Monday, October 26, 2009

Some considerations why The Cedars (Cates-Gaither House) should be preserved

An Opinion
Terry Thornton
Treasurer, Preserving Itawamba County's Heritage
The Cedars, Cates-Gaither House, at 211 Main Street, Fulton, Mississippi, should be saved if for no other reason than some of the timbers from which it was constructed circa 1860 may have been growing as seedlings as early as 1410 A.D. Without doubt, many of the boards from which it is built are from trees which sprouted in the middle 1500s to middle 1600s. The forests of the Hill Country and the products from those forests are as much a part of our heritage as our ancestors --- and The Cedars is an excellent surviving example of one small portion of that heritage.

Here are my reasons why we should consider the forests which once covered the Hill Country in any discussion to save The Cedars.

Old-growth timber covered the hills of Itawamba County, Mississippi, prior to the formation of the county in 1836. Many of those old-growth forests of mixed hardwood and softwood typical of hill country forests were not cleared until after 1900 --- and some not until the 1920s.

Certainly the timbers cut for the open dog-trot house Pleasant Cates was building in the edge of the new town of Fulton were from old-growth trees. Felled by hand, the logs were not transported great distances. Often a portable, steam-powered reciprocating saw would be set up at a proposed house location and the timbers and boards cut on-site. Cut into rough thick boards, the heart-wood of pine trees was often nailed into place almost as soon as it came from the saw. The boards and timbers forming the frame of the house were not run through a plane --- and sometimes those timbers were smoothed to "fit" through the use of an axe.

Some of the timbers beneath The Cedars show the handiwork of a man and an axe.

But what kind of trees and how old were these trees from which The Cedars was constructed?

Old growth forests of Itawamba County consisted primarily of pine, oak, and chestnut trees. The American chestnut trees all but disappeared from Hill Country due to a blight that destroyed them 1904-30s --- I remember from the early 1940s that huge skeletons of these dead trees could be found in almost any location of the Hill Country as it took decades for some of these huge majestic dead trees to completely decay.

But at one time, chestnut trees were the trees of choice for builders. Tall, straight growing trees bearing chestnuts often were more than 100 feet tall. Some were reported to be close to 150 feet in height with a diameter of 10 feet. Most of the old-growth chestnuts were, on average, 5 feet in diameter and 90 to 100 feet tall. Some of the timbers within the original part of The Cedars are probably chestnut wood, the wood of choice of carpenters and home-builders prior to the loss of this tree as an source of building materials. The original roof on Pleasant Cate's new house was most likely wooden shakes made by hand from chestnut trees.

Many estimate that old-growth pine of the sort milled for houses and other buildings were from trees 300 or more years old. It is not unusual in old-growth stands of pine to occasionally find individual trees as old as 450 years.

So I think it safe to estimate that the huge pine timber cut from the hills and hollows around Fulton were probably trees that stood about 120 feet in height, and were, on average 200 to 300 years old.

But it is that occasional 450 year-old tree that might be a part of The Cedars which is most awe-inspiring to me.

If the original four-room dog-trot house which evolved into The Cedars was built in 1860 it is most likely that the majority of its boards and timbers are from trees which started their time here on earth about 1660, that some of those boards are from trees which sprouted about 1560, and that a few of those timbers may have come from plants which began to grow in the Hill Country as early at 1410.

Here are some dates to consider:

1410 - Pine tree seed sprouts in the Hill Country (starting a growing process that would last 450 years until tree is cut for Pleasant Cates' new house in Fulton, Mississippi)
1492 - Columbus arrives in the New World
1520 - Cortez conquers Mexico; Magellan sails around the world
1541 - De Soto discovers the Mississippi River
1560 - Tree seeds sprout in the Hill Country (starting a growing process that would last 300 years until needed for materials in Pleasant Cates' new house in Fulton, Mississippi)
1565 - St. Augustine founded
1607 - Jamestown Colony founded
1620 - Pilgrims landed aboard the Mayflower
1660 - Tree seeds sprout in the Hill Country (starting a growing process that would last 200 years until trees felled for use in Pleasant Cates' new house in Fulton, Mississippi)
1733 - Georgia settled by Oglethorpe
1773 - Boston Tea Party
1775 - Daniel Boone in Kentucky
1776, July 4 - Declaration of Independence
1796 - Tennessee admitted to the union of states
1805 - Lewis and Clark expedition begins
1815 - Battle of New Orleans
1816 - Mississippi admitted to the union of states
1841 - Howe invented the sewing machine
1846 - Gold discovered in California
1860 - 450 year-old trees, 300 year-old trees, and 200 year-old trees cut in the Hill Country and sawed into timbers and boards used to frame Pleasant Cates' house, The Cedars.
2009 - Pleasant Cates' house, The Cedars, is available to the community as a generous gift from its current owner. Wood, some perhaps as old as 599 years, may be within the house. All we must do is relocate it a few yards, restore it, and preserve it as a continuing part of our Hill Country heritage. Won't you help in this preservation effort?

I have viewed some of the materials the original portion of The Cedars is made from --- wide, unplaned boards, unfinished heart-pine floor boards bleached white from probably more than 100 years of being washed with lye water before they were covered with carpet and linoleum --- the interior walls, floors, and ceilings all show evidence of old-growth wood. And beneath the house the timbers supporting it are massive.

No claim is made here as to the types of wood within The Cedars --- it would take a more trained eye than mine to determine species from wooden boards cut more than 140 years ago. But I've no doubt that chestnut, oak, and pine form the "bones" of this grand old house, The Cedars, and that the source of those woods were from the old-growth forests which once blanketed Itawamba County.

So if anyone asks why we should save an old house such as The Cedars, please tell them of the antiquity of the timbers forming the backbone and the skeleton of this old house. That the landmark house has been standing along Main Street since about 1860 serving the families of the Cates and the Gaithers is sufficient reason to consider its preservation --- that it contains timbers that may date to 1410 is even more reason to preserve it as a portion of our Hill Country heritage.

Note: Most of the research about Hill Country old-growth forests was done in 2007 for my article, Requiem for a house: A Hill Country Landmark in Monroe County, May 24 2007, Hill Country of Monroe County Mississippi. Unfortunately bulldozers came in 2008 and pushed down the remains of that grand old structure built in 1857 of old-growth timbers cut from the property and sawed on-site by a steam powered saw.

Join Preserving Itawamba County's Heritage in its attempts to relocate, restore, and preserve The Cedars. There may be some 600 year-old wood at stake.

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