Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Rammed Earth in Modoc County, 1942

This post comes from Flickr member Ken Pollard.

In the early 1940s, my father's parents, Ken and Phyllis Pollard, bought 80 acres about 7 miles south of Alturas, California, next to the Telephone Company's transmission station. Ken worked for the phone company. Alturas is a small town in high-desert country of Northeastern California, and is the first town I remember living in; I was born in 1957. The town’s population was about 3,000 and isn't much bigger now. Alturas is the county seat and the largest town in Modoc County. I can remember when the road out to their house was paved, so that must have happened the early 1960s. The next closest building, a house, was about 2 miles away. On a still evening, you could hear the ‘neighbors’ talking outside their home, 2 miles away. Not distinct, but you could hear voices. It was pretty quiet out there.They built their home of rammed earth in 1942. The first photo shows construction of the house looking just west of north.

You can see my grandfather standing on top of the north wall of the house, tamping at the dirt in a temporary form; he's the figure on the left. Ken had discussed rammed-earth and adobe construction with a professor at the University of California at Davis, so he knew something about it. During construction, they moistened the soil until it would just form a ball when squeezed by hand. The earth for the construction came from the site. They would shovel a six-inch layer of soil into the form, and pack it down to three inches with a large steel tamper, shovel in another six inch layer, and so on. When the form had been filled, it was removed. They could stand on the walls right away. Once, they found that one wall by the front door was crooked. Even though it had just been built, it wouldn't push over; Ken had to take a double jack to it, knock it down, and rebuild it.This wasn't easy work. Phyllis said she thought the blisters she earned building the walls would never go away.They did all the building themselves. In 1989, Phyllis wrote me: All the wood in our home -- bathroom, kitchen, closets, etc. -- was red pencil cedar (not the fragrant) milled in Adin -- 19 miles S.W. of Alturas -- and it is not the cedar that grows throughout Modoc County. Ken just finished it with hot linseed oil and it was beautiful.The second photo is a view looking just south of west; the two figures are atop the same section of wall.

The back walls were full-height rammed earth, while the east and west sides were 4 feet tall. The upper part of the east and west walls were glass. They seemed a lot taller than 4 feet when I was a little kid in the early 1960s. The south wall, which will show better in another photo, was nearly all glass, with a planter area inside.The angled wall in the front of this second photo is the greenhouse area. It was accessed from inside the house, and was full of all sorts of ferns and other exotic (to me) plants. When I saw them in the early 1960s, the panes were somewhat coated on the inside by algae or green mold from years of high humidity. One day I climbed up on that angled portion of the wall, and was sitting up there when my grandmother drove in. She was not happy with me, worried that I might fall through the glass. I felt perfectly safe, as the wall was wide, but was very unhappy to be caught.This is another view of the house, looking west.

Taken a bit later in the construction than the last photo, I think it more clearly shows the greenhouse wall as well as the half-walls on the east-side of the house. On the back of this photo, in Phyllis' handwriting is "Home on Westside Rd. 7 mi. South of Alturas. Under construction."The second photo shows the reverse, that is from the inside looking towards the east.


You can see the half-wall at the right side of the photo. It was glass and post above that when finished. Ken had narrow shelves there, and his extensive collection of telephone-pole glass insulators on display there. The two doorways are the exit, on the right, and the door to the greenhouse on the left.This photo shows the 'front' of the house; we're looking north.

You can see the greenhouse area at the right. My grandfather is standing in front of what will be the glass windows. You can see the long overhang of the roof. In the summer, the wall of glass panes was in the shade, while in the winter, being at a lower angle, the sunlight could come in and help heat the place. Modoc County is cold in the winter, occasionally beating out Alaska for the nation's cold spot.The south wall had floor to ceiling green-tinted windows that looked out over a large grass lawn rimmed with a hedge, sage brush beyond, and mountains in the distance. Inside, next to these windows, was a floor-level planter box, filled with exotic (to me) tall plants. I don't know what they were, but the some of the leaves were big and jagged. In a letter dated 08 January 1989, Phyllis writes --The indoor garden had Gardenia, Bird of Paradise, Camellia, Azalea, Begonias, Rabbit's Foot Fern, and, in a 1 ft. dia. Cedar Bark planter, from floor to ceiling-Stag Horn Fern and Split Leaf Philodendron.When I was a child, I didn't think anything of being warm in a room with a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows, but after I grew up and was out on my own, I wondered about their heating bills. I knew they had a furnace and a fireplace, and concluded that they just burned a lot of fuel. In June 1989, Phyllis told me these windows were 1/4" heat-absorbing glass plate, which explained the green tint and southern exposure I remembered. So, starting in 1941, my grandparents used solar energy to help keep their house warm. Phyllis also told me that during some of the wind storms those glass-plate windows would bend in and out, sometimes as much as six inches in the center of the plate.There was a large, 50-gallon built-in fish aquarium on the inside wall opposite the picture windows. The face of the aquarium was flush with the living room wall. I remember feeding the fish. You had to go into their bedroom and enter a closet door. In this access, the top of the tank could be opened and the fish food poured in. Later, Ken put the gold fish out in the horse trough were they grew to a large size, and they were able to survive freezing solid in the winter.Ken built a large stone fire place in the living room. It was open on the left hand side so that long pieces of wood could be fed into the fire box as they burned. This eliminated the need to chop wood to very short, firebox-sized lengths. A round metal post supported the left side of the mantle.On the southwest corner, near the fireplace, the wall further extended about 6 feet further south, to protect the picture windows from the wind. When this extension was built, Ken took his .22 rifle and fired a shot at that wall. The bullet didn't penetrate.The view from those large windows is shown in the next photo.


My grandmother's notation on this photo reads: "Southwest from house -- Westside Rd., Alturas" so the photo is taken at somewhat of an angle from the house. I think. I'll stick with my sense of direction, since that's how I think of it, and it makes the house layout easier to understand -- but I might be wrong. The last time I was there, I was 11 or 12. I'm now 51 (2008).

1 comment:

Na, Rona maua ko Bob said...

Kia ora from New Zealand. This is a wonderful piece of history that you have recorded here. We are also wanting to build a rammed earth home. I came across your Blog during the week and have popped in and out and today I am taking my time to relax and enjoy reading what you have written. Our Blog is Toku Whare Toku Castle. We are just novices and still trying to get our heads around how to do this. Thank you for being so informative. Noho ora mai. 'Rona and Bob'.