Monday, January 15, 2007

A History-Mystery!

Remember this thing?

David Mull's chimney-stack, built sometime between 1759 and 1775. It sits at the southeast corner of my lot. Part of my house was built with the logs that were taken from this one-room log cabin and moved uphill in the 1870s, perhaps when the stream it sat next to dried up, or when the ground became marshy:

Just to the southeast of that chimney-stack runs a stone wall, which I believe (from the will of Mull's son, also named David) dates to about 1812, when the younger David died and divided his land up among his sons and daughters. Here's part of it:

Now, if you follow that wall to the south, you come to the corner of my lot. (You'd better do it in January, because if you try it in July, the dense undergrowth will make you one sorry and scratched-up hombre.) When I first tried this, a couple of years ago, I was rather surprised to find a gate at the southeast corner.

I was surprised because, at first glance, there's absolutely no need for this gate to exist at all. None whatever. It doesn't open out to a road, and it would appear to the casual eye that it would have simply led one into an empty lot -- one that has never been developed, as far as my researches have shown.

Here's one of the gateposts. Wonder Woman is examining the other:

Now, it can't be that old: Unfinished wood just doesn't last that long out in the forest, unprotected from the elements. But look at it carefully: It doesn't look manufactured. I would guess that a modern, milled post wouldn't have open mortises that have to be closed by a clapped-to second piece of lumber; I would think that a gatepost like that, if modern, would have those mortises mechanically routed through the center of the main piece for strength and durability.

I think it's handmade, in other words. And older than -- well, certainly older than me.

And it's a tantalizing hint that there are ghost-roads around here that we can no longer see.

Here's a rough, not-to-scale map of the relevant section of my lot:

The road marked "Modern" in this map is actually very old indeed; we have indications that it might be Payne's Ferry Road, built in the 1740s. It leads down to the Potomac, and for some part of its life actually went all the way to Harpers Ferry. "Modern," in this case, means still in use.

I can't eliminate from my mind the question, Why does that gate exist? When did it stop being used? What was it used for? How was this land configured and used before it stopped being farmed? When, for that matter, did it stop being farmed?

For a hint on that last question, here's a photo looking back through the gate toward the cabin:

There are many extremely mature hardwoods directly in the path that connects the old cabin and the gate; they've got to be more than 100 years old. Another data-point: The stone wall is quite clearly finished on either side of that gate, meaning that the gate itself was always intended to be there, from the date of the erection of the wall.

My belief (I guess you'd call it a hypothesis) is that that gate was the main entrance for this homestead, and access to the house through what is marked on my map as the "modern driveway" began in the 1870s, when the original homesite was abandoned and the house moved uphill. The former "driveway" (for lack of a better word) went through that gate and along the east wall.

But that demands an answer for an extremely tantalizing question: Why there? Why would you build the main entrance to your homestead where there doesn't appear to ever have been a road?

The answer, of course, is that a road once was there! Some 100 yards or so from that gate is the old Ebenezer Church Road, which is still visible in spots where it goes up and over Short Hill. I'd bet any amount of money that the 1812 directions to what would eventually become Jingo Acres went, "Pass Jacob Virts' place, and hang a right when the road starts to go uphill."

Here's about where you'd have taken that right:

So: What I need to know is, How old are those fence-posts? Short of, I dunno, carbon-dating them, I have no scientific way of knowing. I know that different kinds of wood decay at different rates, and the fact that the posts have stood upright rather than lying horizontal may very well have contributed to their longevity. But the answer to that question would tell me a great deal about what I want to know about my home's shadowy past.

Later Edit: Some of you asked about the nails and other hardware holding the parts of the post together. Here's another view, taken from the outside angle, that shows the hardware a bit better:

The nails are round-headed, galvanized (? at least not rusted through) and pretty clearly modern. The wire is also still pretty robust, but interestingly, the staples holding the wire in place are very rusted and nearly crumbling.


Bobby Lightfoot said...

Ultra cool.

Hey- just cut one of th' posts and count the rings.

Kevin Wolf said...

I had no idea Bobby was a scientist.

Did I miss anywhere in this post the type of wood the gate post are made of? I glanced back through but I'm not sure you've indicated - or even know - which type of wood they are.

i have a friend who might be able to estimate an age.

Neddie said...

No, I don't know my woods well enough to say, Kevin. I'm pretty sure it's not pine, which would have rotted away a long time ago -- and isn't a common tree around here anyway. Oak? Hickory? Your guess is as good as mine.

If your friend wants to hazard a guess, I'd love to hear it.

Decency's Jigsaw said...

I'm curious about whether the mode of the gate's construction might lend a clue or two: how are those two posts bound? In the photo, they look at first glance to be tied together with wire, or is that a vine? Nails, then? The nails themselves might tell you how old they are.

And I dunno: that wood could certainly be pretty darn old. Where I grew up, there were a few barns and cabins collapsing back in the woods, and they were mighty old, a century or more without breaking a sweat...

Employee of the Month said...

Yup, nails speak, Ned. (Archeology minor - one excavation under my belt - Tom Edison's boyhood home, Port Huron MI 1983)

Curious if this former high-traffic area was swept by the metal-detector crew?

david said...

i like these history mysteries. it looks to me as though the piece applied to close the mortises is of a more recent vintage than the post, either that or it's a different species and so has weathered at a different rate. it definitely has a different look, can you see any process marks on it (saw, plane, etc.)? It's also held on with staples and wire which I don't think would last very long... Do check for nails or other hardware as d's j suggested, that could tell you a lot.

JD said...

But if it's as old as you think it is, would they even have used nails instead of pegs?

JD said...

Whoops. Should have read David's post before sending. Sorry!

Neddie said...

DJ, EOTM: Yes, we looked hard at the nails. They're certainly not the square-head hand-wrought kind from Colonial times -- I've be very surprised to find that the posts are that old. They're clearly manufactured, with round heads. They've rusted a bit, plainly, but I think they're galvanized. I've posted another photo that shows the front side of the gate-post and the hardware a bit more clearly.

David: Yes, you're right; the piece of lumber that closes the mortises is clearly of a different species of wood, and has weathered at a different rate than the main piece. My working theory at the moment is that the main posts are considerably older than the clapped-to piece, and older than the hardware too.

david said...

so the applied piece is new, looks like it might even be a modern 1x6 and now you have two mysteries on your hands; why the original gate and now why the (reasonably) recent repair?
btw the staples may have rusted faster than the wire because they are in constant contact with the wood, which will always have some moisture content and could sometimes be quite wet, either from rainwater or from wicking groundwater.

Mark Smeraldi said...

Neddie; look at it just below ground level.If its in decent shape & not cedar its probably reasonably recent. Materials (apparently insulated wire to wrap the mortise) and workmanship (colonial types weren't lazy and would mortise ANYTHING)incline me to think them more recent. You should see some of the hand-cut ,pegged locking joints they used to make long spans in New England.That does still leave open the question of why its where it is if it isn't really old.

Neddie said...

now you have two mysteries on your hands; why the original gate and now why the (reasonably) recent repair?


That does still leave open the question of why its where it is if it isn't really old.

The both of you have put your stubby fingers on the nub, the very crux, -- nay, the engorg├ęd clitoris of the question...

Why carefully repair a gate that you never use? A gate that hasn't been used in, for all I know, a hundred years?

Ronzoni Rigatoni said...

Beware. The gate stands where it was intended. It opens into the 5th dimension where monsters lurk. Do not walk through that gate.

Isn't there some Mexican/Spanish movie out with just this theme? 'Feye were you, I'd move.

Neddie said...

The gate stands where it was intended. It opens into the 5th dimension where monsters lurk. Do not walk through that gate.

Ah! I'd wondered why eldritch gatekeepers of Cthulhu's minions were standing idly outside, smoking cigarettes and and acting generally Thuggish.... I'll have to watch for that, thanks Ronzo.

The real estate ad reads, "3BR, 2 1/2 baths, gourmet kit., lovely historic property in sylvan setting. Must love country roads, rural setting, the occasional gaping open of the Eternal Pits of the Dark Overlord of Everlasting Hellfire. Must-see interior!

Bobby Lightfoot said...

Sometimes we find the gate to hell in th' most unlikely places.

joel hanes said...

Wood from the now-nearly-extinct and much-bemoaned-and-missed
American Chestnut resists
rot and can last nearly forever.

American Chestnut was very common in the eastern US until an imported blight destroyed nearly every mature tree on the contintent.

Anonymous said...

Hi Neddie:
My husband and I both looked at your post separately and both commented to each other later in the day "Looks just like Charlie's Farm". My father-in-law "Charlie" was a share-cropper's son who bought land and is still working it to this day in Southern Virgina. He's 84 and still bales his own hay and has black Angus. Over 150 acres of his property runs along "diffifcult creek" and the title on the deed says "more or less" r.e. the acreage. My husband grew up on this farm and his daddy put in every fence post that he made out of trees and your gate Mr. Jingo may be made out of cedar. My husband says it's probably a "cow gate" and does not necessarily lead to anywhere but just keeps the cows out and separated from one pasture to the next. My husband is a wonderful woodworker and he would kill me if he knew I was writing this because the "Virgina" men are very shy, but I'm from Wisconsin and we say what's on our minds. I bet "Wonder Woman" does as well. Well that's the scoop. I thoroughly enjoy your writing and usually read it at 6 or 7 a.m. My husband gets us up at 5:30 from all those days on the farm.
wife of a Woodman

John B. said...

You know, locust would be a reasonable possibility as well (ina ddition to cedar and chestnut). Often used for posts and doesn't rot easily...

Ronzoni Rigatoni said...

"John B. said...

You know, locust would be a reasonable possibility as well (ina ddition to cedar and chestnut). Often used for posts and doesn't rot easily..."

Yup, that's gotta be it. Locust. One of them there Egyptian plagues sent to persuade Pharoah to "let my people go." What more appropriate material to grace the gates of hell. wot? I still can't imagine how many such trees constitutes a plague, tho'.

david said...

so if we take as a given that it is a cow gate, which makes as much sense as anything, what does the forest look like on the far side of said gate from jingo acres? is it all mature hardwood? what's the average dbh (diameter at breast height)? maples (a slow-growing species) reach maturity up here in kwee-bec at about 80 years (maturity being the point where it's feasible to cut them down for lumber). i would imagine that things grow somewhat faster down jingo way. just sayin that what looks like a forest that has been there for a long time might be just 40 or 50 years old...
regarding the species of the original post - if you give it a sharp rap with your knuckles or something fairly solid that should give you an idea whether it's cedar as opposed to chestnut or locust. cedar is not nearly as dense as the other two and would feel very different. i think you can count oak out as a) it doesn't usually age that well and b) it's very high in tannins and there would be big black stains around the staples.

jimbobboy said...

Bobby's initial comment was near the bullseye -- though not, if I may suggest it, in its center. Just counting the rings will only tell you how old the tree was when it was cut, and then only if you have a full radial section. What you want to do is take a core and compare the ring widths to those in databases of trees from your area. The relative widths make up a fingerprint that's readily matched to its period. You can get data yourself at NOAA's site, or you could post your problem to the Internatonal Tree Ring Data Bank (ITRDB) Dendrochronology Forum. I'm merely a kibitzer, but one of the folks there can almost certainly help you.

Connie said...

Footnote (or hipnote):
Come spring when the hip is well
healed and well oiled, be sure to trod the old Ebenezer Church Road to the cemetery to study the tombstones before they suffocate in weeds, flowers, and snakes.
Good luck to you!

protected static said...

re: ghost roads - my parents' house in Central MA was built in 1740, give or take a few years. Their driveway used to be the road; in the spring and autumn, if you stand in the right spot in their yard and look at the hill behind their house, you can see the faint traces of the old road. The old road runs parallel to the modern road, and is marked by a slight dip in the height of the trees, with older, taller trees marking the old edges.

Another candidate for the fencepost might be Ash. Also, someone mentioned a metal detector? Forget it. An old farmstead is going to have so much metal in the ground as to make most commercial detectors pretty much useless.