THE SHAPE OF THINGS: THE RANCH HOUSE

CATEGORY: GRASS VALLEY
PHOTO: RANCH HOUSE FIRST FLOOR PLAN

RANCH HOUSE PLAN

I said the main entry to the house at the ranch was on the south.  This was not the dignified formal entry which nobody used.  That was on the east, facing where the first road through the valley had once been.  That entry had its own generous porch, and it opened into a hallway facing the stairs to the second floor, which seemed to disappear into the darkness.  At the top of these stairs was what we called “The Dark Closet.”  The door to this closet opened by itself whenever anyone stepped on the tenth step of the stairs.  It made my visiting cousin, Donna, who thought the house had a ghost, turn white and run back down the stairs, her eyes as big as pancakes.  The east entry and porch were only used for sitting in the shade on summer Sunday afternoons.  No one ever “sat” on any day but Sunday.  In winter its door was sealed with tape to keep out drafts.  The real entry was the one on the south that led into the kitchen: the original back door.

Ninety percent of the daytime living in that house took place in the four rooms that comprised the kitchen wing.  Three of those were kitchen rooms.  Yes!  Three!  The person who invented the ideal “kitchen triangle” would have turned pale, because the cook stove, the sink, and later the refrigerator, were all in separate rooms.

The kitchen wing was a 24 foot square divided into quarters.  Tacked onto it on the south next to the main house was the entry hall with a sunny window in the door and coat hooks along one wall.  The hall led into the southeast quarter which was the main kitchen where the breakfast table and the wood cook stove were.  Off the kitchen at the left end of the cook stove was a door into the utility room, which was three steps lower than the kitchen.  That was the southwest quarter which contained the washing machine, the big cement laundry trays and the milk separator.  The basement stairs went down on one side of it.  It had its own outside door: a back , back door.  This room also had a pop-out storage room where my uncle kept his good saddle.  It always smelled deliciously of new leather.

At the right end of the cook stove was a narrow room that contained the sink.  It was half of the northeast quarter.  The other half was the bathroom.  At the far end of the sink room was a door leading-down one step into the pantry, which was the whole northwest quarter.  When a refrigerator was purchased, in the late ’30’s, that was where it went.

The sink room and the bathroom were back to back, a typical arrangement in houses built before the turn of the century which were usually built without bathrooms or any plumbing at all. The first plumbing was for the kitchen sink.  Then the bathroom was placed back to back with the sink, with its plumbing in the same wall.  The ranch sink room was just wide enough for the sink with its drain board on the east side, a dish cupboard on the west side, and a 6 ft.work space across the north end under a window.  This was the only work space in the whole ranch house.  When I was a child in the ’30’s, very little food was purchased from the store.  Food came from the farm.  Bread was homemade, fruits and vegetables were canned, animals were cut in pieces, sausage was made.  How my grandmother, and later my Aunt Alta, did all that and cooked for large harvest crews with only that one small work counter, is a mystery.

Another mystery was why nothing was done to alleviate such inconveniences.  An example was the separating and storing of milk.

Twice a day, morning and evening when the cows were milked, the milk was carried in buckets from the barn, into the back room and poured into the separator.  I can still feel its handle in my hand and hear its sound: wwwweeerrrrrrrrrr, wwweerrrrrrr, wwweerrrrr, weerrr, werrr, wer, wer, wer, starting out slowly and getting faster until it reached the proper speed.  The separated milk was then carried up the three steps into the kitchen, through the kitchen between the stove and the table, into the sink room between the sink and the cupboard, down one step into the pantry and poured into bowls on the shelves where it would keep as cool as possible, that room being on the north side of the house.  The irony is that the milk separator was just on the other side of the pantry wall and yet no one ever thought of putting a door through the wall or even a pass-through for the milk.

That house needed me but the inhabitants didn’t know it.

There was also a basement.  It did not have concrete walls; it was carved out of dirt and rock solid enough that its sides remained vertical.  It wasn’t even called a basement; it was the cellar.  The part under the kitchen was cooler than the pantry.  It had shelves that held jars of canned fruits and vegetables, and crocks of sausages and other edible parts of pigs, preserved in lard.  The edible parts of cows and chickens were either canned or taken to the “locker,” a freezing plant in town that rented out crate-sized cubicles.

The entire cellar under the main part of the house was taken up by a huge furnace with its far reaching octopus arms curving stealthily up into the ceiling above.  There were stacks of wood and a bin for coal and little football shaped pieces of a black coal-like substance called brickettes.  The furnace room had outside access via wide stairs on the north with sloped doors over them.   “Slide down my cellar door” was a reality at this house.