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In a happy accident fifteen years ago, my husband and I bought an abandoned plantation with a house that we thought was built around 1850 on seventy acres of the original land.  The house had been in the same family for about two hundred years before it passed to other owners and was eventually left empty and unloved.  It even has a name.  It sits on the bank of the South Fork of the Shenandoah River.  The river is in the back yard; the Blue Ridge mountains are in the front.  We've never gotten used to the scenery.

We've also never gotten used to the irony of people like us owning a house with its own name--when we moved in, all our furniture fit in one room.  For the first few years we camped in the house and over the past fifteen, we've been slowly restoring the place, which we eventually learned was really built around 1785.  We were lucky to have blown our budget in the purchase because it made us too broke to get impatient and make stupid restoration mistakes.  So, slowly, we've done most of the work ourselves.  In the future I'll write more about the house and our restoration adventures, but today I want to write about an "Aha!" moment that hit me this past weekend, one that illuminated some of the earliest history of the plantation, possibly the first plantation built west of the Blue Ridge.

In 1778, Thomas Lewis, noted surveyor, member of the Virginia Land Company, friend of George Washington and brother to three Revolutionary War generals, arranged his eight year old daughter Frances to marry the son of his neighboring landowner.  The groom, William Layton Yancey, was a twenty-four-year old lieutenant of the Continental Dragoons (known today as cavalry).  Although betrothed, the pair did not marry until 1788, when Frances was eighteen.  During the betrothal, Lewis laid off acreage on a strip of land adjoining the Yancey property and had the house built.  The bricks were made on site in the front field and the wood, all old growth yellow pine, was cut on the property, which extended into the mountains.  Slaves did the work, both the original construction and the last real renovation the house underwent...in 1850.

Living in a house built by slave labor brings with it certain ... perspectives.  Mostly, I'm aware of the hard work it took to build and maintain the plantation.  Because it's not just the house--there were 800 acres, and more later as the family acquired more land, a tenant house, a grainery that dates from around 1850, two multiple-bay corncribs that were built around 1930 that replaced other, earlier versions, a modern calf barn, an old smoke house, a wagon shed and workshop, and other farm structures.  The pasture is dotted with foundation holes from earlier building.  The property has never been dug, never been metal-detected.  There was a barn that dated from around 1800, but it was torn down before we bought the place, when a neighbor complained it was an eyesore.  The point is, there's a lot to do around here...not counting fences, livestock, and restoring the riverbank itself.  There's never nothing to do.

But today it's about bricks.  Bricks are important.  Our house, the main house, is made of bricks--inside and out, three courses all the way to the roof, with four courses in the basement.  Fourteen fireplaces.  All interior walls three courses thick.  This is a real, albeit small, plantation house, around 5,000 square feet.  That's a lot of bricks.

And over the years, I've learned a good bit about bricks.  Historic bricks are water soluble.  They're also soft.  There are two basic varieties--inside brick and outside brick.  The main difference between them is the length of time they were fired.  Outside brick are harder, less liable to crumble.  

Old bricks have to be repointed regularly.  The average life span of lime mortar is fifty to seventy years; with regular maintenance, the mortar lasts longer.  Old bricks have to be repointed.  The lime mortar is softer than the brick, so it takes the freeze/thaw cycles without damaging the walls, and it self-heals when micro-cracks open from season to season.  Originally, the lime was made from ground oyster shells mixed with fine sand.  One of the ways I could tell whether I was removing original mortar or some later incarnation was the quality and proportion of shell.

Repointing involves removing failed mortar a depth of two or three inches from the joint between two bricks and tucking new mortar into the joint, then striking the joint with a trowel.

I've repointed lots of brick.  In fact, of the eight exterior walls (the house is T-shaped), I have only one side left to repoint, the back wall.  I've taken the past few years off because it took a hellacious long time to get done as much as I have, and I'm not a fan of mortaring.  But I tend to be better at slow meticulous hand work, and here we do the jobs we're good at.

Despite my lack of enthusiasm for the craft, I've learned a lot about historic bricklaying.  I can identify different masons by their style of mortaring, point out the put-log holes, rebuild whole sections of wall that needed it since, when the house was first built, lintel construction hadn't made it this far into the frontier and above the windows everything broke down in huge pyramids.  A few observations: the house bricks are beautifully made, a few marked with lot numbers.  They're beautifully finished.  The joints are thin, the verticals barely wide enough to get a cutting chisel between.  The horizontals tend to be a quarter to half an inch thick.  

The craftsmanship in general is masterful.  And as I've worked on the house, I've developed a respectful affection for the slaves who were, after all, the people who did all the building and maintenance here.  The white family may have lived here, may have technically been the owners but in the end, it wasn't their house.  It was never their house.  It's hard to describe how emotional it is to lift up a brick and find the thumbprint of the mason who laid it, or the brick under the roof joist that bore the imprint of a child's bare foot, an impression made 235 years ago.  It's a moment of, not only touching the past, but actually meeting it, being part of it, joining myself to the house's history.

All of this has been a lengthy introduction, because the house bricks have only a little to do with the bricks I worked with last weekend.  But it's necessary.  Because the bricks I was working with were from the tenant house.

Our tenant house predates the Civil War.  In 1863, the family tried to sell the plantation to raise cash, and in the advertisement it was called an Overseer's House.  We have no date for original construction, or rather, constructions. Or I should say, we didn't have one.

This is the tenant house.  Originally, it was two slave houses.  The front, two rooms over two, and the back, a one-story single room structure.  To make the Overseer's house, the two were attached by building a room between them, and the roof of the rear house was extended and joined to the front part, which is higher and accessed inside by a step.  The original back house lies behind the roof vent in the photo above (the tiny vertical line above the window second from the left).  This side, the west side, is elongated by the addition of a porch that was eventually enclosed.  The house itself measured about fifteen feet square inside.

The tenant house needed some serious maintenance and repairs.  Our long-term tenants wanted to hire a family member who's a contractor and, with too little time and too much work to do on our own, we agreed.  So we weren't supervising except in the most superficial capacity.  The work was much more involved than any of us thought it would be.  It turned out that, not only did the floor in the one story part of the house need to be replaced, the joists needed to be repaired.  In the course of those repairs and to make the job easier, the contractor decided to remove a chimney that, years ago, had been walled in.  So the chimney came down.  The contractor wanted to haul the bricks away and was surprised when I told him to pile them in front of the grainery bay where we store all the spare brick.  He didn't know how valuable they are.

I would not have taken down the chimney. But it was already done; in fact, about half the bricks had been broken.  I can't blame the tenants, who were helping and under a heavy deadline of needing their kitchen back.  In the end, the repairs turned out well enough, and I try to obsess only about what I can control.

Stacking old brick is definitely not a high priority job, and it waited until I had a temperate weekend to get out and start knocking off the mortar.  That's the best way to store bricks because they flatten and are more stable when stacked.  We salvage as much brick as we can--because of the size, thickness and composition, they're hard to come by and we need them for all kinds of house repairs.

On the left are bricks salvaged from the house.  The three stacks on the right are from the tenant house chimney.

Something I noticed right away was that the bricks were full of clinkers, black specks that indicate they were overfired.  That also means they were inferior to the house bricks that are more familiar to me.  And they came in two sizes.  Although most were thinner and lighter, some were heavy and thick and were, in fact, the same size as the bricks that came out of the house.  They were also overfired.

Because I'm not the quickest study, it took a while for the obvious to hit me--the bigger bricks were rejected from the main house.  Not good enough for the big house, but fine for the slaves.

The chimney was small, about two feet by two feet.  Not made for a fireplace, but a stove.  At the time a fireplace was a luxury item, and the bedrooms in our front wing have two fireplaces in each--a statement of wealth.  Stoves were good enough for the help.  There's a chimney closed into the wall in the front part of the tenant house, also for a stove.  The flues are similar to the one you can barely see high in the chimney  in the photo below.

This is the ruin of the summer kitchen and dairy behind the main house.  That flue up high served the second-floor quarters that belonged to the cook.  The winter kitchen was located in the back room of the basement.  Summer kitchens are often said to have been used to lessen the risk of fire and that may be partly true, but there's another reason large wealthy houses had them--when the weather is warm, chimneys won't draw and smoke will fill the house.  If you could afford one, you wanted a summer kitchen.

But back to the bricks.  Here's what they looked like, along with a bit of plaster from the original wall:

As I knocked the mortar away, preparing to stack, I noticed something else, huge thick mortar joints.  I'm not talking about substantial joints--these were hulking big joints.  They came in between three-quarters of an inch and a full inch, and some even wider.  And the mortar contained, not specks of oyster but hunks of shell.  Cruder than anything I'd seen before.

Then, finally, I realized.  In addition to the cast-offs from the big house, the slave laborers who built this chimney were given a ration of bricks that wasn't adequate.  They had to use heavy mortar to add height so the chimney would clear the roof.  Now, almost anybody can lay brick with thin joints--even I can do that.  But to raise a narrow chimney stack using inferior materials and extra-thick mortar and manage to keep it level and square?  That requires a master of his craft.  

You would think that, in a place where the materials were either made on site or cut on the land, that there would plenty to work with.  I would have thought so.  So it was a shock.  And still I wonder why.  It would have been easy enough and cheap to have given the builders enough to do the work properly. I can only assume that whoever oversaw them decided to short them.  Was it a petty power move?  Punishment for some real or imagined offense?  A reminder to the craftsmen that they weren't in charge?  Was it just meanness?  And how could an overseer petty enough to risk losing a house and the people inside to fire because of inadequate materials be trusted with authority to run the farm?  These are questions I can't answer.  I don't know.  And there are no records--only the witness of the bricks.  

It is a testament to the ingenuity and skill of the mason who built that chimney that it stood solid for more than 230 years.  It has to be contemporary with the main house, since the same bricks were used.  

All of this must have happened before 1788, when the plantation was presented to the bride and groom as a wedding present.  And the chimney that served, first a slave's house and then an overseer's and, finally, a tenant farmer's home, lasted until a month ago. Had the chimney not been taken down, I would never have suspected it was the same age.  And I would never have figured it out. I saved everything that was still whole, not because I'm a brick hoarder, but because those bricks will find another life in basement and foundation repairs.  I see it as a small way to honor the builders, to work the way they did using their materials, although the conditions under which I work are obviously very different.  We do what we can do.

The basement job will start next year.  Maybe.  If I can get motivated.  And I have to finish repointing the back wall first.

Originally posted to DrLori on Fri Feb 15, 2013 at 08:01 AM PST.

Also republished by History for Kossacks and Saturday Morning Home Repair.

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