Archaeology Dig Day at White Plains

Ever wanted to see or participate in an archaeological dig on a historic property? Here’s your chance! The Fairfield Foundation will be hosting an archaeology dig day at White Plains in King George County on Wednesday, June 26th from 10 am – 3 pm.

About the Dig Day

A team of staff and interns from the Fairfield Foundation will conduct an archaeological survey to learn more about the people who lived at White Plains throughout its history. This is a unique opportunity to explore some of the history of King George County.

We plan to dig shovel test pits, which are 1 foot diameter holes dug systematically across the landscape. They average in depth around 12 inches, or however deep it takes to get to sterile subsoil. All of the soil removed from the hole is screened through quarter inch wiremesh to adequately recover any artifacts present. By examining the artifacts we find, where we find them, and what we find with them, we can talk about how the landscape was used, who was there, and when.

Join Us

Guests are welcome to watch or you can volunteer to help dig and screen artifacts. If you’d like to help, please let us know ahead of time so that we can plan for sufficient equipment. Please register here to let us know if you’ll be joining us.

Volunteers should dress comfortably with closed toe shoes. We will have some bug spray, sunscreen, and plenty of water to keep everyone hydrated. Plan to bring gloves, a good hat, and any other items you’d like to have for the day. 

Lunch

We will serve an informal outdoor lunch around 12.30pm. Please register here to let us know if you’ll be joining us.

About the Fairfield Foundation

The Fairfield Foundation’s mission is to promote and involve the public in hands-on archaeology, preservation and education activities within Virginia’s Middle Peninsula and surrounding areas. The Fairfield Foundation is a nonfprofit organization headquartered in Gloucester, Virginia, and has been expanding its public programs, research opportunities and outreach activities since 2000.

About White Plains

Newly appointed to the Virginia Landmarks Register and nominated to the National Register of Historic Places, White Plains is a historic farm located in King George County, Virginia. The property was established by the Thornley Family in the 18th century and was once over 1100 acres. The current house at White Plains, built in 1786 and confirmed through dendrochronological dating, has been preserved by many generations of caring stewards.

Revisiting the Old Thornley Homestead in Virginia

In March 2015, the great-great-great-great-grandson of Aaron Thornley, the builder of White Plains in 1786, visited us from California with his family. That visit has since been recorded as one of our favorite days while living here. They brought stories, pictures, and an interest in learning about this special place in Virginia.

At that time in 2015, we had barely scratched the surface to stabilize and restore the old Thornley home. We knew very little of the stories it kept secret.

White Plains
An ethereal picture at sunset taken by our guests

This past weekend, they came back to visit, nearly four years and many changes later. It was fun to share the recent restoration and renovation work, much of it drastic, since their last visit. We have stayed in touch with them over the years, and it was fun to build on a friendship of other common interests too.

A Menu of Virginia Favorites

In preparing for their visit, we debated a simple menu that would highlight some of the small farm producers in the Fredericksburg and King George region. We live in an area with many small sustainable farms that care about the produce they deliver.

After a round or two (who’s counting?) of manhattans and a tour through the house, dinner was served. For the main course, I chose coturnix quail from Sassafras Trail in King George. After years of searcing for a source of quail in Virginia, I found Caroline who does an amazing job raising quality birds.

Quail a la Normande
All trussed and ready to go!

I chose to prepare them based on an old French recipe, Cailles à la Normande, braised in apples, shallots, Calvados, and cream. Giving the plate a southern twist, I served them over locally grown and ground polenta.

While those little birds can be a challenge to eat, the meat is so rich and plays well with the sweet braised apples and creamy broth. After you’ve initially been polite with a knife and fork, it pays to pick them up to get every last bit of that dark delicious meat.

Quail a la Normande
Rome apples are my favorite for cooking and baking, a little tart and sweet.
Quail a la Normande

Dessert from Red Truck Bakery

For dessert, I chose not to bake (gasp!), and I let the Red Truck Bakery steal the show with their Lexington bourbon cake with fresh ginger. It has become a household favorite and pairs well with a little bourbon-whipped cream – or a lot, we don’t judge. It was perfect with a sip of the Mary Hite Bowman Caramel Cream made in Fredericksburg by A. Smith Bowman Distillery.

Red Truck Bakery
Lexington bourbon cake with fresh ginger from Red Truck Bakery in Marshall, VA.

The evening was a lot of fun. We enjoyed the chance to share the Thornley family’s ancestral home with our guests while enjoying some of Virginia’s finest. We can’t wait for the next visit.

Hopefully we continue to make this old house proud by offering hospitality to strangers and friends, both old and new.

Our Favorites

A. Smith Bowman Distillery, Fredericksburg, VA
Blenheim Organic Farm, King George, VA
Red Truck Bakery, Marshall, VA
Sassafras Trail – Coturnix Quail, King George, VA

This Old House Gets a Fresh Coat of Paint

One of the greatest challenges in owning an old home is maintaining its exterior, regardless of its materials. In Virginia, you most commonly find wood and brick construction. It is not until you travel into Maryland and, of course, Pennsylvania that you see more use of stone.

After a few years of bandaging issues on the exterior at White Plains, it was finally time to start the conversation of giving the house a fresh coat of paint. I say, “start the conversation” because such an endeavor is not for the faint of heart! Finally by fall, we were ready to get started.

I have learned a lot about historic woodwork and masonry over the past few years, understanding what is required to keep it well maintained and attractive. For wood, maintaining a solid coat of paint adds protection and is essential for its longevity. Similarly, historic masonry needs to be patched and pointed-up as necessary to keep moisture out.

Like many other buildings from the same time period in the Tidewater area, White Plains is a traditional brace-framed house with a wooden weatherboard exterior. It is built over a raised cellar with walls of handmade brick laid in English bond, extending about 14 courses, or rows, above ground level.

While the old masonry has been patched many times over the years, the original portions still retain the 19th-century white wash, as can be seen in the picture above. Upon close inspection, you will notice that the patching appears to relate to the closing or opening of entrances into the cellar and repairing areas of water damage. The changes to entrances likely happened about 1840, when the cellar would have been turned into finished living space, including a fireplace built into the existing chimney[1]. I love all of the layers from decades and centuries of change.  

Wood Exterior

Preparation of the exterior is the most important part before painting. A poorly prepared surface means the paint may not adhere well, causing popping and cracking sooner than it would with a properly prepared surface.

Here, we only employed the use of hand-scraping and the occasional electric hand sander where build-up of old paint was extreme. Although I wanted a well prepared surface, I didn’t want to lose the texture and character that old wood has. Unfortunately, this can be a much slower process, requiring attention to detail and a lot of manpower. 

Each of the old shutters was removed and will be prepared in a similar way to the weatherboarding with repairs made to rotten areas and a fresh coat of paint. My current conflict is picking a color that both honors the traditional while giving a fresh look. My current choices are between Essex, Colonial Verdigris, and Waller greens, all Benjamin Moore colors. 

I once suggested that we consider a body color that evokes the type of excitement as August Boatwright’s house in Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees, but I can reassure everyone that it will remain white. But you never know when color will strike! As August put it in the book, “I had a nice tan color in mind, but May latched on to this sample called Caribbean Pink. She said it made her feel like dancing a Spanish flamenco.” Who doesn’t want to dance a Spanish flamenco every day? But I digress.

Windows

In addition to preparing and painting the weatherboarding, almost all of the old windows need to be reglazed. At nearly 30 windows, this is no small task! First, the old glazing has to be carefully stripped from each window pane, hopefully without breaking the glass, and then new glazing is artistically puttied into each groove. After the glazing cures, it can be primed and painted. Not only will this help them look as good as new, but it will increase their energy efficiency, sealing all of the tiny gaps between the glass and wood-frame mullions. 

White Plains - Window

Waiting Patiently Until Spring

Although we started a little late in fall, we had high hopes that the weather would hold, and we would be able to finish by Thanksgiving. Unfortunately, we barely made it through the prep work on the North side and a handful of windows before consistent rain and freezing temperatures set in.

I was hoping to have everything looking pristine in time for the holidays, it will all have to wait until Spring and better weather. Hopefully that isn’t too far away.


[1]Dave Brown, Thane Harpole, and Libby Cook, “National Register of Historic Places Registration Form: White Plains,” Virginia Department of Historic Resources (March 2018).  

Shakshuka Warms the Heart

On a recent trip to the Denver Central Market, I had my first taste of Shakshuka, a traditional North African dish of roasted peppers, tomatoes, and invigorating spices that creates a beautiful flavor. Two large eggs are perfectly poached in the sauce, something to eat with fresh bread for breakfast or as a hearty cold-weather meal when you need that flavor to give your mood a boost. Shakshuka
Coming home to Virginia, I’ve tried several versions. Of course, I found that Melissa Clark has once again proven steadfast with an easy recipe for any night of the week or brunch. With two fresh eggs from the chicken house, homemade bread, and tomatoes from the summer garden, this meal brought North Africa to the Northern Neck of Virginia. It was a very welcomed visit and perfect when you need a bit of warmth on a chilly fall day!

Shakshuka

Shakshuka Recipe

Here is a modified version of Melissa Clark’s recipe for Shakshuka. It serves 4 – 6 people, but is easy to scale up or down depending on how many you are serving. I highlight recommend a good crusty bread and salted butter served alongside for dipping. If you try it out, let me know how it goes. If you need help, come on over, and we’ll make it together!

Ingredients

  • 1 large onion, halved and thinly sliced
  • 1 large red bell pepper, seeded and thinly sliced
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced or thinly sliced
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon sweet paprika
  • teaspoon cayenne, or to taste
  • 3-4 large fresh tomatoes coarsely chopped OR 1 (28-ounce) can whole plum tomatoes with juices, coarsely chopped
  • ¾ teaspoon salt, more as needed
  • ¼ teaspoon black pepper, more as needed
  • 5 ounces (about 1 1/4 c.) crumbled feta cheese or something like a Bulgarian sheep’s cheese (very good!)
  • 6 large eggs

Preparation

  1. Heat oven to 375 degrees.
  2. Heat about three tablespoons of oil in a large skillet over medium-low heat. I prefer a cast-iron skillet as it retains the heat beautifully when you serve it at the table.
  3. Add onion and bell pepper. Cook gently until very soft, about 20 minutes. Add garlic and cook until tender, 1 to 2 minutes; stir in cumin, paprika and cayenne, and cook 1 minute.
  4. Pour in tomatoes and season with 3/4 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper; simmer until tomatoes have released their juices and thickened, about 10 minutes. Stir in crumbled feta. Note: If using fresh tomatoes, you may want to add more of less depending on their size and how juicy they are.
  5. Gently crack eggs into skillet over tomatoes. Season with salt and pepper. Transfer skillet to oven and bake until eggs are just set, 7 to 10 minutes. Sprinkle with cilantro and serve with hot sauce.

I serve my eggs just when they’ve set, allowing the yolks to run and integrate with the sauce, making it rich and creamy. I serve one or two eggs per person.

The Graveyard Shift

One of my favorite places on the property is the graveyard. Unfortunately, keeping it cleaned up seems to slip my mind. Granted, I drive by it at least twice per day but once I pull up to the house, a million other things command my attention. Usually it’s an animal or six.

White Plains Graveyard

But this week, just a few days before Halloween, the wind blew in just the right direction and I ended up walking down to the old cedar tree that once stood tall, sheltering the graves. All that’s left is the main trunk, splintered from what must have been a loud crash of its upper limbs. Thankfully, after all these years, the last pieces remain. Perhaps because it’s growing in a graveyard. There’s something sacred about graveyards. Either we’re afraid of what might happen if we do too much meddling, or we believe that it’s truly not ours to meddle with.

White Plains Graveyard

Beyond meddling, there may even be a certain amount of respect for the very tangible and instant connection to the past that you get by being in a graveyard. The person who slept and ate in the rooms where you now sleep and eat, who planted the trees that you now sit under, and who created a story of his or her own, is right beneath you. You can almost touch them. Or at least their mortal remains. At the very least, you can’t deny their existence or their contribution to the place that you now share.

White Plains Graveyard

I spent about an hour pulling weeds, touching the gravestone markers as I passed. They are beautiful. There are larger headstones and smaller footstones, each of stunning white quartz. There is something slightly ethereal about them. They are veined in greens, reds, and golds, sparkling when the sun catches them at the right angle.

White Plains Graveyard

One of the graves is the daughter of Randolph and Laura Owens. She was born around October 7th, 1893 and died on October 10th 1893. She was only three days old and  buried at White Plains, in the grave by the cedar tree. That was 125 years ago this month.

There are two other unknown graves, marked simply with quartz and then there are the Gouldmans, Alexander and Virginia. I imagine how much they loved this place to be buried here. Either that or they had no choice! But considering the number of church graveyards nearby, I like to think it’s the previous.

White Plains Graveyard

Maybe I too will be buried here in the front yard. Maybe White Plains will kill me trying to rejuvenate it! In a 21st-century culture that values the transient nature of things and ideas, who’s to say where any of us will be in another 10 years. So much can change in only one year. But families like the Thornleys, the Gouldmans, the Quesenberrys, and others made their home here and died here. It’s the least I can do to stop by every once in a while to weed.

White Plains Graveyard

“Flower Drift” Makes an Appearance

Although they are all gone now, the daffodils were abundant this year, and the storms stayed away long enough for me to enjoy them longer than usual. My favorite this year is the classic “Flower Drift,” a beautiful double Narcissus that was first registered in 1966, originating in the Netherlands. As the heat of summer sets in, I am already anticipating next spring!

 

Deviled Goose Eggs – Go Big Or Go Home!

Growing up in the South, I learned about the importance of deviled eggs as a staple at almost every type of social gathering from church picnics to cocktail parties. Like potato salad, every home cook has their own recipe and unique twist on the classic. With controversial ingredients like pickles, mustard, hot sauce, and even the brand of mayonnaise, there’s no shortage of debate when it comes to whose recipe is the best.

While I can’t say that my deviled eggs are the best, for one short time span during the spring, mine are definitely unique. Why, you ask? Goose eggs! Go big or go home sounds like a good theme for these deviled eggs. Although a predator recently took out one of my beautiful American Buff geese, one remains, and she continues to remind everyone of her royal status.

Goose Egg

Guess which one is the goose egg!

 

Because geese only lay eggs for a couple of months during the spring, you must enjoy them while you can. I’ve found them to be the closest in consistency and function to a chicken egg – great for baking, omelettes, and now as an appetizer.

Hard-boiling them the way you might for a chicken egg, at a full thirteen minutes, made them easy to peel. I found the white to be a little more delicate than a chicken egg, requiring steady hands and patience to carefully remove the thick shell.

Hardboiled Goose Eggs

The yolk was a beautiful yellow and so rich. After removal, I added a few key ingredients but didn’t need much because the flavor was already so good.

Hardboiled Goose Eggs

For serving, I cut the filled eggs into quarters, offering them as perfect bites to the bourbon cocktails at hand. Like the daffodils, they come in spring only come once a year – enjoy them while you can!

Deviled Eggs

 

Timber Frame Repairs On The Upper East Side

It happens to all of us. Life takes over and we forget where we are sometimes. It’s as if the train is going so fast that the view of the landscape through the window is blurred as it whizzes by. Then there is this moment when you stop to take a breath, usually it’s in one of your happy places, and you remember all of those things you had forgotten. Your senses come alive again as you savor the taste, smell, and feeling of the moment. You breathe. It feels good.

So, here I sit in the peony garden, one of my favorite places to let everything slow down around me. It’s the end of a holiday weekend and a perfect time for catching up.

Peony Garden

I saw a friend earlier this year who said, “I’m so glad you’re done with the restorations at White Plains!” I’m not sure if it was the confused look on my face or the involuntary crinkle of my nose, but she followed with, “You are done, right?” I had to break the news to her. Even though it’s been a productive spring, finishing a lot of major projects, it’s been a busy push to the finish line.

What’s Going On Under There?

One of the first big projects of the year was a structural repair to the eighteenth century timer framing on the north-east side of the house. Having identified some old termite damage in the floors near that area when we first purchased the property, we knew it would be on the docket at some point. Although we had already overseen replacement and stabilization of other major structural beams in other parts of the house, I still felt pretty nervous about this one. Maybe it was the unknown that is ever-present when opening walls of such an old structure or maybe it was seeing my summer vacation budget get converted to an emergency work fund!

Thankfully Jason at Rappahannock Restorations eased my stress from the start and gave us a clear plan on how we would move through the unknown. The first step was to remove siding from the outside to assess what might be happening underneath. Removal began between the chimney and second floor window, where it appears water had been entering for many years, causing not only direct damage but also creating an environment that’s very appealing for termites.

Historic House Repair

As more siding was removed, almost to the brick foundation, you could easily see the trail that the water and termites took through the framing. They had almost fully dissolved several main posts and beams, requiring a bit more work than we had originally anticipated. Thankfully, the damage stopped just before the impressive locust corner post and ran up to the chimney on the other side. This made access to the problem much easier, tackling it from the outside and without requiring us to break into the interior plaster walls – one of my biggest fears!

Historic House Repair

Jason and his crew expertly stabilized the compromised framing, replacing and adding as necessary. After the old 1940’s insulation was removed and new added, it was time to replace the siding. Unfortunately, most of the old siding was too brittle to be saved, but we were able to replace it with a new cedar siding in the same colonial bead-board style. Hopefully it will last for another couple of hundred years.

Historic House Repair

Construction Marks In Eighteenth Century Timber Framing

One really cool thing about the excavation of structures is what you find underneath the layers. Here we found the roman numerals used by carpenters to match up the timber frame components. These marks are commonly found at the joint with a matching roman numeral on the corresponding piece. This method ensured that custom-hewn joints and timber sections weren’t mixed up in either transport or when they were installed on-site. You can easily see them in the unfinished attic here, but it’s always a treat to see the hidden ones. I’d guess they don’t get unearthed but about once every one hundred years or so!  Check out this post from our friends over at Historic House Blog for more about 18th century construction marks. 

Historic Carpenter's Marks

As stewards of this old house, sometimes we have to tackle projects that we’d rather leave for someone else. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that someone else will come along and take care of it in the way it deserves. As we complete the final stage of this restoration and renovation, I’m often reminded that we all have a role to play in the preservation of our historic assets. This work is just a small part of that.

 

A Gift Of Liquid Gold From The Bees!

Although spurts of snow and freezing night temperatures persist, signs of spring are starting to appear. Besides the robins that engulf the yard en masse, one of my favorite signs is the buzzing of bees around their hive, beginning to explore for open flowers and fresh pollen. Although a bit early yet, it’s almost time to start feeding them with spring syrup to ignite their drive to make comb, brood, and honey.

Beehive Condo

Early last fall, after finding the most spectacular bee hive configurations and two queens, I was able to pull two frames of honey to attempt extraction of my first honey harvest. Not having a fancy automatic extractor, heated elements for cutting comb, or other tools that one might use for processing large amounts, I went the old-fashioned route.

Honeycomb

With a sharp knife, I ran across the tops of the honeycomb, uncapping the cells to release the honey. I simply let it drain overnight into a colander, catching any large pieces of comb. With a final strain through a fine-mesh strainer, I had a beautiful quart of unfiltered raw honey.

Honeycomb

Honeycomb
And you can only imagine the first taste. The flavor was not only rich and complex, but I felt so triumphant having been patient for these past three seasons of loss, splitting colonies, and keeping these two hives protected and nourished.

With just two small frames as payment, the return was far more rewarding than I expected.  While it’s amazing on toast, my preferred way to enjoy it is simply with a spoon. Here’s to the upcoming season and more honey!

Honey