In this world of cheaper and faster, very few things are built to last.
About three years ago our washing machine headed out the door of our home, having served durably for roughly 25 years. I believe in buying quality, so I shopped for a replacement with that fundamental as my guide. When I paid and exited the appliance store, the salesman confided in me that we’d be lucky to get beyond the ten-year mark with any unit I’d have chosen.
The last 12-volt battery I purchased was to replace one that had given my wife and me seven solid years of service. Again, I shopped for quality above bottom dollar, and left with one of the better batteries the store could sell me. But when the technician heard I hadn’t replaced mine in seven years, he kindly shared that I’d be lucky to get three out of my new purchase. “They’re all that way now” was his parting remark.
A few prize items do seem to hang in there, however. My parents still use a stainless-steel percolating coffee pot they received as a wedding gift. The thing makes darn good coffee and hasn’t skipped a beat through all their years of marriage. Having taken it for granted while growing up (except for the aroma…I always appreciated that), I now treasure seeing it do its thing when we visit them. I’ll bet it would be worth a piece on eBay.
In my column last week, I wrote about the wild storm so many in this area experienced May 12. Implementing our severe weather plan for our staff, my administrative assistant and I rode it out in a basement here on our grounds, listening fearfully to the racket going on above us for at least a half-hour. Both of us felt certain that whenever we finally emerged, we’d see a very different landscape.
Our business here is history, specifically that of the South Dakota prairie pioneer, and our most tangible daily offering to that end is a series of historic buildings arranged much as a village might have been a century ago. Both Bev and I fully expected to see heavy destruction after the storm, picturing a complete obliteration of perhaps many or nearly all our beloved structures.
Much to our shock, we eased our way out the stairway door to find every historic offering still in place.
Yes, the village did take a real hit, with losses including a pole shed, a couple of gate buildings, part of the shelter over our rare chapel car, many trees, and a mess of widespread roofing material. But none of our stable of historic buildings – not one of them – succumbed structurally to the violence of 100-plus mile-per-hour winds.
But then, I suppose, it figures. When these structures were built, cheaper wasn’t always better, faster didn’t necessarily win the bid, and materials weren’t fast-tracked through big box stores without regard for rigor of quality. They were constructed with the only materials that would have been considered: good ones. It would never have crossed the minds of those framing these buildings to cheapen or short-cut any part of the process. It was the only way.
Tidbit evidence of construction variance is found regularly by Al, our maintenance man. Often, he’ll begin measuring for a door or window repair and find nothing is matching up. Turns out, dimensional lumber from those days was of true dimensions. In other words, a 2x6 truly measured two inches by six inches back then, rather than how you’ll find them today, cut to 1 1/2 by 5 1/2. It may not seem like much, but it amounted to more total lumber (and the conversion will sure mess with your math).
No matter how you add it up, forty or so historic buildings survived the horrible onslaught that Thursday with only windows and shingles seriously damaged. Our structural losses were all realized in the newer stuff. While I wouldn’t have traded that basement shelter during those harrowing minutes, it turns out we’d have survived had we been stuck in any one of our historic buildings. I wouldn’t place my life on that gamble, given a below-ground alternative, but it proves these buildings are the real McCoy’s.
Prairie Village. Built to last.