He huffed and he smoked and he blew the house down – certainly not if the house was constructed with cobblestones. Building cobblestone houses was a people art that flourished in upstate New York from 1825 until the Civil War in 1860. Many of the 700+ cobblestone homes that were built endure today, a testament to their fine craftsmanship.
To develop 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 inexpensive labor.
Let’s take them one at a time – assuming the cheap labor is you, your family, friends, relatives, and anyone else you can influence to do manual labor for $1.00 to $1.50 per day.
The first step is to collect the cobblestones. This may take many years. Cobblestones are small fist-sized stones collected by the glaciers that swept from the north millennia ago. Rough-shaped ones can be collected 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 collection 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 advancing, you better start making the soft lime mortar. Don’t skimp and use Portland cement. It drains 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 blocks 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 pot in a sandpit 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 particular opening. Also, find a quarry where you can get limestone or sandstone blocks for the edges of your building (quoins) and as structural support over the doors and windows (lintels) and under the windows.
Now the fun begins. Start by laying the stones in walls 18 to 20-inches-thick. Assemble 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 edges 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 construction platform. As the walls rise, you’ll have to repeatedly raise the height of the scaffolding. Attach a crane and tackles to the most powerful pole to winch up cans of cobblestones and mortar.
Hand builds your windows and doors to fit each crack 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 ability, you may finish in a year. More likely, the building process will take about 3 years.