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Tree-ring science reveals Edenton home’s age

For years, history-minded folks in Edenton – and there are a lot of them in North Carolina’s second-oldest town – thought they had a nice example of a turn-of-the-century mill house at 304 E. Queen St.

The National Register concurred, including the modest tin-roofed cottage in its early 1900s Edenton Cotton Mill Village Historic District.

Then in 2009, local carpenter Wayne Griffin started ripping bead boarding off interior walls to turn the four-room, two-story house into rental housing for owner Steve Lane.

He got the surprise of his life when he uncovered a large hand-hewn support post. It was whitewashed, with a wooden peg attached.

Realizing the building was far older than suspected, he called in restoration woodworker Don Jordan of Edenton. The two of them continued to – carefully – tear away paneling, revealing what state restoration specialist Reid Thomas described as “an almost lost building type in North Carolina.”

The heavy timbers were carefully hand-hewn and covered in ancient-looking whitewash. Some bore a carved ogee (double-curve or scrolled) edge.

“Very fancy. I’d never seen it on a house in North Carolina,” said Thomas, who is with the N.C. Historic Preservation Office.

To learn the house’s age, Thomas, Lane, local historians and outside experts – including a representative of Colonial Williamsburg – called in dendrochronologist Michael Worthington of Oxford Tree-Ring Laboratory in Baltimore.

Dendrochronologists determine the age of wooden structures by counting the tree rings in timbers: Each year a tree grows, it develops a ring that reflects the climate that year. When it’s felled, the rings stop. Since curing timber wasn’t a common practice in colonial days, construction is assumed to start about the same time trees were felled.

To place a timber in a historical context, its rings, which can vary widely in size according to annual climate, must be matched to already dated timbers of the same species and climate.

Volunteers started searching for timbers to use as cross-section samples. Bark edges are essential evidence of when a tree was felled. But the house’s timbers were hewn so neatly, there were few bark edges left, said Thomas.

Worthington, meanwhile, searched his database for already dated longleaf yellow-pine timbers from a comparable climate, the closer to Edenton, the better.

He found them in two homes he’d dated in Virginia Beach, Va., some 60 miles away.

The envelope, please

In January 2013, the volunteers gathered on the house’s front porch in Edenton to hear Worthington’s results. At first, his remarks were partially drowned by a passing truck.

“Did you say 1718-19?” yelled Thomas.

Yes indeed, Worthington replied. The house underneath those asbestos shingles was built a dozen years before George Washington was born and more than a half-century before the Revolution. That makes it the state’s oldest dated house.

What’s more, at least one of its longleaf pine timbers was growing in 1558, when Queen Elizabeth I ascended to the English throne. That’s before the Lost Colony and the Pilgrims, and just 66 years after Columbus set foot in the New World.

With the house’s age established, the volunteers are employing history and science to reveal what it tells about its place and time.

Historical references aren’t always complementary to the 15 or so houses on Albemarle Sound established in 1712 as the Towne on Queen Anne’s Creek and renamed Edenton in 1722. Area residents were mostly small farmers who’d migrated from Virginia.

The local Anglican rector, the Rev. John Uhmston, described his 1702-built St. Paul’s Church as having no floor, windows without glass, and a pulpit unfinished “for want of nails and boards.”

“The Key being lost, the door stood open all the Hogs and Cattle flee thither for shade in the summer and warmth in the Winter ”

By contrast, the carefully made house Lane now owns, with the same 15-by-25-foot footprint as the church, had two rooms upstairs and two down, at least one staircase, doors, floors and two chimneys (material unknown).

Thomas hopes lab analysis will tell whether the whitewash on framing and walls is original. If there’s no trace of dirt or soot underneath, it likely is an example of early settlers’ making whitewash by extracting lime from burnt oyster shells.

Lime reflects twice as much light as paint, Thomas said, and “it would make these dimly lit rooms much brighter.”

Owner Lane is pursuing the age and origin of the cut limestone blocks that serve as support pillars. They’re presumed to have arrived as ship’s ballast. Limestone was heavily quarried in Bermuda, and Bermuda sailing ships traded extensively with Edenton. Lane is swapping limestone chips with a Bermuda historian and hopes to consult East Carolina University archaeologist Charles Ewen.

Surprise by shovel

By far the greatest mystery came to light last summer as an ECU archaeological team dug underneath pulled-up floorboards. The earliest ceramics they found dated from 1849, indicating that the house was moved to 304 E. Queen St. more than a century after it was built.

Edenton resident John Collins’ research convinces him that the house was built on the corner of the same block where it now stands but was moved when a subsequent owner built a larger house there. The original builder, he thinks, was a carpenter and prominent citizen named William Branch.

None of the suggested sites can be easily explored archaeologically, say ECU’s Ewen and graduate student Coy Idol, who led the dig. Somebody lives at all of them.

So Thomas and the other volunteers continue to explore the house itself. And when he’s there with tape measure and notebook and visitors come by, he delights in showing them the ceiling joist from Queen Elizabeth I’s time.

“Feel that tree!” he invites.

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