I wanted to share a home from my family tree: The Fairbanks House in Dedham, Massachusetts. I stumbled into this find about a year ago while researching my 3x great grandmother (and muse!), Mary Morton’s family tree, and now this location is on my bucket list. It is thought to be the oldest standing timber frame building in America today.
Jonathan Fairbanks was born in about 1594 in Yorkshire, England to John and Isabella Stancliffe Fairbanke. In the spring of 1617, when Jonathan was twenty three years old, he wed eighteen year old Grace Smith, b. 1599, the daughter Samuel and Grace Gawkroger Smith. Jonathan and Grace had six children: John, George, Mary, Susan, Jonas and Jonathan, who were all born in England.
Jonathan, Grace, and their children immigrated to the new found land in 1633, settling first in Boston, Massachusetts. By 1636, they had moved southeast to Dedham, Massachusetts. The town was established and named upon a petition of twenty-two persons. A Dedham Covenant was drawn up and signed by one hundred and twenty-five people. Jonathan and his sons John, George, and Jonathan Jr. all signed the covenant. It was in Dedham that he built the “Old Fairbanks House”. According to the book, Genealogy of the Fairbanks Family in America, 1633-1897, there is some dispute as to whether the home was built as early as 1636 because there was little historical evidence that framed buildings were erected that early. However, one of the main structural beams has been dated dendrochronology (tree ring dating) and was found to have been cut in the winter of 1637/1638. So the home was probably built sometime in the early 1640s.
The original home had four rooms: two on the first floor, two on the second, with an attic above that surrounded a massive chimney. They used a mixture of clay, straw and lime, called wattle and daub, which is pushed into a woven lattice of wooden strips. This mixture would’ve provided a smooth surface on the interior walls. In interior rooms would’ve been used as such: on the first floor as you entered the room on your right would’ve been the parlor room which was used as a sitting area for the family and guests as well as used as a bedroom. The room on the left was called the “hall” and would’ve been used as a kitchen. On the second floor you would find the parlor chamber and hall chamber. The hall chamber would’ve been used to store tools, hops, flax and wool, while the parlor chamber was used as a bedroom.
The exterior walls were covered with wide oak clapboards at the front and cedar on the rear. The original windows included wide banks on the first floor and small windows lighting the chimney bay. There is also a well preserved four-light window on the east gable, but there are no windows on the north or east ends, most likely to prevent the winter winds from entering the home.
In the time between the original construction and Jonathan Fairbanks death in 1668, additional rooms were added onto the home. A room was added onto the west end of the home and connected to the hall. It was referred to as “the new home” and was used for the storage of tools, wood working supplies, and for making cheese.
A lean-to was added onto the north side of the home sometime after Jonathan, Sr.’s death in 1668 as it was not mentioned in his estate inventory. The current east and west wings of the home were added sometime between 1780 and 1800. The privy off the lean-to and a mud room entrance to the east wing were added in the 19-century.
However, the most interesting fact of all is that the home remained in the Fairbanks possession throughout the ages, and was lived in until 1904.
After Jonathan’s death in 1668, the home was passed to his eldest son, John. When John passed away in 1684, the home and property were left to his two sons, Joseph and Benjamin. The two split the estate and Joseph came away with the home.
In 1734, Joseph passed on and the home was bequeathed to his son, also named Joseph. This second Joseph only owned the home briefly before selling it to his brothers John, Israel, Samuel and Ebenezer in 1755. Ebenezer eventually purchased his brothers’ shares and lived in the home until 1812 when the home passed to his son, Ebenezer, Jr.
Ebenezer, Jr. lived in the home until his death in 1832. The home was willed to his wife, Mary, and she remained in the home until her own death in 1843. At this point, the home was was left to three of Ebenezer and Mary’s unmarried daughters: Prudence, Sally and Nancy. When the last surviving daughter, Nancy, passed away in in 1879, she left the home to her unmarried niece, Rebecca.
Rebecca was the last member of the Fairbanks family to live in the home. In 1904, she moved out and upon her leaving, the Fairbanks Family in America, Inc. (a genealogical society made up of Jonathan & Grace Fairbanks descendants) opened the home as a museum. For over 100 years, the Fairbanks Family association has now owned and maintained the Fairbanks House. It is open annually from May 1-October 31st.
The Fairbanks House and it’s collections represent the evolution of a building and a family over nearly 270 years. It was decided to make no attempts to restore the home to its appearance at any one period of time, so it stands today, evident of the many different time periods of it’s construction. Much of the original woodwork and 17-century construction methods are visible.
In 1999, a historic structure report on the house was completed by Building Conservation Associates. This document details the known architectural history together with a complete documentation of the historic and existing building fabric, technical studies and measured drawings. A copy of the report is on file in the Fairbanks Family in America association office and provides a wealth of detail about the house. The home is today listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Below are pictures of the home taken from various sites. By clicking on the photographs, you can learn more about the home.
To learn more about the Fairbanks House or Fairbanks Family: