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Fourth in a Series

By M.E. Jones


PEPPERELL — “As builders, we learn the history of an old house,” said The Restored Homestead co-owner Sherrill Rosoff. For example, they now know the antique cape the company recently dismantled and removed from 52 Hollis St. was much older than they had previously believed, dating to at least 1781 if not before.

Describing the teardown, Rosoff characterized the detective work she and her business partner Holly Bradman do on site during demolition as “above-ground archeology.”

During a recent interview, Rosoff and Bradman became animated all over again as they talked about the “surprises” they discovered on this job. Their company, which specializes in historic demolition, plans to reconstruct the house later for its new owner.

Besides its rustic construction, the tell-tale bones of an old house — nails in the older part of the house — were dated to the 1700s.

Extraordinary finds

From a beam signed “David Wright, 1781” to a book in the attic that belonged to Lemuel Blake, who bought the house around 1836, to Moses Eaton stencils beneath the wallpaper, the house was an historic treasure trove, the women said.

Other artifacts tracing its lineage included Victorian-era glass photographic negatives, plumbing receipts from the 1840s and a hidden fireplace with walk-in bread ovens, an 18th-century design. It was bricked over when another fireplace was constructed in front of it. Built into a “massive center chimney,” there were five fireplaces in the house; the hidden structure would have been the “original keeping room fireplace,” Rosoff said.

In the older fireplace they found two pairs of women’s shoes. It’s not the first time they’ve found shoes bricked up in an old fireplace, Rosoff said. Children’s, adults, fancy or plain, like the shoes found in the Turner house, bricking footwear up in fireplaces seems to have been a colonial custom, she said, but she could not pinpoint a particular tradition.

The 17-acre Hollis Street property, a swath of which borders the Nissitissit River, now belongs to the state and the people of Massachusetts. Purchased by the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife as a wildlife habitat, the scenic site has been cleared of structures and will be open to the public. The dam, which once provided waterpower for Blake Brothers Mills, and a small section of land around it, is still privately owned.

The antique cape that revealed its secret past during demolition was once the home of the late Mildred Turner, Pepperell’s postmistress for many years. Previously believed to have been built around 1910 or 1920, the original house actually dates to the mid 1700s.

The first clue was the kitchen el. A 1950s’ redo with pink appliances, it turned out to be a repurposed outbuilding that Rosoff said was likely moved from a spot by the river. Recounting a New England-style transformation, she said the prosperous mill owner must have put the second story addition on the house, which was built into the hillside.

“We think the Blakes enlarged the house, raised the roof and added the second floor,” Rosoff said. It was part of an extensive remodeling that also included walling off the old icehouse to add two rooms above. The structural framework spanned two centuries, with 19th-century “balloon-framing” above and 18th-century post and beam below.

Once the expansion was completed — a process that took about 15 years — the Blakes began to decorate. “That’s where Moses Eaton comes in,” Bradman said, noting the 19th-century artist, whose work they found under the wallpaper in several rooms.

“It’s like a puzzle, ” she continued, sketching the story the old house told them as they took it down, and which will help them rebuild it later. At one point, there was a fire in a back room; the evidence was a charred main beam.

With an eye to future reconstruction, they saved everything valuable and salvageable: subfloor, pine floor planks, hefty beams, brick, fireplace mantles, wavy window glass, doors, hardware. “Anything we can reuse,” Rosoff said.

“The value argument” is that the cost to the new owner would be twice as much if those materials had to be purchased new as antique reproductions. The windows alone, 24 “8-over-12” panes with wavy glass are worth “thousands,” she said.

Concealed shoes

As for the shoes, they may be destined for a museum or the local historical society. According to Alexia Rosoff, who advises her mother on artistic and cultural issues, concealed shoes is a global tradition that dates back to medieval times.

Although other items had occult connotations, such as glass bottles wedged into openings to catch bad spirits, shoes placed in fireplaces or under the floorboards during construction were for simple good luck, she said.

Concealed shoes were found in European cathedrals, usually workmen’s. A museum in England keeps a list of concealed shoes found all over the world, Rosoff said.

In the Turner house, concealed shoes were found in three places, probably corresponding to construction phases. Two pairs in the oldest part of the fireplace, behind the beehive oven, tumbled down with the bricks. The shoes had leather soles with an inner form made of canvas. One was heavier, probably a work shoe; the other was once covered with satin, which had worn off. The satin would have been embroidered, but the fancywork was removed. That, too, was a common practice. When a pair of shoes wore out, frugal New England ladies unstitched the embroidery to use on the next pair.

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