An old-fashioned restoration Union Mills Homestead building is being restored old-fashioned way -- by hand. OLD MEETS NEW

May 01, 1991|By Jay Merwin | Jay Merwin,Evening Sun Staff

The whir of electric saws drowning the bird song around the Union Mills Homestead was one of the construction crew's few concessions to the 20th century.

A group of Amish carpenters is completing the rebuilding of a nearly 200-year-old tannery in Carroll County that an arson fire took about 15 minutes to destroy last year.

Brad Nace's Pennsylvania firm, Edward H. Nace Inc., specializes in restoration and new construction according to early American styles and techniques. "It's something that we're sort of familiar with," he said.

For the crew of 12 Amishmen he subcontracted for the job, their building techniques more than two centuries old are as common as is Sheetrock to the modern home builder.

Dressed plain in black-banded straw hats, solid-colored shirts and black trousers held up by suspenders, the workers nailed shingles on the roof yesterday. Their conversation slipped back and forth from English to their German dialect of Pennsylvania Dutch.

The tannery is an L-shaped shed with door-size hatches that open horizontally along the walls to air the hides. Most of the structure's details will be fully restored, including the jutting pole and painted sundial on the wall that once told the tanners how long the hides had soaked in the vats of softening brine.

The Union Mills Homestead, which stands on 18 acres just east of Md. 97, was built in 1797 by the Shriver family, who moved their businesses south from Littlestown, Pa. In Union Mills, the family eventually farmed more than 250 acres, tanned hides and ground flour that they shipped to Baltimore in barrels made in the homestead cooper shop. The first known bills of sale from the tannery are dated 1802.

After six generations in the homestead, the Shriver family relinquished the property in 1964 to the Union Mills Homestead Foundation, a private, non-profit group. Today, the county owns the site, but the foundation runs it.

The rebuilding will cost about $60,000, of which $49,000 will come from an insurance settlement.

The foundation will pay the rest, which is why the organization is in a rush to get the job finished by this weekend in time for its 22nd Annual Flower and Plant Market and Antique Show. Money raised from the event will help pay the builder's bill.

The custom-cut timber skeleton of the building is a row of Y's planted in the ground with a beam crossing above the fork in the Y to provide both lateral and vertical support to the shingled roof. The timbers are joined in the traditional mortise and tenon style -- half of one beam sunk into the middle of another and fastened with a driven peg.

The timbers are green hemlock, which eventually will tighten around the already dried oak pegs.

The shingles actually are a recovery of the original roof style of the tannery, which had a more recent modern roof when it burned to the ground last October in an unsolved arson.

The builders use nails for the shingles, around the doorways and outside to secure the siding, but not for any bearing of the structural load. The use of nails conforms with the original technique, the only difference being that these are factory-made, Nace said.

"It was not uncommon. Grandpa would have used them, only he would have used blacksmith nails," he said.

Work on the new tannery began in March on the foundation walls, which were essentially piles of loose stones that Nace raised about six inches off the ground and bound with mortar.

In the last two weeks, he has subcontracted the Amish builders. Though unwilling to give their names or talk much about their work, a few in the crew explained that this job of building by time-tested techniques was just another day of work.

"Aw, this is easy," said one man, though most of the barns he and his colleagues build have metal, not shingled roofs.

Boys in his community start learning traditional building methods when they are old enough to swing a hammer, he said.

"When they are two years old, they start learning all kinds of things," he said. "Just give them a hammer and nails. They work it out."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.