Signs of the Hearth

Earlier I mentioned that my husband (John) was given the middle name Fairbanks at birth. He is part of the family known to own the oldest house in North America, which is located in Dedham, Massachusetts. (John is descended from Maria Antoinette Fairbanks, who was born in 1842.) 

A few years ago John and I decided to visit the Fairbanks House to look around and compare it to our home.

We were astonished by some of the similarities, especially the old Fairbanks fireplace, which mimics ours (or ours mimics theirs) in structure and design.

Here is an overall view of our main (oldest*) fireplace.

fireplace overall

(Please excuse my penchant for visual adornments. I’m not exactly given to austere Puritan sensibilities.)

When we purchased our house in 2014, the old brick of the fireplace was hidden by a wall of newer brick, and layers of paneling and old veneer covered the surrounding hearth, mantel, and interior chimney. At what point in time had this old fireplace been covered up by all that veneer? Probably sometime during the Victorian period.

At the Fairbanks House, John and I both noticed – at first glance – that their main hearth (as well as our main hearth) is crowned by a thick wooden shelf.

Here are some close-up views of that wooden hearth shelf, in our house:

close up of shelf 1

close up of shelf 2a.JPG

close up of shelf 2b

It may be that this shelf was used by colonial masons as a stepping point – sort of a rudimentary scaffold – to enable construction of the chimney.

Here is a view of a pillar under the shelf:

pillar under shelf

The truncated wood segment below must have once been the support for a mantelpiece.

mantel wood.JPG

This photo shows where the chimney meets the summer beam.

fireplace meets summer beam.JPG

The chimney itself is packed with wattle and daub. It is everywhere.

wattle and daub 1.JPG

The light color blobs are wattle and daub. (I took this photo today and noticed there may be some decomposed rats up there too. We’ve never cleaned that space and we don’t think we should, but I’ve encountered dust bunnies from time to time that are actually in the shape of mice and other rodents.)

At the Fairbanks House we learned that colonists were very superstitious and would carve marks above the mantel to ward off witches. This inverted “V” carving above our main mantel may be such a mark:

inverted V

Here are some other carvings etched into our mantel shelf. Perhaps they mean something.

carving a

carving b.JPG

carving c.JPG

carving d.JPG

*I actually think that the beehive ovens on the stairs up from our basement may be older than the hearth I’ve described above, and there is what may be an architectural artifact “chimney” beneath a floor that would be even older than that. (Stay tuned for details.)

Rant Du Jour

Our fireplace, like everything else in our house, is at risk from the incredibly large tractor trailers that speed by at all hours.

Our house is located in the High Street Historic District of Ipswich.

Later in this blog I’ll write about something we discovered (under a floor), which appears to be an architectural artifact. If it is what the town historian explained it could be, then that artifact would date to the time of settlement, the time of our deed, which would be 1634. If that is true, then our house contains architecture that, arguably, would date it not only as the oldest house in Ipswich, but also the oldest house in North America.

So why does our home remain at such risk? Why is it not being afforded protection by the town?

The answer is this: the town can’t fix the traffic situation because these houses are on a state highway. (Again, this “highway” is a residential street filled with some of the oldest houses in North America, as well as a daily walking route for schoolchildren.)

If this were Russia then I’d accept that nothing can be done about it. But while the United States is still a democracy, I’m pretty sure that something can be done about it, if the people with local authority work together to try to do something about it.

For example, the members of the Ipswich Historical Commission and the Ipswich Select Board and the state representative could join together to petition the Massachusetts Department of Transportation and the Governor of Massachusetts to ban heavy trucks from this street, to install stop signs, and to dramatically lower the speed limits. They could also wage daily sit-down strikes in the middle of High Street/Route 1A to raise consciousness. You laugh? Well, what will you do if a 99,000-pound tractor trailer truck accidentally veers off its high-speed course into an irreplaceable historic home, or, much worse, into a group of children walking home from school? Considering how bad the situation is right now, these scenarios seem not only highly likely but also inevitable.



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