Is a very, very, very fine house
Long before we bought our farmhouse in North Sandwich, I drove by it on my way to hike a mountain. The car was a blue Jetta, the mountain was Paugus. I left the seacoast on this October morning and cruised up Rte. 11 toward Wolfeboro. I hugged the eastern side of the lake and eventually found myself in Moultonborough. I turned at the big yellow general store and climbed the hill. Instantly the houses became grander and the views of the Sandwich Range were wide open and impressive. “So this is Sandwich, huh?” The columned home on the top of Wentworth Hill stood out to me. Outside of Portsmouth, where I lived, I never saw houses like this in New Hampshire. The little village, hand-painted white signs pointing this way and that, called to me as I passed through, turning right onto Maple St. “Stay a while,” it said. I kept going.
I passed Top of the World Rd. I remember seeing that name on the hiking map, with a “+” as if it were a peak of interest. I daydreamed about visiting the top of the world, but did not. I kept going. I was heading to the cool, dark forest of Paugus. I drove right past the house I’d move into just a few years later and went on to Wonalancet, parking at the trail leading to Big Rock Cave. I will save that adventure for another time. I will just say for now the hike did not go well and I ended up hiking miles down Chinook Trail back to my car appreciating the sting of an unsuccessful hike and admiring the fall scenery.
I remembered Sandwich fondly – and Top of the World remained a mysterious name on the map which left my imagination tangled up. But I stayed on Rtes. 16 or 11 during my adventures over the coming years. If you don’t know that Sandwich exists, you’ll drive right past the McDonald’s in Ossipee on your way northbound – these days I’m just fine with that.
The only two times Sandwich ever crossed my radar over the next decade were subtle. One was in an old book I found in a free pile sharing favorite bike rides around the state of New Hampshire. It included a loop which weaved down Rte. 113 into Center Sandwich. The other reference was on a puzzle of Lake Winnipesaukee. It referred to Sandwich as “the center of the universe.” I couldn’t explain that to anyone, but it is true. If you get it, you get it. The top of the world and the center of the universe.
And suddenly it is 2018, when Kay and I are looking for a house. We both shared a desire to get up into the mountains, but still close enough to the seacoast and our families (and jobs, for the time being). We had our sites set on Tamworth, mostly. But with a very small budget, we were limited to houses at that lower number.
My weekend project with Wilder was to hike the Hikin’ Herons trails – a project put on by the Tamworth Conservation Commission. After we completed Jackman Pond Trail, I decided to check out a short trail up the road which had a boardwalk and a nice view of the Sandwich Range as well as the Ossipee mountains. That stretch of Rte. 113 heading to North Sandwich is as New England as it gets, with old houses on hills, stone walls, and Passaconaway looming over the fields and forests. “I could live here,” I thought.
Months later, we did. We were only finding junkers with our lowly budget, so we went up a few thousand and the North Sandwich house presented itself. We drove up to Rte. 25 and checked out some land on the side of the highway. Ick to the highway. Then we went down Bearcamp Pond Rd. and turned onto Beede Flats. We toured another junker on Foss Flats Rd. The ceilings were collapsing and any semblance of modern comfort did not exist within the walls of that structure. It no longer exists, which makes me glad we walked.
We decided to check out another house in town that looked abandoned. We drove past the sad little North Sandwich ghost store and cruised by the house. There was still snow and plenty of junk everywhere. In the front yard we found a couple beat up apple trees, a knocked over children’s slide, and a big rusty propane tank, the ugliest wart of them all.
We turned around at Top of the World Rd., just a quarter mile away. “Oh I remember this road!” I said. We used our escape velocity to zip by the house and back onto our quest for a house in the country.
We judged a book by its cover and decided we didn’t like the house. But after a little more research of the market, and seeing the potential value this property actually had, we decided to visit. The realtor we met wasn’t the actual realtor – he was just a guy who accepted an offer to show it via whatever website we were on. The three of us walked through the house cracking jokes about the peeling wallpaper and plaster, the “remodeled” kitchen which was a straight-up lie. We opened the freezer, unfortunately. The floors were carpeted, the house was musty and cold and disgusting. The washing machine shot the water through the floor onto the ground below the mudroom. Yet we kinda liked it. The original molding and trim, doors from a previous century were all intact. We just needed to peel back some of the “udpates” the previous owners made, mostly with bad drywall and desperation. We walked down the logging road and hopped the electric fence to explore the goldenrod and stump-covered fields. We felt like we could do something with this land. But the work would be unreal.
We made an offer. We went very low. The house had been on the market forever. It was a nightmare to just about anyone except a young couple with stars in their eyes. We learned the owners couldn’t go any lower than the list price without taking a loss. They were rather open about it. We weren’t sure if we wanted to pay asking price so we walked.
We drove to another house in Freedom. It cost more, it had less land, and it needed a similar amount of work. And the property was sloped forest with very little sunlight or workable land. We stood in that abandoned backyard peering in the windows, deflated. We decided we’d offer on the North Sandwich house. Technically, it was a win-win – once we realized that, we were sold. There was no need to “lowball” them because we knew we’d be happy once we got it over with. The rest was a whirlwind. Our house in Rochester had an offer in hours and the buyers paid cash. Somehow in a matter of days we were moving to the new place. We left the loan signing meeting and drove straight up.
The first thing I did when I walked into the house was vacuum a big fat spider off the wall. It plopped into the vacuum with some force. We slept tightly that night on an air mattress. In our first year, I caught over 100 mice. Snap traps, baby. We learned we had bats in the crawlspace. “A family of them,” the poor electrician told us.
But small changes made huge differences. I ripped the carpet out and we discovered beautiful hardwood floors. Removing piles of trash made the 19th century architecture front and center once again. And lighting the woodstove for the first time made this place a home. When my dad came up and helped me install a new oil tank and get the furnace going, it was my first real win as a homeowner. I felt my roots stretching into the ground. As I enjoyed heat rushing out of the floor registers for the first time, I felt the energy of ownership transitioning from the ghosts of the previous owners to ourselves.
The yard was every nasty weed and vine you see in these parts times a million. Add chaotic fencing, raised bed gardens buried in the mass, arbors, hodge podge outbuildings, and trash everywhere. I had to hand-mow and hand-cut a little at a time. But I got a soil test done and y’know – the soil was fantastic. Just needed to add a little potassium. They say if you have a ton of weeds, they didn't spray chemicals. So I can thank the previous owners for that. In our first year I had a small fall garden in one raised bed. The next year I had two rows in my future garden and then I doubled that. And last year I got the entire system going, though I battled weeds – and will for a few more years. But it’s a small price to pay for the fantastic food we’ve grown.
Things have gone right, things have gone horribly wrong. The only mice we find these days are in the clutches of Hamilton the cat. We still have bats. But every time I see Top of the World Rd, I remember how it used to be that little “+” on the map and I think about all the times I’ve gone up there since. And all the times I will.