And Then What Happened?: The art of maintenance


For the Recorder
Published: 8/2/2021 5:14:38 PM

When you or I approach a building, what do we see? A structure, probably an older one if around here, with a door, some windows, steps and, what else?

Well, if you’re Stuart Harris, you see that building’s entire 200-year history, every modification ever inflicted upon it and even what someone was thinking when they made that change.

You might remember my talking about Mr. Harris last summer when I was missing Ashfield’s long-dead curfew bell. I asked him about fixing it and he replied that he had a lot to do in a day, and repairing that bell wasn’t on the list. The bell was restored by another local prodigy, Christopher Gray, just in time to be run over by Stuart’s updated list.

Every 40 years or so, Stuart wakes up to find “Fix Town Hall Steeple” on his to-do list as water, bugs and time itself catch up with the antique tower and undermine its sturdiness, calling out for one man and his crew to come and round it back into shape. That’s where I found Stuart on a recent Saturday, 70 feet up, cutting old wood out, hauling new timbers up, restoring the steeple around the curfew bell, silent again, while he works.

Stuart and his volunteer team tackle the steeple on Saturdays, as it’s the only day they’re all free from their other jobs. Interested in my interest, Stuart showed me ghost indentations on the wall where the old stairway used to be, the one that started its climb in 1812 to the very steeple he’s working on today.

He showed me how, in the floor, one can see where the center aisle was, back when this building was newly constructed as Ashfield’s First Congregational Church. Completed in 1814, it lived up on the hill by the cemetery until a philosophical split in 1855 led half of its congregation to leave and build a new church down on what we now call Main Street. Watching the easily accessible Second Congregational Church’s congregation growing, the First Church up on the hill knew it needed to join the brethren in town, and hired one Mr. Tubbs from Springfield to lift the 100-foot-tall church onto log rollers that he hauled out to the road, turned town-ward and let gravity, a boatload of stone and the strength of Lord-knows-how-many oxen lug the building down the hill to its present location, right across the street from the Second Congregational Church.

Some 25 years later the two congregations reconnected. In need of a serious Town Hall by 1870, the village bought the First Church and converted it to the sort of edifice where the serious business of governance could take place.

Stuart regards the building, and feels its pain from that trip down the hill. He sees its original beauty, pointing out the circular dent in the ceiling where the upper balcony ringed the room back when the sanctuary was open floor-to-ceiling 30 feet above. Cracks in the plaster wall are reintroduced as the old church’s doors before they were remodeled away.

We inspect the wide-board floor. See the slight rise here and here? That’s where the pews were. See how this board is narrower than that one? That’s where they stepped up to the pews.

And then I know the truth: Stuart Harris is 200 years old and attended the First Congregational Church when he was a little boy.

In actuality, Stuart’s been interested in building and buildings since he was “old enough to hammer out nails,” or about the age of 8. He comes from a family of Ashfield builders, and found his great-great-great-grandfather’s name, E. Wing, on a timber in the tower, painted back when Mr. Wing was beginning the job that Stuart continues today.

“I’ve never stepped into a house I didn’t like,” Stuart tells me, and the rest of it flows naturally into his veins from his mother whose interest in local history led her to start Ashfield’s Historical Society in 1961. His father worked for another Ashfield-generational family, Ray Gray’s grandfather, Frank, back in the 1950s, and 25 years later, Ray and Stuart formed their own contracting company, doing anything you might need involving construction, moving or restoration of a structure. They use trucks and cranes, though, leaving the oxen in the field to rest.

At Stuart’s truck where he pulls a tool from the back seat, I inquire about the indeterminate age of the vehicle. “Which part?” he asks, and shows me how, even his truck, with its 1987 base, is a composite of history, as pieces wore out and were replaced by others of various vintages.

“Maintenance,” he tells me, “is everyone’s responsibility if you want to keep things.”

I look at him and recognize, they just don’t make people like they used to.

Nan Parati lives and works in Ashfield, where she found home and community following Hurricane Katrina. She can be reached at


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