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North Fork History Project: When was Cutchogue’s Old House built?

04/12/2018 6:00 AM |

How old is the Old House in Cutchogue?

This handsome home, which sits on the Village Green, has long been believed to be part of Budd and Horton family lore, dating back to the founding of Southold Town.

It is said to have been built in Hashamomuck in the late 1640s, just a few years after Europeans settled the town, pushing aside the Native people who had lived here for 10,000 years, and to have been moved to Cutchogue sometime later.

Among the articles of faith about the house is the claim that it is the oldest English-built home in New York State. However, two dendrochronology tests of the wood from the Old House reveal that the trees used to build it were felled in 1698 – a half-century after the date long accepted in Southold. Depending on when the house was constructed from those trees, the earliest year would be 1699.

As the Cutchogue-New Suffolk Historical Council rethinks its position on the iconic house’s history, supporters say it is important to stick with the story that the house dates to the 1640s.

They see no reason to change that and raise questions about the accuracy of the dendrochronology tests.

Others, however, say local archivists and historians must dig deeper into what is known about the house to better establish a well-grounded origin story.

All sides agree that folklore, as well as family and oral histories, play a critical role in any narrative. But some argue that science like the dendrochronology testing and available records — which include a deed of sale for the land where the Old House sits that dates to 1699 — should carry equal weight.

It’s long been believed that the Old House on the Village Green in Cutchogue was built in the late 1640s. (Credit: Krysten Massa)

“I don’t believe any new date and certainly not 1698,” said James Grathwohl, a Cutchogue native who has long been active in history circles and in efforts to support the preservation and history of the house. He believes strongly that it was built in the 1640s.

Mr. Grathwohl has made his opinion clear to the historical council: Do not change the date.

“What about the family histories that have been written that speak about the history of the house?

Don’t they mean anything? Folklore counts — it is as important as anything else. I don’t want to see that date changed,” he said.

Some who argue that there is no solid support for the 1640s date — no town records, for example — did not want to be interviewed for this story, as the disagreement between the two sides has become a bit heated.

Here are the key points cited by those who say the house is not as old as it is now billed to be.

• Accounts written by a 1940s-era town historian named Wayland Jefferson, who promoted the 1640s story, are now seen by many as poorly researched and based on nothing in town records. Mr. Jefferson’s book on Cutchogue, published in 1940 by the Cutchogue-New Suffolk Historical Council, has no citations as to where certain information came from. 1940 was the year Southold Town celebrated its 300th birthday. Specifically, Mr. Jefferson says, “the whole transaction” about the house “is set forth in the account books of Joshua, carpenter brother of Benjamin Horton. These books are part of the Moore [manuscripts] collected by the late Charles Moore.” No such “account books,” containing the Old House story have ever been found.

• Two dendrochronology tests, the most recent conducted last summer, the examined the wood used to build the house reached the same conclusion: that the trees were felled in 1698 and the earliest the house could have been built is 1699.

• A 1699 deed of sale from Benjamin Horton to Joseph Wickham for the land where the house now sits spells out the boundaries of the land being transferred, but makes no mention of a house being on the property.

Mr. Grathwohl, a passionate proponent of the Old House as dating to the 1640s, says family histories based on oral accounts and family lore cite the earlier date, as do historians who wrote before Mr. Jefferson. He disputes the dendrochronology tests as being far from accurate and says the fact that the house is not specifically mentioned in the 1699 deed is not that unusual for deeds of that era.

“Everything ‘new’ is not necessarily correct and appropriate,” he wrote in an email. “History is a combination of oral and written facts. We cannot sweep the Budds and Hortons who built and lived in the Old House from 1649 to 1660 under the proverbial rug … I don’t want to argue about Wayland Jefferson. He has always been believed.”

William Flynt, architectural conservator at Historic Deerfield in Massachusetts, conducted dendrochronology testing at the Old House last August. He said he studied a previous dendrochronology, done in 2008 by a group from Oxford, England, but did his own cores. He performed testing on 15 cores on beams, a stud and a brace, he said, looking for anything that had the outermost rings.

The result was the same as that of the 2008 study: The trees were cut in 1698, the house built after that. Asked if there is a built-in margin of error for both studies, Mr. Flynt said it could be months, not many years.

“I feel confident because the Oxford guys did their work …” Mr. Flynt said. “My samples line up beautifully with that. The accuracy is there … 1697, 1698 is when the trees were cut. You cut in the winter and do your joinery in the winter and put it up the spring. That makes the construction 1699. The notion of it being earlier does not hold up.”

For Mr. Grathwohl, dendrochronology is too inaccurate to rewrite the story of the Old House — and certainly not enough to change decades of accepted history.

“I want you to make the point that dendro is not 100 percent as being always correct,” he said.

“One expert in Arizona says it is correct about half the time, as it depends on where the tree was grown. The Old House was built near Hashamomuck, which is very swampy,” he said, noting that this can impact the dating process.

Ronald Towner, a tree ring expert at the University of Arizona, said dendrochronology works better in the Southwest, which is drier, than the Northeast, which is wetter. He said moisture can skew dating.

However, he said if cores used in both studies at the Old House were of the last ring the tree grew, then the tests can be considered accurate. He said he considers dendrochronology an exact science.

“Radiocarbon testing comes with a plus and minus,” Mr. Towner said. “With dendrochronology, we don’t have that.”

He added that he did not believe the two dendrochronology tests conducted on the Old House could be off by a half-century or more.

“The fact that they are both the same is important,” Mr. Towner said.

Amy Folk, Southold Town historian, said in an email that the origins of the house are “wreathed in mystery,” with no town records to tell its story. She said the story of the Old House is more legend than documented fact.

Referring to the document cited by former town historian Mr. Jefferson in his 1940 history of Cutchogue, Ms. Folk said that record has not been seen since his book was published. Thus, its veracity can not be verified.

“Without that single entry in the account book, the legend that the Old House was moved must remain that — a legend,” she wrote.

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North Fork History Project

Part I: Before anything else, there was ice

Part II: Long before the ‘first families’

Part III: When English arrive, Indians disperse?

Part IV: So, who was really here first?

Part V: Slavery, an ignored part of our history

Part VI: Slavery on Shelter Island, a story not hidden away

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