Friday, March 03, 2006

One Side of Meat 12 Lbs.

I'm willing to bet I had more fun today than you did.

Just a guess, there, a surmise.

First, I have to make a confession, and correct a mistake that I made many months ago. I read a local Lovettsville, Va., history book and jumped to a conclusion that has turned out to be quite wrong. From the description given in the book, I concluded that one John J. Stevens, who as a young man helped to build the gallows on which John Brown of the Harpers Ferry Raid was hung, and who guarded Brown's cell on the last night before his execution, had lived at a house down the road from me.

I now know this to be untrue, and can now confidently say that this house, set back from the road and not visible from it, is actually John Stevens' house.

The reason I'm crowing about my day is that today I helped disassemble it for historic preservation.

My friend and neighbor, Tom Bullock, a building contractor and restorer of historic houses, invited me to help take the cabin apart in order to preserve its timbers for later reassembly elsewhere. The owner of the land on which the cabin stood had no plans for it, and as you can see from the above photo it was badly in need of intervention -- indeed, it was nearly completely dilapidated and in danger of collapse.

The main body of the house dates, like mine, to somewhere near the end of the eighteenth century. I've found the lease deed of my property, dated 1776, and a stipulation of the lease from Lord Fairfax to the lessee is that he build a house measuring 20 feet by 16, and a barn. If you pace both my cabin and this one, about 500 yards away, they both have pretty much exactly those measurements.

This house was expanded about the time of the Civil War, about when John Stevens would have been beginning his family. The one-room cabin was given another story, and a one-story extension was built on the fireplace side of the house. That extension had already been taken apart when I took these photos earlier this week.

Stevens, who died in 1905, built an utterly beautiful Victorian foursquare a short way away from this house in the later part of the 19th century, and this cabin, now beneath dignity as a dwelling, became a shop. I'm given to understand that Catherine, the last of the local Stevenses, used it as a potting shed before she died in 1991. A smithy still stands out back, and various coops, sheds and stalls surround it in disrepair.

Below is the interior of the main cabin. Jim, a good friend of Tom's and mine and another passionate advocate of historical preservation (you may have seen him and his historical-artefact collection in a recent Discovery Channel documentary), waxed enthusiastic about that fireplace, imagining Stevens regaling a visitor with anecdotes about John Brown's last night on this earth while warming his toes by it.

Below, the western wall of the house. The siding was added at the time of the expansion, 1860s. There was a vogue, an architectural movement, to add siding on the outside and lath-and-plaster finishing on the interior, to gussy up your house and disguise the fact that you lived in a "mere" log cabin. If you drive around this part of the country, you will pass many a Revolutionary-War-era log cabin without even giving it a second glance because it's disguised this way. The March of History, keeping up with the John Paul Joneses.

Here's what I found when I arrived early this morning. And what a beautiful morning! Tom, Jim and Rob, another local who told me during a work-break of his boyhood on a farm in Vienna, Va. (nowadays the closest thing you'll find to a farm in Vienna is the overalls section of L. L. Bean at Tysons Corner Mall), had already removed the siding and the tin roof. Now you can see that this isn't a frame house, but clearly a log home. This is what it looked like in 1850. Well. With a roof.

The orange device in the front yard is a lift, a cherry-picker sort of affair for working at a height.

Below is the western wall again, now without siding. You can clearly see there's a difference between the first (ca. 1800) and second (1860s) stories.

Below: This, if I may be permitted the indulgence to say so myself, this is pretty goddamned breathtaking. As I said, after this house ceased being a residence, it became a shop, a place of business for local farmers to trade goods. The proprietor, at times stuck for a piece of paper, would scribble notes of accounts and amounts owed directly on the plaster wall. Here's one now: "John Kalb, 22lbs. hide for leather."

According to Eugene Scheel's Loudoun Discovered, Vol. 5, Waterford, the German Settlement and Between the Hills,
Kalb family lore has it that John [an ancestor of the John in the wall notation] was the son of a Baron deKalb, who came from Germany and served as a general in the Continental Army during the Revolution.... With his sword flashing, General deKalb took nearly a dozen wounds at the August 16, 1780, Battle of Camden, South Carolina. He died three days later.... General deKalb's son, John, came to Loudoun to settle on his father's bounty land.
You Brooklyn kids who ride the B/D/Q trains and sleep through the DeKalb Street station: His grandkid prolly still owes John Stevens for 22 pounds of cowhide for leather.

Below, this one makes me larff, slightly. Did they really need to write this one down? They couldn't do this one in their head?

One more wall notation. This one was very high up the wall, much higher than even a very tall man would feel comfortable writing, so I'm puzzled. But what's exciting is that W. W. Virts owed for one side of meat - 12 pounds' worth, in fact.

My house was owned by a Virts family in the 1870s. Not W. W., but maybe a relative. There were scores of Virtses hopping around here back then.

Below: two closeups of Chinking. I've been after these guys all day to stop with the horrible racist slang and call it the less offensive "Chinese-ing" but they won't hear it.

Basically, you build this box of Lincoln Logs, and then you hammer whatever crap you've got lying around -- rocks, smaller logs, sticks, we even found corn cobs -- in between the logs to insulate your drafty box. Then you cement the stuff in with mud made from clay, plaster of Paris, and gypsum.

When your chinking wears out, you'll stuff anything in to stop a draft. Below, a piece of redware crammed into a fault in the chimney.


Who's going to shoe your pretty little foot/Who's going to glove your hand?

Tiny little foot. A size 2, maybe? But not a girl. A woman's foot.

Below: The highest log comes off the eastern wall. It will be tagged, its position in the structure mapped. It will be the highest log again.

After a marathon session of hard-slogging lath-and-plaster removal, using heavy four-foot prybars which left my carpal-tunnel elbow and my rotator-cuff-arthritic shoulder in agony, we're really down to bare bones. I stood on those joists pictured below, whacking away at chinking, and feeling the structure becoming less and less solid with each whack. I was reminded in no uncertain way of the stereotypical cartoon of the man sawing away at the branch he's sitting on. Is this really wise? I was constrained to ask myself.

Here's where we left off today. Tomorrow we'll get the rest of it down with the forklift.

I told myself I'd include the the next photo, which shows the evening view from the cabin, because it "establishes context." Truth be told, I'm just feeling a little home-proud this evening.


Matt said...

That's awesome. Go Neddie!

roxtar said...

Sounds like big fun. If you're ever in the greater Philadelphia area, check out the Mercer Museum in Doylestown, PA. Thousands of 17th - 18th - 19th Century tools and other effluvia of early America. They even have some of Ben Franklin's original nsckwcbs in their collection...

Sluggo said...

You make me want to start on the MA in Public History this fall, even though I'll be 50 this spring.

What we need more of is just such a reverence for our built patrimony, and a better way to think about "development."

blue girl said...

You're cool, Jeddie.

Anonymous said...

what is nsckwcbs?

fgfdsg said...

Days well spent.

Mike Kretzler said...

I'm shocked that a wooden house that old could still be standing. Where I live (Western Washington), a structure that old and, apparently, neglected would have turned to a tumble of mossy duff years ago.

Kevin Wolf said...

Really love these posts when you do them, Ned.

I wonder what your thoughts are on the Trust for Historic Preservation, which I've given money to. They do important work but it tends toward the large, "important" type of property or structure rather than the homely.

Yet in reading this and other posts it's clear these structures are just as deserving of care and preservation. I wonder if you have any thoughts on that.

My other question, more direct, is whether you keep all the pieces of "chink" (I assume so) and how they are reconstructed if the building is rebuilt? It would seem almost impossible to keep track of the exact spot where they were originally located within the structure. Is there a trained archeologist who is part of your team?

Very interesting stuff. Thanks for sharing.

nolierob said...

Lovely post, Ned.

Neddie said...


No, we didn't preserve every piece of chinking and dross that came out of the walls. It's literally mostly just rocks. We examined it all carefully as it came out, because all manner of interesting stuff had been stuck in there -- Jim told of finding Colonial-era coins and buttons and whatnot in other houses he'd disassembled. Mice had made nests out of late-1800 farmers catalogs -- it was fun teasing those apart to find ads for girdles, cake-pans and buckboard wagons.

The house is to be donated to the Lovettsville Historical Society. The town is putting up a park in a disused lot, and the Historical Society would like part of the park to be a model 1700s Pennsylvania Dutch farm, something local schoolkids could visit on a History-class field trip. There's many a slip twixt cup and lip, o' course, in plans like these, but that's the intention now.

It'll be a pdasiyo on earth.

Anonymous said...

Last Vienna Farm

Anonymous said...

my goodness! Exciting to come across this. I am a descendant of John Kalb of Loudoun County and of William Virts (also spelled Vertz and Werts) Did you ever find out which Virts family owned your house?