A blog about a first-time house owner learning to maintain his backyard, and thoughts about nature, science, history, and life.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

History in the House

As I've posted before, my house has some history...it was originally a workshop to repair railroad wagons and carts.  The yard has it's own history, too...there's plenty of old junk still strewn around it.  But the house structure itself has some history, too.  In the den at the back of the house, a series of beams provide support.  But these aren't just any beams.  They look quite old, and one of the beams has a large spike sticking out of it:

The spike itself is old and rusted, as if it was exposed to the elements for some time, and the wood is a bit weathered, too, with some cracks in it. 

There are also precisely round holes drilled into the wood.

Given the aged appearance of the wood, the holes, and the spike, I'm inclined to think that these could very well be old railroad ties from one of the two railroad lines that met up in Freeville from the mid 1800s through the early 1900s that were salvaged when they were tearing apart the tracks after the railroads became defunct.  The rails and ties are long gone, but you can still follow the path of the old tracks in parts of town, and I hope to do some exploring there after the weather warms.

When I first moved in, my dad and I wondered how old the wood might be and where it might have come from.  Now that I know something about Freeville's history, I can at least make an educated guess.  It's neat to know that part of what turned Freeville from a tiny hamlet into a small village  - the railroads - is sitting right in my living room.

A Foggy Night in Freeville

One night last week, a fog rolled in to Freeville late in the evening, and I went outside to capture some images.  The fog droplets condensed onto my camera lens, making for some interesting photos.  Even though the fog was pretty thick close to the ground, the clouds parted at times, allowing the moon to peek through (last photo).  I hope you enjoy this look at a foggy night in Freeville.


Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Great Snowblower of Freeville: Spotted!

In my post about the February snowstorm, I noted that the sidewalks of Freeville are usually cleared by one generous individual.  Even after we received a half-inch of fluffy snow one day earlier this week, I found that he still took the time to clear the sidewalks.  Later, on Thursday, I finally spotted him in action.  It's not just a snowblower...it's a John Deere tractor with a snowblower on the front.  I guess he's pretty comfortable while he's out there clearing the sidewalks!  And I bet he can clear all of Freeville's sidewalks in about the same amount of time it takes me to shovel my driveway.  Well, chalk that up as one mystery (partially) solved!


We had a mess of a storm come through late yesterday afternoon through earlier this afternoon, bringing pretty much every type of winter precipitation with it.  At times, it was simultaneously snowing, sleeting, and raining.  We have a word for this here in the Ithaca area - ithacation.  It's ithacating when you don't exactly know what's falling from the sky, but you know you don't like it.

In these two photos, I hope you can make out both the large snowflakes that were falling and the small ripples on the surface of Fall Creek due to rain and water drops dripping off of the branches.

Some branches were covered by only water drops, while others had snow on them as well.  Welcome to late winter snowstorms in Freeville. 

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Historical Snow Cover

While I wait to be able to upload photos from my camera, I have to make due in the meantime.  So the next couple of days will feature photo-less posts.

About a month ago, I ran across an interesting web site that shows U.S. snow cover maps for the last 10 years or so.  Pick a day in the last 10 years (your birthday, perhaps, if it falls in the winter) and see how much snow was on the ground.  My birthday happened to be yesterday...hence the day off from the blog.  All of my life, I had been hoping for a snowstorm on my birthday, and two years ago, it finally happened.  We picked up a couple of inches from the 24th into the 25th, and another 6 inches on my birthday (the 25th).  It was one of my better birthdays.

I went back and looked at the historical snow cover maps for the last 10 years, all but one of which I was living in Ithaca.  It looks like there has always been at least a trace of snow on the ground for my birthday, and it looks like it averages a few inches.

We're looking at the potential for another inch or two tonight, along with some ice.  I guess we're due, because the snow cover is down to an inch or less.  Before long, we'll be seeing green again, first on the grass, then on the leaves.  But for now, I guess I can deal with just a little more snow.

Historical Snow Cover Maps

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Freeville History: The Old Mill (Part 2)

(continued from Part 1)

With the success of his grist mill, Daniel White was able to buy land adjoining his property (in what is now the southwestern portion of Freeville).  Daniel White bequeathed this new land to his son, John, who in 1833 built a new dam with a larger, sturdier mill about a quarter of mile upstream of the original mill.  This mill was on the site of the current Mill Dam Park.  This larger mill became an impetus for the growth of Freeville, as it employed more people than the old mill.  John ran the mill for about 20 years.  By 1853, a duo named Ford and Perrigo ran the mill.  It's unknown how large a reach the mill had by this time.

In 1882, a man by the name of Byron Brewer bought the now-near-fifty-year-old mill and modernized it.  The cornerstone of Brewer's mill was a "fancy buckwheat flour" that was known not just locally, but throughout much of the country, including the South and the West.  By sometime before the beginning of World War I, the Ekenberg Company, based in Cortland, bought a signficant supply of the buckwheat flour and other grains from the mill.  From this, they made a new kind of prepared pancake flour known as "Teco" flour.  According to A. B. Genung, "the Ekenbergs arranged with Brewer to install extra machinery in the mill and turn out more raw materials for them.  Finally Mr. Brewer entered into an arrangement with them to manufacture the whole flour here.  This led to an enlargement of the mill and the installation of a new steam boiler and all the necessary machinery for making and packaging Teco flour."  By this time, the mill was employing 30 to 40 people (both men and women).  The railroads brought grain (buckwheat, corn, and wheat) daily to Freeville to be ground at the mill.  Once processsed, the Teco flour was shipped out of Freeville to points across the country by the same railroads.  After the boom of World War I, demand for pancake flour lessened, big mills were built elsewhere, and the Eckebergs went out of business.  The mill returned to grinding grain for local farmers.

But the mill wasn't completely done until July of 1935.  On July 7-8, a series of thunderstorms dumped upwards of 9 inches of rain on the central Finger Lakes region in less than two days.  Fall Creek, and all other streams and creeks across the area, experienced massive flooding, wiping out all dams in its course.  Though this was the final straw for the mill, the dam was repaired in the summer of 1941 - at the same time that the land was acquired for the park.  The grounds were cleaned up, trees were planted, and the area became suitable for the public.  It is believed that in the late 1940s some more cement work was done in the vicinity of the dam.  But as far as I know, the dam as it appears today is very similar to how it looked back in the 1940s.  I'm currently researching the Flood of 1935 - a significant event across much of the Finger Lakes region - and I'll posting about it sometime in the future.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Freeville History: The Old Mill (Part 1)

On our Freeville tour, we've already looked at Mill Dam Park, the site of the old mill dam.  But the Freeville history series hasn't taken a good look at what was Freeville's first and longest-lived industry, the old mill.  Some of the information is gleaned from Albert B. Genung's "Historical Sketch of the Village of Freeville, Tompkins County, New York", and some comes from Freeville's resident village historian, Joan Manning.

Freeville was first settled in 1798, by Daniel White.  Early on, he recognized the need for a grist mill...there were none in the whole town of Dryden.  In the summer of 1800, construction began on the dam.  Two years later, the mill was completed.

According to Genung, "The dam was built of logs anchored with stones, and some of those old logs and stones still lie there in the pasture today, nearly a century and a half later."  [Note: Genung wrote his history in 1942, but I hear that some of those logs and stones are still there to this day.]  The mill was entirely built from local materials. According to Genung, "[t]he mill was built mainly of logs, roofed with boards from Whitney's sawmill on Virgil Creek."  The mill stood outside the modern-day village limits, near the Mill Street bridge over Fall Creek.

Of course, to operate a grist mill, one needs a millstone.  Genung writes: "For a millstone he went up the hill a couple miles northwest and broke out a boulder on the Thompson or later-day Skilling farm.  With ox team and sled he dragged the rock down to the mill and himself split and dressed out the stones which were used to grind grain there for sixteen years.

Now farmers from the Dryden area could bring their grain to a local mill.  This was the beginning of roads around the Freeville area.  "Five ox roads or 'tracks' were early cut through the woods toward the Freeville site; one from West Dryden and Cayuga Lake direction [to the west]; one along the north side of the creek from Etna; one north toward present Groton; one south along Virgil Creek to Willow Glen; one east toward Malloryville.  To the grist mill in those days came all the settlers from miles around, especially in the fall and winter.  It was an important center.  In the miller's tally corner by the fire place men in homespun and home-tanned fur swapped items of news, settled debts, drank a moderate cup of the Elder's wild blackberry cordial, exchanged seed and other products and paid their taxes."

Thanks to Fall Creek and the new grist mill, Freeville (or more accurately, the area was to become Freeville) became a hub of life in our little corner of central New York.  Soon, a few other houses spouted up, and a hamlet was born.  More on the mill tomorrow!

Friday, February 22, 2013

Last of the Bitter Days this Winter?

 I'm hoping that this week was the end of the worst.  Of winter, that is.  It was pretty frigid from Wednesday into Thursday, with Thursday being the coldest day of the week.  At Cornell's Game Farm Road weather station, the temperature hovered around 15F for most of Thursday morning, after falling from the upper teens overnight - it was 19 at midnight.  The temperature climbed just a little bit on Thursday afternoon, up to 18 degrees.  Meanwhile, we had light snow showers and flurries for much of the day: lake effect snow under breezy winds from the northwest.  In all, we picked up maybe half an inch of very light, fluffy snow.  With the breeze, the wind chill was in the single digits all day.  At the Ithaca airport, it was just a bit warmer, with a temperature climbing into the lower 20s for much of the afternoon.  

Looking ahead to the coming days, we're into a warmer period.  With each hour today, we get a little closer to the freezing mark (or should I say melting mark?)  Today through next week, we're looking at highs in the mid-30s to lower 40s...warm enough for me to maybe visit somewhere outside for the blog.  We have a storm that looks to be passing well to our east over the weekend, though we may see just a little snow from it as well.  And before long, we'll be into March!  The Climate Prediction Center issued a March forecast today expecting above-normal temperatures for the eastern half of the country.  Let's hope that it proves to be true!

Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Lay of the Land

Apologies for the blown up map, but I made my typeface a little too small for a smaller version.  What you see is the surveyor's map of my backyard, with some of my own annotations to show where some of the features, such as the lawn, garden, flowerbeds, wildflowers, patches of thorny plants, and some of the trees, are.  The numbers accompanying the labels show my priorities for the coming year.  The garden is the top priority, the flowerbeds in front of the house are next, and the wildflowers near the back of the yard are near the bottom of the list.  This is a first step in planning my yard work for the spring and summer.  If I get ambitious when it gets a little warmer (it's frigid here today!), I'll get outside, so a little rough surveying of my own, and make a much more accurate map.

In short, here are some of my plans for the backyard beginning this spring.  I'd like to plant some flowers in the garden that I wouldn't be able to plant in the yard because the deer would eat them.  Ideally, the flowers will attract birds to the yard.  I'm also hoping to plant some vegetables that I'll eat: carrots and green beans.  I want to plant some annual flowers in the flowerbeds and see how they grow (I posted about that last week.)  The other big priority for the spring is to plant something in the wildflower patch at the right side of the property, creekside of the shed.  There's a deer trail through this area, so it will probably end up being a combination of grasses and wildflowers that are quite deer-resistant.  I'll probably make the deer trail a built-in feature of this area.

I have a feeling that I won't be able to plant anything until later in March or into April, given the weather.  But there will be days that I can get outside before that.  During this time, I'll probably do some clearing out in the thorny plant areas, one in the back right corner of the yard and one on the left side of the yard.  There are also piles of sticks and branches in various places, especially among the trees, that I can break down and take to the county recycling center.  Finally, there are some larger downed branches around the yard to clean up and dispose of as well.  I'll begin cataloging this stuff as the weather turns warmer over the next few weeks.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

A View from Above: Cornell, Ithaca, and Vicinity

I work on the top floor of the tallest building on Cornell University's campus, which affords some tremendous views of the surrounding area.  Here's a look at some of those views.

The first two photos in the post look southwest towards downtown Ithaca and the bustling area of shopping centers and big box stores south of town.  

Looking almost directly west down Tower Road, you can see one of Cornell's icons, the McGraw Tower, gifted to the university in its early years.  Downtown Ithaca sits in the valley below.

Next to my building (Bradfield Hall) is a large garden area that is full of flowers and other plants in the warmer months.  I'll have to take a closer look at this than I have in the past starting this spring.

Looking east, there are a few landmarks of note.  The Cornell Plantations - an outdoor area with gardens, an arboretum, and hiking trails - sits in the foreground on the left hand side of the photo.  You might be able to make out the visitor center in among the pine trees, at the end of a curving driveway.  The taller building in the center right with black-tinted windows is the Vet School.  The first hill that you can see is known as Mount Pleasant.  And Freeville is hiding, nestled away in the valley beyond the small ridge on the far left hand edge of the photo.

Here's another look off in the general direction of Freeville.

Here's a closer look at some of the Plantations.  The gardens are just beyond the curved driveway and the visitor center, and some hiking trails sit in a bowl just beyond the roads.  When the weather warms and the trails are clear of snow, I'll venture out and write some posts about the different areas of the Plantations.  

Here's a look at Beebe Lake, which I've featured before on the blog.  There's a trail ringing the lake (also part of the Plantations), which, legend has it, if you circle it holding hands with your partner, you're destined to be married.  The lake is still partly covered in ice.  In the far right, you can see Fall Creek spilling into Beebe Lake from a short, narrow gorge.  There's a narrow, stone arch bridge over the creek (from which students like to jump during the summer).

And here's a zoomed in view of Fall Creek spilling into Beebe Lake, the bridge, and the small gorge.

Here's the view off to the northwest.  In the foreground are Mann Library, Warren Hall, and the other buildings of the Agriculture Quad.  In the center right sits North Campus, one of two large housing areas on campus, where all of the freshmen live.  Between the two areas sits Beebe Lake and a deep, narrow gorge...one of many gorges in the Ithaca area.  Off in the distance is Cayuga Lake.

One of the most striking features of the topography around the Ithaca area is how smooth the hills and valleys are.  This is because the area used to be covered by glaciers, which smoothed out the topography.  Still, these rolling hills are occasionally cut by narrow creeks, which have gouged out steep gorges in several places around the area.

The last shot in this post looks at the coal power plant located a few miles up the lake from Ithaca.  The smoke plume is a good indicator of the the wind's strength and direction.  On Tuesday, the wind was blowing pretty strongly from the southeast: rare for our area.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Weather-Related Articles

Here's another weekly installment of weather-related articles.  The theme this week is water: lakes, pollution, rain, and, more generally, precipitation.

mPING Dislay

mPING is a mobile app that allows users to report precipitation type (snow, ice pellets, rain, hail, etc.) to the National Severe Storms Laboratory, which is located in Norman, OK.  The link above takes you to a display page where you can see what reports are coming in from around the country.

Why Bad Weather Is Good for Productivity (Blizzards Notwithstanding)

A recently-released study has found that rainy days tend to be more productive for office workers than sunny days.  The obvious reason is that rainy days make it less likely that office staff will sneak out for a walk, but is there more to it than that?

Water: The Next Great Technological Frontier

One of the greatest environmental challenges facing us over the coming decades will be our water supply.  Our freshwater supply is being tapped more and more for drinking and agriculture, and furthermore, this supply is endangered by pollution.  We will need to find ways to ensure that we all have access to plenty of safe drinking water.  This excellent article does a great job of putting the problem in perspective and looking at the way forward.

What's impacting Great Lakes water levels? 

This article goes hand-in-hand with the last article.  It focuses on the Great Lakes, which are lower than they have been in a long time.  What's behind the drop in water level?  Read the article to find out.  (Hint: many of the reasons are the same as in the last article!)

50 Old Time Weather Proverbs & Signs

This article is just a list of nifty old sayings about the weather...some more true than others.  Have you heard of any of them?  "Red sky at morning, sailor take warning; red sky at night, a sailor's delight."  "If March comes in like a lion, it will go out like a lamb."  "Clear moon, frost soon."  Check out the article for more!

Monday, February 18, 2013

My Not-So-Great Backyard Bird Count

I tried to participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology this weekend, but when I looked out the window, this was all I saw...no birds!  Oh well...at least I tried...

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Hunting for Ducks at the Lab of Ornithology

I had some free time last Thursday, so I went to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (which I briefly introduced to you some time ago) to take some pictures of birds and walk around.

Of course, I realized about two minutes after I had left the house that I had forgotten my boots. The trails were sure to be snow-covered, but I figured that by now they had melted down enough so that my sneakers would be ok.

It was a busy day at the Lab.  I parked in the outer lot, which, as you can see in the photo, was nearly 1/3 full (the other 2/3 was behind me).  The two other lots were nearly full.  I'm sure some of those cars were for employees, but there seemed to be quite a few guests in the visitor center and on the trails as well.

I posted a couple of photos of the area near the visitor center before, but much of the area is swampy.  Lots of standing water for birds (and mosquitoes!) to drink.

The Lab has over two miles of trails across its swampy grounds...in places, there are elevated wooden walks to guide visitors over the marshy areas that are too soggy to walk on.

Of course, a sign of the swampy/marshy-ness of the area is the cattail.

Here's a look at the visitor center.  This relatively new building opened in June, 2002.  Inside, it has, among other things, an auditorium, a library of bird materials, an observation area, an information desk, items for sale, and plenty of research space for the Lab's scientists.

Here's the walkway to the entrance.  As with anything associated with a major university, many items and spaces - like many of the walkways and benches on the Lab's grounds - were paid for by the generosity of donors.

Here's the view from the observation area out towards the pond.  There's a little stone beach that the birds can wander onto.  For the observers, there are a couple of high-powered telescopes to look farther out onto the pond.

And here's one thing that you can see: a large great blue heron's nest (I believe).  The Lab has cameras trained on this nest and streaming to the Web in the spring so that birders around the world can watch the young hatch and learn to fly.  (There's also a camera on Cornell's main campus, right by my building, trained on a red-tailed hawk nest.)

In the pond, near the observation area, a couple of aerators keep the surface thawed for our feathered friends to get a bath and maybe do some fishing?

On the pond this past Thursday right around noon were a bunch of mallard ducks.  It seemed to be lunchtime for them, too.

At first, I only saw a couple of ducks, but soon many more floated into view.

The ducks didn't seem to mind the cold too much.  The air temperature was a little above freezing, and the water temperature was probably about the same.

On land or in the water, the ducks were looking for some lunch.

For the ducks that climbed onto land, there was usually a lookout...just in case we pesky humans in the building were up to something.  Also of note...it was Valentine's Day, and the ducks almost seemed to know this.  They were frequently floating, swimming, or waddling in pairs.

I wonder if rocks are a good place for the ducks to find food?

This male looks to be floating reassuringly behind his mate.

And these two are looking for food (or something else?) together.  I wonder if they're looking for little insects or bugs in among the rocks?

The male here is keeping an eye out to protect his mate.  I guess these ducks, if they live here year-round, are pretty accustomed to being around people.

The ducks would occasionally flap their wings in the water, making a big splash, but it was hard to be quick enough on the trigger.

I did manage to get a couple of decent shots, though.

Look!  It's a big foray onto the beach!  But eventually, my camera was running low on battery, so I decided to take a hike.

This is the state of the trails...mostly packed-down snow with a little ice mixed in.  On some of the elevated walkways, there was more ice than snow.  I slipped a couple of times, but for the most part I was ok in sneakers and didn't mind that I had forgotten my boots.

Here's the great blue heron's nest (I zoomed in a lot!) from the other side of the pond.  You can see the camera above the nest pretty clearly in this shot.  It looks like a hawk is hanging out near the top of the tree.

Here's the visitor center from the other side of the pond.  It's a fairly large pond!  The observation area is at the right hand side of the picture, and the research space is to the left.

Here's a zoomed-out view to give you a more realistic sense of the scale of things.  Can you make out the great blue heron's nest near the center of the picture?  I'm planning to go back to the Lab of O again before too long...but hopefully when it's just a bit warmer.