Prepared for small table legs.
The details of history have a way of blindsiding us. We tend very much to think that the parameters of our existence translate well backwards in time. This has happened a few times during my work on the McAlllaster House and its history. The first time was during my search through various records kept in the historical collection of my district library. I was discovering that the tidy ownership and occupancy history that came with the house was, shall we say, somewhat idealized. I was checking the title abstract against city directories, tax records and voter rolls. There were a lot of gaps in the various records, but generally the voter rolls were the most complete. I was trying to verify the ownership period for a widow who'd been the longest single owner of the house, but frustratingly she was seldom mentioned in the public records. I was seriously beginning to doubt the accuracy of the late nineteenth century voter rolls I was working with.
Have you caught my error yet? Women couldn't vote. Easy to forget that. Duh.
Consider the piece of wood in this picture. I thought the house was framed entirely in oak, but when the saw bit into the first of the porch joists, the sawdust was a deep purple brown. A closer look told me they were redwood. Given the way they were socketed into the sills, they had to be part of the original 1839 construction. The joists were a full 2 by 8 inches, and completely free of knots their entire 16 foot length. By today's standards these are remarkable boards. The choice of rot-resistant redwood for porch joists made sense, though it would be expensive.
I dragged the cut-off end of one joist into my office to photograph. One of the faculty and I got to talking about it. One of the things I'd observed was the relatively small diameter of the tree the boards had come from. One section had a bit of bark on it. Knowing this was the outside of the tree, the curvature of the rings indicated about a 4 or five foot diameter. He thought about that for a second, and pointed out that probably made it a coastal tree given when it had been harvested. Then he pointed out the thing I'd simply not considered-the route it took to get where I found it.
There wouldn't be a railroad across the continent until 1869. The Panama Canal wouldn't open until 1914. The St. Lawrence Seaway hadn't yet come into being-even in its earliest versions. The tree was harvested in California, traveled by sailing ship around South America, and up to New York City. From there the boards made their way up the Hudson River to the Erie Canal, across Pennsylvania to Lake Erie, then by boat to the port of Monroe, then by wagon up the plank road that is now US50.
You think redwood is pricey today? Imagine what all of that cost.
Dale Austin 2005
All images and text Copyright Dale Austin, 1962-2008