By George Brown
We moved to the little house on the hill in Foster, Kentucky in the fall of 1980. As houses go, it was not spectacular in design, but possessed a charm worthy of its history and a picturesque view of the Ohio River to be coveted by the owners of far more luxurious river view homes.
From its perch near the edge of a rocky outcrop above Mary Ingalls Highway (KY Rt. 8), paralleled by the C&O Railroad, and with the riverbank but a few feet beyond, this quaint little white frame house had been providing its tenants an unobstructed six mile view of the Ohio River for nearly 150 years – a view that extended four miles downstream to the Village of Moscow on the opposite shore, and two miles upstream to the locks of Meldahl Dam.
After moving to our old Kentucky home, my first project was to set two tall locust posts in the ground, with a cross beam from which I hung a porch swing to enjoy the river view. On summer nights we watched the lights shining from the Village of Neville on the North shore – dancing, twinkling, and winking at us like earth bound stars; and both day and night we never tired of watching a steady stream of tugboats plough their barges up and down the river.
At night tugboat captains would, I believe, deliberately shine a spotlight into our bedroom window. We soon grew accustomed to it, but one time, when friends were visiting and we let them have our bedroom for the night, the wife woke up screaming with fear when the tugboat’s spotlight flooded the room. She was certain an airplane was about to crash into our house.
On a positive note, we occasionally had the good fortune of watching the Delta Queen slowly paddle by, playing the calliope as though they were doing so just for us. During winter months, when river watching was less desirable, our dining room window often framed a Christmas card picture of the church steeple and snow laden rooftops of the Village of Foster below our house.
This sleepy little river town was originally known as Foster’s Landing, so named for Israel Foster, one of the early settlers to occupy this spot along the Ohio River. Israel lived his entire life in this community so was no doubt acquainted with the builders of our old Kentucky home, circa 1843. As such, he would have known that the original house consisted of only three rooms – one large room on the first floor and two bedrooms on the second. The house rested on a basement and foundation of field stone gathered on the property.
I’m guessing it was sometime around 1930 that the owners of that day decided to carve out a corner of the large first floor room to add indoor plumbing (thoughtfully keeping the outhouse intact for the occasional outdoor convenience of future tenants.) They also did a fine job of adding a dining room, a kitchen, and a small screened in back porch with a second floor balcony to further enhance river gazing.
Until the time of this renovation two wood burning fireplaces (one on each floor) were used to heat the three room house, but with the addition of two new rooms the owners apparently decided a modern heating system was needed – modern for that day. Their solution was to brick the two fireplaces shut and install a massive (think gargantuan) gravity air coal furnace; not the kind with an auger to feed pea coal into the furnace, but the old fashioned kind that required opening the door and throwing big chunks or lumps of coal into the raging inferno every few hours day and night. Of course, shaking the cinders and ashes down and caring them out was part of the routine, which Yvonne became as skilled at doing as I did.
We moved to our old Kentucky home knowing that our finances would not allow an upgrade of the heating system. The old coal furnace would have to serve as our primary heat source, and this despite the fact that the house had natural gas for the kitchen range and water heater, and even had two quaint gas lights (with wicks) in the dining room, which we occasionally lit as a novelty for guests.
What we didn’t know was how cold the winters of the early 1980s would be – remember that was the era when people walked across the frozen Ohio River and the Bengals played in the “Freezer Bowl.” When winter came on strong we fired that monster furnace up until its walls turned red hot; so hot you could smell the 140 year old dry timbers above the furnace scorching like they were about to catch fire.
One winter we ran low on coal toward spring (the furnace had consumed eight tons of coal plus a cord of oak firewood) so I went down to the railroad tracks that run through Foster and picked up a couple of dozen chunks of old railroad ties that, for some reason, the railroad workers had cut up to perfect coal furnace size. I would have gathered more but an old railroad worker that lived in town saw what I was doing and advised that I was likely to get arrested if a C&O inspector caught me in the act.
The sun and rain had pretty well drained the ties of creosote over the years so I figured it was safe to burn them, and burn them I did. The faint odor of creosote drifting up through the registers was tolerable, but those railroad ties burned white hot, actually scorching some of the timbers above the furnace, and some powerful black smoke belched out of the registers and poured out of the unlined chimney. It surely is a wonder I didn’t burn the house down.
Well, this concludes part 1 of the adventures that occurred during the five years we lived at our old Kentucky home in Foster, Kentucky. Stay tuned for more adventures next week.
George Brown is a freelance writer. He and his wife, Yvonne, live in Jackson Township.