As we continue to move our historic buildings to the new site in Columbus, Historic Westville is assessing what we know about our structures. History is not just about what happened in the past, but is an ongoing process of challenging and exploring what we think we know. Our buildings are valuable resources used to fulfill our mission.
Our building files pose an interesting question: Do we really know what we think we know? In order to add pages to Historic Westville’s interpretive narrative, we must challenge what we have long held to be true. The process is oftentimes tedious, but the reward immeasurable as it teases out new perspectives and additional research avenues. The files contain information in varied forms, from typed and handwritten notes to pictures and drawings.
For everything the files tell us, there is much they do not tell us and that is where the detective work begins. The first step in understanding our buildings’ histories is establishing the towns in which they originally stood.
Their original physical location leads us to land and tax records that deliver rich legal and genealogical information. Oftentimes these records provide a window into the individual or families associated with the land and structures upon it by providing names, ages, literacy, place of birth, and even economic and military status. Land and tax records are oftentimes archived in town halls, county courthouses, local historical societies, as well as the National Archives in Washington, D.C. The information contained in the records can be cross-referenced with not only our building files, but more importantly, with census records to further substantiate what we believe to be true. Land and tax records are extremely helpful, but there are times when they are not available or we lack the ability to link a building to an exact location to make their use viable. Sometimes the only thing we have to work with is the current structure as it sits outside of time and space.
The methods and tools historians use to study the past are vast. The buildings themselves have a lot to tell us. Architectural stylings provide large-scale details such as a rough time frame of construction. Construction methods provide a relative dating scheme as technology is always advancing. Dendrochronology, a highly specialized dating science, is another fascinating way to confirm a building’s approximate construction date. Using samples taken from a wood structure, dendrochronologists examine tree ring growth patterns to establish the calendar year the wood was harvested.
Looking to the future, our ability to study the past will grow as the methods and technology continue to evolve and improve. However, future researchers will also confront new challenges that time and our preservation efforts at present create. Currently the majority of Historic Westville’s buildings are over a hundred and twenty years old. Time is destructive and buildings require restoration to secure their future. Each replaced beam, board, or nail removes a piece of information potentially available to future researchers. Yet, without replacing those very beams and pieces of wood there would eventually be no building left to study. Much like ourselves, future historians will continue to question what they think they know. The historical narrative is complex and ever changing. Every new discovery adds a new perspective, deepening our understanding of the past.