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Moving House: Williamsburg Style

Like thousands of good little schoolchildren before me, our elementary school class trekked off to see Colonial Williamsburg sometime in the 1960s. Little did I know that parts of this “Colonial” site were a mere 30 years old at the time.

Despite being a native of this area, it wasn’t until 2007 that I learned that part of Colonial Williamsburg was re-created in the early 1930s through the beneficence and foresight of John D. Rockefeller, Jr.

Hubby and I were touring Colonial Williamsburg when I pointed out that there’d been some restoration work done on these buildings in the 1920s or 30s. He looked at my quizzically and said, “You know that many of these buildings are re-creations done in the early 30s, right?”

Oops.

Seven years later, while researching Penniman, DuPont’s 37th munitions plant on the York River, I discovered that the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Library (Colonial Williamsburg Foundation) had several aerial photos of Williamsburg from the late 1920s and 1930s. David Spriggs and I drove to the library Tuesday morning to get a better look at these photos.

And it was a fascinating field trip.

Marianne, the Vital Resources Editorial Librarian, was every researcher’s dream. She was not only knowledgeable and well-versed, but eager to help us solve a few mysteries.

In looking at these old aerial photos, it was my hope to find a few of the 17 houses that were moved to Williamsburg from Penniman in October 1921 by W. A. Bozarth (according to the Virginia Gazette).  I did find nine Penniman houses in the photo.

Sadly, judging from these vintage photos, many early 20th Century houses and eight of our relocated Penniman houses went bye-bye during the Colonial Williamsburg restoration. (Kind of pitiable really. The little Penniman houses survived the “leave no board behind” government salvage at Penniman, and then died a tragic death just 10 years later.)

Finding those Penniman houses was fun, but there was hidden treasure I discovered in that photo that was even more fun!

Scroll on down.

To learn more about John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Library (Colonial Williamsburg Foundation), click here

To read more about Penniman, click here.

Shiawassee History

This undated aerial view of Williamsburg was probably from the early 1930s. Those familiar with Williamsburg will recognize "The Triangle" where Richmond and Jamestown Roads merge at Duke Of Gloucester Street. These photos were taken by the Army Corps of Engineers and the detail is stunning. (Photo is courtesy The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.)

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House

When I first saw this house, I told my husband, "Why, it looks like that house is sitting in the middle of the street!" And then I realized, that the house IS sitting in the middle of S. England Street! The photographer managed to catch a picture of Williamsburg on a day when a house was being moved. With all the development of Colonial Williamsburg, I'm grateful to know that a few houses were moved rather than destroyed, and this image offers photographic proof! Most likely, the house is being moved backwards, and headed south on S. England Street. The absence of power lines and overhead wires made it a lot easier to move houses. In fact, in the early 1900s, moving houses was a surprisingly common practice. (Photo is courtesy The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.)

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house house

And if you look real close, you'll see what appears to be a pair of tracks behind the house. From what I can glean, S. England street was a paved street at the time of this photo. Those rails would have been used to move the house. They were laid behind the house (where it's advancing) and then as the house moved, the sections were taken up from the front and moved to the rear. Remember, the house is being moved backwards. Moving a house back in the day was a very slow process. Often, houses couldn't be moved from old site to new site in a single day, so at the end of the day, the workers went home and left the house sitting in the middle of the street. Given that I see no workers present, I suspect that's what is going on here. (Photo is courtesy The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.)

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Shiawassee

One of the finest examples of early 20th Century moving that I've ever come across is this picture from the Shiawassee History website. See link below. If you look at the image above, you'll see rails laid down in front of the house. At the website (below), there's a thorough explanation of how this move was accomplished, but in short, the horse walked in a circle around that capstan which was anchored to a tree or some solid object. The winding of the rope around the capstan acted like a winch, pulling the house forward on those rails, SLOWLY.

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For a real life example of how this capstan works, click here to see it in use.

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In October 1921, the Virginia Gazette reported that

In October 1921, the Virginia Gazette reported that Mr. Bozarth had moved 17 houses out of Penniman and into Williamsburg. Better yet, they were "desirable houses"! I wonder how many "undesirable houses" he moved?

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Just this morning, I was talking to a curator at a local museum who told me, “I heard that some houses were moved by barge from York County to Norfolk, but I told the person making the inquiry that they didn’t move houses in the early 1900s, and that it was just a myth. Just too difficult for a variety of reasons.”

Alas!

In fact, it was much MORE common in the early 1900s than it is today. The absence of overhead power lines made it even better, plus this country had a different mindset about wasting precious resources.

To read about the houses that came by barge to Norfolk, click here.

Click here to visit the *fabulous* Shiawassee History website, and learn more about the how and why of moving houses in the early 1900s.

The site also offers a splendiferous explanation of how (and why) so many houses were moved, rather than destroyed (as they are today).

For all our 21st Century noise about recycling, we’re way too eager to send old houses to the landfill. The house shown probably represents 250,000+ pounds of irreplaceable building materials.

To learn more about the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Library in Williamsburg, click here.

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  1. Dale Haynes
    November 22nd, 2013 at 19:40 | #1

    Very cool! Just wish today’s generation could learn from generations’ past.

    But it would stink nowadays to turn down a street and well darn it there’s a house in my way.

  2. David Spriggs
    November 23rd, 2013 at 12:11 | #2

    I had a quick look up and down S. England Street and the intersecting streets, hoping to find that “mobile” home today.

    Alas, so much of that area has been razed and covered with new construction. It is likely that the home fell to the wrecking ball some time after its relocation.

  3. Mark Hardin
    November 24th, 2013 at 00:31 | #3

    Rose,

    I’m so glad you were able to get the high resolution aerial photographs.

    I am surprised that after looking at them we spotted the exact same houses. The photograph with the house being moved is very interesting.

    Many of the houses we spotted in the photo from 1928 had disappeared in this photo. In close examination I can see what looks to be mid 1930s automobiles parked on Blair Street in the vicinity of the Capitol building.

    The project to preserve and restore Williamsburg’s history would have been well under way by this time.

  4. November 24th, 2013 at 06:04 | #4

    Thanks, Mark. Those aerial photos have been wonderful, haven’t they? And I so appreciate that you’ve identified 11 original Penniman structures in 1930s Williamsburg.

  5. Shari D.
    November 26th, 2013 at 13:02 | #5

    Rose ~ Great blog post! I was also one of those very eager, “pleased-as-heck-to-be-out-of-school-for-the-whole-day”schoolchildren back in the mid-60’s who made the yearly pilgrimage to Colonial Williamsburg!

    It was a much anticipated vacation from the classroom, and I know we always prayed hard for good weather too. I’m not sure when we learned about the Rockefellers’ efforts to restore what had become a fairly bedraggled area into the grand living museum it is today, but I’m pretty sure that was part of our information to satisfy the childish curiosity of how everything “had lasted for a couple hundred years and still looked so nice!?”

    The housemoving part was also very interesting!

    I have seen a couple moved as a kid, but it certainly wasn’t a commonplace event by the 60s and 70s probably due to the nature of the logistics involved, the crowded, busy streets, the cost and the lack of desire to retain most of the structures which had become merely “old” and not yet “antique.”

    However, about a year or so ago, a large structure of approximately this vintage was moved in Greenfield where I live, and planted on a new lot.

    It was quite the news in the papers, and I think it made local TV news as well! It was moved through farm country though, so any restrictions I’m sure were minimal. I think it did block part of a back road overnight though.

    It would seem to make sense “back in the day” to move the kind of homes seen in these pictures, since labor for doing so was likely less expensive than building new, and wouldn’t require nearly as many men in as many specialties to accomplish.

    I seem to recall finding advertisements in vintage publications from companies which specialized in house moving. Back then homes were being built so very sturdily and out of such solid materials, and it could certainly be accomplished in much less time than creating new homes.

    A family would certainly be temporarily displaced for the short time it would take to move a house, and certainly much less time than it would take to tear down a home and either reconstruct it elsewhere, or build brand new at much more cost.

    Homes today aren’t nearly as well built, or of anything approaching the wonderful quality materials that were available 100 years ago, and it’s unlikely that anything contemporary would stand up to the strain!

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