Day Five: Montpelier Log Cabin Workshop 2/21/14


It has been a historical, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual week at James Madison’s Montpelier.  A group of 16 people came together to put their stamp on a historical experiment that has never taken place at a site like this before.  We came together to reconstruct a slave cabin – rain, snow, shine or tornado watch!   


We were aware of the thunderstorms expected today, so our last few logs were moved back to the barn for work.  Before heading over to scrape and score, we walked to the Madison mansion to meet Bill Bichell, Facilities and Restoration Superintendent at Montpelier.  We were able to have one more walk-thru of James and Dolley Madison’s 20,000 square foot house. 

Many in our group also climbed up into the attic and into other nooks. Bill told us about the earthquake a few years back and how staff ran to the mansion to protect valuables.  I can’t believe all of those busts sitting atop marble columns in the drawing room survived!

 The “big house” is where most Montpelier tourists visit.  But I believe once our slave cabin is complete, and the landscape here is reinterpreted, visitors will also travel up the path in the south yard to see where some other very important people lived, the people who built Montpelier.


Maxwell Shaw, traveled from Cumberland, Maryland to help rebuild the slave cabin.   Maxwell will be turning 65-years-old in a couple of days, but today, he says he feels 85!  “Everybody I know is waiting to see the photographs,” Maxwell says with a big laugh.

“I think there is something special to this.  I have been around a lot of these national historic sites and noticed they don’t like to talk about slavery, don’t like to say the ‘word’ in many cases.  I see this as a big step in the right direction, coming to grips with the past,” said Maxwell.

This has been the sentiment of several people visiting our work site this week.  Katherine Malone-France is Director of Outreach, Education and Support in the Historic Sites Department of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.  She drove down with a colleague from Washington, DC to check-out the slave cabin reconstruction.  She calls the project “powerful.”  

“It’s just a really interesting, diverse group of people all working really hard, most of whom actually paid to be here!” She’s right.  Our group includes an archaeologist, a small business owner, a DC lobbyist, a chemist, restorationists from other historic sites and me?   We all secured $1,000 each to be here.  The experience – priceless.

Day Four: Montpelier Log Cabin Workshop 2/20/14


There’s an awful lot of work to do if the slave cabin we are resurrecting is to look like a cabin. 

“I think we are doing a bang-up job, based on the fact that none of us has built a log cabin before,” said Paul VerNooy of Hockessin, Delaware.  The research chemist found out about the cabin building workshop in an email newsletter from Fine Homebuilding Magazine and he jumped at the chance to be here.


Paul has always dreamed of building a log cabin.  When he was 10-years-old, he did just that with a pile of small logs in the backyard.  “It didn’t last very long and it wasn’t sturdy.”  But Paul won’t be able to say that about “our” log cabin.

The front and rear of the cabin requires eight logs each, 21 feet long. The sides of the cabin will have seven logs each.  That equals 30!  I think we have de-barked most of the logs.  I saw about six large logs needing to be stripped.  We should be able to get that done today.  We must get it done today.  Wednesday’s morning rain set us back about two hours.

The rain stopped and the sun shined, just like weather reports predicted.  Craig Jacobs and his team moved all the loose logs from the barn back to our site, overlooking the Madison mansion, before noon.  I know.  You don’t have to say it.  The enslaved people of Montpelier would not have had the luxury of postponing work due to weather.

I am told the slaves who originally built this cabin were considered “master” builders.  Old letters reveal, James Madison Sr., the president’s father, often jobed out his slaves to build cabins for other people.  Today is sunny with just a litte chill in the air.  I don’t even need to wear a cap.  My goal today is to learn how to use a “Slick.”  We are using 12 to 15 inch slicks that are 150 years old.  “Slicks” are used to scrape and clean the angle of the V-notch in the wood, so we can place another log snuggly on top.


The days have been long and tiring, but everyone is still full of smiles and there have only been a few cuts and scrapes.  I have a couple of sore knuckles, so I put down that12 pound axe!  I would like to thank Kimberly Trickett for reminding me why I’m here this week and willing to deal with the sore knuckles, back and butt.  Kimberly is the Curator of Archeological Collections at Montpelier.   She gave me a small saucer to hold in my hand that was found in fragments during two different excavations near the mansion.  The dainty saucer is tinted blue with hand-painted brown flowers.  Kimberly said it was the only earthenware they found with that pattern.  She says the slaves who lived in the cabin we are re-building probably sold or bartered food they grew in a nearby garden to acquire the saucer.  Kimberly said, “Someone loved it and used it enough until it broke.”  Time for me to get back to work.


Day Three: Montpelier Log Cabin Workshop 2/19/14


The reconstructed slave cabin at Montpelier is beginning to take shape.  All of that chopping and scraping is paying off.  We are finally in the “notching” process, where the logs are precisely fitted on top of each other.  


The cabin will be 16 by 20 feet with seven inch thick walls, openings for windows, a door, and I think, two chimneys.  It will take at least 30 big logs to get this cabin built.   There was light snowfall Monday night, making for a chilly Tuesday morning at work.  But by noon, folks were peeling off jackets and hats.

“It’s bloody hot!  Welcome to the East Coast,” said Alex Brady of the San Francisco Bay area.  The 17-year-old traveled to Montpelier with his dad, Kevin Brady, for the workshop.  “I think tomorrow I’m going to wear shorts.”


Alex did wear shorts and a t-shirt underneath his work jumpsuit, but it’s not hot!  Today actually started off cold and rainy – about 40 degrees. That didn’t stop the work, though.  Our top-notch carpenters, led by Craig Jacobs of Salvagewrights Architectural Antiquities in Orange, Virginia, moved the unfinished logs to a large barn. The skinning, juggling, scoring and hewing of logs continues!  Before the day is over, we’ll be working outside again. (NOTE: I received a comment, questioning our de-barking process.  The experts tell me the bark on pine trees is too brittle to use a barking spud; we’re only hewing two of the four sides of our logs.)

Our log cabin building workshop includes more than just re-building a slave cabin.  We have also spent time touring the grounds and learning more about how James and Dolly Madison lived, especially during retirement. The Madison presidency ended in 1817.  My group marched across gravel and stone walkways and through several inches of snow to the exact site where archaeologists believe the slave cabin we are constructing actually stood.  It was reportedly built in the 1790s, early 1800s.

The Madison’s mansion is relatively close to this cabin.  Matthew Reeves, Director of Archaeology and Landscape Restoration at Montpelier, says the slaves who lived there probably tended to the garden and stables, and maybe even to the mansion.  Today, the frames of six buildings where enslaved people lived and worked stand on display for visitors to see. The exhibit is called “A Landscape of Servitude: Recreating the Homes of the Enslaved Community.”  These 30 or so slaves would have been cooks, maids, and other domestic servants.  (NOTE: I took this picture, from the exact site where the slave cabin we are reconstructing once stood.)


“Whenever I visit these type of places, I always think about the labor – the real engine that ran the ‘big house,” said Terry James, who joined the group from Florence, South Carolina. “Who were these people and how were they treated?” 

Terry often wandered away from the group, taking hundreds of pictures with his Cannon.  He’s snapped more than 500 pictures so far.  The professional photographer says he wants to remember every aspect of this trip, at every angle.

Day Two: Montpelier Log Cabin Workshop 2/18/14


My crew of new friends got to bed early last night.  After a long first day of sawing, chopping and hewing pine logs as long as 21 feet, they deserve much rest.  Carol Richardson is a Restoration Specialist at Monticello, the home of President Thomas Jefferson, about 30 miles from here.

“My hand was cramping up from hewing with the broad axe.  It was a new experience for me.”  To “hew” is to shape, cut or chop wood with an axe.

Carol says helping to reconstruct the slave cabin at Montpelier is good practice for an upcoming project at Monticello.  In April, Monticello will re-build two or three slave dwellings.

Carpenter Langley Freeauf stands near a recently hewed log.  The James and Dolly Madison mansion is in the background.

Carpenter Langley Freeauf stands near a recently hewed log. The James and Dolly Madison mansion is in the background.

Joseph McGill admits it was hard for him to make a fist for a while after his chopping.  Joseph is founder of the Slave Dwelling Project, based in Charleston, South Carolina.  He has visited and slept in 50 slave cabins, but he has never helped reconstruct one.

“I’m excited.  I see potential here for opportunity to do similar projects at sites across the country.”  

Joseph’s goal is to bring attention to the plight of extant slave dwellings and the need to preserve these historical sites.

Terry James snapped this shot of me de-barking my first log.

Terry James snapped this shot of me de-barking my first log.

My back is a little sore, I’ll admit.  I spent my share of time de-barking a big pine with a drawknife.  That’s a first!  But it was rewarding.  Matthew Reeves, the archaeologist heading the Montpelier Log Cabin Workshop, said the cabin was probably originally built by 3 to 4 slaves that were skilled carpenters. There are about 16 of us working on this one cabin, which doesn’t include four professionals who are instructing us at all times.

Yes, I am enjoying this work.  But I have also shed tears.  Eric Larsen, an Archaeologist from Arlington, Virginia and I chatted about the emotion that is going into each whack with an axe and every measurement to make sure the walls of this log cabin are exactly seven inches thick.  We just want to get it right!

Day One: Montpelier Log Cabin Workshop 2/17/14


I had a comfortable night’s sleep at Arlington House, one of several old homes on the grounds at James Madison’s Montpelier in the Piedmont region of Virginia. Well, there are four women in my second floor room, like camp, so it was as comfortable as overnight camp can be, in your mid-40s.  A dozen men slept on the first floor and in the basement.  By the time the sun came up, you could hear the thumping of boots and smell the coffee brewing.

This is where I will be living during the week-long Log Cabin Workshop

This is where I will be living during the week-long Log Cabin Workshop

I arrived at Arlington House late at night.  I could not see the grounds.  But by morning, I noticed the small slave house about 100 feet from where I slept.  The slaves, who surely looked a lot like me, were likely the slaves who built the 1840s era house I’ll be sleeping in this week.  The adjacent slave house is the only standing, original slave structure on the property.

This is the last "original" slave structure at Montpelier

This is the last “original” slave structure at Montpelier

I’m here to participate in the Montpelier Log Cabin Workshop.  The task this week is to re-construct a slave cabin dating back to the early 1800s.  President James Madison and his family lived at Montpelier until 1844.  Matthew Reeves is the Director of Archaeology and Landscape Restoration at Montpelier.  His team discovered and excavated the site in 2010.  So, I will be helping to rebuild the slave quarter at the actual site where it stood generations ago.

Matthew says as Montpelier is restored, including the Madison mansion, visitors should have an authentic experience, which should provide a landscape that includes where slaves lived, as well. There were as many 125 slaves at Montpelier when the Madisons lived there.

Some of the tools we will use, will be more than 100 years old.  But, I did have to stop by Lowe’s to pick up a few items for my work belt:  Carpenter’s Pencils, 25’ measuring tape, framing square, torpedo level, gloves, and more.  I look forward to documenting this week.