Research & Current Preservation Work

The log slave dwelling built in 1823 here at Clermont Farm at Berryville, VA, is undergoing an extensive rehabilitation process to assure its long-term survival, to make it safe for educational use, and to provide further information about its history and inhabitants.

The rehabilitation is supported by a $236,000 grant. The funding source for this project is the Hurricane Sandy Disaster Relief Assistance Grants for Historic Properties which is administered nationally by the U.S. Dept. of the Interior, National Park Service, and in Virginia by the Department of Historic Resources. In addition, in-kind contributions valued at $100,000 were made by The Clermont Foundation and the prime contractor HistoriCorps.

Dendrochronology (tree-ring dating) was used to establish the 192 year-old age of the structure, built by Dawson McCormick who bought the farm in 1819 and whose family occupied it for the next 185 years. At her death in 20004, Elizabeth Rust Williams, great-great granddaughter of Dawson McCormick, bequeathed the 360-acre historic farm to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources (www.dhr.virginia.gov), and the $10 million value of her gift to the state includes the significant historical equity created over 110 years by enslaved African Americans. The context for the slave quarter which is being repaired is that it was part of a middling-size plantation in the Shenandoah Valley surveyed out of the 5.5 million-acre Northern Neck Proprietary in 1750 by an eighteen-year old George Washington. The farm was a champion producer of wheat for the Atlantic trade in the 18th and 19th centuries. The farm has a complete array of buildings from that period, most of timber frame including the original owner’s house built by Thomas Wadlington in 1755-56. The 1860 federal census recorded 28 slaves at Clermont in three houses (of which the project house is the only one extant), of which 10 of the slaves were children under the age of twelve.

This slave dwelling is significant first as a site of conscience, built specifically to hold enslaved people; second for the relative rarity of extant log quarters compared to masonry ones; and third for the fact that this quarter continued to be used by paid agricultural labor after Emancipation until the 1950’s.

In the words of Dr. Carole Nash of James Madison University who led the initial archaeological work for this project, “ the proposed study will allow a glimpse into a cultural narrative little studied in the Shenandoah Valley: the continued use of a structure intended for enslaved occupants by freedmen and their descendants. The archaeological study of the lives and social/spatial organization of enslaved populations is helping to re-write their narrative, but research into the continued occupation of structures like the Clermont quarter through Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era is limited.”

The project is also interesting because its prime contractor is a preservation trades workforce development organization, HistoriCorps, using volunteers.

The non-profit HistoriCorps (www.historicorps.org) is a national organization that works through partnerships to mobilize volunteers to save and sustain the nation’s special places while providing educational and outdoor experiences. Launched in 2009, it is based in Denver and has done many projects with the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service. Its mission is to save and sustain historic places for public benefit through partnerships that foster public involvement, engage volunteers and provide training and education. HistoriCorps works with other non-profits and governmental organizations who need lower-cost solutions for repairing their historic buildings and who are interested in promoting volunteer preservation work and education in the preservation trades.

At the Clermont Slave Quarter project, there are seven weeks of volunteer labor in July and August, with, a new volunteer crew of 5-7 each week. Individual volunteers may sign up for multiple weeks to experience different aspects of the repair process – masonry foundations, log work, roof work, and siding). Masonry, for example, includes the preparation on site of the bedding mortar (foundations) and the daubing mortar (to cover and seal the chinking materials between the logs), as well as the work with stone and daubing. All the original mortars and daubing in the Clermont building were analyzed and are being recreated by the volunteers in conformity to their original chemical, aggregate, and color composition with materials largely from the farm.

On the Clermont project, three HistoriCorps staff members teach-by-doing and supervise the volunteers who learn-by-doing, including John Bales, project supervisor, Amanda Tully, volunteer coordinator, and David Gibney, masonry and log specialist, and long-time Preservation Trades Network (www.iptw.org ) activist. The HistoriCorps staff were on site to prepare and start work a week before the volunteers arrived, and will be on site a week after.

The project is expected to be complete by Saturday, September 12,2015, for the annual Historic Clermont Farm Day when the site is opened to the public. Tours and talks will highlight the work done to extend the life of this building safely into the future, where it will continue to open a window onto 200 years of American history.