Building a slave cabin in Virginia

It was a Wednesday this past February. The temperature at dawn was below zero. John Paglione and I were in Virginia, at President James Madison’s estate, Montpelier. We were part of a eleven member volunteer team, four professional carpenters, and several archaeologists, reconstructing a field slave cabin.

I stood astride a 12 foot log, swinging a broad axe, hewing the log into a cabin beam. In theory anyway. Because nothing was happening. I swung the axe but no chips, nothing was coming off the log. Again and again. Nothing. Chris, one of the professional carpenters, approached, “Vince, do yoYu want to make some pegs.” In a few minutes, Chris had me sitting at a spokeshave bench turning square pegs into round pegs. I fantisized, “Master , master, I can make these pegs, don’t sell me down river.”

Montpelier has a public archaeology program. Volunteers from students to the general public participate in a variety of programs. It’s pretty unique. In September, Diane and I participated in a traditional dig. We spent a week — much of that time on our knees — with a trowel scraping away layers of soil in our unit. Artifacts — bone, ceramic, iron, brick, mortar — went into bags labeled with the depth and unit designation. Large objects were photographed in site. We learned to look for changes in the soil strata — color, composition, maybe the outline of a feature. Scrapped soil was deposited in 5 gallon buckets and taken to a screening area where even smaller artifacts were recovered. We worked from  7 in the morning until late afternoon. Then most days we had a field trip or tour– the mansion, burial grounds, gardens, Freeman’s cabin, Civil War encampment.

On both trips we stayed at Arlington House, a old, bit run down plantation house that can house about two dozen volunteers and interns. Except for the first night and final dinner, we prepared breakfast, lunch and dinners.

Athough Diane enjoyed most of the excavacation week, she wasn’t interested in reconstructing a slave cabin. So that’s when I recruited John Paglione. Our first day’s morning session introduced us to the program– specifically the archaeology done on slave quarters. Previously skeleton shells had been built representing several cabins for house slaves. One larger cabin, closer to the main house, the Granny Milly’s cabin, had been reconstructed In 2015.   We were building a cabin for field slaves. Matt Reeves, the director of archaeology and founder of the public archaeology program was proud that archaeology on the sites revealed differences in the cabins. He was also excited to be able to reconstruct cabins to give a fuller experience to visitors.

Trees — Carolina pines — has been felled and limbed before we arrived. The first day we worked outside, learning to strip the bark and begin the process that would transform the log into a square hewn timber. It was cold and snow began to fall. So the next day we arrived to find our logs had been moved inside a large shed.

imageWe created four teams of three or four members. Each team was responsible for one side of the cabin. John and I teamed up and fortunately recruited, one of the younger volunteers (actually a working carpenter). Later in the week he told us he finally understood our decision to invite him to be part of our group. Maybe we weren’t real strong with an ax but we weren’t stupid. We recognized youth, strength and a good man with an ax.

Monday, Tuesday, work went well.  We were tired but amazed at our progress.  Wednesday i hit a wall.  The broad ax I was using to hew a log was just too heavy. Chris, one of the professional carpenters,  knew that I was hurting and gave me the peg project. With this small act of understanding, he made, saved my week.  The next day, I got to the site early and located a smaller, lighter broad ax that I had used Tuesday.   The chips flew as I hewed a log with John. I refused to let go of that ax and we worked all morning christening the beam, ” the senior.” Only those over 65 had worked on it. Eventually became the beam just over the door on the front wall.

Our team of volunteers were guided and instructed by Craig Jacobs and four of his carpenters — Stephen, Chris, Martin and Barry.  Craig’s company Salvagewrights: architectural antiquities is headquartered in Orange VA, not far from  Montpelier. The company website reads, “We specialize in the dismantling, moving,mane reconstruction of pre-Civil War structures.  This process includes numbering, dismantling, and cataloging the components, as well as the repair or replacement of parts as needed.”  The shop in Orange sells all sorts of salvaged building material.  But Craig and his crew also build new timber frame structures.  They had recently build slave quarters on Jefferson’s Monticello and now we’re guiding volunteers to do the same at Montpelier.  Craig took seriously teaching and mentoring.  on Monday mornings orientation he’s described what we would be doing, the tools we would be using, and safety precautions.  His crew were not only good timber frame carpenters they were excellent teacher.  At the closing dinner I told them this and joked that I thought if they weren’t good teachers, they wouldn’t keep their job.  Smiles and laughter, “That’s right,” they all agreed.

After the trees are cut down and branches removed, we used a chain saw to cut the log to correct length.  Marks are mode on each end to make a 5 inch thick beam.  Some of bark is stripped with a with a draw knife so that a chalk line can be drawn, end to end.  This is basically a templet for removing, squaring the log.  A chain saw was used to make cuts between the lines.  One of the carpenlogs– ters joked that if MAdison’s men had chain saws they would have used them.  But we are trying to use traditional tools and methods as much as possible.  It was important not to chain saw the cuts too deep, this created chain saw lines which has to be cut out later.  The interpretative staff don’t want to explain chain saw lines in a recreated slave cabin.

The end cuts are knocked out with a froe and wooden mallet.  The an ax is used to wack out the blocks squaring up the logs — rough cut.  This is where Tyler, our recruited third team member paid off.  He loved to swing that ax. Small chunks of wood flying in all directions.  Sine Tyler was a carpenter working with his father, Craig was particularly attentive to mentoring.  Crain had been taught by a master and would pass on what he knew to a younger generation.  It’s fair to say that the subtitles of what we were doing would be lost on John and I.  The next step was to score both cut sides of the log and then using a broad ax chop a nice smooth flat.  We’ve all seen hand hewn beams in historic buildings with evidence of this scoring.


Logs were then moved to the actual cabin and fitted and notched to create a log cabin wall.  A door and window.  The end notches could be cut with a chain saw or an ax.  Martin offered me to cut one with a chain saw.  I told him of my nightmare when I didn’t cut a notch but cut off 8 or more inches of the log.  Being a great teacher, he later showed me how and helped me cut a notch with an ax.

By Friday all four walls were constructed. rafters were set for a roof (my pegs were used in the rafter construction).  We learned to chink and daub, wood pieces and a lime-sand mixture to fill in the spaces between the logs.  Since our cabin would be moved on site in the Spring, we dig not chink and daub the entire structure.  But we learned how to do it.

In th Spring our cabin was moved to a site where archaeology had revealed field slave cabins. The professional team moved the cabin, finished everything, including the construction of a chimney.  I believe house slave cabins were larger and were build on a corner stone foundations with a wooden floor.  Our field cabin sat on the ground.  Visitors to the Madison’s could be impressed with the slave quarters close to the house, wooden floors, quite nice.  Ironically, the wooden floor cabins were probably harder to heat as cold air circulated under the floor.  And if dry the dirt floor of the field slave cabin could be quite clean.  But James and Dolley wanted to impress visitors.  And Orange County


imageJohn and I stayed in Arlington House an extra night.  We went into Orange is see Craig and visit his salvage store.  I discovered that in September, he and his crew will be at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. For a program that involves kids in hammering nails, building brick walls,and of course learning about timber frame construction.  Should put in on the calendar.

Temperatures during the week had dropped below zero and we had snow several days.  Sunday night,  there was a good snowfall.   But by  mid morning we decided the roads were safe and we left Arlington House, Montpelier, and Orange County.  We headed South toward Yorktown, revolutionary war battleground.

The experience of doing archaeology and participating in the reconstruction of a slave cabin at Montpelier was  a fantastic experience.  I’ll admit not easy for those of us over 65.  Would I do it again?  Not sure, there are many possible experiences.  And yet I also enjoy establishing on ongoing relationship with a program.k

Interested in in the program.  Check out the Montpelier Archaeology website. Contact Matt Reeves, Director of Archaeology.  Or give me a buzz.