HLF Museum Files: Yesteryear’s Workers Leave Clues on Planks and Clapboard

by Jane Ahrens

by Pierce Rafferty
October 2012

Sometimes written clues that can reveal aspects of the history of a given house are left behind by carpenters, plumbers and other workers for future generations to discover. New house owners occasionally find these hidden messages while tearing out walls, floors and ceilings. Almost certainly most remain undiscovered.

In recent years, several pieces of wooden planks and siding covered with scrawled notes, signatures and dates have helped to answer lingering architectural questions.

Several years ago, Harry and Susie Ferguson generously donated to the Museum pieces of inscribed clapboard from their “Mansion House,” located beyond right field of the ball field. This historic residence was originally a simple brick farm structure called “The West House.” Although there is some debate on the matter, I believe that the West House was built circa 1780/81 by the absentee Winthrop owner, following the British torching of all houses on the island during a raid in July 1779. In the wake of the raid, the absentee Winthrop owner had petitioned the Connecticut authorities for permission “to build a small brick house and put a family there for the protection of the estate and some small stock &c.”

In 1863, after buying all of Fishers Island for $55,000 from the heirs of the last Winthrop owner, new owner Robert Ralston Fox chose to make the “West House” his family’s private residence. Carpenters were hired to turn that simple brick farm structure into a proper residence befitting a wealthy owner. As part of the renovation and expansion, the exterior brick walls were covered with clapboard. Upon completion of the job, the carpenters left messages and signed their names in pencil: “Theo E. Beach, Carpenter, New London,” “Closed up Aug. 10, 1865,” “Clatboarded (sic) this End, this my last day, Fishers Island, Thursday Aug. 10th, In the year of our Lord 1865, Marcus H. ____.” From these we now know with a high degree of certainty the year and month when the simple brick “West House” became Robert Fox’s much grander wooden-sided residence. Please note that the name “Mansion House” appears to have come into general use when the West House was turned into Fishers Island’s first hotel circa 1877.

During a recent major renovation of the former G.B. Linderman residence on Fishers Island, a crew working for new owners Kate and Peter Baccile uncovered a wooden plank with a list of workers’ names and home towns that helped to flush out the likely architect of that prominent mansion. On the plank were the names of four car-penters from Easton, Pa., four from Bethlehem, Pa., and two from Norwich, Ct. Also on the list were three plumb-ers from Easton, Pa. The list itself was “wrote (sic) by Robert E. Snyder, on May 30, 1899, born in Easton, Pa. on June 10th, 1876.” The number of workers originating in Easton, Pa., triggered an internet search for all prominent architects based in Easton during the late 19th century. The dominant architect from Easton at that time—in fact, he may have been the only one—was William Marsh Michler (1868-1948). He had received a Bachelor of Science degree in Architecture from the University of Pennsylvania in 1895. A separate search focusing on Mr. Michler revealed that he had designed G.B. Linderman’s winter residence in Bethlehem, Pa. (This was important because Linderman family members had stated that the same architect had been used for both G.B. Linderman’s winter and summer houses.) The last piece of the puzzle fell into place when a separate Google Books search uncovered a 1902 University of Pennsylvania alumni publication that referenced William Marsh Michler as having “planned and erected costly residences and other buildings at Fisher’s Island, New York, Hazleton, PA and in Easton.”

Thus, thanks to the leads unintentionally provided by proud workers “signing” their work more than a century ago, several long-standing architectural mysteries have been solved. Please send any hidden messages that you have discovered in your house to fimuseum@fishersisland.net.

Featured Photo

USCG Eagle passing the Race early morning March 18, 2023 on her return from the Chesapeake Bay. Photo Credit Marlin Bloethe

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