Bostwick House: A Preservation Adventure With Historicorp

By Alice French: Education and Outreach Coordinator

The Bostwick House is a beautiful building located in Bladensburg, MD, built in 1746, by a merchant named Christopher Lowndes. Historicorps currently has crews working on it through October to restore the front porch which had been added on to the house in the early 20th century. As a volunteer for a week, my crew worked on removing old paint from the columns and balustrades.

Previously, a tree had fallen in a big storm, and damaged the corner of the front porch. The storm also damaged a structure which was built as a buttress to the chimney. We needed to get the columns and balustrades scraped, sanded and primed. Some masonry work needed to happen supporting the underside of the porch, and the floorboards and fascia would eventually be tackled as well. Ginny and I began with the scraping work. Sue assisted Mike with some carpentry.

One by one, a column was removed and replaced with a temporary supportive prop. It is hard hand-work scraping paint all day. We had to get suited up in these white Tyvek coveralls to protect us from the paint, along with respirator masks, gloves, boots and a hard hat! Quite the fashion statement. Lunch was served at noon, where we would break for a half hour, remove all of our gear, wash up and eat. It’s really a nice thing that Historicorps serves ALL of our meals- breakfast, lunch and dinner. At 4 o’clock we began clean-up and ended each day by 4:30.

This is my first Historicorps project. Apparently, being provided housing in a building (as opposed to a tent), having indoor plumbing and showering facilities, and a full kitchen are pure luxury compared to most projects! I had no complaints. Also being so close to an urban area, there were plenty of opportunities to go out and eat as well.

A lot of research has been done on the families who lived at Bostwick, and some of the people who worked here. They have an excellent website where you can find all sorts of documentation and resources to learn more: https://bostwickhouse.weebly.com. Coming from my job as an educator at Menokin (www.menokin.org), I am very interested in process, how things are made and who makes them.

From the website I learned, Lowndes imported slaves and sold them in Bladensburg and at the Severn River in Annapolis. He employed indentured servants, convict servants, and enslaved people on his properties and in his businesses. Lowndes enslaved people to work at his shipyard, his ropewalk, the store, at Bostwick House, and at his farms on the outskirts of town. He also posted numerous advertisements in the Maryland Gazette reporting of runaway slaves, “some having stolen items from his store or other businesses.”

I don’t know whether he ever reclaimed his runaway property. Christopher Lowndes was clearly a very wealthy merchant, but with all of his runaways, I imagine he wasn’t the nicest guy to work for. Also, most of the runaways he reported had specific skills such as stonemason, bricklayer, carpenter, plasterer, sailor, shoemaker, rope maker and miller. I am sure they also built this house. One of the special things about doing restoration work is to see and touch the details carved out by the human efforts of these individuals. Evidence of these craftsmen’s skills can be found in details throughout the house and outbuildings.

A later addition to the house was a buttress built to support the 3 story chimney on one end of the house. Stories are rumored that the chamber built inside the buttress was used to house enslaved individuals as punishment.

Documentation doesn’t list where enslaved people lived. They likely lived wherever they worked. “In another advertisement in the Maryland Gazette dated 1760, Christopher Lowndes offers for sale a 480-acre tract of land known as “Good Luck” located five miles from Bladensburg. The land has excellent soil, timber, “a dwelling house, buildings proper for Negroes and two large tobacco barns” (Van Horn 1996:112).” Apparently a dwelling house is not the same as a proper Negro house. Lowndes’ wife Elizabeth, manumitted two of her slaves, Philip Sullivan and Arabella Payne, after her death.

Participating in restoration work and understanding the making of a building is why historic preservation projects are so important. The surrounding community was happy to see work being made on this landmark building. The loss of this place, is a loss of understanding of all of the people who left their marks here. The education and support from preservation organizations involved in this project such as Maryland Heritage Area Authority, Town of Bladensburg Maryland, University of Maryland, George A. & Carmel D. Aman Memorial Trust and Architecture Planning & Preservation are vital to preserving the history of all Americans who built this country. I thoroughly recommend going to the Historicorps website historicorps.com to volunteer for a project or make a contribution.

Bostwick site plan, Kees deMooy 2007, from website, https://bostwickhouse.weebly.com/uploads/2/3/3/8/23385276/bostwick_plan_kdm_2007.jpg

Putting All Your Needles Into One Basket

By Alice French – Education and Outreach Coordinator

It’s American Craft Week and Saturday Oct 6 we had a full house of makers at Menokin to learn the craft of Pine Needle Basketry with historic educator, Wisteria Perry. She gave us an overview of the history of Longleaf Pines and then taught us how to make baskets with the needles which fall to the ground.

A few facts to note about the Longleaf:

Longleaf Pine Cone
  • It is one of nine native species in the Commonwealth of VA. Historically they were found from Florida to Virginia and as far west as Texas. 500 years ago the Longleaf pine tree was one of the most prevalent species in southeastern Virginia. When John Smith and Christopher Newport arrived in Jamestown in 1607, there were more Longleaf than Loblolly pines. Longleaf became known as the “tree that built Tidewater”.
  • By 1907, 5.5 million acres of Longleaf were logged per year. In 1932, the Civilian Conservation Corps set up camps under the administration of President Franklin Roosevelt. This group was responsible for planting trees and building parks, but they replaced the slow growing Longleaf with Loblolly in heavily logged areas. By 2005, just 200 Longleaf pine trees were left.
  • Recognizing the economic and environmental benefit, landowners are now planting these pines instead of Loblollies. They are resistant to a variety of insects, saltier water, and ice, and benefit many endangered species by providing a long term habitat. These trees grow to 100 feet and don’t begin to mature (make their first pine cones) for 30 years.
  • The Nature Conservancy, The Mariners Museum, and Newport News Shipbuilding are partnering to build a 550 acre forest, and naming each tree planted after a ship or submarine, in honor of the ship building heritage!

Our class was held inside the Visitor Center with a back drop of a Menokin fireplace mantel, believed to have been originally carved from Longleaf pine, almost 250 years ago.

Menokin Visitor’s Center transformed into a classroom

Before everyone arrived, we soaked the needles in some warm water for about an hour, to soften the first bunch for the tightest part of the coil.

For the baskets, we were a little slow getting started, but once you get a hang of it, it’s smooth sailing! All you need are some long leaf pine needles, or really any pine, some waxed thread or raffia, an upholstery sewing needle with a very large eye, (#22)…and a little patience. Wisteria encouraged us along.

Our Makers all left feeling confident with their newly learned skills and a bunch of pine needles to continue their project.

Look for more makers workshop at Menokin in 2019!

It’s Good To Have Friends

The Northern Neck Chapter of Virginia Master Naturalists are unsung heros. Just because we have been long remiss about giving them credit, that does not mean that we appreciate their dedication and service any less.
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At long last, these friends of Menokin are getting the recognition they deserve.
Our butterfly garden at Menokin has blossomed (pun intended) into a smorgasbord of color and pollen. Every year there are new varieties on the menu for our hungry customers, including bees, wasps, butterflies, moths, ants, birds, and other crawly critters. The sign was installed in the garden today and the crowd barely noticed me as they gorged on nectar. Next time you come for a visit, be sure to stop by the garden and say “Thanks!” to these tireless volunteers who make our landscape more beautiful.

Summer’s Sour Secret: Sumac

I often stop along the lane into Menokin to take pictures when a flash of color catches my eye. Such was the case earlier this week when a cluster of red berries I’d been noticing were finally too beautiful to pass by.

Now, here are the confessional and teaching moments of the story wrapped neatly in a bow.

Confession: I wasn’t sure what they were. I suspected sumac but fell into the immediate trap of thinking sumac=poison. But what kind of poison exactly. Rash? “Eat me and die” poison? Or was it sumac at all? Was it the insidious invasive, tree of heaven?

Teaching Moment: Obviously it was not safe for me to be out of doors with my sketchy knowledge of what was or wasn’t sumac. And I did touch one berry so it was crucial to figure this out straight away before symptoms started appearing. So I fired up Google and went to work.

What I learned was this:

  • It was sumac. Staghorn Sumac to be precise.
  • I wasn’t going to die.
  • I wasn’t even going to itch.
  • As a matter of fact, people all over the world use this very same berry as a spice, a medicine and to make lemonade.

The Farmers Almanac did the best job explaining the whole wonderful story so follow this link if you’d like to learn more.

Now, if I could just figure out what kind of bug this is that I saw crawling along the stem…

This little guy was so tiny, about the size of one of the grass seeds on the plant.

“INTERN”Pretations: A Summer Job at Menokin

Haiku by Erin McClain

Went down to the creek
Brought our paddles and kayak
Stepped over small frogs

“Watch out for Beavers!”
Moonlit water splashed my boat
The mozzies were out


Reflection by Silas French

It may be a surprising thing to hear about any job as an intern, but working at Menokin is like a dream job. Our sort of “official” job is handling kayak rentals, but since it hasn’t become well known in the community yet, we have hours of extra time to spend on odd-jobs and projects. That could be something that sounds like busy work, like organizing closets and weed whacking, but even those have been fun.

There is so much to explore in Menokin’s current stage of development: I’ve found cool, old slides of the house, and they even have a copy of the original architectural plans for the house!

There are plenty of other things that need to get done though. Our biggest project this summer has been cataloging the many different plant and animal species on the property and on Cat Point Creek. We’ve photographed and identified over 60 already, and that’s not even including all of the species we’ll surely find in the creek.

One species we found stood out to me: Queen Anne’s Lace, or (as I discovered) Wild Carrot, is an elegant white flower with a small, but supposedly delicious, carroty root. However, any aspiring foragers should be wary of its look-alike, Poison Sumac, which can be deadly if eaten. When looking for wild carrot, it is important to note the distinct carroty smell of its root (which Poison Sumac lacks).

(c) 2016, Leslie Rennolds

Menokin is a beautiful place to explore, and the trails are peaceful and far-removed from the busy background noise of civilization. Rolling roads wind downhill by the Rolling Road Trail, scenic views of the creek are dotted along the Picnic Table Trail, and ancient-looking trees tower overhead on the House Trail.

Cat Point Creek is always fun to go kayaking along, and I go out there frequently to refresh the Visitor Center’s marsh bouquet.

At the time of my writing this, I’m sitting inside the Ghost Structure to keep out of the rain. It was built using the labor-intensive techniques that were used in the days of Menokin’s construction, and it has a look that compliments the glass house idea. When it’s not a rain shelter for me, it’s used as Menokin’s outdoor classroom.

(c) 2018, Silas French

Another benefit of working at Menokin is that it’s the coolest old house anyone will find out here (but that goes without saying). Even though they haven’t begun building the glass structure, the ruins (and the rest of the property) are full of archeological discoveries waiting to be found. This project is already drawing in an international audience of architects, archeologists, and educators, which may be surprising until you think: Who wouldn’t want to work on a glass house on the frontier of historical preservation?

(c) 2018, Silas French


(c) 2018, Selfie by Silas French and Erin McClain

Silas French and Erin McClain have made the most of their time at Menokin this summer.

Both are 2018 graduates of the Chesapeake Bay Governor’s School for Marine and Environmental Science. Silas will be attending VCU in the fall and Erin is heading off to William and Mary.

These two have been a great asset to Menokin. We wish them luck as they begin their college experience.

Kayaks Ready to Rent

It’s hot outside! And Menokin is the cool place to be kayaking out on Cat Point Creek!

Our friends at USF&W loaned us their trailer to get all the new boats down to the creek. Silas, one of our summer interns, painted the rack and set up all of the boats. He’ll be ready to teach you how to paddle and assist your launch. Be sure to bring a hat and sunblock.

Now it’s easy to learn how or just come explore. Free lessons are available Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10-12pm, just call or email Alice at 333-1776, afrench@menokin.org to reserve a boat. Come meet our new ACA trained kayak instructors Silas and Erin.

Already know how to paddle a boat? Menokin has rentals available now, too! Sit-on-top singles rent for $10/2hours; or paddle together and save in a tandem (two-person) kayak for $15/2hours. Rentals are available Tuesday through Saturday, 10am until 6pm, and include a US Coast Guard certified life jacket, paddle, and kayak.

Got your own paddle boat or board? You can come out anytime until 7pm, every day of the week and use our launch free of charge.  Menokin is a Chesapeake Bay Gateway and also part of the Captain John Smith National Historic Trail. You can access the flat water of Cat Point Creek from our soft landing.  After your adventure, take a minute to add notes about your adventure in the waterproof log book we keep nailed to the tree.

Download our printable paddle guide. Happy paddling!

GHOST STRUCTURE WORKSHOP SYNOPSIS: JANE TRASK

 

JANE TRASK IS AN ARCHITECTURAL HISTORY STUDENT AT THE UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA. 

A few weeks ago, I participated in Menokin’s Ghost Structure Workshop. Though I could only stay for the first two days, as I had to return to school for my last final, it was an absolutely fantastic experience. Not only did I get to spend time at Menokin, a site fascinating to me for its unique approach to preservation and presentation, but I also got to use a number of the skills and concepts I have learned over the past two years in UVA’s Master’s of Architectural History program. I came away from my time at Menokin with a much better understanding of eighteenth-century construction techniques, slave cabin typologies, and museum interpretation strategies. This knowledge will be very valuable to me as I begin my career in the heritage field.

The first day, my co-participants and I received an introduction to the project, crew, and tools. Because the goal of the workshop was to erect the cabin in just five days, we utilized a combination of historic and modern techniques and devices. The project was based in historic processes, with a wooden frame fastened by pegged mortise and tenon joints, but the bulk of the wood was cut using power tools so that we could finish on time. This decision demonstrated the importance of balancing exciting ideals and necessary practicality in preservation work and at historic sites. The Ghost Structure Workshop was well-balanced in my opinion. We learned about historic tools and used them for most of the tasks, but modern tools were used for the major pieces that would have taken too much time.

By the end of the day, we had the frame of the floor in place. We also spent a great deal of time making pegs for the joints using drawknives on sawhorses. Peg-making looked so easy when our excellent crew demonstrated, but it was so much harder than it looked. A theme of the experience was that everything looked so easy for the professional crew, but it was not so easy for my co-participants and myself!

On day two, we got to lay the floor of the cabin. We laid floorboards perpendicular to the joists below and hammered two nails into the surface of each board, tacking it firmly into these joists. We had to be careful that each floorboard was tight against its neighbor to prevent any gaps in the floor, using chisels to hold the boards together while nailing. This was very satisfying work. Over the course of a few hours, we saw the collection of timbers and pegs we had produced on day one turn into a real floor and it became possible to imagine what the final product would look like by the end of the week.

I really enjoyed my experience at Menokin. I learned a great deal about the construction process in the eighteenth century, which has been helpful to me so far in my summer internship at Colonial Williamsburg, but I also learned a great deal about the social history of eighteenth-century construction work at Menokin. The structure we were erecting is a reconstruction of enslaved worker housing, which would have been built by the enslaved laborers themselves. Building the Ghost Structure was really hard work, even with the aid of modern tools, which were of course not available in the eighteenth century. Working on the Ghost Structure this week made me think hard about the people who built the original cabin on this site and so many others across the country. The Ghost Structure is a powerful building that conveys some of the important and sobering history of American slavery, and I hope it will be a really useful interpretation and education tool for the Menokin Foundation going forward. Thank you to everyone at Menokin and to the amazing Salvagewrights building crew for making this experience possible!

 

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