Old House Journal- Uncovering the History of an Old House

(photo by Jon Crispin)

The research I've done about my house being moved in 1858 has been published in Old House Journal. It isn't easy to shrink such big story onto a few pages but the editor somehow helped me to do that. Hope you enjoy the article!

"Uncovering the History of an Old House"

The Dwelling House Theory

Mortise and tenon joins in a timber frame were not interchangeable
before about 1830. Each mortise and tenon join was uniquely carved
to fit together. Hand-scribed "marriage marks" were used by house-
wrights to reassemble the a timber frame correctly on the site where
the house is erected. This marriage mark is from a mortise and tenon-ed
join on the ground floor of our house. It is visible looking up while
standing in the basement. 

At this point in time, our house does not have a fireplace. I don't know whether it ever did, which has been my obsession of late. Whether it did or not will tell me the answer to a question that is at the root of its origin. In a time before cooking stoves and furnaces were in use, a hearth was essential to any dwelling, so a  building that was constructed in New England 200 years ago would have been built with at least one fireplace.

Wisely, chimneys were strategically placed at or towards the center of the house to minimize heat loss through the outer walls  (in the south, chimneys were often placed on the outer walls instead for the reverse reason). If it can be determined whether a building of this age was built without a hearth, it was likely built for commercial purposes or as a shop. James Garvin notes in his book, A Building History of Northern New England (the bible for old house nerds), that
How marriage marks work. Each join
in unique and must be assembled
according to the marks.
One will occasionally encounter a house whose frame consists of a series of evenly spaced bents, with no sign of accommodation at the center for a chimney or entry. This type of frame often proves to have started it's existence as a warehouse or shop.... Many such utilitarian structures were eventually converted to dwellings in the old coastal cities of New England, and deeper investigation of such an atypical house will often reveal that it began as a commercial structure. (p. 11) 
With that in mind, finding evidence of a central chimney became my mission.

Split Granite Foundation with a Mystery

A granite block from our foundation.
The foundation of our house is granite, which is common for old houses in New England. The basement walls are made up of about 6 feet of rubble including chunks of quarried granite and large round rocks all mortared together. At grade level there is a course of large rectangular granite blocks, each about 4ft long by 2ft high, that encompasses the original footprint of the house. This included a rectangular main house and an ell extension off the back which made the house an L shape. 

Each of the above ground blocks has a row of semi-cylindrical marks running across the bottom. These marks provide evidence of the technique used to cut these stones. At the time, I wanted to identify the marks on the stones partly in an effort to put them in an historical context, which I hoped would help me date the house. From my understanding now though, structures that were moved, as ours was, were normally given a new foundation in the new location which dates our stones to about 1858. 

I thought that understanding the chronology of stone splitting techniques would be pretty straightforward, but I was wrong (for more confusing dating of old objects, see Nails as well). I have written and rewritten this page several times as I've learned more and gained a better understanding of things I had already read and written about. Because what we know about an historic structure and it's intrinsic parts can only be based upon the physical and written evidence that has thus far been accounted for, there is a certain amount of irresolution that comes with the territory. In the words of James Garvin, author of, A Building History of Northern New England, "we have to take a number of somewhat overlapping and amorphous bodies of evidence, synthesize them, and try to come up with a defensible interpretation of the object before us" (personal communication, 7/26/2012). With that in mind I set out to outline as best I could the timetable of the evolution of stone splitting techniques from the 18th through the mid-19th centuries in New England. 

The Joiner's Shop Theory

About 1810: Lewis Miller working at his bench
(York County Historical Society, York, Pa.)

Our house, while having been built a couple of hundred years ago in a, then-common, three bay "hall and parlor" design, lacks one element that would have made it habitable as a dwelling; a fireplace. In fact, it seems to lack evidence of any heating source at all. This is New Hampshire where I wouldn't think of fireplaces as optional. So, maybe our house was built without a fireplace? This theory of our house's origin has that assumption at its center. 

The frame and/or sub-floor of a post and beam house who's fireplace(s) has been removed will typically tell you where the fireplaces were. A large fireplace by today's standards, which our house would have had if it had been a built as a dwelling house, would have to have been accommodated for within it's structure. In a house like ours, there was almost always either a large chimney in the center of the house that had several hearths opening up in various rooms, or, alternatively, two chimneys allowing for a fireplace in both lower rooms and maybe even the upper chambers. Our house doesn't show evidence of having a fireplace in any of the typical places.

History of the House, Part 1 (1858)

Phinehas Merrill's map of Exeter, 1802. 
Our house now resides in the red circle
In the tax records, our house is recorded as having been built in 1800. After living in it for a few months, it became evident that the house is old, but there didn't seem to be any way that it was built in 1800, primarily because it is located on a street that didn't exist before the late 1850's. On this map, which was done in 1802, our part of town was not at all developed.

Our house would have been in the middle of Jabez Dodge's cow pasture if it were in it's current location in 1802. I had never done deed research before but I wanted to figure out the story of our house, and researching its lineage through deeds was the first step. Through the Rockingham County Registry of Deeds I was able to easily  follow ownership back to 1858, but there it dead-ended.

History, Part 2 (moving the house)

Once I had figured out that the house had most likely been moved to it's current location, I wanted to try to figure out who built the house. I had to look at as many deeds from the original location as possible in order to get a picture of the timeline of the structures that were there. This is hard because buildings were built, torn down, moved and re-purposed so often that it is impossible to be sure of much. The best it seems you can do is to find as much evidence as possible and sort through it to determine the most plausible scenario. Then you just have to be happy with that (or eternally frustrated by not knowing for sure, like me).

History of the House, Part 3 (1823-1858)

These are the three properties that were on the corner of Front and Spring Streets owned by Deacon Sherburne Blake and his heirs from 1823-1858.  The one on the left is his "office building," the one on the bottom middle is his dwelling house and the one on the right is a little house or ell on his property.  

On this 1884 map of Exeter I have labeled them 1.) office building, 2.) Blake's dwelling house, 3.) little house or ell to show where they were each moved from (circle) and to (square).

The history of our house is directly linked to the other two houses above because they were all once part of a property on the corner of Spring and Front Streets owned by Deacon Sherburne Blake. All three of these properties were moved to within a block of each other, where they still stand today.

History of the House, part 4 (pre-1823)

In 1823, Sherburne Blake bought the property at the corner of Spring and Front Streets "with the buildings thereon" from Josiah Blake. In the deed below it notes that the property that Sherburne Blake is purchasing is made up of of two pieces of land that Josiah Blake bought between 1805 and 1806: one part from Oliver Peabody and Samuel Tenney (as tenants in common), and the other from Samuel Beckett Eastham. 

It is probably impossible to know what extraneous buildings existed on the property when Sherburne Blake purchased it in 1823. Larger houses had many outbuildings at this time including barns. So, to say "buildings thereon" doesn't imply dwellings necessarily. Sometimes the deeds specify "dwelling house thereon." I assume that the distinction between "dwelling house" and "buildings" in the deeds is either the preference or habit of the person recording the deed or a carry over from the way the previous deed for that property was written. It seems though, that, ultimately the two terms are interchangeable.

There is not much information on Josiah Blake, owner from 1805 through 1823, that is easily available from my couch aside from what is in the deeds. Fortunately, though, the occupation of the purchaser was usually plainly stated in deeds just after the name. He was a joiner, which was the 19th century version of a finish carpenter who made and installed doors, paneling, cabinets, windows, molding, stair parts, etc.. 
Our house is still about 75% mystery so I am constantly trying to put together what parts of it are original and what parts were added and how things changed and morphed along the continuum. I'm split on whether I think the house was built by Sherburne Blake in the period between 1823 and about 1830 or during Josiah Blake's time between 1805-1823. I have been trying to learn as much as I can about building technology specific to the Seacoast region of NH to better narrow down the time frame. Technologies seemed to spread to the Seacoast region before the more rural, inland parts of the state, largely due to it's proximity and access to Boston as well as the presence of the Exeter River which allowed for the construction of saw and nail slitting mills among others.  

Having researched the deeds, not only for this property, but for the neighboring properties, I'm pretty certain that our house was built on, or moved to the part of the lot that Josiah Blake bought from Francis B. Eastham in 1806.

Sliding Interior Shutters

An architectural historian came over to help answer some of my questions about the house. While showing her the basement she noticed what appeared to be an odd looking wall separating some junk from some other junk. The wall was there when we moved in but we hadn't paid it any mind except to say that it was weird and we would tear it down one day. After looking at the front (the other side of the panels as they appear in the picture) of the panels, she recognized immediately that the wall was pieced together out of some sort of federal-era panels. She was looking at the "show side" of the panels through a crack on the other side of the wall so it was almost impossible to see what they were.
On the left is the wall made of federal panels.The back of the panels show here.
There are eight panels nailed to some 2 x 4's with giant wire nails.


Update: My FIRST wrought nail! It was on the floor and I almost vacuumed it up when I was cleaning the basement but I noticed that it had a "rose head," and sure enough, it was a blacksmith made nail! Unfortunately, I don't know where it came out of since it was on the floor. 

Our house has machine made cut nails as opposed to hand-wrought nails. Nails are a great way to date a house, at least within a range. It's easier said than done, though, because there are several kinds of cut nails, and to the untrained eye it can be hard to discern which one you've got. Before nail making machines were invented all nails were hand forged by metal workers. They were beaten into shape by hammer blows. These were generally in use until "the late 1700's," which is not super-helpful if you're trying to narrow down a date. I found that I needed to figure out when cut nails became available specifically in Exeter.