Category Archives: small town life

To Guard or To Suck: How to Fix Our Clogged Gutters?

After complaining about the window box and its persistent flooding flaw, we’ve had few dry weeks during which we’ve been able to enjoy the box and its bounty. I plopped these sunflowers in the box earlier this summer knowing that if it flooded, they’d be goners. Fortunately, we haven’t seen a return of the blustery storms we had at the beginning of the season. And so these sunflowers have been peeking at us through the window. But of course we know this dry box is only going to last so long. And the frustrating thing is that we’ve figured out reason for the flooding – and have even fixed it –  but we’re not able to get to it as often as we need to.

You see, the window box really only floods when the gutter and downspout are clogged. When that happens, rain flows off the roof like a waterfall and dumps the deluge into the window box. We were home during a particularly heavy rainstorm last summer and watched as the window box quickly filled with water. That was when I had a eureka moment. If only there was some way to free the clog in the downspout, we might be able to solve the waterfall issue. I went scavenging in the garage and workshop until I found a long hook – the kind that is used for hanging plants from a pole in the garden. During the heavy the rainstorm I reached out the bedroom window, hook in hand, and scraped the inside of the gutter. Suddenly there was a whoosh, followed by the sound of flowing water. I looked down at the ground and saw that a giant clump of maple leaves (the kind that we’ve always called helicopters for the way they spin through the air when they fall from the tree) had flowed down the spout and emptied onto the grass. The waterfall stopped, the window box stopped filling and I felt like the smartest man on the planet.

But that genius was short lived. By the early fall we were experiencing the same issue with a clogged downspout and soggy window box. As the big, mature trees, the ones we love for shading the house all summer, began shedding their leaves, the gutter and downspout clogged all over again.

When we first bought the house three years ago, I made all sorts of proclamations about not being afraid of climbing on the roof and getting on top of ladders to clean the windows. I’ve always been a bit of monkey and have never shied away from balancing on tops of ladders and other high places. And then I actually climbed a ladder to patch the roof of the belvedere. Standing there on the top of the pitched roof wasn’t so bad. In fact, the birds eye view of the yard was rather refreshing. But then I eased myself down the slope and there, looking out over the gutter and to the ground two stories below, that was when I got nervous. It was then that I knew that climbing on top of the Delbert Meier house was not for me!

So this spring we searched around the area for a gutter cleaning service. At the risk of sounding like my grandfather, you just can’t find people to do that kind of work anymore. Oh, we found quite a few businesses that will replace our gutters or install gutter guards, but we came up empty when I called around in search of someone to simply clean them.

We’ve considered gutter guards but question whether they would block out the walnut leaves. In my experience those flat little leaves that twist their way down from the tree limbs have a way of working themselves into the smallest cracks and crevices. I’m concerned that the gutter guards will not block the leaves and we’ll still end up clogged butters. And with the guards in place we wouldn’t be able to access the gutters to clean them out.

In the meantime, we’ve been waiting around for another strong storm so we can use our hook to unplug the downspout again. The trick only works when there’s a really strong storm. The trick requires the rush of washer to force the clogged leaves down the spout.

And then I saw this video for the Gutter Clutter Buster. It’s basically a long tube that can be connected to a shop vac to vacuum out the gutters without climbing a ladder. In all honesty, I’m dubious about this tool’s effectiveness. In the video above they demonstrate using the tool on a single story house. I’m not convinced that using the tool with the number of attachments that it would take to reach the top of our big, old vintage house would be as effective.

And so the question remains: guard or suck? Which will be the solution to our clogged gutter problem?

Mr. Porter’s Garage: A Frank Lloyd Wright Connection in Decorah, Iowa

The Porter House in Decorah, Iowa, photographed in the fall of 2013.

The Porter House in Decorah, Iowa, photographed in the fall of 2013.

While showing friends around lovely nearby Decorah late last summer, we happened to pass by the incredible Porter House Museum. This beautiful 19th Century Italianate house is notable for its one-of-a-kind surrounding rock wall, a contribution made to the property by its equally one-of-a-kind owner, Adelbert Field Porter (1879-1968). Mr. Porter, commonly known as “Bert,” was a gentleman explorer, naturalist, and photographer who culled from his vast collection of natural curiosities to create “nature art,” such as his remarkable wall.

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Cars of Crude: Transporting Oil in the 21st Century

Cars of Crude: Transporting Oil in the 21st Century

Sometimes there are things happening out in the word and, even though you know they’re there, you don’t really pay attention to them. Then one day something happens and your interest is piqued. Such is the case with my interest in the way we transport crude oil in America. In the parlance of so many action movies, this time it’s personal.

It started with a news story on Friday morning. I saw a headline on my morning news roundup about a train derailment near Galena, Illinois. Galena happens to be part of the route we take from the city out to the house. I clicked on the news story with selfish interest. We were going to be driving to the house Friday night so I was wondering whether this derailment would have any impact on our trip.

According to the Yahoo news story about the Galena derailment, this particular train was pulling 103 cars of crude oil, plus 2 cars filled with sand. Let that sink in a moment. 105 train cars! That’s a mighty long train! Fortunately only 21 of those cars derailed in Friday’s accident. Unfortunately, those cars still burst into flames and created ginormous explosions. Also quite fortunately, this accident occurred in a sparsely populated region of the midwest. Imagine if this derailment had occurred closer to the town of Galena or if it had occurred during the height of the summer tourism season, when more people would be in the region.

A freight train pulling hundreds of cars of crude oil

Not all of these concerns occurred to me when I read the story about the Galena derailment Friday morning. Again, I was first looking at the story from a selfish standpoint. Would the crash affect me in my trip out to the house? Later that night, however, as we made that trek to the house for the weekend, we listened to an episode of Fresh Air about the risks of transporting oil by train. Fresh Air guest host Dave Davies interviews Marcus Stern in this episode and it was truly an eye opening interview. Not only are these train accidents becoming more common, thanks in large part to he Bakken region’s oil surplus, but it seems to be just a matter of time before a derailment occurs in a more densely populated city. While the trains start their journey in a very rural region of the Dakotas, they inevitably make their way through city centers along the way.

Take into consideration the fact that the train that derailed in Galena would have travelled through Chicago on its way to refineries on the East Coast. Can you imagine the devastation that would be caused by a series of rail cars exploding in a city with a population of more than 2.5 million people?

As we listened to the Fresh Air story (not coincidentally while driving through Galena) we started thinking about the freight rail line that runs through out little town. The romantic in me has always enjoyed the echoing of the train’s horn as it lumbers down the tracks less than two blocks from our house. I had assumed that these trains were carrying corn and soybeans and other farm products. Now, knowing that the trains are pulling highly explosive materials as they snake their way through town makes me a little wary of the romance of the rails.

And then Saturday morning, as I crossed the Mississippi to pick up groceries at Piggy Wiggly in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, I spied the train that’s pictured above. There, sitting on the tracks along the Mississippi River, were cars of crude. I was standing near what I assume was the middle of the train. Looking left and looking right, there were rail cars as far as my eye could see. More than a hundred of them, I’m sure. This is literally getting a little too close to home.

So what’s the solution? Pipelines? Maybe. But pipelines are expensive and, really, aren’t very safe either. Stop using so much damned oil? Well, yes, that’s the most obvious solution but it’s not very practical, is it? I mean, we still have to heat our homes and drive our cars. Frankly, I don’t know what the solution is. All I know is that I am now aware of the problem. And it scares the hell out of me.

Images: This American House

Winter Reality: Small Town vs. Big City Snowstorms

Winter Storm Linus Hits Chicago

Last weekend, when much of the Midwest was covered by Winter Storm Linus, The Mister was at the house and I was hunkered down in the apartment in the city. As the snow piled up in both locations, we were able to recognize the vastly different experiences between small town life and big city existence.

At our house we are responsible for shoveling our own driveway and sidewalk when it snows. We haven’t yet upgraded to a snowblower so we’re still shoveling by hand. Or, at least, we try to. It seems we never get the chance to do our own shoveling because a friendly neighbor with a snowblower will show up and do it before we can. That’s small town life for you. It’s a neighborly existence where folks pitch in to help one another.

Meanwhile, back in the city, it’s every man for himself. Since we live in an apartment building, we’re not responsible for snow removal on the sidewalks. There’s a landscaping service that shows up after the snow stops falling and clears the path. That’s the good news. The bad news is that we don’t have off-street parking at our apartment. That means that our cars, along with everyone else’s, are parallel parked on the street. And when a street full of cars is covered with 20+ inches of snow, it’s one big mess.

For one thing, when the plows make their way down the side streets, they create a great wall of snow that often completely blocks the cars where they’re parked. When that happens, you’re not only digging your car out of the snow, you also have to shovel the wall of snow out of the way.

No dibs for me.

Now, if you don’t know anything about Chicago, and if you’ve never been here during a big snowstorm, you may not know about the phenomenon known as dibs. Put simply, dibs is the practice of cleaning out a parking spot for your car and then marking your territory so that your spot will still be there when you return. To someone who lives in a small town, this probably seems absurd. I mean, if everyone worked together to clear all of the parking spots on the street, then dibs wouldn’t even be necessary, right?

Oh if only that was the case! Instead, on any given block you’ll see a few cleared spots where responsible car owners have done their work. And then there will be a bunch of cars that have never been cleaned of their snow. Those cars will probably remain in that condition until the snow melts. And as the piles of snow get pushed around and about, parking becomes a real issue. If you don’t get stuck on one of the snow humps, you’re lucky.

And so the concept of dibs comes into play. Last Monday I spent almost an hour clearing my car of snow. I used a snow shovel to clear the humps of frozen slush from around my car, being sure to push the snow to the curb rather than the middle of the street. While I appreciate the concept of dibs, I have yet to embrace the practice myself. As I drove away from my nice, clean parking spot Tuesday morning, I knew that I would never see it again. And I was right. When I got back home Tuesday night, the spot has already been taken. I was forced to drive around and around until I found a spot where my car almost fit.

That’s city life for you. It’s every man for himself here in the city. And that’s exactly why we’re working toward full time life at the house in the future.

Images: This American House

Stand Back, Johnny Appleseed! Apples, Apples, Apples!

Apple Tree at the Delbert Meier House | This American House

It looks like my countless hours gazing longingly at the apple tree in the backyard, sending it good growing mojo, and dreaming of delicious baked goods paid off. We’ve hit the apple lotto, folks, and the payout is huge! I had no idea one tree could produce so many apples. Maybe it’s because the tree was never harvested last fall. Maybe it’s the little apple dance I did under the tree this spring. Or maybe we’re just lucky jerks who bought a house with a magic apple tree. Whatever the reason, we should be able to eat an apple a day for the next three years from the fruit of this one tree!

Apples, Apples, Apples! | This American HouseLet me tell you, the anticipation of testing the apples for tastiness was quite a burden. It kicked off this spring, when the tree filled with leaves and blooms.

“Do you think we’ll actually be able to eat them?” The Mister asked.

“I hope so. But I don’t know.” I said.

We watched as the buds turned into little green fruit. And as the apples grew and started to turn red I asked The Mister, “Do you think they’ll be edible?”

“Gee, I hope they are,” he replied.

This American House

Starting sometime in mid-July, our curiosity got the best of us. We plucked an apple off the tree and sliced into it. It wasn’t ripe (of course) but it looked like an apple and wasn’t full of worms so it seemed promising enough. Every few weeks we’d pluck another apple off the tree for another taste test. And each time we got more and more hopeful that the apples would indeed be tasty eventually.

Well, folks, it has finally happened. The apples have ripened and they are delicious! I mean, they’re no Honey Crisp apple. They’re more like a Red Delicious, which is probably what they really are. But they’re apples growing on a tree in our backyard!  And there are a ton of them!

This has to be a bushel of apples, right? | This American House

I don’t know how many apples make a bushel but I’m sure we’ve picked at least that many so far. In the past two weekends I have filled one giant IKEA bag and four reusable grocery bags with apples. I’ve given two bags of apples to neighbors and have a few more bags earmarked for friends back in the city. I plan to freeze some apples for winter baking but I’m actually going to keep most of them in the refrigerator. That’s the wonderful thing about apples — they keep for months when refrigerated.

I’ve also turned out two batches of apple butter recently. Both recipes used the crock pot, and let me tell you, nothing makes a house smell better than cooking apples! The first batch of apple butter, using a recipe from AllRecipes, was a little lackluster but we happily smeared it on toast anyway. For the second batch I used Brown Eyed Baker’s Slow Cooker Apple Butter recipe. OH. MY. GOODNESS. I want to eat this apple butter by the spoonful!

Stand back, Johnny Appleseed. There’s a new king of apples in town!

Images: This American House