As the daughter of the manager of technical planning for the Apollo lunar landings, I grew up on space and all things innovative and cutting-edge and neoteric.
Our family lived in an “ultramodern” home designed by Oren Thomas, a modernist architect who also designed “The House of Tomorrow.” Everything was about the future. We even drank Tang.
And yet, for as long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by antiques and artifacts.
About seven years ago, while looking online at Ipswich, Massachusetts real estate, I came across a home that listed the date as 1634.
How could that be? That was only 14 years after the Mayflower arrived!
I had to see it.
My husband was skeptical but at last he acquiesced.
We were told that it wasn’t the original house, and eventually we learned that the 1634 date came from the date of the deed, which was based on the land grant, which was, in fact, dated 1634 (and listed on the first page of the historic Ipswich town records, dated April 20, 1635).
Whatever its age, the house looked like it would be an awfully big adventure. So we decided to buy it.
In our restoration, we began to probe and scrutinize hundreds of years of construction materials and we started to realize that 1634 was not far off from the actual date, which we believe was probably about 1640, but almost certainly no later than 1646, for several reasons.
First, the structure is framed with white oak, and in 1643 the Ipswich “Seven Men” (later called the “Selectmen” and now called the “Select Board”) required a special license for the felling of white oak, as it was so valuable, especially for shipbuilding (because it is waterproof, or, you might say, nonporous and rot-resistant). I’ve been unable to find any reference to a special license granted for the felling of white oak, to the Shatswells (who held the deed for hundreds of years). If no special license was granted, this should indicate that the timbers used to construct our home were felled before 1643. I’d be curious to know what other surviving historic homes in Ipswich might also be framed with white oak, and whether there are records of special licenses for white oak for those homes.
Second, a historian for Ipswich has noted corroboration of the Shatswells living here, on our parcel, by 1646, based on, “a series of court records at that time.”
Let’s Look at Some White Oak
Here are some close-up photos of our white oak summer beam (which was stained brown at some point in the past). Note the adze marks:
The photo below shows detail from the mortise and tenon joinery of a white oak post and beam, near the center of the house, on the edge of our kitchen. Note the four hand-hewn pegs on the left, and the carved Roman numeral II; vertically, on the right, and horizontally, on the left:
The Roman numerals were carved to help puritan carpenters keep track of which piece went with what. That is, they used the carved numerals to match the posts to the beams.
These are details from a beam we uncovered in the southeast:
The following photo shows detail from a gunstock post near the southern* corner of our home:
*The post and beam, pictured above and below, may have been part of an addition to the house, added at a later time.
The adjoining beam still bears some very early paint or some type of tint:
Here are markings from a water-sawn rafter we discovered on the second floor. Note the Roman numeral VIII:
Last night I awoke with an epiphany.
I realized that, while my childhood was filled with ideas about outer space exploration, for me, owning this house has become an exploration of inner space.
Houses this old are valuable, not simply for their historical and cultural significance.
You could say that these houses are portals to another time dimension. They are full-scale, intact artifacts, which contain vibrations from a world that no longer exists. In fact, beneath a floor, we discovered what appears to be a mud and stick chimney, which was likely the first heat source for the Shatswell family, and it likely dates to around the time of the land grant, which was 1634.
To move such a house would be to lose the scientifically priceless archeological matter beneath it and around it.
To lose such a house would be to lose a scientific treasure which, we can imagine, if left unaltered, in the future, might provide answers about the early English colonies in the New World.
And, who knows. Perhaps, someday, if it survives, such a house could even give us some answers about the nature of time itself.
*Updated February 25, 2021
I recently noticed that our address is listed on Wikipedia, 11th in the table of oldest buildings in the United States (of the 17th century), with the following description:
“Shatswell Planter’s Cottage, Ipswich, MA, 1646 C, Residential: Currently located on the property at 53 Jeffrey’s Neck Rd where it was moved in the twentieth century from another location: originally located at 88-90 High Street [where it was] the earliest of the three First Period structures on the site, dating to before 1646; House is believed to date from 1646.”
It says that the “House is believed to date from 1646” and we believe this is fairly accurate, if the “house” to which it refers is our house. In fact, we believe our house dates to 1643, or earlier. However, the table specifically references the “Shatswell Planter’s Cottage,” which was moved from our address to Jeffrey’s Neck. So something is amiss.
Here’s the problem. Around 1940, a “cottage” was moved from what is now our property. That cottage became known as the “Shatswell Planter’s Cottage” although there is no scientific verification that it is the original structure.* Why was it moved? Perhaps it was because it was clearly very old, and the state was trying to run a highway along this street? Perhaps this was an attempt to keep what was perceived as the “oldest house” out of harm’s way?
Then we bought the property in 2014, not really knowing anything about the history, except that the deed is dated 1634 (based on the land grant).
But during our restoration work we discovered literally tons of materials, which could not* have been acquired for construction past 1643 (that is, white oak, which was used to frame the entire original structure of our home). *Acquisition of white oak would have required a special license, and it is highly unlikely that they would have been granted a license for tons of materials that had been recognized as extremely valuable, and which had become scarce.
We’ve also uncovered numerous other architectural artifacts, including a wall, which fits the description of “clayboard” in a historic book, in a section about homes built “around 1646.” (Described in detail in my blog entry “A Highway Runs Through It.”)
Plus we learned (based on legal records) that the Shatswells were living here, on our “parcel,” by 1646.
The Shatswell family arrived in Ipswich in 1633, bringing their young children with them. By 1646, these children were quite grown up and it is highly unlikely that the family would continue to live in cramped quarters (the “Planter’s Cottage”) when they had so much land available, and they had literally tons of white oak timbers, which could have only been acquired by 1643.
These facts, by themselves, provide very strong evidence that our home was built by 1643, which, according to Wikipedia, would make ours the 9th oldest house in the U.S. in the 1600’s (or earlier, and truly, it could be even older than 1643).
But it appears that in order to confirm the age of our home, we must commission a dendrochronological study.
Fair enough. We need to find a source for dendrochronology. (Could anyone out there recommend a dendrochronologist?)
We’d be happy to work with the one suggested by the historical commission, and we would commission a simultaneous study by an additional dendrochronological source, to cross-correlate all the results from two sources, ensuring the greatest accuracy possible. (I’d really like to find a university to consult with about this.)
And what about the Shatswell Planter’s Cottage, which was moved to Jeffrey’s Neck? We think it was built as temporary lodging, where the Shatswell family stayed while they built their permanent home, which is now our home.
*It is my understanding that NO dendrochronological study has been conducted for the Shatswell Planter’s Cottage, which is described as an “original” structure. So it is unclear to me why this cottage is considered the “oldest” structure if this detail has not yet been scientifically verified.
We didn’t start out trying to prove that our home is one of the oldest in the country. Yet based on our restoration, we now feel certain that it is; but why do we keep trying to prove it? What does it really matter?
Upon living here we realized that our home is at constant risk from tractor-trailer throughway trucks, which speed past, 12 feet from our front door, throughout every single day and night (a few usually speed through around 2 in the morning). Why do they speed here, more than the other Rt. 1A/133 sections of Ipswich? Because the bridge nearby creates an elevation that makes it very difficult for them not to speed as they descend, and very difficult for them not to speed as they build up momentum to climb.
These oldest houses are supposed to be protected by the local and state historical commissions. But those commissions will not help with these traffic issues.
It is my belief that these oldest houses are also supposed to be protected by the federal government. (I’m currently reaching out to various federal agencies, to try to understand this, and to try to get help.)
There are people in town who seem to know what has happened here, and who sympathize, but have told me, “Nothing can be done.”
I’d argue otherwise.
Because something can be done.
And listen, truly listen.
If they can send a man to the moon, then they can implement traffic remediations, which can save the oldest, most historic houses on the state-highway side of High Street.
They can save this old village. They can save these houses, which are national treasures.
They can do this.
This is not rocket science.
This can be done.