A little more than a year ago, I began volunteering at Great Hopes Plantation and I’ve learned a lot about historic farming. Now, I’m learning new skills I can use as I farm: carpentry.
Soon, the Carpenters will pack up from Great Hopes Plantation and move to their new (old) location in town near the site of the Indian Encampment at the corner of Botetourt and Nicholson streets. I say old because that’s where they could be found before they moved to Great Hopes. In the meantime, the Carpenters have been working on materials needed to build their new home, which includes a covered saw pit and shingles for the roof of the structure. Guess how many shingles are needed?
Whatever you just guessed, I’m going to go ahead and say—wrong. Try 6,000.
If you haven’t visited the Carpenters while they have been making what seems to be an endless supply of shingles, I’ll explain some history. In the city, carpenters in the 18th century would not have made the building materials needed to actually build structures. Instead, they would have purchased them from others just like we do today when we visit home improvement stores. The exception to this was some rural carpenters would make their own materials. Shingles in particular were made in the same spot as the trees, typically in a swampy area, and sold to carpenters. There are no longer people making 18th-century shingles or other building materials in swamps here, so the Carpenters make their own. This extends the life of a project, but it’s entirely necessary.
In case you didn’t already know, the Carpenters are the ones building all of the structures in town. Their last major project was the Market House by the Magazine. This is actually the first time in a while they haven’t had a building project, so they’re able to work on their own structures needed for the move back into town.
Over the past year, I’ve spent a lot of Saturdays getting to know the Carpenters, and they are some of my favorite people. The guys are talented and hilarious and they’ve taken me under their wing. They’ve invited me to help them at the site, and one of the first things I did was split wood. One day I spent the entire day with them, where Matt (patiently) showed me how to make shingles. This process is tedious, but it’s supposed to take someone just a few minutes to make a single shingle. How long does it usually take me? A a lot longer than that, though in my defense, I’m still learning and haven’t had much practice. At least they’ve turned out well and can be used! This involves sitting on a drawhorse (which for the record, is pretty awkward in a petticoat) and using a drawknife to shape a plank of cedar into a shingle. I will say one of the perks is it smells absolutely amazing.
While I’ve done that, I’ve received the same questions I do when I’m out in the field farming: did women do that type of work in the 18th century? Short answer is “yes.” Women learned many skills and worked as trades(wo)men in the 18th century to provide for themselves and their families. And also think of it this way, when men had to go off to war (remember, all men ages 16 to 60 had to join the Virginia Militia), who took care of the businesses?
As I mentioned before, the skills I’ve learned with the Carpenters will help me as a farmer, too. Farmers made some of their own structures and did their own work on a drawhorse. I’ve also learned that I enjoy working on the drawhorse, no matter how many times I have to shift to make sure my petticoat is in the right spot and I’m not at risk of tripping when I stand up.
I’ve been extremely grateful to Garland and his team for letting me learn their trade, but most importantly for letting me into their circle.
Be sure to give the Carpenters a visit as they set up their new shop and ask them if they prefer to be at the top or bottom of the sawpit. I’ve only been at the bottom because of being in petticoats and it’s a really great workout. I’d just rather not to do it in the heat of the summer. I’m sure I can speak for the Carpenters too when it comes to that!
Thank you so much to Fred Blystone for the pictures!