A 17th-century house built with 20th-century sweat
Boston — Hot sunlight is timeless. It beats down on the back of the man standing on top of a trestle, hauling an oversized iron saw up through a log, and on the man underneath the trestle pushing it back up at him. The warmth brings out the sweet smell of wood as fluffy golden sawdust drifts down on the lower man, sticking to his velvet knee breeches and sweaty brown shoulders.
They're using a 17th-century pit saw, developed before the sawmills of the 1650s as a way of turning white oaks into planks. The smell of the oak in the heat must be the same as it was in the 17th century, and the same sun brought this tree up to its height here in New England, more rapidly than in England, the way it always has.
The trees here are tall and thin; In England, according to Kenneth Rower, the wiry man with curly hair up on top of the trestle, they're stouter. The sun there isn't as strong, and the air's more humid. The trees don't shoot up, they spread and grow slowly. They're stronger. Just the kind of thing you'd expect a lad from suffolk to have noticed, so far from home, building houses for these new settlers.
Or a young man from the Boston area of our time; a cabinetmaker who started out without electric tools so that he could get a feel for the wood and who is concerned because blight and parking lots have felled many of the trees in his town.
The cabinetmaker pulling the pit saw is one of a troop of workmen who have just framed a two-story 17th-century house on Boston Common. It's a replica of the Fairbanks house built in 1636 at Dedham, Mass., the oldest surviving wooden frame building in this country. The replica is part of Boston's "Jubilee 350" anniversary celebration, and there's a whole 17th-century village Market Fair built up around it, under the auspices of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), Plimouth Plantation (a "living history museum"), and the New England Society for the Preservation of Antiquities.
Thanks to them, for a few weeks this summer people have been milling around in their jogging shorts and sun dresses to look at craftsmen with East Anglican accents wearing big, coarse, handwoven shirts and knee britches, and women whose dresses sweep over the grass, toiling over their hand tools, weaving, turning furniture legs, cooking, orating, and denouncing witches.
Here at the Fairbanks house, girls with their skirts tucked up into their waistbands and hair pinned tidily on top of their heads are whopping gobs of gray, riverbank clay mixed with hay, water, and sand onto the wattle (woven ash sticks) they have fixed in between the house timbers.
A bearded man tells construction hints to the crowd, who is drinking out of Burger King cups with ice, pushing babies in collapsible aluminum strollers, and wearing a lot of polyester, all of which would amaze the narrator if he were really from the 17th century and had stopped to think about it.
But he is satisfied to tell how the English houses were wattled and daubed, then plastered over. This is an English design, of course, since Jonathan Fairbanks had just arrived from Yorkshire, and, more important, the carpenters were fresh off the boat from Suffolk.
The only American adaptation at this stage is clapboards. They can't just leave the daub on the walls here in New England, because the clay washes away in bad weather. So another young man with a very colorful accent is drawing a knife across some thin pieces of cedar -- early clapboards -- to put over the daub.
Here on the Common, visitors can see how that house went together -- not an easy thing to discover from looking at the finished product. Timber-framing was abandoned by the descendents of these rugged carpenters in the late 1800s for the more mechanized balloon-frame method, which is still used today. In balloon-frame houses, standard-sized, precut boards are nailed together. The boards, already seasoned, are small and light, compared to a tree.
But building our country's first houses was a different proposition altogether. Nails were too expensive to use liberally, and the only lumber available was green wood (it was also the only workable wood -- the tools of the 17th century were iron, and couldn't cut through seasoned wood like the later, tempered steel). So instead of using a lot of small, light, precut boards, they went out in the woods and cut down trees about the right size. They hewed these , adzing out flat sides and ending up with squared, 14- by 14-inch timbers. They fit them together with precision-cut mortise and tenon joints that work a little like a Chinese puzzle box, deriving their strength from being cleverly made to interlock, with the help of the pegs driven in. Early carpenters also pit-sawed these timbers into boards, a laborious process.
When this year's project started last April, the modernday builders had to X-ray the joints in the original house to figure out exactly how they fit. There are about 650 of them in the structure, and the narrator describes them as "roight troublesome" to make -- the 400 mortises were cut with hand-powered boring machines, mallets, and chisels.
It says something that, 350 years after the house was raised, it was possible to find a group of people with the needed skills. Ed Levin, master carpenter, who could be found hewing logs on the Common for the pit saw, builds timber frame houses in Canaan, N.H., for "people who care enough" about such craftsmanship, he says. There are enough people who care, in these days of high-tech living, for him to make a living. It's part of a general feeling, in the last ten years, that we need to "look at the old things," as Kenneth Rower puts it simply, leaving it to the listener to figure out what old things he or she wants to look at.
Hewing logs is the only thing Ed Levin doesn't do in his business, and he's enjoying it now. "I'm rusty," he admits, but he loves the surface he gets smoothing the logs with nothing but old tools. He takes great pleasure in striding back and forth to the toolbox, taking out different shaped adzes -- some blunt, powerful and square, some curving, viciously pointed, and thin -- stropping them with a stone and lighting into the side of the log. The quiet of his job descends on the crowd of tourists you always find around him.
He doesn't talk in the Suffolk dialect that Plimouth Plantation trained them to use, but grunts authentically as he chops, cutting in to a certain depth, then taking off the flakes, in such a way as to leave a flat side. The side is beautiful. You can see the pinkish color of the inner part of the tree running up the middle of it, with the outer edges gold. It's unlike sawn lumber, which is rough, obscuring the grain, but not as satiny and dead-flat as sawn and sanded lumber. It has dents and dips in it. It looks soft, more humbly man-made, and more as if it were once a tree. A surface you don't often see nowadays. People who have done wood work -- antique finishers and home carpenters -- finally can't contain themselves any longer and strike up conversations about varnishes and dovetailing and what a nice log it is, or ask if that's mineral oil he uses to sharpen the adz. He answers everything, and makes their day by saying things like, "Now how would you know it was mineral oil?"
"Where are the 19thm -century tools?" he said at one sweaty moment in a low voice to Kenneth Rower. Following Rower's directions, he found a heavier adz than the one he had been using and sighed with satisfaction. "Big Bertha," he said, hefting it. "Toolmaking reached a peak in the 19th century," he said to me later.
He is a big man with small, kindly eyes and a jolly face. Aside from the better adz and more efficient drill of the 19th century, a lot of the work he is doing here didn't change after the 17th century. Making mortise and tenon joints, for one thing: "It's just a question of the chisel and the man behind it ," Levin says. The chisels may be a different shape now, but own work, as well. Even the trestle where Rower will saw the log he is hewing into planks is nicely jointed and pegged. It looks like a huge sawhorse, but it's fitted together with such skill it could be a piece of furniture.
Today's tools are a departure from the 19th century, Levin maintains, in that "more is done by Reddy Kilowatt and less by man," but the experienced isn't as good with electric tools. He prizes the unelectrified, old-fashioned, "nose to nose, tools to wood" confrontation with materials. "It's more . . . spiritual, for want of a better word."
Watching -- and smelling -- golden-pink flakes of soft, new oak fall from under the wide, curving blade of the 17th-century adz he picked up again, I could see what he meant. Someone asked if it was an old tool. He said yes, it went back to the 17the century. It had been bought in Maine, after being buried for a long time. But here it was, dug up and back at work, and the log was taking shape just as logs always have when skill and iron have been applied. He could not only feel proud of his own work, he could also be proud of the carpentry that made New England inhabitable, and of the patterns for the joints that hold it all together going back to the Middle Ages.
After the X-raying of the original, the replica house was built in Canaan, N.H., taken apart, and put together here. The building was not an entirely 17 th-century affair. It was soon discovered that the hand-hewing an dpit-sawing would wreak havoc with the 20th-century budget and deadline, and the logs were taken to the sawmill of Hobart Esty, who, with other lumber companies, had donated the wood. So, except for the front of the house, wrought with iron tools and sweat, and of course the joints, the rest of the house is made of pieces which flipped off the sawmill "like a piece of bread, kchew, kchew, kchew ," according to Jonathan Fairbanks of the Museum of Fine Arts. The name is no coincidence.
The Fairbanks house was occupied by Jonathan Fairbanke's descendants until the early 20th century. Since then it's been a sort of museum, but Fairbankses still visit it every year for their family reunions. There are thousands of them now, including the 11th-generation descendant and namesake of Jonathan Fairbanke, Jonathan Fairbanks (somewhere the "e" turned into an "s"), who is curator of American Decorative Arts at the MFA, and whose idea it was to raise the replica on the Common.
"The Fairbanks house as an archetype is more than a family house. It's a house that represents everybody's roots. It's not just a family possession, it's something that allows us to see through that tiny tunnel of history to the past, and understand what the larger context must have been."
The larger context, he said, was much more complicated than we usually give the Pilgrims credit for. Judging just from the way the house was made -- with its adroitly carved joints and the nice touches of grooving down the corner of the door post, ending in a little fillip of wood called a "lamb's tongue," the carefully laid thatch (Peter Slevin, a master thatcher from Ireland, was perched on a scaffolding above the Common, swatting the ends of the rushes so they would slant just the right way on the roof after he tied the bundles with just the right 17th-century swat and slant), and other touches, not to mention the fact that it's still standing -- you can see they had a feeling for decoration.
"What does this mean for Western civilization on the Atlantic coast?" says the latter-day Jonathan Fairbanks. "Did they bring over a rough, frontier kind of primitive existence? No, they brought over a very elaborate, technological (for its day), very advanced civilization, and they imposed that on the wilderness. they weren't affected by the wilderness. . . . They imposed their life on the wilderness with all its finery and elegance and slashed sleeves and silk and great boots and lace. They were elaborate people. . . . They loved bright colors. They weren't drab and black and white and gray as pictured, they were red and green and white and yellow. They loved color. . . .
"This is really the message we're trying to get across, that the Pilgrim century was not a dull, drab century, it was a very colorful, eventful century. It was the age when people learned about the circulation of the blood. And at the same time they were thinking witches, they were also looking at the universe. . . . They were looking with telescopes and they were looking with microscopes."
And so the first Jonathan Fairbanke hired an unknown crew of carpenters from Suffolk, a backward part of England, to build a house. And they built a house that was a throwback even then, a 16th-century house, really. It doesn't matter , says Ed Levin. Some of the joints he makes today were first invented in the 13th century. The most complex joint in the house is the 14th.
And, as I said, hot sunlight is timeless. Standing under it, it's enough for most people to watch otherm people work. The crowd was fascinated, getting a good feeling from the chops, grunts, sawing, and hefting going on before them. Little children grabbed wood chips or stared up, open-mouthed, at the sweating men. Up on the trestle, Kenneth Rower was trying a bandanna around his head, steeling himself (if we can use such a term in this context) to pull up the pit-saw and make cuts for the planks in the middle part of the log.
"Get going," said an old man in shorts with a certain malicious pep in his voice. "I want to see how good you are."
"OK," said Rower. "We're not very good."
"I used to do that myself. About 55 years ago, in Newfoundland," the man said. "I used to make herring barrels with my brother. We weren't very good either." He chuckled as they began to get a rhythm going, Rower pulling the saw up, the man below hauling it down, sawdust falling in his face and blowing on the bystanders.
"How are they doing?" I asked.
"Pretty good. They're taking girl strokes, though. Won't have much to show for their work at the end of the day." Rower coughed on some sawdust.
"Ha ha!" said the man. "He won't last through the day." He chuckled as the sawing went on.
Rower didn't seem to mind. It's all part of the tradition: Pitsaving has survived 350 years, and so has caviling at the young whippersnappers on the trestle.
The Fairbanks house replica was disassembled and put into storage last weekend, to reappear in 1982 as part of a MFA on New England in the 17th century.m