Here are some of the guys I work with. We’re a shaggy bunch, we drink a lot of coffee, and we are passionate about our work. We are Plimoth Plantation’s Interpretive Artisans Department, and we are the people who research, build, and maintain all the structures in the 17th Century English (Pilgrim) Village. During the museum’s open season, we interpret traditional carpentry to our guests while role-playing. In the offseason, the work continues, albeit in different clothes. But more about that later. We have stories to tell…Thanks for your time.
A Fire’s Aftermath…
Our blog begins with an ending: We said good-bye to an old friend last week, The Francis Cooke House. Nothing remains now but a vacant lot. The house’s thatched roof had partially burned in a chimney fire last November. No one was hurt. HUGE props to The Plymouth Fire Department whose excellence prevented what could have been a far more serious event. And although much good work went up in smoke on that windy Saturday, many great memories remain. With a nod to those who conceived and carried out the construction of this house in the mid-1980′s, we began to dismantle a house too damaged to fix.
On Tuesday, January 3rd, 2012, we set about the process of de-construction.
First step: Clapboard removal
The cedar clapboards are very thin and very fragile, but they are worth the effort to reclaim, as we have found it difficult to procure cedar trees large enough to rive (split) into boards. Only a couple of structures in our exhibit remain covered with hand-split cedar. The majority of new clapboards are now riven from oak. We will re-use the cedar for spot-repair on some of those older buildings in the pilgrim village.
Second step: Off with the roof
Much of Cooke House will be salvaged and re-used in our exhibit. All of the timber from the roof, for example, will be turned into firewood for our interpretive staff. You may very well be warmed by a fire made from these rafters and poles should you visit us on a brisk spring day.
Third step: Put a hole in the wall
We daub our pilgrim houses with a clay mortar. It’s a traditional mix of clay, earth, and straw in varying proportions. We knocked out each wall panel and separated the supporting wooden lathe from the mortar. The lathe makes excellent kindling. Almost every bit of Cooke’s mortar can be saved, reconstituted,and used again in the new Cooke House. This is bona fide pilgrim recycling and, perhaps, why Andrew (above) is smiling.
Fourth step: Take apart the frame
The frame’s bottom (posts, studs, sills) was largely untouched by the fire. We dismantled the joined timbers by using a metal rod to “drift” out the wooden pins called trenails. This freed the tenons from the mortices. Joint by joint, we methodically took apart the pieces and laid them by.Salvaging the frame in this way–as opposed to sawing through the joints–will give us options in the future. It’s good to have options.
Lessons from below…
There are lessons in decay. When English carpenters built structures in the New World–from Maine to Virginia–they were often raised without foundations. Posts and other framing elements were buried in the ground. Earthfast posts and ground sills rot away at ground level, leaving discolored earth, post holes, wooden remnants, and other clues for archaeologists. We depend on such archaeological findings to help inform the design of our new buildings. Cooke’s 30-year-old frame began to decay in a way that might seem familiar to those who study such things.
For a great treatise on the subject by an expert and a friend to Plimoth Plantation, see Emerson W. Baker’s work on earthfast architecture in Maine: http://beacon.salemstate.edu/~ebaker/earthfast/earthfastpaper.html
And speaking of digging…
For more information about the fire and how you can help with the Cooke House reconstruction, please click on the following link: