Norris Chambers Old Timer's Tales

Digging Can Be Fun

by Norris Chambers

This episode only takes you back to the very early 50's. We were building our present home, and I was always looking for something to do to improve things.

   Did you ever wonder how a basement got there? We found out the hard way.

  One Sunday morning my wife Ella took the kids to Sunday School. While she was gone, I got my grubbing hoe and shovel and started digging on the north side of the house. I started about ten feet from the east corner and made the excavation three feet wide. When she returned, I had a nice little hole about a foot deep. The black top soil had already been transported in a wheel barrow to the back forty.

  "What in the world are you doing?" That was a reasonable question. No doubt she was shocked. It isn't every day that someone starts digging a big hole by the side of the house.

  Having just read "God's Little Acre," I answered. "I thought this might be a likely place to look for a treasure." If you ever read that book, you remember that they dug a lot of holes, some of them under the house, looking for gold. Then I explained the whole thing to her: "I'm digging a basement." If she had been the fainting type, I would have been picking her up off of the ground.

  I had never lived in a house with a basement. In the country, we had cellars, but they were several yards distant from the house. My mother always said she wanted the cellar far enough away that if a storm blew the house down, it wouldn't land on the door and keep her pinned inside. This sounded reasonable, but I always felt like I would manage to get out even if this did happen.

  So, we started a basement, or under house cellar, on that Sunday morning. For the next several months, I spent what time I could spare digging and shoveling dirt into a wheel barrow. Ella stood above with a rope in her hands. I pushed and she pulled, and the load came out. I disconnected and moved it to the back of the lot. Before long we found a good grade of gravel, and I used this for a long, double driveway.

  I lowered the bottom of the ramp as the excavation went deeper. This increased the angle and made the dirt harder to remove. If I were doing it again, I would have dug the ramp directly into the side of the house and used a sled or large dolly of some sort and pulled it out with an automobile. But in those days, things were done the hard way much of the time, and we continued in the same manner that we had used when we started.

  To leave support for the house foundation, I kept the digging about two feet away from the outside wall. My intention was to remove this dirt later and pour concrete under the old foundation. At a depth of about six and a half feet, we encountered solid lime rock. Digging deeper would have been difficult, and since the house was about two feet above ground, this gave a good eight feet height to our room. I say room instead of basement because when you think of a basement, your think of something as big as the whole house. This little sanctuary was only about fourteen feet square.

  It could have been larger, but we decided this was large enough for our purposes. Actually, I didn't have any purposes. I just wanted to do it because I thought it would be fun.

  Next came several weeks of finishing work. I removed the dirt under the outside foundations about four feet at a time and replaced it with a six or eight inch thickness of concrete. Building the forms and properly bracing them was a slow process. I found out the hard way that when you pour concrete, bracing the form is very important. The first section spilled into the cellar when the form collapsed. Hauling it out was a tiresome and back-breaking job. I had purchased a small cement mixer, so the actual pouring was not too hard. The next step was laying concrete tile around the other three sides. These walls were extended to the floor of the house.

  Then about two inches of concrete was poured on the rock floor and leveled. A beam under the floor joists was supported by the tile walls on the ends and a 2 inch pipe supported the floor in the center. Another few days was spent in pouring concrete steps up the ramp by the side of the house. I poured these one at a time, so it took a few days to complete the stairway. I built forms and poured the walls around the stairs.

  A horizontal, metal covered door that was hinged to the house covered the stairway opening, and finished the project. It sloped downward to carry the rainwater away.

  Later, I added two rooms and a bath on the north side of the house, and the cellar entrance was enclosed. There was a door leading outside from the steps and another leading into the bedroom adjacent to it. The "basement" was finished.

  The story isn't quite over. They say the opera isn't over until the fat lady sings. In this case she hadn't made her appearance. I used the basement for about five years as a printing shop, and it was an ideal work place. But one spring morning it started raining and didn't seem to know when to quit. The next day Ella called me at work, obviously stressed. "The basement is flooded!" she exclaimed.

  "How bad?" I wanted to know.

  "Pretty bad - it's up to the top of the printing press. Type trays are floating around on top. The water is nearly up to the top of the stairs!" I thought about it pretty fast, and came up with what seemed like brilliant solution.

  "Call the fire department and see if they will pump it out." We had an excellent volunteer fire department and I felt like they would be happy to help us out.

  They did. She called them, and they responded immediately with a pumper and in a few minutes the problem was solved. She called me and reported that it was all taken care of.

  But by the time I got home, the water had risen to the same level. It leaked in almost like the concrete tile wasn't there. The whole layer of gravel was apparently saturated. I worried about it all night, but the next morning the water had receded to about a foot in the bottom. The shop was a mess.

  When I got home that afternoon, the water was gone. The flood damage was extensive. I started moving things out. The 2000 pound press had to be disassembled and taken out in pieces in the same manner I had moved it down there.

  I then began a waterproofing job. There are a number of sealers available that are recommended for waterproofing concrete tile, and any time you use tile, you should apply it. That just about corrected the water problem, but I never felt secure enough to move the shop back in there. It does have a few other uses.

  Would I do it again if I were starting over? Well, I don't know. It was a lot of FUN, but it was a lot of work. Was it worth it? I still don't know....but it was a lot of FUN.

  A few days after finishing the project, a friend asked: "How did you get all that dirt out?" I replied, "Easy - just wheeled it out in a wheel barrow!" Ella almost exploded. She remembered the hundreds of hard rope pulls up the ramp. I never told how easy it was again.

  If this story makes you want to dig a basement, get your shovel and catch your wife gone - when she gets back, have a nice hole started on the side of your house. When she asks what you are doing, just say. "We're fixing to have fun!"


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