When Barbara and I decided to build a new house rather than remodel the old farmhouse, we wanted to build a home that reflected the history of our land. We chose the site of the original manor house. which burned in the 1940s. This was probably the site of the first building on the farm. It is on high ground close to LaGrange Creek and includes the remnants of a hand-cut rolling road going to the water, which would have been used to ship tobacco from the plantation prior to the establishment of Urbanna as an official port in 1680. Our land had been part of a grant from the King of England under the headright system, whereby a settler was entitled to fifty acres of land for each person he brought into the colony, including himself and his family. Around 1650, Rowland Burnham, Gent. patented 4,000 acres on both sides of “Sunderland alias Burnham’s” Creek and settled on the north side. Our farm is on the south side and became known as LaGrange Plantation. Under the headright system, land had to be settled within two years or it would escheat back to the king of England: fields had to be cleared and planted and a house, at least twenty feet square, built and occupied. As this land was a quarter or satellite of the main plantation and operated by an overseer, the first house, built before 1652, would have been modest, basic and temporary. By around 1680 a more substantial dwelling was probably built, and around 1750 a proper manor house was constructed along with numerous outbuildings. We wanted to capture the essence of the typical second and third building phases in this area characterized by a Colonial Medieval design facing the water. We researched and visited all of the pre-Revolutionary houses and ruins that we could find in Middlesex County and the Tidewater region of Virginia and collected architectural details or physical artifacts such as bricks or nails from each site to be incorporated into our “history house.”
During our research we discovered that a pre-Revolutionary War house near the Dragon Run and Wares Bridge had collapsed and that the carcass, overgrown by vines, was quickly rotting away. The house was named Woodbine—an old English term for vines that grow around trees. There was, and still is, plenty of honeysuckle, ivy and Virginia creeper along the Dragon. After being abandoned for many years, hogs had been allowed to root under the two massive chimneys. When the chimneys fell they knocked the house down. We bought the salvage rights, and along with our daughters and friends, recovered what timbers were still sound and the handmade bricks from the chimneys and full English basement.
Woodbine was of Dutch Colonial design with a gambrel roof—a style that was popular in this area and time period. Several examples still exist in Middlesex and King and Queen counties, and judging from the architectural details, were probably all built by the same journeyman housewright and his apprentices. The housewright would likewise have been a product of the American apprentice system dating back to journeyman indentured servants brought over from England in the 1600s to build houses (and to earn their sponsor the right to 50 acres of land). The style of construction was braced frame. The framing and bracing timbers were contained within the walls rather than exposed and embellished as in timber framing. They were fastened together with strong, precisely cut mortise and tenon joints rather than nails. The walls were plastered on the inside and sheathed with cypress weatherboarding on the outside. The roof was sheathed with wide cypress boards that were beveled to overlap so that if the hand-split cypress shingles leaked, water would not run into the house. Braced frame construction required a lot of time and highly skilled artisans, but it would be another 100 years before circular sawn dimension lumber and cheaper factory made nails made balloon and platform framing a viable option. read more
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