Equal Time: There’s more to the story on the Old House than one study

I am writing, not to argue “who came first” to Southold and Southampton, as debated in your article “So, who was really here first?” (Feb. 22), but to challenge the new assumption about Cutchogue’s venerable Old House, a National Historic Landmark, made by Zach Studenroth, director of the Cutchogue-New Suffolk Historical Council, who was featured in the article. Although I disagree with the current “reinterpreting” he is directing at the Old House that involves replacing longtime antique furnishings from local families with reproductions, I disagree even more strongly with the proposed renaming and redating of this National Historic Landmark based on inconclusive evidence from dendrochronology studies.

He now maintains, based on a dendrochronology study, that the Old House was not built in 1649 by John Budd, but in 1699 by Joseph Wickham when he came to Cutchogue 50 years later from Southampton. Mr. Studenroth and the recently hired curator now propose the landmark be renamed and redated the “1699 Joseph Wickham House.” Nor do I agree that some early local history was “little more than cheerleading” as stated in The Suffolk Times’ North Fork History Project article.

Mr. Studenroth’s assumption based wholly on dendrochronology is faulty. I believe the local historians, who have written that the Old House, built ca. 1649 in Southold by first settler John Budd, moved to its present site on the Cutchogue Village Green by Benjamin and Anna Budd Horton in 1660, and restored for the tercentenary celebration of Southold Town in 1940, are basically correct.

Although I’ve worked with Mr. Studenroth and respect his past work for the council, I believe strongly that he is incorrect in his new assumption about the Old House. How can he totally ignore the 50 years of documented residence of the Budds and Hortons, who lived there from 1649 to 1699, and just sweep them under the proverbial rug?

I have re-researched several local documents and histories, especially the transcription of the deed of sale of the property from John Horton (Benjamin’s brother and heir) to Joseph Wickham (1698-’99); “John Budd and Some of His Descendents,” by Lily Wright Budd; and “Pagans, Puritans, and Patriots of Yesterday’s Southold,” by Warren Hall. Both of the latter books by respected historians confirm the long-accepted history and dates of the Old House. I firmly believe the Old House was not built and first occupied by Joseph Wickham when he came to Cutchogue from Southampton in 1699.

Regrettably, Mr. Studenroth is basing his new assumption on a dendrochronology study, first conducted in 2007 when I was chair of the Old House Society, before we merged with the Historical Council. I basically ignored the study for reasons I’ll explain later. A more recent study supposedly was done under Mr. Studenroth’s direction.

Dendrochronology in its simplest form is a matter of counting tree rings — one ring, one year — on wood slivers or borings from timbers used in Colonial house framing. But it’s not always that simple. In fact, Dr. Ron Towner, associate professor of dendrochronology at the world-famous Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research at the University of Arizona, states “Only about 40 percent of tree samples are successfully dated by dendrochronology. Natural variations, sudden climate changes, or if a tree is planted near a creek or river, for example, it may get so much water that the rings no longer equate to each year elapsed.”

However, in a recent phone conversation with Dr. Towner, he explained that counting rings alone does not tell dendrochronologists what time period the tree is from. To find that out, scientists must focus on the pattern of rings rather than the number of them. I can’t see how a small boring can show a pattern, but a slice of the tree could. The slice would have to have been taken before the timber was installed in the building.

Also, in the case of the Old House, there is some speculation that it was built on John Budd’s land near Budd’s Pond in Hashamomuck, where much of the land is near water and marshes, not on his home lot in the village of Southold. If so, the timbers may have gotten so much water that the rings no longer equated to each year elapsed, as Dr. Towner speculated.

The Old House, venerated by not only the residents of Cutchogue in particular but the North Fork in general, as well as by visitors and historians from all over the world, must not be incorrectly re-interpreted and re-named based on inconclusive, most likely incorrect, research.

Since there is no definite proof for changing the name and date of the Old House, they must not be tampered with. It should keep the honor and distinction of “the oldest English house in the state” built in 1649. I am confident that the trustees of the Historical Council will understand and appreciate my research and will direct Mr. Studenroth not to change the date and name of the Old House, our National Historic Landmark.

Thanks for reading this dissertation. I trust you’ll agree with me. Please let president Dee Jordan and the trustees of the Historical Council and director Zach Studenroth (both at P.O. Box 714, Cutchogue, NY 11935) and me (25325 Main Road, Cutchogue, NY 11935) know your thoughts.

The author is a founding member and former trustee of the Cutchogue-New Suffolk Historical Council as well as a member and former chair of the Southold Town Historic Preservation Commission.