This Pilgrim Builder Treads Where Historians Have Failed

Plimoth Plantation carpenter raises and razes 17th-century style houses

By day, Preston Woodburn plays a Pilgrim. He can feign an Elizabethan accent and a Puritan attitude that will take you back 370 years.

By night, when he's done working as an "interpreter" at Plimoth Plantation, he's still a Pilgrim - with all the zeal of the religious refugee he plays.

This bearded carpenter is on a personal quest to solve one of the great mysteries about America's origins: What kind of houses did the Pilgrims live in?

To find out, he raises and razes houses like there's no yesterday, using early 17th-century-style tools, old New England oak, and, most of all, Pilgrim thinking to figure out how America's ancients might have built their homes.

It's not exactly This Old House.

"At each step in building a structure, we ask what a 17th-century carpenter would have to do," he says.

"We try to deduce what could have been built over one month of labor in the winter."

By trying to "discover by process," Mr. Woodburn treads where historians and archaeologist have failed.

At the re-created village of Plimoth Plantation, Woodburn plays the character of Francis Eaton, a carpenter who came over on the Mayflower in 1620. He's also in charge of building the 14 houses and barns that line the dirt lane sloping down to Massachusetts Bay in the outdoor museum.

In five years, he's built six structures with help from other interpreters.

Even on days off, he hunts for clues about the once-forgotten craft of timber-framing, which relies on thick, squared posts and beams joined tightly with notches and wood pegs.

Last winter, for instance, he went to England in search of 16th- or 17th-century houses that the Pilgrims might have lived in. And he studies archaeological digs on other, early English settlements in Virginia and Maine.

Woodburn has peeked into the oldest houses in Massachusetts, even though the few that survive were probably built a good 15 years after the Pilgrims arrived.

And he's active in the Timber Frame Guild of North America, a 780-member group founded in 1985 to revive a medieval style of house building that faded out 150 years ago after the advent of machine-cut nails, and mass production of 2x4s marked the end of sturdy colonial architecture.

Built with the same skill as cabinet-making, timber-frame houses are so secure they don't need gravity to stand. A giant could pick them up and they would stay together. Yet they are elegant in their simplicity.

Woodburn enjoys tearing down the "inauthentic" houses built after the outdoor museum opened in 1956. Some were made with cement or in styles and methods that make his eyes roll. "They used 18th-century tools," he scoffs, "or even chain saws" to make timber look rustic.

The houses erected back then served mainly as backdrops for the display of Pilgrim folkways. "They were just silly!," says Liz Lodge, director of museum operations. Woodburn winces whenever a visitor says he expected to see log cabins (a later Scandinavian import) or Georgian-style mansions (1700s, please).

In the past few years, the museum has shifted strongly toward having interpreters live a strict Pilgrim life, not for theater but in a search for historical truth.

Try as they might, visitors to the plantation cannot get Woodburn or other interpreters to act out of character or deviate too much from daily duties, such as splitting clapboards or tending herb gardens.

"Americans have come here for decades to touch the Pilgrim story," Woodburn says. "But the visitors today want the details to be alive."

He says the realism and immediacy pay off, compared to other historical villages, such as historic Colonial Williamsburg. "There's a big difference between watching someone demonstrate the hewing of a timber and watching someone actually hew a timber to build a house."

"Before, people here would pit-saw for half-an-hour and say, 'Aw, that's enough.' But now we pit-saw for actual building and create real-life data."

Woodburn knows his own ideas about Pilgrim housing may someday be proved wrong. "Even what we knew three years ago has changed, and the buildings constructed then are outmoded as we learn more," he says.

"We're not trying to create history. No matter what we do, visitors will always assume we know what we are doing. They will see our work as an exhibit and say, 'That's the way it was back then.' But all we have is the wood, the tools, and a process of building that's coming closer to the original."

And that may be all that's expected from this pilgrim's progress.

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