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Early Houses and Buildings

Robert Neumann


IT SHOULD COME AS NO SURPRISE THAT RESIDENTS LIVING IN Greene County today occupy structures vastly different from people residing here during the County's early years. There are, of course, some similarities. Buildings will always have walls and roofs, but the materials of which they are composed have always been subject to availability. Early building techniques in Greene County relied heavily on indigenous materials: trees, rock, and clay. Only labor was required to transform trees and rock into useable items. Clay, used in brick, had to be dug, mixed, molded and fired. Limestone had to be burned for lime, then slaked and mixed with sand to produce mortar before the bricks could be used for building. The process required skill to produce the brick and mortar, and also to lay them. But, still, almost everything needed to erect a building could be produced locally. Only metal items required an outside supplier for the iron, while local blacksmiths could produce hinges, bolts, and nails.

     One of the best early accounts for domestic building comes from the probate file of William Warren No. 10232. He was involved in hauling and selling materials and, apparently, somewhat in construction. Small homemade paper booklets, usually labeled William Warren, detailed a variety of building-related items which he could supply.

     The Danforth brothers, James and John, were among Warren's steady customers. In 1841, they ordered 82 studs 10 feet long, 29 rafters, 41 bushels of lime, 8 braces, 10 corner posts, 16 plates, 17 joists, and 20 rafters for James' house. In 1839, John ordered 4025 feet of hewed timber for a smoke house; the bill was seventeen dollars. That same year, they purchased 36 smoke house logs, sill and plates totaling five dollars, presumably for the same structure. In 1842, the Danforth brothers hired Warren one day to haul lime and brick. That reference to brick was not the earliest. In 1840, Warren delivered nineteen hundred brick to Charles S. Yancey for two dollars. (This would be enough for a chimney or two but certainly not a building.) Even earlier, a major brick building was planned and built—the courthouse in the center of the Springfield square.

     County Court Record Book B contains an amazingly detailed description of how the building was to be constructed. Sidney S. Ingram, who had been appointed superintendent, submitted a plan possibly of his own design. It called for a building "40 feet in length by 34 feet in width with a stone foundation to be Sunk 18 Inches" and walls to be two feet thick. Builders, at the time worked with a mortar that was much weaker than the concrete and cements used today necessitating thick walls. A wall, "13 feet high for the 1st story 18 inches thick to be Raised with brick as was the remainder of the building. Two chimneys were to be built up with the wall in the west End . . . with a fireplace in Each below. There were to be windows on all four sides with those on the first floor of eighteen lights panes each 10 by 12 inches and those on the second story of eighteen lights 8 by 10 inches. The Rafters to be Sheeted with good Plank and covered with shingles made of Walnut oak or Pine timber. . . . the Lower floor to be laid white or post oak Plank 1 1/2 Inches thick. . . . doors shutters facing casing Sach & C Shall be made pine Lumber the doors and window Shutters to be pannel work. A judge's bench and jury box with turnings or railings was also specified.

       On November 28, 1837, it was order by the court that the court house in the Town of Springfield... Shall Be Erected in the center of the publick square. On 7 August 1838, Ingram reported that the Stone work... the foundation, was taken by Joseph Allison at Two hundred Dollars and...Completed. It was ordered that the money be paid out of Moneys appropriated for publick Buildings. On 8 August 1838, the Court ordered the courthouse Roof a square one be changed to hip roof and that E. F. Roberts under Taker be allowed one hundred & Twenty dollars.... Roberts received $202.95 for work on November 29, 1838, probably for this and other work.

      At least $3880 was spent on Greene County's new courthouse. It must have been the most impressive building in southwest Missouri at the time and may have resembled the courthouses residents remembered from their Tennessee homes. (Unfortunately only an engraving of the ruins of this courthouse exists; it burned in the fall of 1861.) Few other brick buildings were constructed with the Danforth house, supposedly begun in the late 1830's but not finished until later, possibly the only domestic example.

       Throughout the 1840's are references in Warren' s account books to less substantial buildings than the courthouse. John W. Ball in 1840 purchased 10 logs 14 feet long for $2.50 and 8 logs 14 feet long for $2.00; another 8 logs, 16 feet long were $2.50. John Edwards 1839 account listed to hawling 1 set of house logs $47.00, to 4 sills 18 feet long .50 , to 18 logs 14ft long, 18 logs 16 feet long $7.00." Jake Painter got 1 lot of hewed timber for $3.50 the same year. Also in 1839 Painter and a Mr. Yancy each got a house moved. Painter's relocation cost twenty-five cents more than Yancy's, which totaled $1.25, presumably indicating that Painter's house was larger.

       In Warren's booklets there are few references to brick and then only in small amounts that would have most likely been used in chimneys. There is, though, another reference to chimneys. Jonathan Harper was charged $1.25 for Chimbley timber, which probably referred to a humble fireplace of catt and daub or mud and stick design. Looking up the flue of early Greene county chimneys gives one a good view of the sky. They are almost big enough for an adult to crawl up. Whatever their construction, early flues must have consumed great quantities of wood. More efficient ways were at hand. By the 1850's cook stoves had appeared in the area. E. E. Chrisman was billed $35.00 for a No. 8 Cook Stove in 1859 from James Vaughn. Presley B. Shockley bought another from W B Logan & Co in 1854. Presumably some stoves were for heating. The Chambers House, a Springfield hotel, listed 8 stoves in an 1863 inventory.

     A readily available, indigenous material, stone was commonly used in early buildings. Permanent foundations were made of stone although not always in a continuous wall. Piers of stone were also employed to hold up houses and small buildings. Since houses did not have plumbing there was no worry about pipes freezing in the winter. In 1841 John Ball received 2 loads of rock for $2.00. Warren sold to States Eterny (State's Attorney) Macbride 16 loads of rock to wall a well for $8.00.

     Finished wood products were also milled or sawn out. There are many listings in Warren's book for weatherboarding possibly to side over log cabins. A Colonel Maculhany bought 620 feet in 1840. He also bought 105 feet of 2 inch white walnut (butternut). Thomas Shannon received 600 feet in 1839 for $3.30. Interior walls were also finished. Samuel F. January bought 4,500 laths for $10.00 in 1839. These lathes, which were to receive plaster, were probably riven at this time. Jake Painter got a one load of Sand for plastering for $2.50 in 1841. A Mr. Maculhany bought 370 feet of sickamore sheating square edged which might have been used for some interior finish work. There were cabinet makers in Springfield. William Warren gave John Studiven a total for $27.00 for staers in 1840. Also Randolph More signed a note Due William Warren Eight dollars 38 cents to Be paid in Cabinet work. More also bought $1.40 worth of walnut and cherry.

       Three methods converted trees to building materials; logs could be hewn or chopped into shape, sawn by hand, or sawn at mills. Shaping wood with an axe is a good way to produce large pieces of usable, although often crude, logs or framing. Floor joists made from logs might have only one edge chopped or adzed flat; rafters were made from small tree trunks having only the bark peeled off. Rafters could also be hand sawn. Sometimes slabs were sawn from tree trunks and then sawn again lengthways down the middle of the flat slab. The flat edge was then used against the roofing planks. Both of these methods saved labor as there was no need to produce 4 flat edges where only one would suffice.

      Sawmills produced lumber faster than either hewing or hand sawing. Water powered mills supplied the growing demands of increasing population. From Warren's 1839 booklets comes a listing of prices from Ball's Saw Mill: weatherboarding was $1.25 per hundred feet, plank 1 1/4 inches thick was $1.75 per hundred feet and plank one inch thick cost $1.50 per hundred feet. There were probably many mills. The estate of James H. Massey #7332 received $50.00 in 1844 for the rent of a saw mill. By 1850 Zachariah Sims had One lot of Oak plank at Dysarts Mills in Greene County amounting to 2000 feet. He also owned a lot of Plank, about eleven thousand seven feet....and One lot of pine plank at Thomas Browns in Ozark county of 4000 feet.

        A very good building account is in John Casey's 1856 probate file #15. It lists materials for what might have been an average house. The account with an A. Casey, probably a relative of John, lists 72 1/2 lbs of nails at .08 per pound $5.78, 1000 ft of weather boarding at 1 1/2 pr ft $41.95, cash paid for sheting plank 4., 842 ft sealing plank at 2 pr ft $16.84, 498 ft flooring at 2 1/5 pr ft 13000 shingles...9.00, cash paid for timbers for frame 11.90, 1 chimley 25.60, carpenter work 69.90 plus other items and To Bording hands to bild house an gitin lumber 70 day at 12 per day. making a total cost of $203.55. What might have Casey's house looked like? Deed Record Book J , page 474, records an 1859 contract between Virgil W.Kimball and William S. Snow for building a dwelling house. The description reads to be 16 x 38 feet, a nine feet stary stair Hall in Center, 5-4 pannell doors, 4 windows 12 lights 10 x 16 glass, all the windows to have blinds (presumably shutters), the house to be well framed & weatherboarded, Shingled with a Respectable Cornic, Lathed and Plastered two Coat Work. Painted with lead & oil two Coats (Said Snow furnishes foundation & Builds Chimney . The house was to be built not xceeding five miles from Springfield. This probably describes a home with a single room, approximately 16 by 14 feet, on either side of a stair hall, a door off the hall to each, a front and back door and one closing off the stairs to an attic. There was probably a front and back window for both rooms and a fireplace in each of them.

Early builders often bought from a variety of sources. John A. Stephens bought 1 frame Building as it stands from the Weaver estate for $101.00 in 1852. James Hackney bought 1 Lot of dressed lumber for $14.47 at the same sale. Joseph Gott bought 1 Lot of window frames. (Gott's Addition was a subdivision opened in Springfield in the middle 1850's and probably built houses on these lots.) From another probate file #155, Benjamin Cowen's appraisement list included 1 Lot of lumber or house frame for $25.00. Also shown in this 1850 list were 40 Stable logs hewn 16ft by 16" worth $10.00. Clearly old practices, where economical, still existed.

           To be protected wood had to be treated. Shortly before his death Presley B. Shockly #5813 must have been building or reworking his house. His account with G. L. Mitchel lists a variety of materials. A March 24, 1856, bill includes to halling laths .25, 2 bushel of hair .40, (horse hair and pig bristles were used as a binder for plastering); to lathing one house $3.75, to 21 bushels of lime 4.70, makeing morter & Weighing on the plaster 3.55. After this came bills for painting ingredients. Shockly bought kegs of No 1 white lead, gallons of linseed oil, some turpentine, 12 1/2 lbs of chrome green, papers of lamp black, copal varnish and paint brushes. He also bought from H. M. Parrish 2 pounds of Paris green and varnish. Several of the popular house and cottage building books of the time recommended various colors. These books may have been used as guides by Greene County builders and home owners or by painters such R. C. Graves and Moses Johnson who were listed as working in Springfield in the 1860 Missouri State Gazetteer.

         Labor costs are an interesting corollary to materials expenses. On the John Casey home carpenter work cost $69.90 out of the total bill of $203.55. There are small bills also for laying hearth .50 and day of laying rock .75. A December, 1852, account of B. A. Smith against the Weaver estate lists To 16 Days Labour on House $1.00 Per Day $16.00. James Hawkins billed the same estate $18.00 for 20 days labor in digging a well.

     The coming of the railroad to Greene County in the early 1870's allowed the average person to build with more elaborate materials. Millwork and scrolls, cast iron lintels and railings, Italian marble mantles, English tiles, and stained glass windows were luxuries that early county residents of moderate means could not afford. Mass production and cheap transportation changed the old ways of construction. Indigenous products would still continue to be used for many years but the days of hewn logs and stone chimneys had past forever.

         One last mention should be made of the difference between how people live today and how they did in the early years of Greene County. The majority of houses today consolidate living activities into one structure. In the past wagons, carriages, tools and other items were stored in sheds and barns. Today the equivalent is protected in an attached garage. Bathrooms are now indoors where previously people had to go outside to the necessary or outhouse. Plumbing is also inside homes eliminating the need for well houses or cisterns. Food is now purchased as a prepared product; no one smokes their owns hams and meats or needs to. Refrigeration disposed of smokehouses and spring houses. And microwave ovens are much less of a fire hazard which had earlier necessitated separate kitchen buildings. It seems impossible to conjecture what another century of change will provide in housing.

This article originally appeared in the Greene County Historical Society Bulletin 58, no. 3 (September-December 1997).

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