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…
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).
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.
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?
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.
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, firstname.lastname@example.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.
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!
Earlier this Spring I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to spend two full days working with a crew at the Menokin site in Warsaw, Virginia to build a reconstructed slave dwelling on the site where one of the historic plantation’s slave cabins had once previously stood. The actual building of the structure was an effective blend of traditional and modern tools and techniques. At Menokin, the crew employed a combination of both modern and historic building technology to achieve the end result of the slave dwelling structure. I found this juxtaposition between eighteenth and twenty first century technology to be very intriguing. Throughout the two days that I spent working with the crew, I was able to gain experience using both modern power tools and hand tools, some of which were themselves antiques forged by blacksmiths. I appreciated the way that the crew used modern time (and therefore money) saving tools while still using traditional methods for many aspects of the construction. In one instance in particular, this blending of modern and traditional tools especially stood out, and that was in the creation of the mortis and tenons used to construct the building.
The first step in the process was to create mortises in the cut lumber that the structure was going to be made out of. In order to do this, we used an electric powered mortise maker. This tool is essentially a chainsaw oriented vertically in a frame that can be adjusted and pushed down into the wood to create a rectangular hole that serves as the mortise for the timber frame constructed building. The tool, however, created a cavity with rounded corners and humps in the middle where the mortise machine could not reach due to it’s rounded blade. From this point, the most efficient way to shape the mortise was using the tried and true methods of the eighteenth century and prior – with a chisel.
A chisel and mallet was the most effective way to complete the mortises and shape them into the required form in order to properly fit together with the tenons to create a secure joint. Effective, that is, if you are skilled in using a chisel and mallet. I however was decidedly not effective in my chiseling efforts, and it took me a great deal of time and effort in order to adequately clean out even one mortise. Chisels of varying sizes were actually one of the most, if not the most, used tools on site among both traditional and modern power tools. The chisel was also used to complete the tenons after they were cut out of the lumber with a circular saw. The modern power tools made for quick and easy work, but that was not precise enough to successfully complete the traditional construction techniques. In order to properly execute the mortise and tenon joints of traditional timber framing, old-fashioned hand tools were needed to shape the joints to the point where they would properly fit together.
This combination of modern and traditional methods really struck me. We can improve upon the building methods of the past using our current technology, but sometimes the best tool for the job is still the original tool, as was the case in creating mortise and tenon joints. The methods of the past sometimes can only be achieved using the tools of the past, despite our best efforts to cut down on the time and labor expended in the building process. This blend of historic and contemporary building was also apparent in little shortcuts that the crew took. One example of this is that when cutting big pieces of wood out of the sills for lap joints, the crew made a few strategic cuts, gave a couple of whacks with the hammer, and out popped three blocks of wood that used to occupy the space that was now made vacant for the lap joint. Removing the wood in that way allowed it to break along its own natural path, making it easier to chisel the precise measurements needed and ensuring that the wood didn’t break or split due to unnecessary excessive pressure from a power tool on an a relatively small piece of wood. I appreciated the crew’s mix of old and new techniques. It seems wise to keep the best of the traditional methods while using available current technology to make the process more efficient.
I was a little surprised to learn that the building crew which readily employed modern technology in their construction, still made pegs to hold the mortis and tenon joints together using traditional methods. I expected them to have some sort of peg making tool but was informed that this is not the case. That meant I was back on the saw horse, and I am pleased to report that my band knife skills are coming along quite nicely, as well as having made some very beautiful wood shavings a photo of which is now the background on my phone. We needed to make about eighty pegs to complete the construction, and we did all of them by hand using the traditional
methods. Unfortunately, there was a bit of miscommunication and the majority of our pegs ended up being not quite wide enough, so we had to go back and shave off some additional wood with the band knife. The pegs needed to be long enough to go completely through one piece of framing and into the next, securely attaching them together.
And so we learned the hard way the importance of triple-checking your work, especially when using labor intensive hand tools, by having to go back and alter fifty pegs by hand on the saw horse.
As was the case in working with wood in class, it was important to keep the characteristics of the wood in mind when manipulating it in order to create the components necessary for a timber frame structure. When we began making tenons to fit into our perfectly chiseled mortises, we had to keep the properties of the wood in mind. After carefully measuring out our tenon from the lumber that would soon become a wall stud, we set about cutting the shape out of the wood. Perpendicular to the wood we used a hand saw, but cutting parallel to the wood, we used a chisel to remove the small block from the larger piece. This was because it is most effective to saw against the grain as opposed to with the grain, and when going with the grain, the most effective tool is a chisel. In the work of constructing a building, it is always necessary for the carpenter to keep the properties of the wood in mind and work with those properties, using them to the carpenter’s advantage when possible, as opposed to against it.
Throughout the days spent at Menokin working on the slave dwelling, we also learned some of the traditional hand tool technology that would have been used in creating a structure similar to what we were making. Craig Jacobs demonstrated, using antique hand forged tools, how a log would have been hewn into the type of usable lumber that formed the structure of a timber framed building. We learned about the process of scoring the log with an ax, “juggling” the resultant little mounds off of it, and then hewing that last bit to create a mostly flat surface. I especially liked the ax with an offset handle made for the last step of hewing. It is such a specialized tool but trying to hew that last bit with a regular ax was near impossible, and I have to think that the first few people to come up with offsetting the handle must have been amazed at how much easier that made the task, and awfully pleased with themselves for their innovation. It was really interesting to see how the timber would have been made, and I think that Craig was a bit surprised when we told him that we wanted to try to hew a log of our own. Attempting to hew a log into usable lumber was incredibly difficult. But much like splitting a tree trunk using only wedges and mallets, it was also immensely rewarding. It felt really good to swing an ax and knock off a clean chunk of log almost flush with the chalk line. I have to admit that these moments were fewer than the ones of frustration, but the process made me really appreciate all of the skill and man hours that went into constructing timber frame buildings.
All in all, I really enjoyed my experience working hands on with a modern take on traditional timber frame construction. Learning about how the pieces fit together in class is one thing, but actually seeing how it is built and watching it come together adds an additional depth of knowledge that can’t be gained any other way. I have such a greater understanding of early American building practices and how a timber framed structure is created. Understanding how tools are used to shape and manipulate the wood to fit together perfectly provides me so much context that cannot be grasped from simply reading about it. I am so glad to now have this deeper connection to and understanding of the process of creating timber frame structures and the skilled laborers who built them.
I got home from Menokin on a Tuesday night, and on the following Wednesday I went to our neighborhood weekly meal at our common house, part of which is an old log cabin that has been added onto multiple times. I went into the cabin and looked at the timber, like I have many times before, but this time I noticed marks on the summer beam that I hadn’t appreciated before.
They were the marks left behind from the hewing process, little V-shaped notches in the wood where the ax score marks had gone slightly past the chalk line, marks I had just made myself on a piece of timber at Menokin. And seeing those scars in the wood made me love that little cabin more than I ever had before.
We’d like to thank Inigo Howlett, the Northern Neck correspondent for Community Idea Station WCVE for paying a visit to Menokin to learn more our Ghost Structure Workshop that took place in May.
His news report aired on May 29th in the Richmond and Northern Neck areas. If you heard the story, or even if you didn’t, do one or all of these things:
- Listen to it now online.
- Search “Ghost Structure” on the blog to find related stories and to see more photos.
- Visit our website to learn more about the Menokin Glass House Project and the important, innovative work taking place here.
- Come for a visit, take part in a program, or go for a paddle on Cat Point Creek.
If you like what you see, hear, experience, learn…make a donation!
Here are some pictures of the completed, glowing Ghost Structure on the Menokin landscape.