The Fairbanks House: Oldest Known Wood Structure in North American

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I was lucky enough, for a multitude of reasons  to have met one of my most cherished friends in college. Our college days consisted of parties, food, and more parties. I wouldn’t change a thing, nor would I want to go back to those times. I didn’t necessarily believe her when she told me she had the “perfect guy for me” (who seven years after our introduction became my husband), but when I told her about my blog and she said she had the “perfect house right around the corner” for us to visit, I listened. She knew one of the descendants from the Fairbanks family, coordinated the visit even though they are closed to the public until May, got a babysitter for her adorable six month old child, and had a genuine smile on her face the entire time we were in the house (which was 28 degrees inside). I adore her on so many levels, but to have her on board and as excited about this blog project as I am is amazing. So, thank you Jess – love you forevers!

Anyway. Back to business people!

Historical Highlights

One of the most important takeaways I got from this home is that I really need to stop, take a look around, and learn about the history sitting right in front of me everyday. I had driven past the Fairbanks House a handful of times (admittedly not a lot), but when I started to google the location I could not remember any type of old home being there, never mind the oldest known wood structure in North America! So, thank you for that Fairbanks House!

  • Jonathan & Grace Fairbanks moved to Boston from England. Jonathan was a carpenter who specialized in making spinning wheels, which are showcased throughout the home and are really quite awesome to see. Dedham at that time was a huge town, spanning from what we know as Dedham today all the way down to Wrentham (close to the RI border). It was a “private Puritan” town, and new residents had to go thru an application process to move into town. While the Fairbanks weren’t Puritans, they were “Puritan enough” and Jonathan’s ability to build spinning wheels was very appealing to have in town, and so Jonathan, Grace and their six children became the 31st family to reside in Dedham.
  • The main part of the home was built in 1636 and is the oldest known wood structure in North America. The curator attributed the home’s ability to have withstood 363 years so far to three points: the majority of the house is built on bedrock which has kept it stable, the entire main house is constructed by tongue & groove only (not a single nail holding the structure of the house together!!) and thirdly, sheer luck.
  • Eight generations of Fairbanks lived in this very home, and at a certain point, 15 members of the family lived there at once.. Thanks to Jonathan’s very successful spinning wheel business, the family was very well off for quite a while, and even employed servants at the home.
  • In 1801, Jason Fairbanks, who was living at the home at that time, was convicted of murdering his girlfriend. He was convicted, escaped a Dedham jail and fled for Canada, but was caught near the border. He was brought back to Boston, and then hung in Dedham center with over 10,000 people witnessing the execution, as the story garnered much newspaper attention. This trial and execution brought many hardships to the Fairbanks family, and is a main attribute to the financial woes the family faced after that time period.
  • However, in very strange and unfortunate way we have Jason Fairbanks to thank for the preservation of the home. As the family had no money for upgrades to the home, none were made, and much of what you see today is how it appeared and functioned in the late 1600’s.
  • The last member of the Fairbanks Family to live in the home was Rebecca Fairbanks, who was there until the home became a museum in 1904. She was in her 80’s, and rumored to be a bit feisty. See the “Eye Spy” section below for a great tale featuring Rebecca & the prized Fairbank musket.

My Favorite Spots

Kitchen

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If you’ve been following along here, I love a historic kitchen and the Fairbanks House did not disappoint. With low ceilings (I’m 5’7 and the pom pom on my winter hat scraped the ceiling beams throughout the house). It’s a very simple kitchen, with a giant fireplace and hearth with a beehive oven for baking a weeks worth of bread. The open shelving displayed items that were original to the home throughout the years, along with period chairs and a table that the women of the household would have spent many hours a day around.

Lean-To

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A popular form of “addition” to homes in the late 1600’s were lean-to’s, and is truly what it sounds like: a building sharing one wall with a larger building, and having a roof that leans against that wall. They estimate that this part of the home was built between 1637 – 1700, and functioned the same as today’s garage would. Anything that you didn’t want to do outside, but didn’t want to do in the parlor, could be done in the lean-to, almost like a workshop. This room also had very low ceilings and small door ways, and showcased many of the Fairbanks tools from throughout the years.

Second Parlor – East Wing

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There is a drastic difference when you step into this room from the lean-to. The size of the door is more of what we’re used to, the ceilings are high and made of plaster, with much smaller beams supporting the ceiling. The trim is sanded and painted a light blue, with wallpaper that was more recently installed. This East Wing of the home was built to make an in-law suite, housing the family of a Fairbanks son. This second parlor also functioned as a “kitchenette” of sorts, and there is a separate entrance to this part of the house. They estimate this east wing was built sometime between 1780 – 1800.

2nd Floor Landing

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As the curator was about to lead us up the very narrow staircase to the second floor, Justin Fairbanks (descendant of the family who was kind enough to stop by and say hello during our visit) mentioned that he didn’t like going up there much and it would give you vertigo. I shrugged and climbed the stairs. Once at the top I realized he was more than correct. There are two rooms off either side of this tiny landing, both of which visitors aren’t allowed in. One room has a great collection of Fairbanks spinning wheels (a la Sleeping Beauty!) and the other is a bedroom which 6+ children would have shared at once. Abutting the tiny staircase is the chimney climbing up to the roof, which is huge and at an angle that definitely helps to brings on the dizziness. On either side of the chimney is open attic space, which is where the servants would have lived. Apparently the entire second floor would have originally be accessed via ladder only, which is likely why the stairs had to be built in such a tiny space.

Cheese Closet & Bathroom

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Yup – you read that correctly. The cheese closet and bathroom – but thankfully these roles happened at separate times, and with the cheese closet function before the bathroom function. The Fairbanks were well-known for their home-made cheeses throughout the years of their residency, and would keep the cheese to mature in this small room just off the lean-to, which they estimated was built around 1800 and then turned into a bathroom in 1881.

Eye Spy

  • Above the mantel in the kitchen, you’ll find a handful of large nails that look as if they were to display a heavy item. The treasured Fairbanks musket resided here before it was sold to a member of the family by Rebecca Fairbanks, shortly before she moved out of the house in 1904. The story goes that Rebecca was determined not to sell the musket, as it had been in the family for years, but as she truly needed the $5000 that was offered to her and it would remain in the family, she decided to part with it. That was a huge sum of money in that day, and with that in mind she went into downtown Dedham and purchased a few more muskets, to which she sold to others who had wanted to buy it over the years. It is unknown where the original Fairbanks musket is today, but they are trying to track it down! I love a good early 1900’s hustle.
  • The curator of the museum actually lives in another home within feet of the Fairbanks house, which was built from a Sears & Roebuck house kit. It’s neat to see the juxtaposition between the two historic homes!
  • As you stand in the kitchen, it’s easy to see lots of what I thought were simple dings, dents and scratches in the mantel itself and on door casings. However, a closer look and an explanation from the curator indicated that they were actually a witch mark, or a hex mark, and were put throughout the home by the Fairbanks family as protection against witches. The Fairbanks House website does offer ghost tours in the Fall and New England Cable News even did a piece with paranormal investigators! I was told that the Fairbanks House has one of the highest concentrations of these hex marks in New England. Spooky.
  • The slipper warmer in the Second Parlor on my wall was one of my favorite knickknacks from the home – but maybe because it was 20 degrees outside when we visited, and a balmy 28 degrees inside, and anything warm sounded good at that point! But truly, it was unique and super intricate.

Visiting Tips 

  • The home is open to the public May thru October, so put it on your calendar for those months!
  • As mentioned, there is no heat or air-conditioning, so just something to take into account in advance
  • Ceilings are very low (I’m 5’7 and felt like a giant), some doorways are very small, staircases are narrow and steps are uneven – just what I would hope to find in a home built circa 1637!

Top Photos 

Here are some of my favorite photos from my visit to The Fairbanks House – make sure to visit the Facebook & Instagram pages for more!

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8 Comments Add yours

  1. Joyce Jacobs says:

    Great job Candice. I enjoyed reading your take on this historic house!

    Like

    1. Candice says:

      Thanks Joyce! So glad you enjoyed it – more visits to come with my favorite partner in crime! :0) xo

      Like

  2. Jessica Fahey says:

    Amazing Can – great overview of all the hours ghkights. You rock! Can’t wait until our next adventure 🙂

    Like

    1. Jessica Fahey says:

      *highlights

      Like

    2. Candice says:

      Thanks for being an awesome partner in crime. Xoxoxo!

      Like

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