Hearth Signs Redux

Have you ever suddenly noticed something that’s been right under your nose for years? And then you can’t believe you’ve never before noticed it?

A few days ago I was sitting in our dining room looking at our old hearth and it occurred to me, Wait, this is connected to those alcoves on the stairs to the basement:


In 2014, the architect who came with the realtor when we first saw this house said those alcoves were root cellars. But wait, those alcoves are too close to the fireplace and would get warm and would therefore not be effective at storing food.

Another architectural historian who walked through the house dismissed the alcoves as some kind of storage. But that would seem odd and random. And if the Puritans were anything, they were not random.

When we first bought this house I’d spent a little time combing through the dust of each alcove, always thinking they were somehow important. And finally, a few days ago, it occurred to me to inspect them with a flashlight. That’s all it took. Amazing it took me so long. (It took so long because the steps are precarious and it would be very easy to lose my footing and fall.)

The central alcove is clearly a beehive oven. Look inside:

beehive oven

The apex of the inside forms a brick dome, which has been charred, obviously through the process of cooking.

So what we appear to have is a wraparound double hearth. The hearth in our dining room faces North West. But around the corner and connected to that hearth is another hearth (which we used to think of as a set of mysterious alcoves), which faces North East (and it is hidden by stairways up and down – to the second floor – and to the basement – and by the interior door to the basement staircase). The North East facing hearth has long since been bricked off from the North West facing hearth. (This may have been when the second floor was added to this house. I’ll talk about that later.)

This photo of the interior of the North East hearth beehive oven shows that it was bricked off from the North West hearth:

bricked off beehive oven

No matter when or how or why the alcoves were closed and the wraparound double hearth became a single hearth, it is certain that the North East hearth was not built along the stairs. I’ve looked around for other 17th century hearth examples, and it looks like the alcove on the lower left was used for storing firewood. The middle alcove was definitely a beehive oven. The top smaller alcove must have also been used for cooking, being connected to the North West hearth around the corner. You wouldn’t expect pragmatic Puritans to walk up or down a set of precarious stairs to fill or to access their firewood storage, nor would you expect them to cook their food while standing on a precarious staircase. No. They wouldn’t have done that. Therefore, there was certainly once a floor by these alcoves… by this hearth.

And the stairs that we have now, and the opening for the stairs (both down and up), were added later.

The fact that these two hearths were once connected but that connection is not visible from our dining room hearth means that our dining room hearth has a false back, which looks extremely old. And yet, something far older is hidden behind it.

Here is the back left corner of our dining room hearth. The area on the right was added later:

false back of hearth

(Just what we need: another area to open and to explore and to make the room all dusty again.)

Now for the hearth redux. My husband (John) pointed out something worth clarifying.

Earlier in this blog when I’d talked about the signs of the hearth, I’d said the dining room chimney was packed with wattle and daub, because I’d found some along the shelf across the top of the hearth, and the chimney stack is clearly coated with wattle and daub along the outside edges. But John, who is also a potter, reminded me that the central part of the hearth itself is made of brick and clay and nothing else. Pure clay. No mortar. No wattle and daub. Just brick and clay.

Look. For example:

little blob

This is a little blob of clay that’s been sitting there on our fireplace for centuries, acting as mortar but without the adherent qualities of mortar. As far as we can tell, the only thing that has held the entire ancient chimney stack together is the process of firing it went through when it was active, long, long ago. In other words, the chimney stack is fragile. Remarkably fragile.

The fact that the area all around the chimney (which is also brick so I’d assumed it was also part of the chimney) is packed with wattle and daub implies that the wattle and daub in this area may have been insulation to an outer (exterior) wall that was later removed as the house was expanded (built out).

There has been some confusion in town about the age of our home. Apparently there was a “planter’s cottage” that was moved from this land in the 1940’s to another section of Ipswich, and apparently there are people who believe that cottage was the original structure on our land. But as far as we know, for about a hundred years before we bought it, the interior of our home had no first-hand assessment by any architectural historian. (Perhaps a first-hand assessment was done by the author of an article in the Antiquarian Papers, who wrote of our house, “The central part is very ancient.” My copy of that article is undated with no byline, but it includes an image of our home, illustrated by the artist Arthur Wesley Dow, so I’m assuming that the article dates to the late 19th or early 20th century.)

However, had the age of our house been recently assessed before we bought it, the true age would not have been clear because so many of the architectural artifacts we’ve uncovered were then still covered and therefore unavailable for inspection. (For example, our dining room hearth, which is in the “very ancient” central part of the house, was still covered by layers of newer brick and paneling.)

Essentially, in 2014, we bought an encapsulated house. Quite literally. Layers upon layers upon layers were covered by more and more layers of materials through time; through hundreds of years.

The fact that a cottage that “was believed” to be the original structure was moved from this property in the 1940’s does not prove that our home is not as old as that cottage or, in fact, even older.

We have a hearth and chimney built of brick and pure clay, enveloped by wattle and daub. We have an adjoining hearth around the corner that has been closed off for centuries

Why is all this significant?

It would appear that the original section of our home is defined by these hearths – and the structure they formed – and still form. This structure is extremely old (“very ancient”) and would have been built very early in the first period.

Again, it would appear that the wattle and daub surrounding the chimney served as a buffer to the outside of the building. In other words, the original outside became the inside. And the inside kept growing. And the outside kept growing.

Maybe one of the reasons historians have been confused about the age is that if they had not gone inside to look around, they might have based their assessment on the above-the-weather-line section of chimney, which can be seen from the street. That chimney looks – and is – quite new; as late as perhaps the early 19th century.

But an architect who specializes in historical restorations (who identified features of our home when we saw it with our realtor) pointed out, in the attic, the line where the top of the old 17th century chimney (the original area above the weather-line, or perhaps the top of a 17th century chimney weather-line but not necessarily the earliest 17th century chimney weather-line) united with the addition to that chimney – and that addition (which you can see from the street) – was constructed sometime in the early 19th century.

Here are photos of that earlier (perhaps the oldest) above-the-weather-line line where the 17th century section of chimney joins with the 19th century addition. This line and this exceptionally old section of chimney are only visible within our attic. These are not visible from the street:

chimney line

attic chimney

Our deed dates to 1634. Historians can argue about what that means, but in philosophy there is “Occam’s razor,” which stipulates that the simplest theory is most likely correct. In other words, if our deed dates to 1634, maybe we should consider the possibility that our home, or at least the genesis of our home that still exists and which we discovered under all those layers, also dates to 1634 (or at least close to that date).

In other words, we have uncovered layer upon layer upon layer because through hundreds of years this house was built out and out and out while retaining the genesis of what may be not only the oldest house in this town but also the oldest house in this country.

In other words, we need an archaeologist.

Rant Du Jour

A dear friend of mine has cautioned me about proving that our house is the oldest in the country, because if it is, we’d need to prepare to be “seriously inconvenienced.”

She is most certainly correct. As I’ve mentioned earlier in this blog, my husband is part of the Fairbanks family of Dedham, and the Fairbanks House is currently considered to be the oldest house in the country. We’ve visited that house and have learned that having their house designated as oldest was a serious inconvenience to that family.

But we’re in a bit of a bind.

About a year ago, our youngest daughter was almost hit by a car while trying to cross at a crosswalk near our house. (And we know from reading the local news that this situation keeps happening to other people all along our street, which is also known as Route 1A and Route 133.) About two years ago a super heavy truck sped by, causing our house to shake so violently that it activated a fire alarm that we could only disable by removing the battery.

Basically, the speed limits along our street are far too high, and the exceptionally heavy tractor trailer trucks that speed along our street present hazards to the historic houses and hazards to all pedestrians, including the many, many children who walk along this street to and from school.

I’ve written to the Select Board, I’ve spoken at a Select Board meeting, I’ve written to our State Representative, and I’ve sent numerous emails to the Historical Commission.

I’ve gotten nowhere.

I’ve been trying to establish the historical significance (and the fragility) of our home, hoping this will help provide it with some protection, from any source.

Over the holidays some friends and family members who’ve been helping me research the traffic situation identified places on other Massachusetts state highways where heavy trucks are being successfully diverted.

This is an especially important issue because even if the speed limit were dramatically lowered, one out-of-control tractor trailer (which by state regulations can be as heavy as 127,400 pounds) traveling at a very low speed could result in the total destruction of any of these historic homes (which are actually national treasures). It could also result in loss of life. (The fact that this has not yet happened is an absolute miracle.)

At the edge of this oldest village in America (where our house is located), there is an elevated railroad bridge, where the speed limit is 35 miles per hour. Exceptionally heavy tractor trailer trucks reach the top of that bridge and head down that slope into our village traveling at that high speed. There are no barriers to protect the pedestrians or historic homes along the path of those trucks, which run right next to the sidewalks. On the other side of the bridge, these trucks head down a slope into a section of street where the town middle school/high school is located. I’ve just read that crosswalk lights are to be placed on that section of the street to protect children walking to and from school. But as the schoolchildren walk over the bridge into this section of street, into this oldest village, there are crosswalks without lights and nothing else to protect them. The heavy trucks travel at high speeds right along beside them. I’ve never before seen anything else like this, anywhere.

The fact that there are places on Massachusetts state highways where heavy trucks are diverted means that a precedent has been set. It means that these incredibly heavy trucks can be diverted. It means that the heavy trucks can be diverted along this street, which is densely populated and quite often packed with children walking to and from school. It is also the street where some of the oldest houses in this country are located, including mine. These houses are fragile. They have survived King Philip’s War, the Revolutionary War, and everything else that followed. They deserve to be protected.

On learning these trucks can be diverted, I emailed this information to an influential person in town.

He responded that he wished we could ban heavy trucks but he doubted I’d get very far with that.

The official consensus seems to be that to ban heavy trucks would involve inconveniencing some truck drivers. And, apparently, that must not be allowed to happen.

Therefore, the official consensus seems to be that it is more important to provide convenience for the drivers of super-heavy tractor trailer trucks than it is to protect national historic treasures and to protect the school children and other pedestrians along this street.

Addendum at 5:28 PM, January 9, 2019

I’ve just noticed that the speed limit as you exit the railroad bridge and enter this village has magically been lowered to 25 MPH. I’m not sure when this happened, or how, but it is good news.

It does, however, need to be enforced. And the heavy tractor trailer trucks still need to be diverted. But this is a start. It’s a start.

Addendum at 7:39 AM, January 10, 2019

Looking back at my earlier blog posts I’ve realized I’ve previously referred to those North East hearth alcove openings as beehive ovens, because that’s what they look like from the outside, even though I’d been told they were root cellars or storage. I’d thought they must have been used for cooking but have only recently confirmed this. In other words, now I’m certain. What had confused me, and what has probably confused everyone else, is the fact that these alcoves are on the (very old) stairs to the basement, so they seem to be on a lower level of the house. But in reality, the North East hearth is actually at about the same level as the dining room hearth. It has also just occurred to me that part of the North East hearth is still hidden by the stairway to the basement. There may be more alcoves or ovens hidden behind those stairs.

Addendum at 9:18 AM, January 12, 2019

The new 25 MPH speed limit has been posted for several days now, but the trucks do not appear to be slowing down. Not at all. Clearly, the speeds on this street need to be monitored. And this street needs to be patrolled.


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