I wanted to start and end this story with the words, “Thinking about Refinishing a 100-Year-Old Floor? Don’t.”
But I quickly realized that a seven-word post would probably not fly, so here’s what I’ll start with: Refinishing a floor is a lot like seeing a leprechaun in your back yard. It’s elusive.
It’s painful, especially if you don’t know what you’re doing; and it’s ecstatically pleasing when, after so many tries, the results finally come out right. Not what I wanted, not what I expected, but beautiful nonetheless, just like my home.
My nearly 100-year-old cracker house sits up the road from a sweet pond named Lake Play. In the style of over half[i] of the homes in Davenport way back in 1921, the local history books refers to mine as a “vernacular” home. Historian Steve Rajtar documented the Davenport area in his guide called Davenport Historical Trail. He refers to “25….Residence” as built in the “Vernacular style.” That was my home, Residence 25![ii]
Given the fluidity of the word vernacular, these authors could’ve meant anything from: 1. “a structure concerned with domestic and functional use rather than a monumental building;” or, 2. “a structure built with local wood.” The Historic Properties Survey [iii] defined the phrase frame vernacular as “the common wood frame construction employed by lay or self-taught builders.”
My house is all of the above. It’s vernacular in every way, so to say: from the way it was built, to the building materials, my pine floors, and even to the fact that a mayor came from this humble home.
The home was built in 1921 by Gustav Torgersen,[iv] a photographer, who arrived in Davenport from Chicago in 1911. He was part of the second wave of immigrants who came to Davenport during its “period of significance, identified … as 1909-1939.”[v]
He bought “fifteen acres of land for five dollars an acre … while he built a two-room house.”[vi] He then married a local Norwegian woman while continuing to make his stake in citrus grove development and building homes.[vii]
Torgersen built my house as a four-room residence with an outhouse a fair distance from the back door. His son, Arnold, lived at the house, which stood on a sandy third-acre of land, until he was four years old and grew up to become Davenport’s Mayor for 10 years.[viii] Local author Judith Thompson[ix] told me that she fondly remembered how there were always lots of children at the home, which would explain the interesting artifacts that periodically pop up on top of the soil around my yard.
She was a corporate secretary at Holly Hills Fruit Products for 63 years, which nascent business opened in 1918. She was also a church clerk for 67-plus years, politically active, and an author, who wrote a chapter for The Davenport Story.[xi]
The Cox’s were far from wealthy. To be sure, they were probably cash deficient even by the standards of their time, but they were active with First Baptist Church![xii] Like so many, they didn’t maintain; alas, maybe they couldn’t afford to maintain their home or perhaps they didn’t see the value.[xiii]
Their son, L. Thomas Cox Jr., was the last Cox owner. Between the Cox’s ownership and mine in 2012, and the 13 hurricanes[xiv] that battered this obviously sturdy frame home (Thank you, Gustav!), the years were seriously not kind to this house, thus the need to refinish the floor.
I had thought about just cleaning then applying polyurethane to my tattered floor, but, seriously, take a look at this Before photo and tell me this is not a surface in dire need of more than just a cleaning. Paint on the floor and deep scratches, no doubt from the spurs on some local yokels’ cowboy boots; then the burns. (Who burns their floor?) All these things made the simple path impossible.
As it turns out, having been only a four-room house at one point, there was most certainly a wood-burning stove attached to my chimney, thus the burns on the floor. A friend called it “character” except that my floor had more than an abundance of character.
I remember the tragedy that was my guest room floor when I had refinished that years ago. It was raw wood, never had been stained before.
I put a coat of golden oak expecting golden oak but my floor had other plans. It turned into deep-forest brown, as in Chupacabra country. Scary but it recovered and turned out okay. Den-like, seriously old-looking, but okay. Clearly my home’s flooring has a mind of its own.
For my next two rooms, the primary bedroom, as the master bedroom was called back in the day, and the living room, I decided to use the lightest color possible, which of course is white. Right?
When experts say don’t put light over dark, what they mean to us amateurs is, the only shade not darker than your current is au natural. So naturally, because I learn from my endless mistakes, I went with a natural stain, wondering, “How can it be stain if it has no color?”
I found out. If you’re thinking of refinishing a 100-year old floor, unless you’re an expert, don’t even try to change the color.
I didn’t know that back then but do now. I cried, “My master bedroom! It’s white alright, like paint or, or crystallized baby puke.” You could see every brush stroke, every burn, every single mar, and how the hell did that foot print get in there? It was a total whack job. It was time to call in a big gun.
The grinding commenced! I sanded the floor or what I could, because, again, I didn’t figure this: wood gets hard; in my case, very hard.
For my home, if one adds the age of the tree from which my floor came, then add that to the number of years it’s been inside my home, the flooring in my Shangri-La could easily surpass 150 years. A floor can do a lot of hardening in 150 years but I didn’t figure that the floor had hardened to the point of being nearly unsandable. It simply didn’t occur to me that, yes, wood gets this hard. (Today’s word: Petrification.)
Next, it was time to hire a big gun, my friendly neighborhood handy-guy, who was stupefied by the coarse grade of sandpaper I was using. I showed him. He must have thought I was a weakling but he knelt his ego into the floor for a few, then got up with a, “Golly Geeeee! That floor is damned hard as rock, ma’am.”
We later agreed he’d drum-sand it into submission and do the living room floor while he was at it. When he was done, the result was truly amazing.
Splotches as far as the eye could see. My odyssey would not end. It wasn’t from the white stain either because the living room floor never got the white horror. Call it paranoia but I was convinced this floor had it out for me. It was the frickin’ floor!
Don’t freak, Darhlene. Just ignore it. It’ll go away.
Then, low and behold, it did. Go away, that is.
As it turns out, it’s natural for old wood to look splotchy before staining and finishing, which reminds me: Thinking of using a wood conditioner on a 100-Year-Old floor?
Take a look at the After photograph here. See any splotches? See the glassy, new look? See the difference from the guest room floor? The floor did that itself; it got rid of its own imperfections, even some of the burn marks just blended on in.
Three coats of poly and a week later I told my Torgersen floor (and please excuse my vernacular), “See, you’re not going to need another fucking re-finishing until long after I’m dead and buried.” I’ve been happy ever since.
Please LIKE this post … after Endnotes. Thank you!
[i] 55% of historic Davenport homes are frame vernacular.
[ii] Davenport Historical Trail, ©2002, Steve Rajtar.
[iii] Historic Properties Survey of the City of Davenport, Florida, by Historic Property Associates, Inc., St. Augustine, FL 32085, April 1996.
[iv] Also spelled Gustaf.
[v] Email from B. Mattick, Florida Department of State, Division of Historical Resources, 10/23/2012 @ 5:15 PM.
[vi] The Davenport Story, Meyer & McGill, 1986, pgs. 19-20.
[vii] The Davenport Story, pg. 32.
[viii] The Davenport Story, pg. 71.
[ix] The Heritage Trail from Horse Creek to Davenport by Judith Torgersen Thompson.
[x] Photo of Gustav Torgersen provided by Judith Torgersen Thompson, his granddaughter. Photos of Luther and Martha Cox from The Davenport Story, pg. 92.
[xi] The Davenport Story, First Baptist Church, pgs. 91-94.
[xii] Luther worked hard, it appeared, in metal works, and then passed away in 1995. Martha passed away a decade later in 2005.
[xiii] The Cox’s did add on a large garage and a kitchen, bath, and a third bedroom in the 1980’s.
[xiv] 1920-1929 = 2 hurricanes; 1930-1939 = 1 hurricane; 1940-1949 = 3 hurricanes; 1950-1959 = 2 hurricanes; 1960-1969 = 1 hurricane; 2004 = Charley, Francis, Jeanne; and 2017 = Irma. Source: University of South Florida, 2007.