Irma and I Build Our House

Could you build a house from start to finish? I know you could as we did it and you could too and we are no different. It was 3 bedroom 1000 sq ft for $6,200.

Well that was back in 1959.

After I left the navy I managed to rent the apartment Isabel and Russell had just vacated on Plummer Ave. in New Waterford. It was a large 2 bedroom and very nice condition. The rent was $50. per month. Irma and I were getting married in April. While Is and Russ were still in it I was there one day when a guy showed up selling Electrolux vacuum cleaners. He did a selling job on Isabel but I thought that that would make a great wedding gift for Irma. It was $300. So I arranged to pay for it over time. Little did I know that this kind of gift was not normal. Practical but not normal.

The Housing Group

Once we were married we moved in and settled down. Irma got pregnant very soon and Linda arrived as cute as a button. Later that summer I heard about a Co-op Housing Group that was formed recently. I thought it might be something interesting so I got an invite to a meeting at an apartment near us. It was a study group with the task of building our own homes. Little did we know that this was an opportunity for Irma and I to build our house.

The Idea Grows

There were 9 couples involved. None of us had any money but we all had $100. to put in and with that we purchased 9 building lots from Mount Carmel Parish across the road from the proposed new hospital. Everyone had a job to do in the group to obtain quotes and prices for the provision of services and building materials. This took all winter but by spring we were ready to go.

This is that same house we built as it is today in 2018. We built it in 1959.

Each person was expected to work on the project with the group. For instance, we would pour a basement on a Saturday and after that was done and the group went home for the day we could work on our own house for some time. Each day work would go on.

We hired a carpenter and his brother whose job it was to help us in the technical work such as framing and setting in doors and windows. They were paid $1,200. Per house.

Getting Started

The first thing we had to do while Irma and I build our house was to build a basement. A bulldozer was hired to dig the holes. Then we built a set of forms in which to pour the cement. The forms were made out of boards and 2 X 4 s and they were about 10 feet wide and 8 feet high. Once they were erected we were ready for the cement. After the cement set in a couple of days we had to manhandle the forms and get them to the next house were we set them up again. Of course they were heavy, and with each foundation we poured they got much heavier as the cement coated both sides.

We worked with what we had.

We couldn’t afford money for foundation form oil to keep the cement from sticking. It was very hard work. I had purchased an old half ton truck and we could use this for hauling the forms to the next job but it was a tough job.

We worked after hours.

After a couple of weeks the basements were completed and the carpenter showed us how to frame the floors, walls and roofs. Then we would all get together and build each house as a group. We would generally begin work in the evening after supper and work until dark. Some of us would go to our own houses at that time and work for another hour or so. We set up a makeshift light so we could work in the dark but at first I used a Coleman lantern. The deal was that once the houses were ready to occupy we could move in. That meant we would have free rent until the group of houses were finished and then we would begin with the mortgage payments.

Irma held our family together

Sometimes Irma would come up and help but she had all she could handle with Linda and when she was pregnant with Sandra.

Rather than go into every detail about how we worked here is what I had to do to get a cement floor in the basement as Irma and I build our house.

The footing we had set the walls upon was about a foot high. That meant the space which was 24 X 40 feet had to be filled by rock and concrete. Rock was cheap and the nearest available was at River Ryan some 5 miles away at an old stone quarry. I would finish work at the store, run home for supper and take off with the old truck for a load of rock which I picked up by hand. Back at the house I had to unload the rock by hand and then move the rock around to end up with the place on the level. I did that for about 10 days or so and I managed to have enough rock. Then I needed something to even off the floor.

We scrounged for things.

A couple of miles away was number 16 coal mine. In those years we still had steam engines on the railroad and they used coal. After the coal was burned the leftover ashes were dumped at that mine ash dump and it was free to take. I would load as much as possible on the old truck by hand, go home and shovel it off into the basement and then level it off all by hand. It was hard work. I remember arriving back on the site one night with an extra large load and as I turned onto the lot both back tires blew out at the same time. Of course the tires were worn out at that time.

Finally the floor was level and I had enough room left for 4 inches of concrete to finish to finish the job.

Only one of our fellow workers had the money for ready mix concrete. It was expensive. Some did without for a few years and simply left the clay floor. I decided to bite the bullet and pour the floor myself by hand.

I ordered 60 bags of cement and 2 large loads of gravel. I bought a small electric cement mixer from Simpson’s for $110.00 and set to work with the shovel. Mix in the gravel and cement, let it work for a few minutes and dump it in the basement window into a wooden platform. Back inside I would spread it out by hand. After a couple of hours of this I would get busy with the hand trowel evening it off. I would be doing this sometimes very late in the night after working all day at the store and working with the group in the early part of the evening. At the end of the two weeks of backbreaking work the floor was finished and looked pretty good. Only one problem arose. I had placed the 4 inch cast iron pipe under the floor but didn’t realize that a rock had moved into the end of one pipe.. Once we were moved in we discovered that there was a blockage somewhere and once I found out the approximate area below the floor I had to break up an area of a square yard or so in the concrete floor, clear the obstruction and re-cement the floor in order for Irma and I to build our house.

This was the work involved with each task such as the shingles on the walls and roof. I had to learn how to run the ductwork for the coal furnace and set the entire thing up. The bricklayer wanted $55. To build the chimney. He was to start at the first house which was the home of John Malcolm and Inez MacIntyre. That morning I wanted to see what he did so I left work and went up to the site. It was 11 am and he was on the roof finishing the chimney cap. I was making about $75. A week and could not see paying somebody that much money so I decided to build my own. It took a week to complete working after my obligations with the group were finished for the day.

The shell was finished.

Once the houses were closed in and the outside shingles were on the walls and roofs our group work was complete. Then it was every man and woman on his/her own.

Then next big job was the electrical and plumbing. The experts came by, showed us how to run wire and pipe, set up switch boxes etc and then came back once we were ready for hookup. They did the finishing up and soon we had water in the pipes and electricity flowing through the wires.

The only insulation we could get at that time was seaweed. Seems strange now but that was before fiberglass was invented and Styrofoam was still a long way off. The seaweed was manufactured in long bags 15 inches wide with a flap on both sided. Inside was dry seaweed. It came in rolls of 50 feet. We stapled it between the studs and then we had to nail the sheets of drywall on top.

Working alone was tough.

Drywalling was tough as mostly I worked alone. I made up a rig from boards like a large “T” maneuvered the sheet of drywall upon my back, tried to pick up my “T” support and slide it under the sheet and hoist it to the ceiling and get it to the right place and nail it quickly before it fell back down.

Today when I think back I wonder where the energy came from. It sure fits the adage “if you want something bad enough you will figure a way to get it” as Irma and I built our house.

Once all of the drywall was up it was time to do the crack filling. There was a fellow who was really good at it who lived nearby. His name was Daniel Aucoin. Dan had a clubfoot and you would think that this would slow him down. I watched him do some work and he was amazing. We hired him to do our house. Next came the painting and I built the kitchen cabinets, or at least I got a good start on building them.

Moving day arrived

Irma and Linda in front of our new home. Almost finished the outside of the new home.

I built a back step and a rough front step and finally the great day arrived for us to move in. I believe it was around about August.

We moved with the old truck and we must have been an odd sight going along with that old beater and our nice furniture.

Linda was just a little over 16 months when she and Irma made our home complete.

There was a green gypsum quarry near Scotch Lake and I drove the old beater over there twice to get two loads of it. I began the front step and between shaping it with leftover rock from the basement and that gypsum I finished the job.

The old truck nearly meets its maker.

I had a chance to obtain some fill for the driveway while the new hospital was being constructed. The loader operator told me to come on over and he would load it for me.

I drove across King Street and descended the huge hole in the ground and pulled up to where he indicated. The loader got to work and put one bucket in and I thought I could probably handle one more, however, the foreman who I knew asked me something about our group and I didn’t notice that the operator not only put in the second load but also the third. He and the foreman were dying laughing as I drove away with the rear bumper and the rear end of the both back fenders dragging on the ground. The bumper lost the battle.

Irma didn’t take long to get the finishing touches done with putting up curtains and photos and making the house a home. That was it. How Irma and I built our house.

The Total Cost

We enjoyed about 6 months before our mortgage kicked in. The monthly payment was $53. Including taxes. We had built the house on budget for $6,200. The $200. Was for the new tax the province had enacted to cover the 3% Hospital Tax which was the precursor of Medicare. Prior to that time you could pay a doctor $2.00 per month or, whatever he would charge for baby deliveries ($60.00 for the entire pregnancy examinations and monthly visits to him when needed.)

A few years ago we visited Kay MacPhee who still lived in one of the houses in our group and was a good friend. She told us that a house like ours was then selling for $189,000.