By Brian Stroinski
When Jackson’s Mill was gifted to the state of West Virginia in 1921, the only intact building on the site was the grist mill itself. The next building to be brought to the property was the McWhorter Cabin. Originally built by Henry McWhorter in 1794, the cabin was given to Jackson’s Mill by the McWhorter family in 1927 and has been a feature of Jackson’s Mill ever since. The McWhorter family has been coming back to cabin for 92 years to have a family reunion at the cabin and enjoy their family’s heritage and pay homage to the first McWhorter who settled in the area--Henry.
As with any building that has been around for as long as the McWhorter cabin, the elements and constant foot traffic can cause problems with the structure. We encountered such problems this spring and summer when some of the logs on the back side of the cabin started to rot, causing the back half of the cabin to sink and start to collapse. Wanting to preserve the cabin for future generations to visit, something had to be done.
One might think that replacing the logs in a 1794 cabin makes the cabin lose some of the historical value, but in talking to Bob McWhorter, he expressed how important the cabin was--not only to himself and his family--but the entire story of West Virginia. The cabin itself shows the ingenuity and tireless work of the people who lived here and it is important to preserve that for generations to come. Now the hard part was actually replacing the logs.
The process of replacing the logs actually started in May when the television show Barnwood Builders came to Jackson’s Mill to make a new building for us. During the taping of that show we had Mark, the show’s host, take a look at the cabin and give us a game plan to try and fix the problem. They also left us some rough cut lumber to use as replacement logs.
After we had a plan it was still a difficult process to get the old logs out without totally collapsing the wall. The first thing we had to do was nail the existing logs together to give the building some structural support. We did this both on the interior and exterior walls. We also had to remove the window sill and anchor the window to the log above it. Next, the old logs had to come out. This process included pry bars, hammers, and a chainsaw. What we did was crack the chinking and start to pull it out from between the logs. Once the chinking was removed we used the pry bars to slowly get the logs out. While this was all happening we had to make sure our supports were holding and the building would not come down. After the logs came out, we cut new logs from the rough cut timber and slid them into place, making adjustments to the size and shape as we went along. After we got three logs done, we realized the log underneath also needed replacing and had to do the whole process one last time.
After the logs were set into place, we needed a temporary way to hold up the building and weather proof it while we got ready to make the new chinking. Using a two-ton jack and some blocks of wood we were able to position the new logs so that they were straight. We placed the blocks of wood in between each of the logs to hold them there and got the window sill back into place. We then covered the gaps with some 2x6 boards and are now ready to make some chinking and mortar.
It was a lot of work and a lot of heavy lifting, careful measurements, and a few pinched fingers, but after we completed the project we are confident the McWhorter cabin will be in great shape for the next 200 years of its existence.
By Ian Gray
Amid the soft (albeit electric) candlelight the decorations seemed to sparkle as the faint sound of enchanting caroling streamed in from outside. Surrounded by a plethora of red and green, visitors were taken back over 100 years into the past when Victorian America was inventing our modern Christmas. At the end of the evening families left having formed fond memories of melodious music, captivating storytelling, sumptuous sweets, and pleasing aesthetics while learning a bit about where and how our unique American Christmas originated. All the while, yours truly was thinking one thing—I pulled it off!
Shortly after starting my time with the Cockayne Farmstead planning for our annual Christmas event began and I was put in charge. Throwing myself into the season well before the first snowfall, I proceeded to become an encyclopedia on the holiday and how our modern celebration came about. An intriguing journey, I became familiar with the tale of how an ancient pagan festival morphed and evolved thru several thousand years until it took the form we know today. Over several weeks my journey took me thru the forests of ancient Scandinavia, the streets of the Roman Empire, westward thru Europe and the Middle Ages, and across the Atlantic to the shores of America before arriving in the Victorian Era where the Christmas we all know took form.
Arriving at my historical destination, the next challenge was to recreate an authentic Victorian environment for the front half of the Farmstead. I knew the traditions and their history, now I just needed to recreate them. Thankfully, I was not the first to figure out decorating the Victorian Era house for a Victorian Era Christmas event was a good idea. An afternoon rummaging around unearthed an attic full of trees, tinsel, candles, and other goodies to make the rooms come alive with Christmas cheer. About a week in total spent decorating, and a few trips to local stores for the reaming pieces, completely transformed the house as if it were just adorned by the Cockayne’s themselves. However, little time could be spent admiring the handiwork as the real preparation for the event was just beginning.
While the house was decorated, I knew more needed to be offered than just house tours if we were to have a well attended event. After some thought, it was settled that live carolers and storytelling would perfectly round out the evening while the offer of hot coco and sweets was bound to (pun intended) sweeten the pot. Reaching out to area churches and, more importantly, school choral groups produced spectacular, if not speedy, results. Three groups were booked for the evening to provide a soothing atmosphere for the attendees. Lastly, our volunteer base answered the call to provide a storyteller and baked goods for the evening. With everything, theoretically, put together on paper it was time to spread the word and wait for the night of the event to take place.
Having marketed events before, advertising went out smoothly and the night of the event soon approached—and it was successful. Despite our last choral group bowing out due to a sick director, the night went off as planned. The house and grounds shone bright clothed in their Christmas regalia and the crowds flowed as expected. Visitors smiled while listening to the school groups perform outside before heading indoors to tour the house, listen to a resuscitation of “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” and craft an authentic Victorian Era ornament. While, not every aspect of the evening went exactly according to plan (for example junking the script for the house tour within the first 10 minutes), our little over 100 visitors were thoroughly entertained and left knowing the Farmstead is a vital part of the community. About two and a half hours after it started, it was finished. The evening event had ran its course, the house was put back into order, and it was time to move onto the next task. However, while the evening only lasted a handful of hours, its lessons and memories have lasted far longer.
While I don’t anticipate a career switch to event planning, the experience has reinforced that I’ve become proficient in this very necessary skill for small historic sites. Seeing all my research, planning, coordination, balancing, and advertising efforts pay off was another in a series of small revelations over the past several months that I have indeed stepped outside my comfort zone and gained skills that are against my own reclusive nature. In the end, that is what the AmeriCorps experience should all be about, and has for myself over the past two years. Serving with small organizations such as the Farmstead has forced me to tackle challenges that I normally wouldn’t and equipped me well for the next step of moving onto the larger stage of a fulltime career within the field of public history (whenever that is supposed to happen). And, if I manage to inspire some people along the way to pursue their own passion for history all the better. However, that is yet another story for yet another day.
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