Historic log dating project at Greenfield Plantation opens a window into the past
Southwest Virginia is an area rich in history. Thanks to a partnership between Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment and the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, graduate students in Associate Professor Carolyn Copenheaver’s Advanced Forest Ecology class helped uncover mysteries of the past that have important implications for forestry and history.
Two historic structures, a kitchen and slave dwelling located on the site of Greenfield Plantation near Fincastle, Virginia, were moved from their original location in winter 2016. The site of the plantation has been home to an industrial park since 1998, but with new businesses and higher volumes of traffic through the site, Botetourt County officials decided to move the two remaining plantation buildings.
The county relocated the historic structures and plans to create a 28-acre historic area where the public will be able to visit the structures without mixing with industrial traffic. The two buildings were each moved intact to the site approximately 3,500 feet from their original locations.
Before the structures were moved, the contractor discovered that some of the lower logs had deteriorated too severely to survive the move and needed to be replaced. Mike Pulice, an architectural historian with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, saw the discarded logs as an opportunity to learn more about the structures and their history.
“People want to know this information,” Pulice said. “The history of slavery at Greenfield gets interpreted to the public through these buildings.”
According to Pulice, log structures are often difficult to date from an architectural perspective because most were built using the same techniques for hundreds of years.
“A lot of times, these buildings don’t leave a lot of clues about when they were built,” he said. “Dendrochronology [tree-ring dating] is an absolute tool, and sometimes it’s the only way to precisely determine when a structure was built.”
The kitchen is a two-story structure measuring 16 feet by 18 feet on the first floor and features a 4-foot front overhang on the second story. A staircase went up into the overhang, providing access to living quarters above the workspace.
"There’s not another one like this that anyone I know has seen or heard about,” Pulice said of the layout.
Originally, Pulice believed that the kitchen and slave quarters were probably constructed in the 1830s; however, the dendrochronology work done by Copenheaver of the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation and her students helped pinpoint the timeframe.
Dendrochronology is a method of using tree rings to determine the age of a tree, or in this case, a wooden structure. Copenheaver and her students compared the tree-ring patterns in the logs from the historic buildings with those from two old-growth white oak forests in Montgomery County.
“It’s like taking a look into a picture of what was,” said Ben Poling of Salamanca, New York, a forestry graduate student who worked on the project. “These samples can tell us so much about what was happening in the forested landscape in the 1700s and 1800s.”
Copenheaver said, “The cabins are what we call a ‘floating chronology.’ We don’t know where they fit in time. But by looking at the tree-ring patterns, we can match them with trees that have already been dated.”
Copenheaver and her team sanded the log samples, which are roughly the size of a milkshake straw, until they could clearly see the tree’s annual growth rings. From there, they ran the tree-ring measurements through a software program that compared the ring patterns against other samples to determine their exact age.
“Being able to work with samples that come from this far back in time and dealing with the floating chronologies to figure out when these samples were actually alive has been fascinating to me,” said Chance Raso, of Beckley, West Virginia, a geography graduate student.
The results surprised both Pulice and Copenheaver.
“We discovered that the kitchen was built in late 1844 or early 1845, and the slave quarters were built in 1864,” Pulice said. “In many ways, this is more exciting than confirming our original hypothesis. These might be the latest constructed slave quarters discovered to date, and it really sheds some light on what was going on right before the end of the Civil War.”
With so many of the day-to-day operations at Greenfield Plantation relying on slave labor, the plantation owners likely realized that the operations there could not continue if the slave population left. Pulice said that the new slave quarters may have been built late in the Civil War as an incentive for slaves to stay and work at Greenfield after they were freed.
For Copenheaver, the project’s results are even more interesting when explored through a forestry perspective.
“Mike is interested in how old the cabins are, but these samples also provide an opportunity to see what forests in Southwest Virginia were like in the 1700s and 1800s,” she said.
According to Copenheaver, the tree rings from the log structures tell the story of European settlement in the area.
“There were two waves of European settlement,” she said. “When settlers arrived in the area in the late 1730s and 1740s, they cleared the forests to create agricultural land. Then, when the settlers were pushed back eastward during the French and Indian War, that agricultural land was abandoned and actually reforested.”
Westward European settlement resumed after the French and Indian War ended in 1763. More trees were felled to build villages, and, with more space and access to sunlight, the trees that were left standing experienced an increase in growth.
“We can see all of this activity reflected in the tree-ring records,” Copenheaver said.