Colonial House Picture of the colony
Meet the Colonists Behind the Scenes Interactive History Media Gallery
Behind the Scenes
Introduction Interview with the Executive Producer Colonial Life, Then and Now

The Native American Story
A Historian Awakens 1628
Religion on the Colony
The Longest Day
Building the Colony
Candid Camera
The Training
Building the Colony
By Stuart Bolton
Photo of Staurt Bolton

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Most early colonies faced the challenge of building necessary structures quickly with few skilled builders in the work force. English builders had a range of traditional building patterns that guided their work. Some we can study minutely in surviving buildings, but others we must infer from a variety of sources. Drawing on archeological examples, Plimoth Plantation has created several theories of how some of these building patterns might have used the varied skills of the available workers. COLONIAL HOUSE provided us with excellent opportunities to further test these theories. The first such opportunity was building the four dwellings that would be the core of the settlement. The different structures used slightly different framing schemes drawn from different historical examples, yet all four houses combined parts that demanded the talents of a carpenter with elements that required less specialized skills.

Our skilled artisans, aided by additional experienced staff, started to prepare the parts of these buildings at the museum's facilities in Plymouth, Massachusetts. In the meantime, I went up to view the intended filming location in Maine. It was January, and there was snow on the ground, lots of snow. Even with everything covered in a uniform whiteness, the scene was beautiful -- isolated and well suited to our ends. Seeing the Maine coast in that season made clear to me why so few early colonists stayed there more than one winter. It was difficult even to walk without the aid of snowshoes.

Back in Plymouth, Head Carpenter Pret Woodburn, Foreman Rick McKee, and our crew were hand-splitting the siding boards and hand-hewing the framing timbers. This early stage of the project deviated from most of the historical examples in that we were preparing the houses a great distance from where they would be raised. In the beginning of April, we moved this work up to the site, far from the last paved road or modern house. As we arrived to dig the holes needed to raise the house frames, there was still snow on the ground, and still more falling. For the next two months, we would be working outdoors in the variable early spring weather without much shelter, just as the early colonists did. Despite the weather, we got the frames up, followed by the walls and chimneys and roofs. Gradually our uninhabited "colony" took shape.

By early June we put the finishing touches on the houses. We stocked the storehouse with provisions; brought supplies, furniture, and tools into the houses; planted gardens; and made the site ready for its new inhabitants. In the meantime, back in Plymouth, the "colonists" undertook training in the ways of the 17th century before making the last part of their journey to Maine by sea aboard the sailing ship Nina. As the participants sailed into the bay, we surrendered to them the "settlement" that we had begun to view with a proprietary eye. We returned home for a well-deserved rest, though some of us knew our work was not yet done.

Several times during the summer, Plimoth Plantation sent staff members up to Maine to help the new Colony. I was sent to assist with whatever building project the colonists chose. In late August I returned to the Colony, but now as an itinerate carpenter -- in period costume and with my tools on my back. While I am well accustomed to working in period clothes, and even to role-playing, this was an odd experience to me. I had no idea how far they had adopted their roles or 17th-century sensibilities. My dealings with the colonists and our work quickly fell into a routine, as we decided to build another small dwelling.

This was the perfect opportunity to mimic the colonial experience. Like the early New England colonists, we had only raw materials, period tools, a largely inexperienced building crew, and a few weeks in which to build. I quickly set everyone to such tasks as best suited them, and set my attentions to overseeing the creation of the frame. With the timbers successfully hewn, I set them together and cut the needed joints. Some of the colonists split logs, others made the siding, and still others carried timbers to the building site from the surrounding countryside. After nearly two weeks of preparation, we raised the frame and, with the help of two of my Plimoth Plantation colleagues, Shann Young and Tom Gerhardt, started filling in the walls and roof. By the time I left the site, the house was nearly finished and in the capable hands of Shann and the colonists' foreman Don Wood.

COLONIAL HOUSE provided a wonderful opportunity to further our understanding of early colonial buildings and of the effort needed to construct them. Rarely does anyone get to experience the labor practices of the past in such an elaborately contrived and maintained environment. Working at Plimoth Plantation, I deal with this historical context every day. Yet I appreciated the chance to experience the construction process in an isolated setting that reflects many aspects of colonial life more accurately than our museum site can. I am excited to see the program broadcast nationwide on PBS, and to have Colonial House bring into people's homes something of what we at Plimoth Plantation call "Living, Breathing History."

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