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How the other half lived: The Peter Burr Living History Farm interprets another side of Jefferson County history

A casual observer of the old house located behind the Burr Industrial Park near Shenandoah Junction might see just that – an old house – in very poor condition. Perhaps even bulldozer-bound. But when Bill Theriault looks at the 18th Century log and frame dwelling known as the Peter Burr House, he sees many things: the product of the historic struggle of an underdog, an architectural gem that is somewhat an anomaly in this region, an intriguing set of mysteries and discoveries that has yet to unfold, and a community stage.

The struggle

Theriault holds an obvious affection and dedication for the house and for what it stands. The 54-year-old writer who has a Ph.D. in American Literature is Chairman of the Jefferson County Historic Landmarks Commission. He and a core group of historic landmarks proponents have worked hard to transform the Burr House and its 8-½ surrounding acres into The Peter Burr Living History Farm. Although the group finally acquired ownership of the rapidly deteriorating property from the Jefferson County Development Authority after a nine-year struggle, and major restoration efforts have begun, their work is far from being complete.

It’s not one of the stately Washington family mansions that have been revered as such an integral part of Jefferson County history. In fact, it could even be seen as the antithesis of the cherished old Virginia heritage. And Theriault wonders if that’s why it took so long for the Burr House rescue. “People tend to foster things that reflect their own value systems,” says Theriault.

The Burrs were middle-class farmers, not plantation owners. They were not of the Anglican Church and did not own slaves. The architecture of the house reflects early New England, not Tidewater Virginia. It’s rather plain and has a steeply pitched roof, massive chimney and small windows, all features that are typical of the New England Colonial style of the 1600-1700 period.

But according to Theriault, there may have been an even deeper prejudice against the Burr family, a prejudice that was both cultural and political. Peter Burr II’s first cousin was Vice President Aaron Burr. Peter Burr’s neighbors, General Horatio Gates (whose house is known as Traveler’s Rest), and General Charles Lee (whose house is known as Prato Rio), formed an alliance with Aaron Burr in an attempt to remove General George Washington from command during the American Revolution. Washington, in turn, removed both Gates and Lee from their commands. It is Theriault’s belief that these associations may have caused Peter Burr and his family to be at odds with Washington family members who dominated the political, economic and social arena of the time.

Politics aside, Theriault says that when studying two of the predominant cultures who settled in this area, the one that came from the north tends to be overshadowed by those who settled from Virginia. So the Burr house with its New England roots may have been overlooked as a critical part of the area’s evolution. “To me that makes it all the more important to preserve. The Washington homes and culture have been preserved by people of means, but the two points of view provide perspective.”

The architecture

Considered the oldest standing wood frame structure in the state of West Virginia, the two-story, eight room, log, beam and board building was built in sections beginning in 1751 by Peter Burr I who came from Connecticut.

“The craftsmanship is very rare,” says Theriault. On the circa 1751 portion of the home, the original hand-split, feathered clapboard siding is beaded, so are the beams inside – even upstairs in the non-public portion of the home. The chairboard also has hand-trimmed beading around the edge, which was put together with wooden pins. These details indicate that much care was put into building the dwelling.

The log portion of the house was probably built after 1804 and was originally one story tall with no chimney and was not initially connected to the house. It may have been a barn. After it became two stories and a chimney was added, the first floor was probably used as a kitchen and the upstairs as sleeping quarters.

A connecting piece between the first two portions of the home was most likely converted into living quarters between 1804 and 1825. Burr preservation planners have decided to restore the house to the way it looked in this time period, when all three sections were joined together.

The intrigue

Although much has been learned about the house, there are still many questions that remain unanswered. The two-story stone springhouse is one mystery. “We believe it was built over a spring, but we haven’t dated it yet,” says Theriault. The spring has long since dried up and there is some question of whether this may have actually been built as a fort. The shape of the building matches some other early stone forts in the area, and if it was built in the 1750’s, the same time as the house, it would have been right at the time of the French and Indian War (1754-1763). It is believed that a later owner of the house used the upstairs of the springhouse as slave quarters.

A nearby root cellar may have a circa 1940’s cement doorframe, but the brick-lined cellar floor indicates an earlier date. How much earlier is not yet known.

A more recent mystery lies in the set of child’s footprints that were found in the cement slab under the back porch. Dated 1926, the initials E.M.B. appear next to the small prints, and Theriault wonders if that person might still be alive and local.

Future archaeological endeavors promise to answer some of the questions – and also will surely add even more intrigue to the project. The group hopes to locate the remains of other buildings below ground and plans to recreate these structures at a later date.

The stage

“Our goal is not simply to restore the building, but to also make it into something that can re-animate people towards their heritage,” says Theriault. “I look at it as a theater – a stage.” Plans for the Peter Burr Living History Farm are to recreate life during the 1790’s. “Even though it may take ten years to finish (the project), you don’t need to have every detail on the stage to present the play.”

The interpretation of late 18th Century life involves two different players: the volunteers and the audience. “Personally, I think the thing that does the most for Jefferson County residents is the volunteers,” says Theriault. “They are really the people who are doing this. It’s that group and that experience that’s bringing this place back.” So far there are about 40 active volunteers who include both retired people and younger families. Their interests range from interpretation, gardening and agriculture, amateur archeology and, of course, history.

Theriault says that the volunteers become part of Peter Burr’s extended family (Peter Burr II had 13 children, after all) and that when kids become involved in the experience, they become “electrified. They don’t even have the vaguest idea that they’re learning something. We’re trying to provide Jefferson County residents with a low-cost, wholesome family experience.”

Besides stabilizing the house and doing some extensive archeological studies, the volunteers have planted a kitchen garden with period herbs and crops such as flax, corn and wheat. Twelve heritage-stock fruit trees have been planted in a small orchard; many of the trees came from Monticello.

Some old logs were recently donated to the group from two old houses in Shenandoah Junction that were torn down. These will be used to build an 18th Century-style four-crib log barn this fall. The new “old” barn will include caretakers quarters. Theriault hopes that the chain link fence now guarding the house will come down when a caretaker is there to watch the property.

Although Theriault can list off many goals for the future, he says that to a certain extent, “We’re sort of making this up as we go along, so it’s an opportunity to shape the way things grow. You really become part of the process.”