Dal­ton and his qual­ity wood chips go hand in hand

Maryland Independent - - Sports - Jamie Drake jamiedrake­out­doors@out­look.com

One of the best parts of writ­ing this column is get­ting emails from readers.

Af­ter the piece about Mount Ver­non ap­peared here ear­lier this year, I re­ceived a friendly note from Janet Dal­ton of Lusby, whose hus­band, Bill, has a very tan­gi­ble con­nec­tion to Mount Ver­non. No, he’s not Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton’s long-lost grand­son (old Ge­orge didn’t have any chil­dren of his own). Nonethe­less, he’s got a great story I’d like to share to­day.

Twenty-five years ago, Bill Dal­ton was hired by the folks at Mount Ver­non to hand­craft 55,000 shin­gles from re­claimed cypress logs, the same shin­gles that are still pro­tect­ing the man­sion’s iconic red roof to this day.

Bill and his wife Janet have lived in Lusby for the past 15 years and Bill has a work­shop on the prop­erty. His com­pany is called Qual­ity Wood Chips, and, no, he doesn’t de­liver mulch as peo­ple some­times mis­tak­enly as­sume. Bill is a his­toric restora­tion car­pen­ter. He’s worked on projects from St. Mary’s City to Sot­ter­ley, York­town to Jamestown, and count­less old barns in South­ern Mary­land.

Bill spe­cial­izes in cus­tom work, and lately has been mak­ing a tran­si­tion from build­ing tim­ber frames and log cab­ins to smaller projects so he can spend more time with his wife and three kids. He en­joys get­ting into the more fan­ci­ful projects, like one-of-a-kind cedar chests and unique ta­bles legs made right from tree limbs.

Cur­rently, Bill’s work­ing on a client’s old Chevy pick-up truck, which orig­i­nally sported a wooden bed. He picked out some beau­ti­ful cherry wood for the new truck bed and has been hand-buff­ing the planks with paste wax so they glis­ten.

Bill grew up in St. Mary’s County, where his fa­ther owned a hard­ware store in Dameron that was later re­lo­cated to St. Ini­goes. You could say car­pen­try runs in his blood.

Back when he was just a tot, ev­ery­one pitched in to help when a fam­ily mem­ber needed a house or barn built. In those days, living on the fam­ily farm, if you needed some­thing, you didn’t go to the store and buy it. You made it your­self.

That spirit of mak­ing things stayed with Bill, and af­ter re­turn­ing home from the ser­vice, the restora­tion of his­toric St. Mary’s City was just get­ting un­der­way and he begged him­self onto the crew.

Not only did Bill find his life’s call­ing dur­ing that first job, he met his wife, too. She was work­ing as an in­ter­preter spe­cial­iz­ing in hearth cook­ing and medic­i­nal herbs. He was fin­ish­ing up the doors and win­dows on one of the build­ings when they met, and the rest is his­tory. They’ve been mar­ried nearly 30 years.

Dur­ing one sum­mer in the 1990s, Bill was performing a demon­stra­tion of 18th Cen­tury car­pen­try tech­niques, which in­cluded mak­ing shin­gles by hand. His at­ten­tion to his­tor­i­cal

stan­dards and the qual­ity of his work caught the eye of Mount Ver­non’s cu­ra­tor, who just hap­pened to be in the au­di­ence. He watched Bill for a while and then asked how he’d like to make his­tor­i­cally ac­cu­rate shin­gles for Mount Ver­non.

A com­pany do­nated some western red cedar and Bill hired a young man to help him do the job. The pair drove up to Mount Ver­non each day and hand split shin­gles to roof the cupola, which was no­to­ri­ously leaky.

The Ladies’ Board (Mount Ver­non is owned and man­aged by the Mount Ver­non Ladies’ As­so­ci­a­tion and does not take gov­ern­ment funds) liked his work on the cupola, and he was asked to hand­craft 55,000 shin­gles to re­place the rest of the man­sion’s aged roof.

A lot of plan­ning went into this pro­ject. Pro­fes­sors from Vir­ginia Tech re­searched the ex­act way the shin­gles should be split to repli­cate the method used in Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton’s day, which hap­pens to be ra­di­ally in­stead of tan­gen­tially for any­one who is won­der­ing. And while the cypress logs for the man­sion’s orig­i­nal roof came from Vir­ginia’s Great Dis­mal Swamp, amaz­ingly Bill was able to use wood from the same pe­riod for his replica shin­gles.

In the 18th Cen­tury, trees were cut hand cut, and when the logs floated down­river to mar­ket, some would get caught up in log­jams and get stuck in the muddy river bot­tom.

One rea­son cypress was used for roof­ing shin­gles was its nat­u­ral re­sis­tance to water, which al­lowed those logs to be well pre­served while stuck in the murky riverbed for 200 years. Such old logs are con­sid­ered valu­able and, when found, are re­trieved by divers. When Bill in­spected the logs, many of which were still wet upon de­liv­ery, some had 30 to 32 growth rings per inch, in­di­cat­ing those trees were 1,000 years old when they were cut down.

It took al­most a year and six peo­ple work­ing with Bill to make all the shin­gles. Last year, as a spe­cial birth­day present, he and his wife were treated to a VIP tour of the man­sion and were in­vited up into the cupola to per­son­ally in­spect his hand­i­work. Those shin­gles are stand­ing the test of time — qual­ity wood chips of the finest grade.

Thomas Rein­hart, the di­rec­tor of ar­chi­tec­ture at Mount Ver­non, said, “The man­sion roof of 1996 has per­formed ex­cep­tion­ally. Our roofer be­lieves that the roof has 15 to 20 years of life left, although we, of course, mon­i­tor it closely. The hand-split shin­gles matched Wash­ing­ton’s ex­act spec­i­fi­ca­tions and it looks as though they will have pro­tected the Gen­eral’s home for at least three decades by the time they are re­tired.” Which, I think we can take as a re­sound­ing en­dorse­ment of Bill’s car­pen­try skills.

Usu­ally cypress shin­gles are left bare, but Martha Wash­ing­ton had ex­pen­sive taste, as ev­i­denced by her ex­ten­sive hat and shoe col­lec­tion, and hav­ing the roof painted red was a sym­bol of op­u­lence in her day. The shin­gles are re­sealed ev­ery year or two with a spe­cial stain to main­tain the red hue of the roof.

And although the movies might lead you to be­lieve that Mount Ver­non sits atop secret pas­sage­ways, Bill said that ex­cept for a cis­tern and crum­bling walls, there isn’t any­thing of much in­ter­est in the base­ment. I’ll take his word for it.

PHOTO BY JANET DAL­TON

Bill Dal­ton in the cupola of Mount Ver­non in Jan­uary 2016.

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