by Audrey Barclay
"The latch string's always out," is an expression commonly used in the early part of this [20th] century when inviting anyone to visit you. This expression came about by the use of a narrow leather thong that was fastened to the latch near the edge of the front door on most houses in those days. The door was latched by loosely bolting a narrow board to the door near one end, letting it extend far enough beyond the edge to fall into a deep notch cut into a matching board nailed to the door facing opposite. A tug on the thong from outside raised the latch, hence the expression, "The latch string's always out."
The latch string was always out on my grandfather's house. He built the house in 1896 from timber cut from the land on which it stood, including the milled lumber. The only exception was the "ceiling boards" with which the huge room was finished inside. An enclosed corner stairway led to the attic room above, with its sloping roof. It was dimly lighted by a small window in each gable end; otherwise it was unfinished. The room provided space for two beds, besides being a wonderful place for a little girl to play on a rainy day. The farmhouse was of hand-hewn logs, the marks of the adz plainly visible between the chinking of mud-like mortar used outside in the crevices to seal out the weather. They were held firmly in place by notches cut near either end, making walls that were sturdy and strong. Today, houses are manufactured and pre-packaged to resemble the log houses of yesterday, and one wonders, will the same warmth be generated from these houses as those of my grandfather's day? Surely, "the latch string will always be out."
Editor's note: I don't know which of Audrey's grandfathers--West or Smith--built the house she wrote about in the above piece, but when I first read this story, the house I pictured in my mind was this one:
That's Audrey's paternal grandmother, Amy Lucinda (Hagadorn) Smith, in the picture, along with Amy's son (and Audrey's uncle), Arba. Audrey's grandfather, Samuel S. Smith, most likely did build this house, probably with the assistance of all of his sons, especially Audrey's father, Ernest. Sam and Ernest were professional carpenters whose travel to building sites often kept them away from home for long stretches at a time. Here they are, father and son, in one of my favorite family photos (Sam on the left, Ernest on the right):
Don't forget you can click on photos to enlarge them.