Restoration of the Cabin
At the time of its donation, the building was the only surviving former slave cabin known to exist in the mountains of northeast Georgia. It underwent several renovations and received various additions during the course of the 20th century. These included exterior siding, a tin roof, added on rooms including a bathroom, interior wall paneling and 20th century paint.
The first steps in the restoration were to remove all modern materials and preservation of the "historic fabric" of the initial dwelling. Jim Johnston and his skillful crew stabilized cabin walls, strengthened the structural flooring system with additional "hand-hewn" floor joists and sturdy Southern pine flooring. They removed 20th century paint, replaced exterior siding with salvaged weatherboarding (giving it a temporary "patchwork" appearance) and restored or replaced the interior paneling with seasoned heart pine, leaving one "witness panel" revealing hand-crafted pegs used in the original construction.
The rock chimney was meticulously disassembled; the stones were labelled and stored for reassembly after the cabin is moved to the Heritage Site. Even the original rock piers and part of the nearby "Emancipation wall" were saved for reassembly at the new site.
At the end of this phase a 16 x 28 foot cabin of mostly original 1850s materials and building technology was in place at its current site on the SNCA campus.
A later phase of the restoration was to replace the 20th century doors and windows. Beautiful reproduction wood slab shutters and doors were hand-crafted, secured with cut nails, and fitted with hand-forged iron strap hinges with locking mechanisms.
The restoration continued through several more stages stages, one of which had the cabin relocated to an interim site. The cabin's current location on the SNCA campus may not represent its final resting place, as it is only scheduled to reside there for the next 160 years. Contributors and Resources
Maintaining the integrity and authenticity of the structure in the process of restoring the old building to its 1850s appearance and condition was a major concern of the renovation. Restoration craftsmen not only used materials of similar color and texture, but also used the same kind of tools that were in use when the cabin was built.
Barry Stiles replaced several rotten timbers using a technique employed by 1850s builders to square logs to a uniform 8" by 8" size. He scored each side with a felling ax, then cut out the chips with a razor-sharp broad ax. He also hammered in cut nails made on machines that have been used since the 1850s.
The cabin was most likely built by slaves, using lumber from the slave owner's sawmill. Particularly well built, many slaves were known to have been skilled craftsmen.
Building upon the surviving understructure our restoration craftsmen strengthened the structure with additional hand-hewn floor joists and topped off with sturdy Southern pine flooring.
Extra care of the planking was taken during initial construction as the original pine boards on the walls, floors, and ceiling were hand-planed. This gave them a smoother surface than the finish typically found on rough cut sawmill lumber.
The interior paneling was replaced with seasoned heart pine, as in the original structure.
The restoration crew removed the old tin and covered the roof with white oak shingles, hand-split in Colonial Williamsburg. White oak was chosen because it was used in the original roof of the cabin. The unusual shape of the original shingles was matched exactly.
Elizabeth Etheridge, a descendant of the original owner of the Slave Cabin, made an unusual gift to SNCA, sending five big sections of a white oak tree (45 inches in diameter) from her home in Farmville, Virginia to the Heritage Site. The historical significance of the gift is far reaching.
The tree once witnessed the retreat of Confederate forces, including local boys who served in the 24th Regiment, as they marched towards Appomattox. They were followed by Union forces in April of 1865. General Robert E. Lee held his last meeting with his senior officers in Farmville. On Easter Sunday, about two weeks later, there was a memorial service for Abraham Lincoln in the Farmville Presbyterian Church.
Elizabeth, author and historian, went to extraordinary lengths and considerable expense to salvage the slowly dying tree, and honor both the site and the noble tree. “A tree witness to that kind of history deserves a better fate,” she decided, when she learned a white oak was needed for the restoration.
Craftsman Barry Stiles estimates that the new shingles could protect the Slave Cabin for another 80 years.
The restoration crew carefully disassembled the old chimney stone by stone. Rock mason David Vandiver precisely documented the placement of original stones for reassembly and reconstruction. This phase was accomplished after relocation to the campus at the SNC.
The chimney had been held together for more than 150 years by red clay and lime chinking. One stone, that forms the top of the firebox was very large.
All the stones that were meticulously removed from the original chimney were systematically laid on pallets in preparation for reassembly at the new cabin site.
Later the team recovered portions of the nearby stone wall and the rock piers that the cabin had rested on for 150 years.
Stone mason David Vandiver reassembled the original rock piers upon which the cabin rested. After the cabin was lowered onto the piers he reassembled the original stone chimney and hearth. The cabin's fireplace is unusually large with the 800 pound stone, 6 ft 17 inches in length, placed at top of the firebox.
The proud craftsman stands before the completed chimney at the Heritage Site.
Besides the slave cabin, the heritage site will include a piece of a stone wall that, according to oral tradition, was part of the wall where the owner of the slave cabin, E.P. Williams, read out loud the Emancipation Proclamation to his slaves at the close of the Civil War.