Wood offers clues to past

sbarr@newsobserver.comFebruary 28, 2014 

— The answer to when exactly the historic Crabtree Jones House was built may be ingrained in its own beams and planks.

Preservationists long have said the house dates back to around 1795, but they hope to pinpoint a more exact date by studying the tree rings found in the wood of the house, a technique known as dendrochronology.

The rings are a fingerprint of sorts that show how a tree grew and can indicate when it was cut down, offering a valuable clue about when its wood was used in construction.

With that information, preservationists hope to learn more about when the original Crabtree Jones House and its additions were built.

The house takes its name from early Raleigh settler Nathaniel “Crabtree” Jones, who is thought to have built it and who was active in local and state politics.

The more information preservationists have about the house itself, the better they say they can understand how people lived in it – and in Raleigh and North Carolina as well.

“It will help us tell a richer, fuller story of the Jones family’s lives,” said Robert Parrott, Jr., interim regional director of nonprofit Preservation North Carolina, which currently owns the house.

Of particular interest are the house’s additions. In some cases, it’s obvious where the house was added on to – in a bathroom with an exterior wall facing inward, for example.

But, it’s not always clear when the additions were made or why.

With better information about dates and further research into the period, the preservationists can better understand the culture of the time, said Lauren Werner, director of education outreach at the nonprofit.

In this case, the information might reveal who was keeping up with the Joneses, or who the Joneses themselves were watching and emulating.

In February, the historic Federal-style house was moved from its location on a wooded hilltop off Wake Forest Road to a new site about 700 feet away in the Crabtree Heights neighborhood, to make room for a new apartment complex.

Tree ring data

Mick Worthington, a dendrochronologist with the Oxford Tree-Ring Laboratory, started taking samples from the house at its new location last week.

He’s in search of unique tree ring sequences that can be compared to existing samples to determine when the tree that produced the wood was cut down.

Trees typically produce a new layer of growth, or a ring, under their bark each year that varies in size based on conditions such as rainfall and temperature. A good growing year generally produces a wider ring than a less favorable one.

If there are enough rings in the wood, the pattern can be compared against the pattern in samples where the dates already are known. Once the date the tree was felled is known, other sources can be used to determine whether the wood likely would have been used immediately.

Worthington plans to take about 10 samples from three areas of the house to help date its construction. The samples are cores of wood that look like drumsticks or pencils. Ideally, each will show at least 50 years of growth and include a bark edge for the most accurate dating.

Worthington, who has worked on buildings in England and across the U.S., said that people generally seek his services because they want to know more about a place that intrigues them.

“It’s just a house with a good story,” he said.

The Crabtree Jones House is currently on the market for $350,000 with rehabilitation expected to cost an additional $400,000 to $450,000. Buyers must agree to rehab the house with some restrictions to ensure its historic nature.

But the goal is to have a family living there once again.

“We would love for it to be used as a private residence again. “ Werner said.

The nonprofit plans to host an open house sometime this spring.

Barr: 919-836-4952

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