Saturday, February 17, 2018

Bringing Historic Homes to Life: The Plympton House

Welcome to the Plympton House.
Have I some tales to tell you!
The Daggett Farm House and the Giddings House - - both are colonial homes once belonging to folks who lived during the time of the founding of our country, and each structure is now located inside historic Greenfield Village, the open-air museum in Dearborn, Michigan.
For Daggett and Giddings I've done pretty extensive research on not only the houses, but the people who lived in them as well; at the bottom of this posting are links to each.
Now it's time to dig deep into the past for another of the 18th century homes inside the walls of Greenfield Village: the Plympton House. 
And what treasured information I dug up!
All I can say is "Wow...the walls do talk!" - - - and I believe you will agree.

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Tales of a Wayside Inn is a collection of poems by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The book, published in 1863, depicts a group of people at the Wayside Inn in Sudbury, Massachusetts as each tells a story in the form of a poem (this is the same book that carries the infamous verse "Paul Revere's Ride," by the way).
The prelude itself evokes an imagery of the past through the written word penned so eloquently:

One Autumn night, in Sudbury town,
Across the meadows bare and brown,
The windows of the wayside inn
Gleamed red with fire-light through the leaves
Of woodbine, hanging from the eaves
Their crimson curtains rent and thin.

As ancient is this hostelry
As any in the land may be,
Built in the old Colonial day,
When men lived in a grander way,
With ampler hospitality...

Now, let's see how Tales of the Wayside Inn ties in with the Plympton House, which now sits inside Greenfield Village, off to the side, back from the road, almost unnoticeable as a historical home...and, though most people tend to pass it by without a thought, this little red house holds some amazing history - history that begins nearly a century before the United States declared Independence from King George III.
Let's listen to what the walls have to tell us - - - -
Here is the front of the Plympton House.
No, this is not the original structure that Thomas Plympton built in the mid-1600s, though the fireplace and chimney are. Rather, it is the second home of the Plymptons, built in the early 1700s.
As it stands currently, upon entering the visitor will hear a recording automatically begin to play...some singing initially, then a dinner conversation, the voices almost like ghosts as we listen in on a family planning their day...a day three hundred years ago.
Unfortunately, other than the very basic overview written on the placard out in front of the building, this is all we get for the historic Plympton House. Now, mind you, I do enjoy the recording very much, but there is so much more to the story here.
So, I decided to delve deeper into the ghosts of Plympton past and see what I could coheres out of the walls of this, the oldest American structure inside Greenfield Village.
What I found was a story that was waiting to be told, of people who deserve to be remembered.
To begin with, we must learn a little about the first of the Plymptons in this line to make it to these shores from England before we get into the roots of the structure now standing inside the walls of Greenfield Village. You see, Thomas Plympton was a founding father of the Puritan settlement of Sudbury, Massachusetts, but before he came to America, he lived in Penton, England, where he was apprenticed as a carpenter to Peter Noyes. In 1638, before Thomas had time to complete his apprenticeship term, Mr. Noyes set sail for America, bringing along his two children and three servants. After settling in Sudbury and establishing a plantation, Noyes went back to England, returning shortly after with more servants and more children, including daughter Abigail. 
So we can safely assume that Plympton was in Sudbury by 1639 where he continued his apprenticeship to Mr. Noyes until his time was completed. 
It was not long after that he married Abigail Noyes, the daughter of his former master, and the two eventually, over a thirteen year period, had seven children: Abigail (b. 1653), Jane (b. 1655), Mary (b. 1656), Elizabeth (b. 1658), Thomas (b. 1661), Dorothy (b. 1664), and Peter (b. 1666)It's been said that because of his carpentry skills, Thomas helped to erect many of the buildings in the growing town of Sudbury, including a new meeting house in 1652. Over this same time-frame Thomas acquired land, including five acres of meadow from his father-in-law in 1649. In fact, he eventually became quite the landowner, and so did his descendants. But it's land he was granted in 1658 that interested me the most, for, from what I can gather in my research, it's on this property that the Plympton Home, now situated in Greenfield Village, was eventually built. Lands to the north of the property was owned by a Thomas Goodnow while acreage to the south belonged to John Hains. I cannot find what was to the east, but the west was bounded by the wilderness.
The decimation during King Phillip's War
All was good and fine until the year 1676, during the time of King Phillip's War. King Philip's War was an armed conflict between American Indian inhabitants of New England versus the New England colonists and their Indian allies in 1675–78. The war was the single greatest calamity to occur in seventeenth-century Puritan New England and is considered by many to be the deadliest war in the history of European settlement in North America in proportion to the population. In the space of little more than a year, 12 of the region's towns were destroyed and many more damaged, the colony's economy was all but ruined, and its population was decimated, losing one-tenth of all men available for military service. More than half of New England's towns were attacked by Indians.
From information garnered from a broadsheet dated April 17, 1676:
Early in the morning of this day, Mr. Thomas Plympton started from the garrison near the river with a team to remove the affects of a Mr. Boon who with his son resided near Boons pond in Pampsiticut. Returning they were fired upon by the Indians at a place now called Boons plain near the western line of Sudbury. Boon and his son were killed on the spot. Their bodies were found some days after near the cart, stript nearly naked and scalped. Mr. Plympton was found in the bushes, some distance from them neither stript nor scalped. The oxen returned the same day about noon. Mr. Plympton was probably somewhat in advance of his companions and loosed the cattle from the cart, on the first alarm, and received mortal wound in his flight and was not found by the Indians.

After this horrendous murder, we hear very little from the surviving Plymptons, aside from the division of lands equally between the two sons, Thomas and Peter, after widow Abigail died around twenty years after. Both sons, like their father, also dealt in real estate, with town records showing multiple land transactions. Thomas (jr) and Peter also are prominent in the affairs of Sudbury, with Thomas appointed a surveyor and Peter a constable (similar to our modern day policeman).
Digging deeper in our research we find a deed from Thomas to brother Peter transferring, for 500 pounds, his dwelling house with barn, orchard, "broke-up land & unbroke-up land," meadow, and all his lands in Sudbury. Likewise all of his cattle, horses, and all manner of estate except his arms and one horse.
Peter was now the sole possessor of all the Plympton land and homestead until he died in 1743.
Now, we know that the original house of the 1st Thomas Plympton burned down in the early 1700's, but I am not sure when the newer structure was completed, though we can safely assume it was probably shortly after the first house burned, for, according to the placard in Greenfield Village, this also took place in the early 1700s. And we also know that it was built around the brick chimney and hearth from the first home. 
And this is the house, built probably by Peter over 300 years ago, that is now sitting inside the walls of Greenfield Village.
In 1748, five years after her father Peter's death, daughter Abigail Plympton Smith (wife of Elijah Smith), transferred to her brother, yet another Thomas (the 3rd), 130 acres of land.
This grandson Thomas, who was born in 1723 (his father Peter married late in life), was also prominent in town affairs, as well as a soldier during the American Revolutionary War. It was this Thomas that received the news of the beginning of that War for Independence:
Quickly! I must see Master Plympton!
I have news of great importance concerning
the Regulars heading to Concord!
"An express came from Concord to Thomas Plympton Esq., who was then a member of the Provincial Congress in that the British were on their way to Concord - between 4 and 5 o'clock in the morning. The sexton was immediately called on the bell ringing and the discharge of Musket which was to give the alarm. By sunrise the greatest part of the inhabitants were notified. The morning was remarkably fine and the inhabitants of Sudbury never can make such an important appearance probably again."
This third Thomas also had a Revolutionary War son, and his name was Ebenezer Plympton. Ebenezer, the great grandson of the 1st Thomas, grandson of Peter, and son of Peter's son Thomas, continued to serve his town as his ancestors had before him, for he was a Deacon as well as the town Magistrate (the judge of a police court) of Sudbury. And, like his own father, Ebenezer Plympton was also involved in the Revolutionary War. In fact, he is listed on the muster role as a private in Captain Aaron Haynes' Company of Militia (North Militia 1775) which was part of an Alarm Company 
that marched to Cambridge by Concord during the Lexington Alarm on the nineteenth of April, 1775. He was also part of Captain Asahel Wheeler's company in 1777.
In other words, this Plympton House sitting inside Greenfield Village has direct connections to not only the Revolutionary War itself, but to the very beginnings of it: the Battle of Lexington & Concord!
How cool is this?
(Giddings House, sitting across the street in Greenfield Village, also has Revolutionary War connections. Click the link at the bottom of this post to read about that).

The Plympton House as it stood upon 
the land where it was originally built.
From the Collections of the Henry Ford
As often as I have been inside the Plympton House, I never really gave much of a thought as to how or why Henry Ford connected with this particular building. But research is a marvelous thing. You see, there is a neat story behind this little red house that I never knew before: Ezekiel Howe was the third successive landlord of the infamous Wayside Inn mentioned at the beginning of this post. Thomas Plympton and Ezekiel Howe, it is said, were good friends, and it was Howe that received the news of the Lexington Alarm in 1775 from Plympton before anyone else in that town. But it was in 1785, when Thomas, for whatever reason, decided that it was time for the Plympton land - land that had been in the family for over a century - to be sold; the time of the ownership of the Plympton house and land had come to a close. And it was Howe who was interested and became the purchaser of the property. The Plympton/Howe land, including the house, was sold again a number of years later to Mr. Wheeler, and then eventually becoming the property of the Carr family. And it's this family that sold the house to Henry Ford.
Now, how does all this tie into the interest of Henry Ford?
Well, when Henry Ford purchased the Wayside Inn in 1923, he envisioned transforming the old Colonial Inn into a living museum of American history, an interest that predates the development of both Colonial Williamsburg and his own Greenfield VillagePursuing his vision to create a living museum of Americana that would be the first of its kind in the country, Ford purchased 3,000 acres of property surrounding the Inn, added eight new buildings to the site, and collected antiquities for display purposes. Included in the purchase was lost Howe family property. 
Did you see that? "included lost Howe family property" - - could it be...?
Digging deeper into my research, I looked under a file heading in the Benson Ford Research Center called "IN-HOUSE NAME FILE WITH SUBJECTS FILING SYSTEM SERIES, 1950-1952," and it's there we find a notation that states 'Plympton House on Wayside Inn estate.'
To add to that, in the wonderful book entitled 'A History of Longfellow's Wayside Inn,' there is a note that explains in good detail how Henry Ford not only restored the Wayside Inn itself, but numerous other buildings on the property surrounding the inn that he purchased, including "one house, the circa 1700 Plympton House on Dutton Road, (which was) disassembled and moved to Greenfield Village."
So there we have it!
Imagine that! A historical connection to the Revolutionary War/Battle of Lexington & Concord, but also to the infamous Wayside Inn! Now you can see why today's posting began with the Longfellow poem.

Now, when Henry Ford was creating his Greenfield Village in the late 1920s and early 1930s, it was Edward Cutler, his draftsman and architect, who he closely worked with in not only the lay out of the Village, but the dismantling and rebuilding of the historic homes brought there. Each structure, before being dismantled, would have pictures taken, sketches made, and every piece numbered as it was taken down to help in the reassembly and restoration after being shipped to Dearborn.
However, Cutler stated that the Plympton home was torn down before he even got to the job, so he had to do what he could to ensure it would be rebuilt properly. "After it was torn down, I measured up the foundations and got the line up of the thing. Because it was torn down and shipped here in a bunch, there were no drawings. I think Taylor tried to make some, but they were a mess; you couldn't make anything out of them."
Methinks Ed Cutler did a fine job rebuilding and restoring the beautiful ancient American structure, don't you?
I collect the old original Greenfield Village guidebooks, and the earliest that I could find any sort of a listing for the Plympton House is from the one printed in 1941, and though the Cotswold Cottage, brought over from England, is the oldest structure in the Village (from 1620), the Plympton House is considered to be the oldest American home there.

This well-preserved primitive two-roomed structure (one room above the other), with its simple sheath covering of walls and a low, open ceiling with a central "summer" beam, reflects the typical colonial architecture of the earliest period of New England, and the furnishings show the simplicity of home life of these early times.
Now, what is a “summer Beam” you ask?
A Summer Beam has been defined as a major and usually massive horizontal timber. It is the epitome of ‘load-bearing’ and is derived from the word ‘sommier’, which is French for “beast of burden.”  
This makes sense, since it is carrying the burden of the structure above it. This term has been used since the fourteenth century, and even back then referred to the massive beams that one can see in the center of the ceiling of each room.
I believe we see a small portion of the summer beam in the upper right corner, though I could be wrong. When I make it back out there I will make a point to look for it.

A particular note of interest is the chimney. When the first Thomas Plympton house burned down and this one was erected to replace it, it was built around the only part of the original home that survived the fire: the brick fireplace and chimney. As Henry Ford's chief architect, Ed Cutler, mentioned upon tearing it down to be shipped to Greenfield Village: "They were all little old hand-made bricks. Of course, to an ordinary person, a brick is a brick, but these were little hand-made things and were crooked as the dickens, and we built the fireplace of them.
There were four of them that had markings on them. I think one was 1640, and the other was W.X.P. 
In erecting the fireplace, I put those things (the marked bricks) right in the front so they could be seen. That was not quite like the original, but we wanted those bricks to be the center of interest."

Sketch from the Collections of the Henry Ford
An unusual feature in this home is the convenient inside covered well, seen to the left of the ladder. Most wells, during this period in time, were outside the home. Mr. Cutler said, "Of course, we put the well on the inside of the building, like it was originally. We dug a well there. We brought all the stone we could get for it. Everything was brought here that we could get down there on the job."
I am certain the convenience of an indoor well in the 18th century would be akin to first installing indoor plumbing in the 20th century. Whereas wells would freeze up during the bitter cold Massachusetts winters, I am guessing this indoor well just may not have. Now, just imagine not having to go out doors in the cold winter, with a yoke over your shoulders, to bring in water from the well. 
The ladder for the second floor, and there, under the box, is the well.

In the wintertime, when all the leaves are gone and the wind blows...
As you can see, this the Plympton House is simply made, incorporating the kitchen and living quarters within four walls. The ladder is for the 2nd floor sleeping accommodations, usually for the kids. With the low ceiling and large hearth you can bet wintertime wasn't nearly as cold as perhaps the Daggett Farm where they most likely sealed off (as best they could) all but one room during the cold weather months.
One can imagine visiting the Plymptons in the mid-1700s, and Mistress Ruth Plympton, wife of Thomas (grandson of immigrant Thomas), invites her visitors to sit on the settle near the fireplace.
I apologize on the poor "settle" photos. With limited space to move inside the house, these were the best photos I could get.
This coming year I will make the attempt to get a better picture of it.
(The settle, which is little more than a bench, is very narrow and not very comfortable, but the high wooden back shelters the guests from the icy drafts that seep into the room).

Colonial cooking, which made a veritable feast from basic ingredients, was dominated by fireplace technology; it was the massive fireplace that was the center of it all. And, of course, all of the necessary cooking tools to go with it: "A nest of iron pots of different sizes, a long iron fork to take out articles from boiling water, an iron hook with a handle to lift pots from the crane, a large and small gridiron with grooved bars and a trench to catch the grease, a dutch oven (or bake pan), two skillets of different sizes, a skimmer, skewers, a toasting iron, two tea kettles - one small and one large, a spider (or flat skillet) for frying, a griddle, a waffle iron, tin and iron bake and bread pans, two ladles of different sizes, two brass kettles of different sizes for soap boiling, &c." (From Miss Catherine Beecher).
Before the everyone went off to their beds, Mistress Plympton might scoop hot ashes and embers from the fireplace into the brass bedwarmer hanging there at the hearth, and would have passed it between the sheets of the beds to make them less biting cold. This move must be done quickly otherwise it can scorch the sheets.
Then Master Plympton would bank the fire carefully so that it will burn slowly all night long. In the morning, he or Mistress would blow lightly to encourage a new flame. If the fire should go out, one of the children would have to go to one of their neighbor's to borrow hot embers. Since there were no matches at this time, it could sometimes take a half hour or longer to light a new fire with flint and tinder.
Just in case you are wondering about the original antiques situated inside this home, on the left we have a blanket chest from 1680 to 1700. Next, on the back wall, there is a hutch (with no year given). In front of the hutch is the settle (no year given), and the walking wheel. The table is known as a hutch table, and three of the chairs are called Carver and the one in back is called a slat-back.

Again, from left, this first item looks to be a chest of drawers, but I could be mistaken. The tall storage cupboard is next, neither of which I know the year built.

For this next picture I peeked through the opposite window to see the inside of the house from a different angle.
That plexi-glass!
Although this beautiful representation of an early colonial home is open for visitors to enter, it is plexi-glassed off which can make it difficult to photograph the inside of the structure.

Here is also the exterior of the house from an angle most visitors don't see.
Sometimes to see the back of a house can help to give another accurate perspective, especially from a house in an agrarian society with most of the farming taking place in the back fields.

It is my understanding that, because the Daggett Farm and the Giddings House are being used as representations of colonial living by way of costumed presenters, the plexi-glass and push-button recording will remain in the Plympton Home.
No matter, for just to be able to step into such a house that has so much history within its walls should be enough to please any historian. And, as always, it is my hope that the reader, upon their next visit to Greenfield Village, will remember the words and information herein, and will take a little more time to open the door of this little red house and engulf themselves in its past.
There's a whole lot of history here.
Well, I must return to my duties. Thank you for visiting.
I do hope to see you again.

Until next time, see you in time.

To learn more on how our colonial ancestors lived, please click the following links:
In the Good Old Colony Days
A concise pictorial to everyday life in America's colonies  

Colonial Cooking: On the Hearth
A post dedicated solely to colonial-era kitchen and cooking - lots of pictures!

Travel and Taverns
To help you understand what it was like to travel and stay at a tavern in colonial times.  

Lighting in colonial times
The candle light at it's brightest

April 19, 1775, As Seen Through the Eyes & Quills of Those Who Were There
A primary source primer of that fate-filled day that was the beginning of the United States becoming independent. This will give you a better idea of what it was like for Ebenezer Plympton when he went to fight the British Regular army.

And here are more links to Greenfield Village structures that I've written about: 
The Daggett House
The Giddings House
The Noah Webster House
The Ackley Covered Bridge
The Eagle Tavern
The Firestone Farm
The Richart Carriage Shop
Doc Howard's Office - Tales of a 19th century circuit-riding doctor

~Many thanks must go to the Benson Ford Research Center. There is such a wealth of information there!

For those of you that have never been to Greenfield Village, you should plan a trip there. If you are a lover of history, especially American history, this should be on your bucket list. Though the Henry Ford Museum is open year-round, Greenfield Village is open mainly from mid-April through November, with a special Christmas program throughout the month of December.
To do it right as a one-time out of town visitor, you will need a minimum of two days...possibly three.
Visit my Facebook page dedicated to Greenfield Village and my friends page dedicated to the Henry Ford Museum

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Michaela said...

I loved everything about this post, thank you for sharing your research!!

- From a Howe descendant.

Historical Ken said...

I appreciate your comment, Michaela.

Bama Planter said...

Ken, beautifully written. This should be submitted to be published in a magazine such as Early American Life. Beautiful pictures. This is really professional. Marshel

Historical Ken said...

Thank you - - so glad you liked it, Marshel - - !!