that room at all times.
It was interesting to look out from that high attic window and view the fields and neighboring farm. Immediately below the window were three rows of large evergreens standing straight and tall throughout each season. They provided a good wind break for the house.
I wish I could go to that house again, back up the stairs and then up yet another flight. I imagine both rooms would have the very same smell; I can almost smell them now.
Laura W. Berglund
Copyright March 2018
Laura Berglund is a former Afton area resident who writes post-depression stories of her childhood living in rural southern Minnesota. Her husband, Harold, (other than two years in the Army), has spent his entire life in the St. Croix Valley/Afton area, never more than 12 miles from his birthplace.