Henry Phillips Barn Restoration - Discoveries and Questions
The following information was written up by staff member Tevis Stites-Robertson in 2001 during the restoration of the horse barn. A subsequent article he wrote for the Furrow that apeared in the Winter 2002 issue was entitled "Our Barn's a New Yorker" and details how he discovered the origins of the timbers used in the barn's construction. This article can be found by clicking here.
One of the exciting aspects of working on an old building is that discoveries are constantly being made. The history of the Henry Phillips barn was documented in 1983, when a Historic Structures Report was written about it. At that time, however, there were some features of the barn that were hidden. Our restoration work is adding to our knowledge about the barn. It is also raising many questions about why the barn was built the way it was.
Near the corner where the two sections of the barn meet, two old hand-forged pintles were found. The door currently hung in the opening there is hung on modern hinges and is not original. Directly above this point, there is a mow door that is still hung on its original pintles. The discovery of these pintles that went with the lower door reaffirmed that this door opening was original. About a foot below what was grade-level, a door stone was found in front of this door. This indicates that the grade in that part of the horse yard has risen more than a foot from where it was when the barn was built.
In addition to the constant influx of manure and dust, farmers over the years have doubtless filled in any holes or puddles in the yard with gravel from the creek, as we continue to do. After a century and a half, these small additions of soil have become significant. The soil along this wall was removed to return it closer to what the original level was.
In the corner where the working barn and horse barn meet we encountered a foundation. This foundation was circular, and according to Farm Manager Gary Houghton belonged to a wooden silo that had once stood there, but was disassembled and sold to a neighboring farmer.
At the south end of the west wall of the horse barn a concrete block foundation was unearthed. This foundation is left over from the milk house built by Hart Cromwell in the 1940s that was removed in 1980.
Other artifacts unearthed during the restoration work include bolts, bones, horseshoes, pintles, a mattock head, a door handle, a knife guard from a sickle-bar mower, and a piece of apron chain from a manure spreader, a crushed paint can, pieces of a china cup, and a glass plunger from a syringe found in the old drain under the milk room. (return to top of page)
On September 20th, some Hatchery moms helped dig footing holes inside the barn. These footings are for two lines of interior posts and beams to support the hay mow floor. While digging, a lot of stone was encountered along the inside of one of these lines of holes. Upon further investigation, it was discovered that this stone was an old foundation. This wall is about six feet in from the east wall, and runs parallel to it. The stone is laid up with a lime-based mortar. This indicates a date probably later than the original section of the farmhouse (c. 1790), which is chinked with a clay-based mortar. The composition of the mortar does not appear to match the original mortar found in the exterior foundation of the Henry Phillips Barn, indicating that there may have been an earlier structure on this site. Once more of the slab has been removed, we will hopefully discover more about this foundation. (return to top of page)
Openings in the walls
The siding is cut out above the northernmost of these mow doors, indicating
that this opening once extended almost to the eaves. On the inside,
there is a strip of wood on either side nailed to the jamb, set with
about an inch of space between it and the siding. This strip would allow
boards to be dropped in to block the opening, which could perhaps be
removed to allow ventilation. However, the original purpose is unclear
and it is an uncommon architectural feature.
There are mortises in the bottom of the beams indicating that there were once probably two interior walls that broke the span and helped support the hay floor. The mortises and ghost marks on the joists (dents left where the wood of the joists was set onto a piece below) indicate that the beams running under the joists here were fairly small dimension timbers, being only three inches wide. It is possible that the interior foundation was put in to support this line of posts, though it does not appear to be quite in line with it. (return to top of page)
This type of sawmill was quite slow, and often either incapable of sawing very hard wood or so slow that a skilled man with a good axe could hew a timber out more quickly than it could be sawn in the mill. By 1840 the Shakers had already introduced a new type of sawmill with a circular blade, which was quicker and capable of sawing harder wood than the earlier straight-bladed vertical mill. While the new circular mills spread rapidly, in backwater areas such as Pleasant Valley the old vertical mills remained in use for some time before being replaced. We know that by 1910 there was a steam engine powered circular mill set up along Valley Road on what is now part of Howell Farm. We do not know when the original water powered mill stopped running, or if that mill ever switched to using a circular blade.
The wood used in the barn for these sawn timbers appears to be Hemlock, which is a softwood, and hence easily sawn by the early style mill. Hemlock does not grow naturally in the nearby area, and this wood most likely came from northern New Jersey, New York, or Pennsylvania. In the early 1800s large quantities of wood were floated down the Delaware, and people along the river would pull logs out and mill them locally. The hemlock lumber that we are replacing in the restoration will be replaced with hemlock from Pennsylvania that was cut with a band saw mill. This modern type of sawmill leaves a straight saw mark similar to the mark left by the old water-powered reciprocating mill.
Hemlock rots fairly easily, and so for the sills, which are laid on top of the foundation and are in close proximity to the ground, a more rot resistant wood was used. On nearby Baldpate mountain there was a large quantity of American Chestnut, which was the most valuable of the native timber trees. American Chestnut combines strength, extreme hardness, and rot resistance. It was widely used for fences due to its natural resistance to rot. It also was a popular wood for sills. There was also a large amount of White Oak on the mountain, which is a similar wood, being strong, hard, and fairly rot-resistant.
The original sills in the barn appear to be made out of these two woods. Due to the hardness of these woods, it is likely that the water-powered sawmill did not have the power to saw through them, or could only saw them very slowly. The original sills of the Henry Phillips barn clearly show axe marks in them indicating that these timbers were hand-hewn, rather than sawn.
Despite 160 years in close proximity to the ground, much of the original sill material remains sound. However, throughout the barn the sills are rotted away in places or are no longer sound. The sills have only rotted completely away in areas where the soil has built up outside the barn and buried them. The sills throughout the barn will be replaced in the restoration.
In 1904 a fungal blight was discovered on Chestnut trees in the New York Zoological Park. This blight is believed to have entered the country with the imported Chinese Chestnut, which is resistant to it. The American Chestnut had no resistance, and by the 1940s it was functionally extinct. Today, there are perhaps a dozen mature American Chestnut trees on the east coast. It is still possible, however, to find young trees growing in the woods. These saplings grow in clusters, and are actually sprouts from stumps of trees whose main trunks died in the teens or twenties. The blight is a fungus that attacks the bark of the tree, and it needs a fissure in the bark to allow it entrance. Chestnuts, when they are young, have smooth bark. Once they reach ten to fifteen years of age, their bark starts to crack, and within a year or two of those fissures opening that trunk will be killed by the blight.
Work is being done to create a blight resistant American Chestnut, both by crossing it with the Chinese Chestnut and by breeding from that handful of trees that have shown some sign of resistance. These efforts have met with some success, and it is likely that some of the trees being planted now will survive so that the children of today and their children will see the American Chestnut return to our forests.
In our restoration work we are replacing the sills with White Oak, which is the next-best wood to American Chestnut, and was also used originally. There are many species of oak, which are divided by lumbermen into two categories - white and red. Red Oak is more porous, and hence inferior to White Oak in strength and durability. The Red Oak group includes the Red, Black, Scarlet, and Pin Oaks. The lumber known as "White Oak" can also be the wood from a few different species. Most common is the Eastern White Oak, Quercus alba. There are only a couple of Eastern White Oak trees in the Howell Farm Woodlot. Less common generally, but more common in our woodlot, is the Swamp White Oak, Quercus bicolor. The new sill on the south gable end of the horse barn is from this species.
Another species that does not grow here at Howell Farm but is found
in the nearby area is the Chestnut Oak, Quercus montana, which as the
scientific name indicates likes to grow on hills and mountains. The
common name of the Chestnut Oak refers to the shape of its leaves, which
resemble those of the American Chestnut, rather than the wood. The new
sill on the south end of the east wall of the horse barn is Chestnut
Oak. These sills will hopefully last long enough to be replaced with
American Chestnut when that wood is again available. While European
and Chinese Chestnut wood is easily available, neither of those woods
have the density, strength, or rot resistance of the native trees, and
are in all respects inferior as timber, though often used in furniture
and cabinetry. The new sills are being hand hewn, to match the original
workmanship. Hewing a log by hand involves removing wood to turn a round
log into a straight, squared-off timber of the chosen dimension, using
a hewing axe or saw and a broad axe.