Sunday, July 26, 2020

Building Your Own Home in the 1800's

Homebuilding today is different than it was in the early 1800's.

We turn again to the writings of Polly Morris for a fascinating and detailed account of how Jacques, a poor but determined woodsman in St. Tammany, acquired the tools, cut down the trees, and fashioned the lumber that made it possible for him to build a home for his family.

With a little help from his neighbors, the frames were lifted into place, fastened together, and at last his family had a shingled roof over their heads. The article comes from the Feb. 11, 1976, issue of the St. Tammany News-Banner.

The House That Jacques Built

By Polly Morris, Feature Writer

    The many gracious old homes of St. Tammany were built for gracious people. They are truly things of beauty because their owners could afford the very best in craftsmen and materials.

    But what about the houses that Jacques built?

    Jacques was an ordinary man of the early 1800's, uneducated and almost penniless. He barely eked a living out of the wilderness of St. Tammany and was a Jacques-of-all-trades in his struggle for survival.

    He hunted, he trapped, he fished, he farmed. And he was a tar burner and a producer of charcoal. His worldly possessions were few. A gun, a foot axe, a knife, a hoe, and a spade. His ramshackle hut was built of boughs and bark and palmetto.

    But Jacques had a great love for his growing family, and an even greater determination to do his very best for them. The thing they needed most was a good strong house, and he often lay awake at night, planning on a two-room structure that would stand on a rise that he had cleared by felling trees for firewood.

    He would have to buy metal parts for the needed tools one by one, and make handles for them out of hickory.

    Jacques wished the sawmill was not so far away. Though he could not afford to buy lumber, he could float timber to the mill and get half back in sawed pieces. It would save time, but Jacques had as little time as money. And there was a whole forest for the taking, at his leisure.

Gathering the Construction Materials

    Jacques was a woodsman, and he depended on the forest for almost everything, in one way or another. It provided him with berries and nuts and acorns, and was a shelter for the animals he hunted. He knew which plants made medicine, which wood the best bowls and spoons.

    Jacques even slept on springy Spanish moss, and kept warm in winter with firewood that had been cut at the right time of the moon.

    Jacques had to wait until he had money for some simple tools, but he was not idle. He went into the friendly forest with his foot axe and girdled the best trees. He selected cypress for the framing of his house, and fragrant pine for the flooring.

    The girdling was cutting through the bark all around the tree. It would kill the tree which would dry out standing up, and be partly seasoned when he came back to cut it down.

    Jacques found an old oak that had been dead for some time, and he took home some of it. At night he could sit by the fire and make gluts and treenails, or trunnels as he called them. 

Gluts were wooden wedges that could be used in place of expensive metal ones. The trunnels were wooden pegs that would serve lime iron nails that were scarce and costly. He even made a latch of oak and hinges of hickory. And a wooden maul.

Buying Necessary Tools

    At last he had enough coins to buy a broadaxe and a wedge of steel. The broadaxe was a wicked ten pound tool with a wide blade, with the one beveled edge as sharp as saw grass. He took both axes into the forest and also the three wedges. With his foot axe he cut down the girled trees, then he made deep notches along the rounded top of the tree for its full length.

    He turned the tree over so that the notches would be on the side, and went to work with the broadaxe. He hacked the wood away from between the notches until the entire side was flat. Then he turned the tree again and cut more notches. Finally, the round tree was a rouge square beam.

    Some of the logs were  split into halves and squares. This Jacques did by driving a metal wedge into the log with the maul. It made a crack along the log, so he inserted a glut into the crack and drove it in as far as it would go. The log split neatly. Jacques stacked the lumber loosely so it could season more. He now had the sills, studs, rafters and beams for his house.

Tools For Drilling and Shingling

    Jacques spent his last money on three tools: a chisel, a froe and an auger. With the chisel, he shaped the ends of the beams and the sills so that the heavy studs would fit into each one like a three-dimensional jig-saw puzzle.

    He bored holes in the joints with the auger so that an oaken trunnel could be driven through the joint with the maul. The froe was an L-shaped piece of metal that he laid with the grain of a large chunk of cypress. When sharply hit with the wooden mallet, the shingles would split neatly, one after another. It required no great strength or skill, and was somewhat of a fun job that could be done sitting down.

    Jacques would have liked to have had an adze, but he had no money, so he used the broadaxe instead, becoming so adept that the planks had an almost adze look, leaving the planks without splinters.

    Jacques also wished he had a whip saw, for with it he could cut smoother and longer lengths of lumber quicker. But he would need another man to help him because he could not work the long saw alone. He would have to get down in a pit with the log balanced overhead and pull the saw down, while his partner pulled it back up again.

Calling on The Neighbors

    Jacques wanted to do as much as possible on his own home, so he built sections of the frame on the ground. Only then did he invite the neighbors to help him, which they were glad to do because there was so little amusement in St. Tammany in those times.   

    Despite hard work, it was also a sort of a holiday, too. Jacques brought home some wild game, and his wife cooked it. Neighbors brought food and their own tools. The men raised the sections of the heavy frame with push poles and ropes and brute strength. The drove many trunnels into augered holes to hold it together.

    They secured the shingles with smaller wooden pegs, and when they were finished they went for a swim in the bayou. The women set out the food, and the feast went on until long after dark. They departed with pine knot torches to light their way.

    The next day Jacques made holes through the uprights. He collected twigs and sticks and shoved them through the holes. This would help hold the bousillage. Jacques made this from mud and moss and deer hair that he had scraped from hides. He filled the spaces between the studs with this mixture which would dry almost to the hardness of brick.

    The family could not wait until the house was finished to move in. It was spring and the unfinished house was better than the shack they had lived in for years. Even without its doors or shutters it was as safe from prowling animals as had been the flimsy structure of boughs and bark, but to be safe Jacques hastily made a batten door of scraps of leftover lumber and hung hides over the windows until he could make shutters.

    Window glass was sold only in New Orleans and was considered a luxury.  Screening had not been invented yet.

    Jacques was too excited to sleep well during the first night in his new home. He tossed about on his moss mattress and planned how he would make a clay chimney and a fireplace of crude homemade bricks. He must remember to keep an oak log for burning at night. It did not throw off sparks that might cause a fire in his wonderful new home.

    He looked up at the rafters and saw the marks of his axe and knew that his children's children would tell their children about young Jacques hewing those very timbers for the generations that would come after him. He knew it was not as fancy as the fine houses he had seen in the town, but his was not built with money. It was built with sweat and blood and sacrifice. But most of all, it was built with love.

St. Tammany News Banner 
February 11, 1976