A lot of exciting things have happened at Woodville in the past two and a half centuries – I am excited about something happening there right now! Several years ago the Neville House Associates announced “The Woodville Experience” Capital Campaign, a fund raising effort with the goal of enhancing this National Historic Landmark and create “an extraordinary living history complex”.
The enhancements include an interpretive log cabin, a whisky still shelter, a fully restored field well, and a circa 1810 Belgian style barn, each faithfully restored to match the late eighteenth century feel of the Neville House. Watching the barn go up this month has been a real treat for me.
The first step was locating a barn that could be disassembled and rebuilt at Woodville. They found one on the Seranko farm on Trongo Road, near Latrobe. It didn’t look like much from the outside, but an investigation of the interior showed that it had “good bones”; the timbers were sound and suitable for reuse.
It is believed that this barn, originally twice the current size, was constructed initially near the present location of Latrobe Reservoir. One half of the barn was relocated to the Seranko farm about one hundred years ago. What survived is an excellent example of timber construction in an era before bolts and spikes were readily available.
Instead, timbers were connected by the mortise and tenon concept. For example, consider connecting a beam to a post. A rectangular slot (the mortise) is cut into the face of the post. The end of the beam is then cut away, leaving a tongue (the tenon) slightly smaller than the slot. Once the tenon is inserted into the mortise, a hole is drilled at right angles through the connection and a wooden pin driven into it to secure both members.
It is remarkable that some artisan made such a connection two centuries ago; another one drove out the pin a hundred years later and reassembled it at a different site; and a twenty-first century barn builder is repeating this process today. It certainly warrants a lot of visits to Woodville to see experts in action.
The Seranko barn was disassembled by an Amish crew last month, with each timber being inspected for soundness and then marked with an identifying number.
This winter the foundation for the barn was constructed on the Woodville site. It is strictly twenty-first century technology, but has been done in a fashion to complement the timbers it will support. The footprint of the barn is forty feet by fifty-four feet. The foundation is an eight-inch thick concrete wall faced with four inches of custom cut sandstone. The result is particularly handsome.
In addition to the exterior wall, the foundation includes sixteen circular, interior concrete piers. Four rows of three eighteen inch piers support the four major transverse floor timbers. Four twenty-four inch piers, located at the third points in both directions, will support the major interior posts.
I am grateful to Dan Ragaller for alerting me to the fact that the barn raising would occur this month. I was able to visit the site just before it began and inspect the foundation, as well as the impressive collection of timbers carefully arranged in the layout yard. Sure enough, there was ample evidence of mortises and tenons, as well as a number of unique notches. I even found two buckets of original pins.
These were not timbers produced by a sawmill; rather, they were hand cut with axe and adze. We believe the major timbers are white oak; some secondary ones are poplar. I was surprised to see several posts that were neatly squared at one end and tapered to the original circular trunk at the other end. I certainly hope these members will be visible in the restored barn.
The first step for the Amish erection crew was to install the timbers that make up the four transverse floor beams. They were seated on “angle irons” cinch anchored into the foundation walls and shimmed to the proper elevation on the piers. Next came the floor joists, new 2 by 10’s “toenailed” into the floor beams. On top of this is the subflooring, new 4 by 8 plywood sheets.
By the end of the week the team had assembled the framing for each end of the barn, “in the flat”. Next week they will bring in a (twenty-first century) crane and set them in place. This won’t be nearly as impressive as man-handling them into place with a gin pole and block-and-tackle the way they did in the old days, but still is an exciting prospect to see.
Once again, I was delighted to be able to inspect the frames and observe the clever things innovative barn builders did two centuries ago to make the best of the material they had to work with, as well as the clever things today’s artisans do to retain the authenticity of their work.
I am eager to follow the barn raising until it is complete. For me this is a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity to compare and contrast timber construction from eras that are two centuries apart. You may expect more columns on this subject in the future.
I am not privy to the financial affairs of the Neville House Associates, but I am reasonably certain they still have a long way to go to reach the goal of their fundraising campaign. Woodville is a tiny microcosm of Colonial Williamsburg, the prototype of living history. Nonetheless it provides an equally authentic picture of life in this area in the late 1700s.
The Neville House Associates deserve our support. Perhaps the relaxation of pandemic quarantine, the advent of warmer weather, and the attraction of this impressive expansion will combine to generate such support. Check out woodvilleplantation.org for a schedule of days when the site is open for tours.