The Floor Listener: Wood Floors Have Stories to Tell

Michael Purser 2022 Crop2 Headshot
When refinishing the library at Montpelier, I found these ink spots. Tour guides at the famous home now point out the ink spots to visitors.
When refinishing the library at Montpelier, I found these ink spots. Tour guides at the famous home now point out the ink spots to visitors.

Wood floors have stories to tell, and if you’re a good at listening, they can be instructive, entertaining and fuel the imagination. If the floor is new, the story often deals with deadlines, work conditions, delays and waiting for other trades to clear the area. Toss in a flighty decorator or loose cannon of a contractor, and your memories often create a negative aura. That changes with time.

The original footprint of this home on the Virginia shore where I worked dates to 1765.The original footprint of this home on the Virginia shore where I worked dates to 1765.The houses I have worked on are much older, and their stories are different. The stories these floors tell tend to focus on previous owners and what they did to the floors. It also provides a good chronicle of how the house might have evolved. Many grand houses built in the late 19th century were initially in fine inner city neighborhoods. Often, these neighborhoods saw a sharp decline in value as the masses moved to the ’burbs. This often meant these grand dames were hacked up into small apartments and occupied by people struggling to get by. Rooms that once had fine furniture and grand pianos were partitioned into small apartments to provide cheap housing during the Great Depression. When trends changed and the masses started flocking back to reclaim these gems, wood floors often provided some of the best testimony as to what had happened during the troubled times the house had experienced. In my experience these have included scorched marks from a clothing iron, knife marks from a testosterone-laced game of mumblety-peg, and countless areas of infill in the floor where walls were moved or doors opened up, to name a few.

Some were more memorable. Let me give you some examples:

  • I was refinishing pine floors in a house built around 1890. As I moved across the floors sanding the old gray paint off, scorched marks started to emerge from under the paint. Normally, this wouldn’t have been a big deal, but then the whole scorch pattern became clear. I was staring at what appeared to be a perfectly scorched outline of a human upper torso—complete with patterns for outstretched arms and head. I went and got the man of the house, a stay-at-home drunk writer, and watched his face blanch when he saw the figure. He staggered out the door and returned with two gallons of yellow paint (his wife’s favorite color) and told me if I didn’t cover that “thing” up his wife would have a “for sale” sign in the yard before sundown.
  • Two floors had suffered gunshot wounds, and both shootings occurred at the bottom of the stairs of different homes. I have no information about the first, but the second was the grisly scene of a tragic double murder when a PTS veteran of the Korean War had unloaded his gun on his wife and a tenant desperately trying to calm him down.
  • Every now and then, you get to stand in the middle of a room and see beautiful pieces of 3- to 4-inch-wide flooring that run the entire length of the room without a head joint. I’ve been in many rooms that had an entire floor laid with every piece of flooring 18 to 24 feet in length. The sight may take your breath away, but the bigger question is: How the hell did they get it in the house? Many of these rooms were on the third floor of a house with narrow stairs and tiny halls!
  • Pine flooring in another old house had been shot, but not after it had been installed. I had to dig a slug out of a floor with no sign of any entry point, so the bullet was lodged in the tree while it was growing. Somehow the bullet had made it through the milling process unscathed. What really added to the story was that it was another house that dated to the 1890s, when a lot of wood was locally milled. In this case, the house was on the western perimeter of what had been the Battle of Atlanta on July 22, 1864. Of course, it could have been a stray shot from a hunter, but during that summer of 1864, there was a lot more lead flying around in the air.
  • When refinishing the library at Montpelier, I found these ink spots. Tour guides at the famous home now point out the ink spots to visitors.When refinishing the library at Montpelier, I found these ink spots. Tour guides at the famous home now point out the ink spots to visitors.Another, much older, pine floor also had something to say. This 235-year-old pine floor had never been sanded. It had enough finishes on it that you could barely see the grain. My Passive Refinishing process allowed me to remove all the old finishes without sanding, so everything under that old finish had been there a very long time. As my older brother and I carefully removed the old coating in a second floor room, we started noticing some familiar-looking stains: ink. Two weeks later, my younger brother and I were downstairs in another room when we uncovered an even larger stain and it, too, looked like ink. Ordinarily this wouldn’t have been a big deal. But this time it was a very big deal. The house was Montpelier, the home of our fourth president, James Madison, and his wife, Dollie. The first stain was in the room he used as his study where he was known to have penned the Bill of Rights. The second downstairs room was off the dining room and was where, in his final years, he edited his papers when he was confined to a bed due to arthritis. That, friends, was a humbling experience.

Wood floors have a memory and do a better job of recording the history and activities of a house than any other surface. They often provide testimony to some difficult times for the families in the house or, in some cases, rare testimony to history being made. Whereas other surfaces (walls, ceilings, linoleum, hard tile, etc.) don’t survive as well and are often not original, the old wood floor is still there, much like a trusted sentry on post. Wood floors are more than a surface on which to place furniture and rugs. They are a platform, or a stage, for the drama of life. In their original form, the trees that gave us this fine product were the tall giants in their natural world. When they were harvested, milled and installed in homes, they took on another role and have performed better than any other building material around, period. It’s been a joy to work on old wood, and I feel I am a better person for what I’ve learned, listening to their stories.

Also by Michael Purser:

Why We’re Never the Last Contractor on the Job Anymore

Giving the Past a New Future: Tackling Historic Restorations

The Low-Hanging Fruit: Old Floor Refinishing

Take Caution When Doing Restoration Work

The Missing Link: Are You Skipping a Step in Your Recoats?

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