Working To Solve
Some Of Its Puzzles
BY KEN LITTLE
Locating a wrought-iron door catch made before 1820 is easier than one might think.
Blacksmith Jamie Tyree was installing just such a catch Saturday at the 18th-century Seth Babb log home, now being reconstructed in Fox Memorial Park, near the Nathanael Greene Museum.
The work is proceeding slowly but surely, weather permitting. Features such as the wrought-iron door catches and strap hinges for wooden window shutters were installed Saturday.
"The material for this came from a grain elevator, and the last part of it was built in 1840," said Tyree, of Limestone.
Parts for door catches were machined beginning with the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s, he added.
"The way this mechanism works, this catch, you don't see that after 1820," Tyree said.
Descendants of Babb strive for authenticity in everything included in the two-story log homestead, which was built along the present-day Kingsport Highway, about a half-mile from the Newmansville Crossroads.
It remained in use for more than 100 years, when a larger house was built next door by Seth Babb's descendants. The original house continued to be used for various purposes afterward, including as a barn.
During a 2004 Babb family reunion in Greeneville, family members toured the weathered structure and made plans to dismantle and preserve it.
The homestead was disassembled in 2006 and was in storage until November 2011, when the walls were raised at its current location.
The log house now has a roof, floor, daubed (or "chinked") walls and other features that enhance the sturdy original wood structure.
The strap hinges are modeled after a surviving fragment that was located with the homestead, said Daniel Babb, director of the Babb Family Association.
Babb, who lives in Dallas, is a first cousin six times removed from Seth Babb, and serves as family genealogist.
"There are a few minor tasks remaining to complete reassembly, including setting the hinges and door locks," he said in a recent email.
Scheduled next are final treatments to the doors, and the completion of the interior wall on the lower level. Some interior chinking and mortar work must also be done, Babb said.
"We will be completing all of those as soon as the weather permits and time allows. With the homestead rebuilt, we will be turning our attention to the chimney," Babb said.
Tyree was installing a "trim set" Saturday on one door of the log home. The "trim set" includes a latch bar, a staple and a footed catch.
"That's what held the door shut," he said.
Before wrought iron was available, early settlers used blocks of wood, he said.
A wrought-iron door catch might seem like an ordinary piece of hardware these days, but that wasn't the case when the log house was new.
"This was a very expensive piece at that time. Iron was worth as much as gold," Tyree said.
It was also a status symbol.
"It cost that much to produce, so somebody who could afford this [wrought-iron latch] was quite wealthy," Tyree said. "It was a sign of wealth."
In the early 1800s, shutter hinges such as the one Tyree was installing at the log home were riveted on.
"That was that much more iron that you had to buy. They made great long straps," he said. "With these rivets, they were showing off."
At the Babb log home, "there was evidence that's what was originally used as well," Tyree said.
PUZZLE OVER DOORS
Tyree will soon re-install the front and back doors to the log home.
"We have been trying various combinations to interpret the front door as it might have been. Unfortunately, it isn't known exactly how these were done," Babb said.
"We found in the homestead the exact number of doors as there are openings. None of the windows survived, so they have been recreated."
The hardware on the door dates to about the 1840s, "but it didn't exist at the time of first construction [in the late 1700s]. Was it replaced over time? We could certainly forgive a hinge that broke after 50 years of use," Babb said.
WHICH WAS 'FRONT' DOOR?
"This door we are using [for the front door] does fit the opening, but it doesn't match any of the others.
"We had theorized that they might have had a fancier front door, which was a common practice that remains to this day. However, something just never seemed right about it," he said.
The original door-frame used pegs, Babb said.
"The approach was common in pioneer days, but the remaining frame was not hung in this manner.
"The homestead had been used largely as a barn since the construction of the nearby larger Victorian house. Could this have happened in the 1840s as well?" Babb said.
The answer was found by consulting family "patriarchs" Hugh and Lynn Babb, "who have been in and around the home throughout their lives," Daniel Babb said.
"They were in firm agreement that the door we were so busy trying to figure out was, in fact, the back door of the homestead.
"It seems that, unlike today, the front door would have faced the creek and not the road," he said.
"This didn't sink in at first, but I finally realized that we have had the front door all along. It's the board and batten door that is already installed as the current back door in its original location."
The door was likely built by Seth Babb, "and we are at work determining what is the best approach to interpret the remaining doors," Babb said.
"Our intent is to interpret this homestead faithfully and to the earliest period possible. Thus it has taken longer than any of us expected, but I promise that it is worth the wait!"
Tyree estimates the door he put the latch on Saturday dates to about 1810, about 20 years after the original log home was built.
The virgin timber, typically "old growth pine," was from "ages-old" forests and was much denser than wood used today, Tyree said.
"In Greene County, there's a lot of old houses. I've taken down a couple of log cabins myself, and surprisingly, they have original doors," Tyree said.
CHIMNEY WORK PLANNED
A purchase of antique limestone for the chimney has been negotiated, and construction on that phase of the project should begin soon, Babb said.
Landscape preparations are also under way to prepare the lot for a spring planting, he said.
"Christ United Methodist Church plans to establish a community garden on the property that features crops the pioneers would have grown, and indigenous plants," he explained.
The family hopes "to complete the work on the landscaping in the spring. The money has been received through a grant, and we are waiting for the right weather to complete it."
The 22-foot-by-24-foot Babb Homestead will be on permanent loan to the Nathanael Greene Museum, and will eventually be open to the public.
"We're going to do a grand opening for the public, but I suspect it will be summer before that happens," Babb said.
Here is a link to pictures taken by Babb of recent work by Tyree: