Up in the attic of the old house at Quansoo, you can read its somewhat haphazard growth over 300 odd years. You see where the several additions were made to the original structure. You see ancient roof timbers, reinforced with temporary framing and juxtaposed with a concrete block chimney.
Downstairs, too, there is something of an historical jumble. In the cracked wall evidence of wattle and daub construction but on the floor, linoleum. And outside, a new temporary roof over the old one to protect the building from further deterioration.
What we have here is major history, and a major preservation challenge for the Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation.
The fact is part of this house, known by the names of former owners as the Mayhew-Hancock-Mitchell House, given to the foundation by the late Florence B. “Flipper” Harris, is perhaps the oldest original house on Martha’s Vineyard. It is, said Sheriff’s Meadow executive director Adam Moore, one of only four similar structures in the country.
But parts of the house are decidedly not original. Like the concrete blocks. Like the front porch, which already has been removed. Like the lino. Also, the place is in a state of disrepair, unoccupied these many years. Now Mr. Moore wants not only to restore the house, but actually to use it again, and he has recently begun the process of getting the money and approvals to do it.
The plan, as outlined in a recent letter to the Chilmark Historical Commission, is to use the house as the center of a Quansoo Field Station for the foundation, to be used for meetings, school visits and educational programs, periodic historical commission tours, candlelight dinners and fireside talks.
“It all depends on what the town will allow us to do,” said Mr. Moore.
Ultimately it could become the center of a working farm again, or perhaps even a house where visiting researchers, writers or scientists, or a guest of Sheriff’s Meadow could spend the night, he suggested.
But a lot of work has to be done first.
“What we’d like to do is restore the front of the house – the oldest part – to an historically appropriate condition. That would require a professional to tell us what’s valuable about the house and what needs to be preserved,” he said.
“The Mitchell House is a wattle and daub structure. That is, they used straw as a building material. This is only one of four such structures still standing in the nation. That makes it significant.
“It’s also reputed to be the second oldest house on Martha’s Vineyard, but likely the oldest in the same location,” said Mr. Moore.
There is still some debate about the place. Exactly how old is it? Did it once have a thatch roof? Was it moved from somewhere else?
“But it has been here for a very long time. Hundreds of years. Since before our nation was founded,” Mr. Moore said.
“One of the special things about this house,” he said, “is that it’s in its original location and for the most part that setting has changed very little over the last 300 years. And it’s really remarkable to go to such a home that’s in such a setting. You get this real feeling of going back in time to centuries ago.”
On a tour of the house this week, Mr. Moore pointed out some of the marks of that long history.
He pointed to a wall in one tiny room. If you looked closely, you could just make out the image scratched inexpertly into it at a child’s height from the floor: a sailing boat, a whaler maybe, detailed with masts and rigging.
On a cupboard door in another room, a couple of signatures. One still clearly says Hancock. Other bits of history lie about on shelves and floors. Buggy doors, a box which once held shears, old preserving jars (some of which still had peaches in them when found), a whiskey bottle (empty when found), ancient overalls.
Among the other finds, removed for preservation, a program from a Martha’s Vineyard Livestock Show and Fair of the 1870s, and more.
“The front room, southeast room, is probably the oldest part of the house. That’s where you can see the wattle and daub. There was a room added to the rear and to the side of that. Then there was another section added on the eastern part of the house. And finally, in the 1800s, there was a section added on to the rear,” he said.
Mr. Moore said the preferred plan would see the removal of that last addition, and the addition of a “subordinate structure” at the rear with plumbing and electricity.
He envisions a small structure containing a kitchen, bathroom, dining room and sleeping area.
And the plan would extend beyond the house itself. The foundation has removed all the invasive plants which had grown up around the building. Now, Mr. Moore said, they need to do “some research into what garden plants and other vegetation someone would have had around a house in the 1600s or 1700s.”
Mr. Moore also wants to build an “historically accurate” barn on the property. There is no barn there now, but there are old footings.
“A well and a barn would better enable Sheriff’s Meadow to allow for farming to occur here and would help in continuing the agricultural heritage of this property,” Mr. Moore wrote in his letter to the historical commission.
To date, the foundation has just one $3,000 grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, to help with its planning. There are hopes of another $5,000 from the state.
It’s a small start, but a start just the same. Mr. Moore anticipates several more years of work.
“But the house has stood for hundreds of years, so a few more years is nothing really,” he said.
“On the other hand we don’t want to have it just sit there,” said Mr. Moore
“Chris Scott from the Preservation Trust gave me some very good advice. He said buildings need to be used.”