Monday, March 07, 2005

Johnny Archaeology

So this house that we Jingos moved out to back last summer....

I don't believe you've been properly introduced.

Ever since I can remember, I've always wanted to live somewhere old. It's a bit unfortunate that I'm a United Statesian, because not much this side of the Pond can truly be considered old; the difference between Europeans and Americans, it's said, is that the Euros think that a hundred miles is a long way, while we Yanks think that a hundred years is a long time. And oh dear God do we destroy old things. It's amazing how enthusiastically we destroy old things.

So when Wonder Woman and I found a house in remotest Loudoun that had grown up around an 1780s log cabin -- a place that, astonishingly, we could actually afford -- it was as if a lifetime of yearning had finally fulfilled itself. Now I type this in a fireplace-heated room with adze marks on the log walls that date to the winter when Washington was at Valley Forge. I can't help bragging on it a little; it's just really fuckin' cool.

Immediately upon moving in, I realized I had set myself up for a lifetime of happy obsession. Indisputably excellent architectural restorers, the previous owners don't seem to have been particularly interested or emotionally involved with the history of the property. They certainly didn't leave me with much in the way of a provenance. Me, I want to try to get inside the very skin of the people who lived here. I'm after what Tony Horwitz, in his Confederates in the Attic, termed the "history high." This exalted state, aspired to by hardcore historical reenactors, comes when you've managed to altogether slough off all mental trappings of modernity, and have achieved the illusion that you have actually time-tripped to your chosen period.

I don't think I'm quite that hardcore, but I do believe that I am on a mission to find and accost the people who lived on this land before me, wrest their secrets from them. It's the least I owe them. "Who Built Neddie's House?" is the question at hand, and I simply can't in good conscience continue to live in their house without searching for an answer.

All of which comes to explain how I came to be in the Antique Records Room at the Loudoun County Courthouse in Leesburg a few days ago, poring over two-century-old property deeds and tax and marriage records written in magnificent copperplate hand. Boy, those kids knew from neat handwriting.

The way you trace these things is that each property deed will refer back to the deed by which the seller acquired the land. So if Mr. Foo sold a parcel to Mrs. Bar, the deed of that transaction will refer to the deed by which Mr. Foo acquired the parcel from Mr. Squatch some years before. You should thus theoretically be able to hopscotch back in time to the first deed.

But of course, there's many a slip 'twixt cup and lip, as the man said, and I've gotten hung up in 1874. A local farmer named Long probably deeded a legacy parcel to his daughters, who sold the property in that year. But I can't find the deed by which the daughters acquired the land.

So trying to clear this up I've been closely reading these surveyors' descriptions of my parcel (in the course of this stuff I've become something of a maven on the history of land surveying, but that's another post). Reading these things is a bit of an art, and it helps if you have a paper and pencil to sketch what's being described.

So on this deed dated 1874, I found this description of my land:

"Beginning at 1) a set stone corner to Stevens and in C.W. Kidwell's line near his house; thence with Kidwell, Everhart and others N 63 E 98 40/100 poles to (2) a stone with an X cut in it, corner to Miss R. Boothe, thence down the hill with her line S 25 1/2 E 27 poles..."

Waitaminnit. Say what!?!?

"A set stone corner to Stevens and in C.W. Kidwell's line near his house..."

Now, hang on. Let's work out that thicket of pronoun antecedents. "A set stone corner to Stevens and in C.W. Kidwell's line near his house..."

His house? Kidwell's?

"...In Kidwell's line near his house..."

There's no house there. I've been back there. I've looked.




A set stone corner to Stevens...

"...In Kidwell's line near his house..."

Do you see it? Do you see it?

Scrabbling uphill to get a better look, I nearly stumbled into this. Always wondered where that tiny constant trickle down the end of the yard came from. Now I know. Kidwell's springhouse. Still producing.

The once-proud main entrance to the yard, the garden gate. Welcome home!

An outbuilding foundation:

This one's a little hard to parse, so I'll give it to you twice: Once as-is...

And once with an overlay. See the outline of the building foundation? Three sides stone, one side timber, I'm guessing.

At this point, I guess the question is, What do I do with this? The house isn't on my land, and while I do have the name of the owner, what do I do? Hey, buddy -- do you know what you've got on your propitty? You just gonna let that decay into nothing? Can I buy it off you?

Oh, one more thing: I followed his property wall up the mountain as far as it would go, and found this:

Now I know where all that banging was coming from last deer season. Sure would be a shame if that deer-blind met with some kind of accident, now wouldn't it?


Jill Draper said...

I happened upon your site through Kung Fu Monkey and have spent the evening reading your archives.

It's a good thing you're married and on the left side of the country, elsewise I might leave home and throw myself with abandon upon your well-turned gray matter.

I must not travel in the right circles. I've never heard the term "history high," but I know it quite well. I envy you your fine old home with adze marks and fireplaces and the stories they tell.

The John Mobberly story intrigues me, too. I've not read all the posts, so I'm looking forward to discovering what his attraction was to the ladies of the day.

Here in Missouri, we have a similar sociopath guerilla named Bloody Bill Anderson. My family has a wealth of Civil War correspondence, including a letter with an account of Bloody Bill and his gang coming through Danville, Mo., and the terror that invoked, so it all feels pretty personal to me.

You have a lovely blog that I will visit ofen. Since good writing noted nearly as often as top notch thinking, I thought you needed a fan letter.

Jill Draper said...

Okay, so I'm dyslexic. You're on the RIGHT side of the country.

Anonymous said...

Jill is not dyslexic to a Canadian.