From ‘New Kids” to Restoring Farmhouses

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We just finished watching a couple of seasons of Farmhouse Fixer on HGTV. It stars Jon Knight, who first gained fame in the 1980s as a member of the boy band New Kids on the Block. It turns out Knight’s other passion is restoring New England farm houses. A recent episode featured the John Proctor home in Peabody, Massachusetts, built in 1638. Peabody adjoins Salem, which, of course, was home to the infamous witch trials. Both John Proctor and his wife, Elizabeth, were accused, tried and convicted of being witches. Elizabeth’s execution was stayed because she was pregnant. John was hanged, along with several others, in 1692. In 1711 those hanged were exonerated, a bit late for John Proctor and company.

My Beautiful Mystery Companion and I have driven by this house, with its distinctive charcoal-gray painted exterior, several times while driving from Boston to Portsmouth, N.H. The Proctor house sits right on the main highway through town. It is privately owned and thus not on any witch trial tour. We rarely stop in Peabody/Salem for long, since our goal is to make it to Gloucester for a bayside lunch of fresh-caught fried cod and chips before ending up in Portsmouth, a lovely city on the New Hampshire-Maine border.

My two older daughters loved New Kids on the Block as preteens. The band is still performing occasionally, now renamed NKOTB. I guess it is incongruous to be referred to as “kids” when the members are in their early 50s. Jon Knight, one of the founders of the band, as the affable host of the show travels through New England, finding farm houses, barns and other structures to renovate, in much the manner of Chip and Joanna Gaines down in Waco. But his forté is the classic farm houses and barns that I grew up around in New Hampshire.

In the Proctor home episode, Knight is repairing a leak from the ancient cast-iron pipes and remodeling the bathroom for its out-of-state owner. At one point, he warily descends into a dank, dark cellar, down stairs that are approaching 400 years old. This evoked a creepy childhood memory. Our little house — definitely not a farm house — at 27 Valley St. in Allenstown, N.H., also had a cellar that I hated to go down into as a kid. The house had been built by someone with a questionable sense of both design and ability. Door frames tilted in one direction, the floor in another. The rooms were tiny. The worst feature was that the door to the cellar was in the only bathroom, directly across from the toilet. I always made sure the cellar door was locked before using the facilities.

Sometime the cellar would flood after a hard rain, which meant my mom and I (my dad was always at work) would descend into the cellar, fire up the sump pump and suck the water out one of the tiny cellar windows. One time, an electrical charge came through the window, circled us, and went back out, leaving us both unscathed but stunned. I liked the cellar even less after that.

The best feature of that homestead of my early childhood was the barn behind it, which served as my dad’s art studio. It had a Franklin wood-burning stove, an uneven concrete-slab floor that I’m pretty sure my dad poured, his drawing table, and assorted detritus left by the previous owner. The upstairs of the barn was filled with junk. Upstairs was not as creepy as the cellar but came close. For a time, there was a chicken coop attached to the back. Since we didn’t keep chickens, we eventually tore the coop down and put up a basketball goal. Tearing down the coop led to my first tetanus shot.

As you can see by the accompanying photo, we got a lot of snow. As a kid, we loved building forts in the snowdrifts, building slalom courses at my grandparents’ house. One day we decided it would be cool to jump out of the second-story barn window into the snow drift below. I leaped and landed on a board left over from the coop with a nail sticking out. It punctured my boot and into my foot. This led to a trip to the doctor for the tetanus shot and a long scolding from my mother. I think my dad thought it was pretty funny.

Jon Knight has now renovated more than 200 structures throughout New England over the past few decades, even while taking off to tour with NKOTB every other year or so. Some days, I dream about retiring back to New England, buying a farm house for him to renovate.

Then I recall the snow…

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