A New Look at an Old House

What is new with our old house in Ipswich, Massachusetts?

My husband John and I have started reaching out to members of the academic community and to other professionals in the historical community to help us date our home, which is very old. It is a “First Period” house.

Although we are not yet certain of the actual date of origin, we believe it is the original Shatswell House, which is known to have been built by 1646.

Our house was built from white oak.

Why is it significant that our house was constructed from white oak? In 1643, the town “Seven Men” (the selectmen) passed a rule requiring special permission for the felling of white oak. A written certificate for this license to cut white oak would have become a matter of public record after 1643. To my knowledge, there is no record of John Shatswell having received permission to fell white oak. This would indicate that he obtained the white oak to build our house before 1643. (Based on this, along with the extensive architectural and archaeological discoveries we’ve made during our restoration, we must consider the strong possibility that our house was built before 1643.)

cabinet for blog

Pictured above is some paneling we uncovered, which includes an extremely old cabinet.* It resembles paneling found at the Philip Call House (Circa 1659), located up the street.

*Notes: The cabinet had no hardware when we uncovered it. The hardware in the photo is not original to this building; I’d found it in my travels and it seemed to fit the space. The molding above the paneling appears to have been added later.

The Shatswell House may have been built before 1646 (or even before 1643). The Shatswell family was recorded as living on our deeded parcel of land by 1646. Our deed dates to 1634 although this does not indicate that our house originates to that date. We do know with certainty that parts of our house were built in the 17th century during the first period of colonial construction, but we don’t yet know the actual date of origin.

In order to determine the correct date, we’re planning to utilize various methods of scientific analysis, including, perhaps, a dendrochronological study. (However, we understand that other, less intrusive methods of verification may also be able to prove the date.)

Regardless of what may happen, it is important to remember that there are very few 17th century homes still standing in this country. All of these First Period houses are handmade works of art, wrought through extraordinary perseverance and endurance.

These homes are national treasures, which need to be protected. They need to be protected in order to be preserved.

Again, please allow me to elaborate. The historic homes on our street in Ipswich especially need to be protected. This bears repeating.

Why do these homes need protection?

Because of extraordinarily interesting town and state planning many years ago, our street (the oldest village in America) was designated as (part of) a traffic corridor to accommodate the merger of Route 1A with Route 133 (two Massachusetts state highways).

This means that, day and night, some of the largest 18-wheeler tractor-trailer trucks on earth speed within a few feet of some of the oldest and most fragile houses in America. There are currently no protections in effect for these houses in the event of a 99,000-pound, 65-foot 18-wheeler accident, such as a collision, jackknife, tire blowout, or roll-over. These massive trucks also repeatedly shake First Period houses. Let’s agree that this should not be happening.

Not only that, but this Route 1A/Route 133 traffic corridor is also a walking route for many, many school children, who literally must walk alongside a highway, with some of the largest trucks on earth driving only inches away.

I brought my traffic concerns to the attention of the Ipswich Select Board in February, 2018. Nearly a year later, the speed limit on our street was lowered to 25 MPH, which would be a dramatic improvement, if that lower speed limit was being continuously monitored and enforced, but it is not. The town simply does not have the ways and means to provide constant monitoring of this street, which is the oldest continuously inhabited village in America; yet this street also has some of the worst kinds of high-volume and heavy-truck traffic known to any city in America.

Hmmm. Let’s see. We’ve got some of the largest 18-wheeler trucks on earth speeding by some of the oldest (and therefore most fragile and most historically significant) homes in America. What could go wrong?

Why is the state of Massachusetts unable to protect this oldest surviving American village and the First Period homes within it? My understanding is that the determination of need for traffic controls depends upon statistics based on the rate of accidents on a street. Apparently our old village has not yet experienced enough horrific accidents to deserve protection. Maybe that’s okay. Maybe this old village is being magically protected by the spirits of those Puritans who hand-built these homes nearly 400 years ago.

But maybe not. Maybe a horrific accident will happen within the next five minutes. Maybe tonight. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe next week. Maybe not. But maybe.

To live here is to live with a certain amount of fear and apprehension. And for those of us who live very close to the street, who can’t tune out the sounds of careening cars and screeching tires and 18-wheeler horns and constant near misses and the shaking posts and beams within their houses, that fear can become a bit oppressive.

Again, keep in mind the fact that the First Period homes in this traffic corridor were built in the 1600’s, long, long before a paved street ever existed, long before the Commonwealth of Massachusetts was established, and long before the Revolutionary War was even imagined. These First Period homes and this unique American village are culturally priceless to this entire nation.

Several months ago, I wrote a letter requesting help from our Congressman, who’d helped write and pass legislation to protect our Nation’s natural and historic resources.

My belief is that if any place in our Nation deserves protection, it is this oldest surviving village, which is defined by its First Period homes and its plot layouts, which are unique in this country. Because, the country might as well abandon the concept of historical preservation altogether if it chooses to forsake its oldest village.

It is my understanding that my email exchanges with our Congressman’s office have been forwarded to numerous local and state officials as well as to the Massachusetts Department of Transportation.

This is an interesting, evolving situation.

I’ll keep you posted.*

* Update, December 5, 2019: On November 4, 2019, our Congressional Representative was asked at his “Town Hall” appearance in Ipswich whether the Congressional Act to protect natural resources and historic places can be used to help our street. Our Congressman responded that he’d discussed it as part of his meeting with town officials that afternoon, he mentioned the possibility of finding creative ways to find grants, and said he’s cautiously optimistic. Other than this, we’ve received no further information.

* Update, April 8, 2020: We’ve not yet received any further information. And although one might expect that the coronavirus shutdowns would have resulted in lighter traffic, the heavy truck traffic has recently increased (for some inexplicable reason).

In the Meantime

Here are some other photos highlighting what we’ve already uncovered. I’ll plan to update this blog post with new thoughts and photos from time to time.

paneling for blog

Again, this detail resembles paneling at the Philip Call House. Notice the area on the left, where the woodwork differs. This must have been an opening to a door at one time. There is another structure on the other side of this wall. We believe that structure was an addition to our building, built at a later time.

door to the east

Here is a closer look at the woodwork that covers what we believe was once an exterior door. It faces east.

The following photo shows the dome interior of an extremely old beehive oven that we identified along the stairs to our basement.

beehive oven

Here is the face of that beehive oven, along with other sections of that mysterious hearth:


The following photograph (in our attic) shows where the 17th century chimney has been appended with newer brick. Although this section of chimney is very old, we believe that the original (above the roofline section of) chimney is still hidden – within the second floor stack – because this house started as a single-story home (with a bit of basement).

attic chimney

The following photos show some of the bones we discovered while remodeling our first-floor bathroom (which has an earthen floor, adjacent to, but apart from, the basement). These bones were in a cavity that may have been a mud and stick chimney, which could originate from the time of settlement, which would correlate to the time of the deed (1634).* My theory is that these bones were cooking refuse, and chefs living here later used that cavity as a sort of garbage disposal. (To protect the land from roaming wolves? It could have been safer not to discard such refuse in one’s yard?)

*Note: In 2016, as soon as we realized there was a man-made structure within the dirt floor, we contacted the Town Historian who came to look at it, then we sealed the space, and have not since opened it. We plan to open it again once we have an archaeologist onsite to study the structure. (There are still plenty of bones in there.)

goat skull

A very interesting goat head.

wild boar jaws 2

Some wild boar jaws.

Before recognizing a structure, we uncovered approximately 2,300 discrete bone fragments, which isn’t really as many as it sounds; some fragments were tiny. For example:

bones for example

The following photo shows the ancient hearth we uncovered in our dining room. The central bricks are attached with clay (not mortar); the bricks in the outer area are connected with wattle and daub. Although this hearth is very old, we have recently learned that it was rebuilt long ago (perhaps around 1700) and the lintel was lowered. An early, 17th century high hearth is hidden behind this one:

fireplace overall

A second-floor hearth rests upon the wooden shelf shown above; that hearth is supported by the two brick columns shown below that shelf. Before we can fully open and reveal the very early 17th century hearth, we will first need to establish a new supporting structure for that second-floor hearth.

Updated January 23, 2020

I had thought my description of this fireplace was clear, but apparently there is some confusion about it, so I’ll try to further clarify things.

The photo above shows a large fireplace we uncovered. This is the view within our dining room.

This fireplace has been analyzed (on site) by a professional mason who specializes in historic restoration. From him we learned that although the fireplace (pictured above) is very old, it was rebuilt (or you could say augmented) perhaps around 1700, based on the appearance of the brick.

This means that because the original fireplace is hidden by the rebuilt/augmented fireplace, it is not visible. Therefore, you should not compare the fireplace photo (above) to other First Period fireplaces, as this would only create confusion.

Why was the original fireplace rebuilt (augmented)? More than 300 years ago, a second floor was added to our house, and a second floor fireplace was built directly above the fireplace pictured above. This means that the fireplace in our dining room (pictured above) was rebuilt (redesigned) in order to provide structural support for the hearth on the second floor, and both hearths share the same chimney.

Prior to the second floor being added more than 300 years ago, this house had already existed, for many, many years, as a single story house (as indicated by the original, early, white oak framing).

We do plan to remove the rebuilt (augmented) section of the fireplace (pictured above) to uncover the original fireplace. But clearing out the rebuilt fireplace won’t be like cracking a walnut. It will be very difficult and very messy.

Once we have cleared out the rebuilt fireplace to reveal the original fireplace, I’ll post photographs of it on my blog. (But, in the meantime, please do not compare the fireplace pictured above with other First Period fireplaces, because doing so will only cause confusion. Thanks!)

The kitchen was a later addition to our building, yet wattle and daub was used in its construction. Here is a closeup of some wattle and daub discovered in our kitchen: 

wattle and daub

The kitchen restoration also revealed that our house started out as a “saltbox” structure.

Where the beams/joists meet the outside edge of the kitchen wall, each beam/joist tip has been cut diagonally. 

saltbox post design 1

The only reason for these diagonal cuts would be that the original saltbox roof joists along the edge of the structure were raised and leveled to become the ceiling when this addition was built. Again, we believe that the basic structure of our house (white oak framing, foundation, masonry) was created before 1643, and we think that the first floor addition located in the west (now the kitchen), and the second floor, were added around 1700.

A closer view of the diagonally cut ceiling joists; the former saltbox roof joists: 

saltbox 2

Here are some (inverted) “marriage marks” discovered in the kitchen:


The following photo shows a handmade hand-cobbled colonial shoe discovered in a wall near an old hearth:

whole shoe

Early colonists were very superstitious and believed that old shoes should be kept in walls near the hearth instead of being discarded, which would explain why this shoe was stuck inside a wall.

Here is an example of some of the Georgian paneling in one of the upstairs bedrooms. Each bedroom contains a full wall of Georgian paneling.


Although we understand that the Shatswell “Planter’s Cottage” is also very old, based on what we have already learned and discovered, we do not believe that cottage is older than the earliest core of our house. We’re hoping that archeological and other scientific studies will provide us with definitive answers.

2 thoughts on “A New Look at an Old House

  1. So interesting! You really are living in a historical artifact. Looking forward to more revelations, and I hope you get somewhere with slowing down or diverting heavy vehicle traffic.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I don’t know whether this will be a free-standing comment (which is what I intend) or if I will be piggybacking on Audrey Driscoll’s comment — if the latter, apologies to Audrey.

    This is a wonderful summary of the fascinating structure you have researched so painstakingly. I am so glad to hear that the town historian is concerned about its status. People like you who preserve vital parts of our history are such benefactors. May you receive the support you deserve.

    Liked by 1 person

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