Balch House - John Balch

For years people have been under the apparently false assumption that John Balch, the first Balch in America, built a house in Beverly, Massachusetts in 1636. In February of 2006 the Balch House Associates paid to have a study of various parts of the house tested for age. This testing was performed by two members of the Oxford England Dendrochronology Laboratory of S. Oxfordshire, England. They are Dr. Daniel Miles and Mr. Michael Worthington. They were assisted by Independent Architectural Historian Anne A. Grady. In the end the scientific testing seems to indicate a somewhat later construction of the Balch House. The study concluded that the house was likely constructed by Benjamin Balch, Sr. the son of John Balch in 1679. Below is an excerpt from the studies conclusions taken from the Old Planters - Membership Newsletter of the Balch House Associates

“The earliest part of the Balch House, constructed in 1680, is the surviving room of a one-and-one-half story, single room cottage, now minus its chimney bay, that forms the northeast portion of the present house. The structure was likely built by Benjamin Balch Sr., son of John Balch who was granted 1000 acres of land here in 1635. In 1721, Benjamin Balch 3rd, who inherited this portion of the property in 1703/4 from his grandfather, constructed the southern part of the house, a single room, two story structure with chimney bay on the north end. At this point, the fragment of the earlier house was draw up and attached to the 1721 portion and its roof raised to two stories, creating a central chimney, two-room-plan house. Later, the original north end and chimney bay were enlarged to the west. A symmetrical gable roof, higher than the roof of the southern room, was built over the widened structure. In the north wall of the attic rafters remain attesting to the three phases of roof framing.

The Balch Family Association acquired the house in 1916. In 1921-1922, Norman Isham and William Sumner Appleton oversaw the restoration of the house, including the recreation of the original roof slope on the east façade over the northeast rooms and the installation of a façade gable. Further restoration work was undertaken by Roy Baker in 1961-1962 (Cummings 1979:126).”

“All timbers sampled were of oak (Quercus spp.) and pine (Pinus spp.) from what appeared to be primary first-use timbers, or any timbers which might have been re-used from an early phase. Those timbers which looked most suitable for dendrochronological purposes with complete sapwood or reasonably long ring sequences were selected.”

“Therefore, if the bark edge does not survive on any of the timbers sampled, then only a terminus post quem or felled after date can be given. The earliest possible felling date would be the year after the last measured ring date, adjusted for any unmeasured rings or rings lost during the process of coring.

Some caution must be used in interpreting solitary precise felling dates. Many instances have been noted where timbers used in the same structural phase have been felled one, two, or more years apart. Whenever possible, a group of precise felling dates should be used as a more reliable indication of the construction period. It must be emphasised that dendrochronology can only date when a tree has been felled, not when the timber was used to construct the structure under study. However, it is common practice to build timber-framed structures with green or unseasoned timber and that construction usually took place within twelve months of felling (Miles 1997).”

Summary of Dating

“This dendrochronological study of the Balch House was commissioned by the Beverly Historical Society to try and ascertain the original date of construction of the existing building, which hitherto had a variety of dates attributed ranging from 1636 to 1700. Secondary objectives were to try and determine the date of the rear extension, and the southern part of the house.

A total of 14 samples were taken from the northern half of the house, 13 from the main section and one from the rear lean-to. All timbers within the main part of the house with some evidence for sapwood were sampled. Only one timber with sapwood from the rear extension appeared to be in situ. First all multiple samples from the same timber were combined to form same-timber means (bal10, bal13, and bal14), and then timbers, such as the ceiling joists to the ground-floor ceiling, originating from the same parent tree were similarly combined (bal345). This resulted in twelve sequences, all of which were successfully crossmatched together.

A Six oak timbers were also sampled from the southern extension. After multiple samples from same timbers were combined (bal19 and bal20), these were compared with the samples from the north end of the house, and again all six were successfully cross-matched (Table 2). All 18 timbers were therefore combined to form the 136-ring site master BALx1, which dated, spanning the years 1585-1720. This matched with excellent crossmatches with chronologies from Ipswich, Salem, and other geographically close locations in New England (Table 3a). Thus it is clear that the timber was obtained locally to Beverly. From the primary phase of the house (north end), eight retained the sapwood complete to the bark edge. These all dated to the winter of 1678/9 with the exception of the summer beam, which dated to the winter of 1677/8, and the principal rafter from the rear lean-to, which was felled in the summer or autumn of 1678. A missing ring or two from one of the floor joists produced a very reduced felling date range of 1678-79. Thus, the entire northern end of the Balch House was most likely constructed during 1679. This would, on the basis on a single sample also apply to the rear lean-to, although further study needs to be undertaken to ensure that timber had not been re-used from the main range.

Of the 11 samples taken from the southern extension, five retained complete sapwood. The construction date is best calculated from the three latest precise felling dates of winter 1720/21 from both the oak and pine timbers. These included a tiebeam and two main posts. An oak ceiling joist dated slightly earlier to the spring of 1720, and three other joists had dates without bark edge which suggested that they too were coeval.

A pine girt and a summer beam, originating from the same parent tree, had a last measured ring of 1719 on the girt, and as only a ring or two was lost from this timber, a felling date range of 1720-21 can be offered to both of these timbers. One exception to these dates was a single oak principal rafter which was dated to the summer/autumn of 1660. Clearly this timber must have been re-used from another structure, although no obvious signs of re-used were noted at the time of sampling.

Given this clustering of felling dates, it is most likely that the southern extension was constructed during 1721, using a small amount of secondhand timber.”


External Links/Articles:

The Salem News - Tests cast doubt on Balch House's 'oldest' claim

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