by Sue Freeman
He huffed and he puffed and he blew the house down – certainly not if the house was built with cobblestones. Building cobblestone houses was a folk art that flourished in upstate New York from 1825 until the Civil War in 1860. Many of the 700+ cobblestone homes that were built survive today, a testament to their fine craftsmanship.
To build your cobblestone house you’ll need 5 main components: cobblestones, soft lime mortar, wood for windows and doors, cut stone blocks for quoins, lintels and sills, and lots of cheap labor. Let’s take them one at a time – assuming the cheap labor is you, your family, friends, relatives and anyone else you can convince to do manual labor for $1.00 to $1.50 per day.
The first step is to gather the cobblestones. This may take several years. Cobblestones are small fist-sized stones deposited by the glaciers that swept from the north millennia ago. Rough-shaped ones can be gathered from the farm fields or rounded, lake-washed ones can be gathered along the shore of Lake Ontario. You’ll need over 14,000 cobblestones, so get cracking. As the manly work of stone gathering progresses, the women and children can be kept busy sorting the stones by size and color. You’ll want to use the finest, smoothest, similar-sized stones on the front of your house, and save the rougher, odd-sized ones for the back, sides and interior of the walls.
While this is progressing, you better start preparing the soft lime mortar. Don’t skimp and use Portland cement. It dries too fast and will pop the cobbles out as it dries. Soft lime mortar is made of lime, sand and water. Find limestone (calcium carbonate) or dolomite (magnesium carbonate) and break it into pieces. Burn it within heaps of logs for 2 to 3 days to create quicklime. Add water to the quicklime to create a hydrated lime sludge. Mix in 5 to 9 bushels of sand to 1 bushel of lime sludge. Age the mortar in a ground pit covered by sand or cow manure for up to a year.
Fell a bunch of trees. They’ll need to be hand-hewn to build the doors and windows – each custom fitted to a specific opening. Also, find a quarry where you can get limestone or sandstone blocks for the corners of your building (quoins) and as structural support over the doors and windows (lintels) and under the windows (sils).
Now the fun begins. Start by laying the stones in walls 18 to 20-inches-thick. Build the wall with rubble stone, faced by cobbles. Use elongated or triangular shaped stones to tie the cobbles to the rubble wall. Use the soft lime mortar as your glue, getting fancy with straight ridges between the horizontal and vertical rows of cobbles. Build about 3 rows (or courses) per day so the mortar has time to slowly begin setting. It will take 35 years for the mortar to fully harden. Lay in the cut-stone blocks at the corners to create quoins. To finish the inside, apply horsehair plaster to the stone.
Once the walls are above reach, you’ll have to build scaffolding by burying poles in the ground 6 to 8 feet from the wall and tying cross members from the wall to the poles with hickory witches. Then lay planks on the cross members to provide a building platform. As the walls rise, you’ll have to repeatedly raise the height of the scaffolding. Attach a crane and tackles to the highest pole to winch up buckets of cobblestones and mortar.
Hand build your windows and doors to fit each opening and hand-hew trusses for your roof. Winter is a good time to do much of your carpentry work. Depending on how many workers you have and their skill level, you may finish in a year. More likely, the building process will take about 3 years.
When you’re done, you’ll have a fine home that will stand for centuries.
Go see for yourself. A new guidebook called “Cobblestone Quest – Road Tours of New York’s Historic Buildings” (Footprint Press, www.footprintpress.com, 1-800-431-1579) offers 17 self-guided car or bicycle tours for viewing the diversity of cobblestone buildings clustered in upstate New York, and no where else in the world in such quantities.