Past Preservation Projects

Northwest Stair Reconstruction

1920s stair

1920s stair

When the Robert E. Lee Memorial Foundation purchased Stratford in 1929, a small stair existed in the northwest corner of the main house. The photograph at the left is from Edith Tunis Sale’s Colonial Interior published in 1930. When architect Fiske Kimball restored the house in the 1930s, he identified the stair as a renovation made by Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee in the 1790s. Since the goal of the restoration was to return the house to its original architectural configuration, the stair was removed in 1938.

Stair Exhibit

Stair Exhibit 1990s

In the 1990s, as interest in replacing Fiske Kimball-designed elements with more authentic ones increased, historic architects Paul Buchanan and Charles Phillips returned the remaining architectural fragments from the northwest stair to their former location. For a decade, architectural historians and paint analysts documented numerous alterations of the house made by “Light Horse Harry” Lee. Whereas previous generations of Lees had lived and slept solely on the upper floor of the house, Harry had altered those rooms so drastically that he needed to create bedchambers on the lower floor for his growing family. Constructing a stair in the northwest corner made this possible.

Susan Buck investigating finishes

The interpretive plan for the Great House called for the upper stair passage space to be interpreted to the same period as the adjacent drawing room (parlor) with its Federal Period trim. Carl Lounsbury, Paul Klee and William Graham, historic architects from Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, investigated the former stair area by removing large areas of 20th-century plaster and metal lath. Paint analyst Susan Buck sampled the stair hall and surviving architectural fragments for traces of original finishes.

Reconstructed Stair

The completed northwest stair, expertly constructed and finished with hand-ground paints, gives visitors a better idea of how the house looked and functioned during the Federal Period.

Stratford Smokehouse Restoration


Smokehouse prior to renovation

The long-awaited restoration of Stratford’s smokehouse began on August 13, 2001. The project, which required several years of preliminary research and planning, restored the structure as close as possible to its nineteenth-century appearance, using information from historic photographs and architectural, archaeological and archival research. The process of restoration, necessarily a slow one, involved leaving the largest amount of historic fabric possible without compromising the stability of the structure.

Removing brick nogging Sept 2001

The exact date of construction for the smokehouse has not yet been determined, but most of its structural elements date to the 18th century. Insurance documents from 1801, 1805 and 1816 show sketches of a 16 foot square frame building located in the kitchen yard, next to a large brick meat house. Analysis of the wood timbers suggests that the poplar and oak frame may date to the mid to late 18th century, with some wall studs added in the early to mid-19th century and repairs made in the early 20th century.
During the 19th century, brick “nogging” was placed between the vertical walls studs from the lower sill plate to the upper sill plate. This infill may have been added to keep out rodents when the smokehouse began to be used for storage. Over the years, the weight of the brick nogging caused the lower sills to rotate out of vertical alignment, making the walls extend beyond the foundation. Damage from termite infestations and moisture, and the natural decay of the historic fabric also contributed to the instability of the structure.

North foundation wall rebuilt

By the mid-1990s, the smokehouse was in danger of collapsing and temporary interior stabilization was added as a preventative measure. In 2000, historic architect John K. Mott of John Milner Associates, Inc., working with structural engineers from McMullan Associates, devised a plan for the smokehouse restoration.Plans called for the removal of the brick veneer added to the historic brick foundation in the late 1940s. The smokehouse frame was lifted up so the foundation could be underpinned with concrete, and a new brick veneer, with load-bearing capacity, laid in an appropriate 18th-century bond. After the foundation work was completed, the historic poplar sills were lowered onto the stabilized masonry. Treated 2″x4″ studs were attached to the outer surfaces of deteriorated wall studs and the entire frame was encased with marine-grade plywood. Completed Smokehouse. The final part of the preservation process was covering the exterior with clapboard siding and attaching the finial.

Completed Smokehouse

Restoration of the Stratford Mill

When the Robert E. Lee Memorial Association was formed in 1929, all that remained of the mill structure were the stone walls. As the restoration of the Great House began in the 1930s, the first Board of Directors decided that the mill should be restored as well. The Association contacted James Ford Bell, President of General Mills, Inc. Mr. Bell became deeply interested in the project and offered to pay for suitable wood machinery for the mill if the Association would take on the responsibility of reconstructing the mill building, dam and pond. Both parties agreed on this approach.

Senator and Mrs. Metcalf of Rhode Island donated the funds for the reconstruction of the mill structure, dam and pond. In 1935, the old pond area was cleared of tree growth and other debris and the mill dam was reconstructed. By 1937, the springs in the area started to fill the pond basin. In 1938, work on the mill building began. Stratford’s first Resident Superintendent, Gen. B. F. Cheatham, was a driving force behind this effort. Gen. Cheatham searched throughout Virginia for parts that could assist the Stratford Mill. A large amount of timber and flooring were acquired from the Providence Forge Mill in New Kent County, Virginia. The millstone cranes were also acquired there. This mill, as with many older mills in the 1930s, was ceasing operations. In those tough financial times, the owners decided to sell off parts of the mill.

With Gen. Cheatham handling the structural side, Mr. Bell put together a team of mill experts to oversee the millwrighting and machinery aspects of the project. These individuals included Professor B. W. Dedrick of State College of Pennsylvania, General Mills engineer Alden Ackles, and John Fitz of the Fitz Waterwheel Company of Hanover, Pennsylvania. This team ensured accuracy in the reconstruction of the mill machinery. Alden Ackles successfully located the appropriate period machinery in the Klinefelter/Dubs Mill in Lineboro, Maryland. This mill was being dismantled and the machinery was purchased and installed in the reconstructed mill at Stratford. The Fitz Waterwheel Company worked on several mill components, reconditioning and altering them for use in the Stratford Mill. The mill was completed, dedicated and reopened on October 19, 1939.

Guiding the Waterwheel Shaft

The mill has operated ever since, with periods of down time for repairs and maintenance when necessary. Since 1939, the wood waterwheel has been replaced three times and all but one of the wood gears from the Klinefelter/Dubs Mill have been replaced. These repairs were done on an as needed basis when a particular component required repair or replacement. In the early 1990s, the signs or wear and tear on the wheel, gearing and some of the structure of the mill were again very evident. A more comprehensive restoration of the mill was needed. In 1993, Stratford launched a restoration plan under the direction of English millwright Derek Ogden. White oak timber was cut and stacked for air-drying as the mill continued to limp along with its old machinery. Derek Ogden made repairs to the waterwheel and main gear in 1994, which helped the mill stay in operation until June 2001. By that time, the white oak had dried sufficiently for construction to begin. Derek Ogden had also trained an apprentice, Ben Hassett, to carry on the work of the traditional millwright. Ben completed his apprenticeship in January 2001.

In June 2001 the heavy work began at the mill site as millwright Ben Hassett and mill Steve Bashore removed the old waterwheel, waterwheel shaft, and all the old gearing. Repairs to the hurst frame were the first order of business. The hurst frame is the large timber frame structure in the lower level of the mill which houses and supports all the gears and the mill stones. Repairs to the hurst frame were conducted in fall 2001. Masonry work was required under the hurst frame. This work was expertly carried out by stonemason Edward Ashby.

In December 2001, Ben Hassett turned his attention to the construction of the new 22-inch diameter waterwheel shaft. This shaft was made from a white oak tree cut on the Stratford grounds in December 1993. He also began the construction of the new waterwheel. In July 2002, the new waterwheel shaft was installed in the mill. With the shaft in place, the new wheel was constructed on site. By the end of September 2002, the wheel was complete

Ben Hassett constructing gear

Ben Hassett returned to his workshop and began the construction of the new gearing. Throughout the fall of 2002 and into 2003, six new gears were built and one gear was repaired. The gears are made of white oak, with gear teeth, or cogs, made of rock maple. The largest gear, known as the pit gear, is 13 feet 9 inches in diameter and has 122 cogs. In later July 2003, the gear installation phase began. Installing these large components was arduous and challenging work. As September came to a close all but two of the gears were in place. The interruption of hurricane Isabel caused the loss of six work days in late September, and, thankfully, the mill was not damaged by the storm. In early October final adjustments to the mill controls and millstones were completed. The millstones were dressed (sharpened) and the gears were trimmed out and test grinds were conducted.

On October 18, 2003, the Stratford Mill was rededicated. Because of the expert craftsmanship of millwrights Derek Ogden and Ben Hassett, the mill has come to life again. Through the historically accurate restoration of the mill, Stratford Hall will continue the milling tradition started long ago. In so doing, the public will be able to observe and learn about the vital role of mills in the 18th century as well as the important role of the millwright in engineering history and inthe field of mill restoration.

Excerpts from Miller Steve Bashore’s article for the Stratford Mill Rededication Ceremony, October 2003