The Devil Queen

How my wife and I sold our souls to the Queen Anne Victorian we tried to save.

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Location: Crow Mountain, Arkansas, United States

Synopsis: This is a cautionary tale. A seriously disturbed couple find the charming, old ruin of a Queen Anne Victorian in Russellville, Arkansas, and buy it for $1.00. They tore the roof off, cut it in half, and had it moved to some land they owned sixteen miles away because they didn't know any better. Since then, they have hired and fired contractors, had all of their tools stolen, re-wired, re-plumbed, insulated, and essentially rebuilt the entire house. Their only problem is that after four years it still isn't finished. Now they are tired, broke, and wonder what in the hell it is they've done to themselves. And, it's haunted.
(Last updated on April 3, 2008)

Press: Russellville Courier Article - December 2003, HGTV website article, AP story - October 2006, and Victorian Homes Magazine - February 2008 (link coming soon).
Art: From time to time, I receive requests for my art. If you would like to look at more of my art, go to The Failed Artist. If you would like to buy my art, email me. I am more than happy to answer any questions you might have. Thanks!

Monday, July 18, 2005

Old Wood (Yet Another Reason Why Old Houses Kick Ass)

One thing you can't help noticing in an old house is the wood. It isn't something most people give much consideration. Wood is wood, right? Actually, no. Like everything else, there is a high and low end. The species of tree, the tree's age, and its harvesting method all contribute to the quality of wood produced.

To the best of our knowledge, the Devil Queen is made entirely of pine. We are not sure if its yellow pine, white pine, or loblolly pine (I guess just calling it Southern Pine would cover it). Pine is still widely used for construction, it is what the additions of the Queen are framed with. It is a very soft wood that is easily worked (and damaged), and it bears no resemblance to the 115 year old pine original to the Queen. The Queen's timbers range from hard to rock solid. Nails would rather bend than be driven into this stuff (dipping nails or screws in liquid detergent like Dawn helps). Some of this wood is so hard I've had to pre-drill nail holes. One board snapped off three drill bits in a row.

Where does wood like this come from?

According to my wife's grandfather, most building timbers were harvested locally until around 1940-1950. The Devil Queen was built in 1890, so it seems safe to say that she's made from local timber (within 60 miles or so of Russellville would be my guess).

The local NPR station recently ran a story about the pre-colonial forests of Arkansas. When De Soto came to the state, approximately 97% of its acreage was virgin forest. The figure of 30 million acres sticks in my mind, but I'm not certain. Oak, hickory, and pine were the dominate tree species in the Ozarks. My wife says she has seen old photos of the trees from the late 1800's. The trunks were over six feet in diameter, dwarfing the men standing next to them. Many of the building timbers made from these trees are huge. The Queen's original roof framing had true 2x4's (meaning they actually measure 2 inches by 4 inches unlike modern 2x4's which are smaller) over twenty-five feet long.

From the 1880's to around 1930, the whole of Arkansas was strip-cut for timber. By the 1920's, the vast majority of trees were gone. Most of the timber not used for local construction was exported to build railroads and the giant industrial cities of the north. The land was so barren by the 1930's that the lumber companies deemed it worthless. They couldn't sell it since no one wanted barren land, so they quit paying taxes on it. The government seized it, but they weren't sure what to do with it either. Someone had the idea of turning the barren hills into National Forests (which they still are to this day). It is sad that the Queen is a by-product of the systematic rape of the environment, but it’s all the more reason to save these old homes (lest the trees have died in vain), right?

My mother-in-law is and endless source of curious, random information. She also has a love of old houses too, so we have a lot to talk about. She once told me that when she was growing up, the old-timers harvested trees at specific times of the year in a particular way. She couldn't remember what the particulars were though. She believed that this was part of why old timber is so good. Her house is built with timbers salvaged from her grandparents' barn and old homestead house. When the house was built, she had some termite control folks out to treat the house. They told her that the "old barn wood" was so solid that if termites hadn't eaten it yet they probably never would.

Though I found this interesting, I didn't think much of it until I read the following in Vitruvius' The Ten Books of Architecture (I'd recommend this book to anyone interested in architecture with the warning that the prose is very dry):

"Timber should be felled between early Autumn and the times when Favonius [Roman god of the west wind, harbinger of spring, the same as the Greek god Zephyrus] begins to blow. . . In felling a tree we should cut into the trunk of it to the very heart, and then leave it standing so that the sap may drain out drop by drop throughout the whole of it. In this way the useless liquid which is within will run out through the sapwood instead of having to die in a mass of decay, thus spoiling the quality of the timber. Then and not till then, the tree being drained dry and the sap no longer dripping, let it be felled and it will be in the highest state of usefulness."

I did a little research, and there are still some folks that harvest in a similar way. I've heard that in Sweden they girdle (or ring) the tree as mentioned above and let the tree stand dead for two years before harvesting it.

As great as these archaic harvesting methods may have been, they only partly account for why this timber is so durable. Most of the pine raised in the South is now loblolly pine. It is raised because it is an extremely fast growing tree which allows harvesting every 15 years. The tightness of the growth rings in wood directly correlates to how strong the wood is. In some old growth timber there are 40-50 growth rings per inch! I haven't actually counted, but I think that you'd be hard pressed to find that many rings in a single board now a days (slight exaggeration?). The Ozark and Ouachita Mountains soil and climate encouraged slow growth making the timber from these regions very desirable.

There are two woods that I would be willing to trade my old pine for (maybe), old growth redwood or cypress. I'm still awed that there are entire houses built of this stuff.

Apparently, more people are taking notice of how good old wood is. There are folks fishing sunken, old-growth logs of out of the Great Lakes, drying it, and milling into lumber. I've even heard that there is a guy pulling similar wood out of the Arkansas River and doing the same thing with it. Reclaimed wood is the new, big thing in home construction. With the exception of the framing of the Queen's additions, the entire interior of them is being constructed and finished with salvaged wood. There is no substitute for this stuff.


Blogger Greg said...

I use a lot of salvage wood myself. My 1895 Vic is made of ALL old-growth redwood, except for the two oak mantles. All windows, doors, interior millwork, and framing members are redwood. I found the same thing you did about the hardness of the wood. Most people think of redwood as a soft wood, but I have to pre-drill some of it or I bend nails. I removed a 2-story, 1920s addition to my house that was all redwood as well. I was able to salvage about 85% of it and have it all stacked in the garage. It is all full-dimensional, just as yours, so I’m able to make repairs with full-dimensional wood. My goal is to have no modern timbers or plywood in the house. I’m now putting in a fir floor made from 100+ year old salvaged 3X12 joists from Alaska. It is tight-grained and very hard.

1:15 PM  
Blogger amanda said...

I'm originally from South Carolina, and when I took an undergraduate environmental science class junior year at Clemson, I was shocked to learn that in the 1800s, all the surrounding area was completely clear cut to grow cotton. The professor said that you could apparently see from Clemson to Walhalla (which is a rather long way, especially for someplace relatively hilly). This totally floored me, that all the forests around my college were relatively new (less than 100 years old) (forest grew back b/c after the boil weevil arrived, most people let the land go back to forest). Anyway, our house is old growth pine, too and it's amazing the difference between it and new wood. Sometimes, I marvel at the impact that man can have in a relatively short period of time- harvesting almost all the timber in a state in less than 100 years like you mention in Arkansas? That's amazing and sad at the same time...

1:28 PM  

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