Rebecca Fairbanks (1827-1908), an eighth-generation descendant of Jonathan and Grace Fairbanks, was the last family member to live in the Fairbanks House. (Photograph courtesy of the Dedham Historical Society)
Joel Fairbanks (1801-1822) of Dedham, MA, a sixth-generation descendant,was 17 years old in 1818 when his portrait was painted by well-known itinerant artist Zedekiah Belknap. Joel's is the oldest family portrait in the Fairbanks House collection.
Charles Warren Fairbanks (1852-1918), an eighth-generation descendant, was a U.S. Senator from Indiana and Teddy Roosevelt's Vice President during Roosevelt's first term in office. The city of Fairbanks, Alaska is named in his honor.
A Grand House in 17th-Century New England
Adapted from an article by Fairbanks cousin Elizabeth I. V. Hunter
What sort of a life did Jonathan, Grace and their six children have when they settled in Dedham? They were too busy with day-to-day living to keep detailed diaries of their activities, but there are things that we can deduce from the evidence that remains.
The oak summer beam (one of the main structural beams) in the “hall” or kitchen has been dated by dendrochronology (tree ring dating) as having been cut in the winter of 1637/38. In the 17th century timber was not seasoned before it was used, so this suggests that work on the house’s construction began around 1637/38. A joist in the same room, connecting to the summer beam, was felled in the winter of 1640/41, suggesting that the original portion of the house may not have been completed until around 1641. Jonathan was given 12 acres of land in the original allotments to Dedham settlers in 1637, and Dedham town records also show that in 1640 he was granted “one cedar tree set out unto him to dispose of where he will.” Cedar was used for some of the original clapboarding on the exterior of the house.
The dendrochronology dates of circa 1637-1641 for the house’s construction confirm that the Fairbanks House is the oldest timber frame house yet identified in North America. While other buildings of this type were constructed earlier, the Fairbanks House is the oldest known to still survive today.
A grand house for the times
The original house had four rooms surrounding the massive center chimney – two on the first floor and two on the second with an attic above that. Insulation was provided by wattle and daub, a mixture of clay, straw and lime, which provided a smooth interior finish to the walls as well. As you stand inside the front door of the house, the room on your right side was originally called the parlor, and the room on the left was the hall (we would call it the kitchen). On the second floor were the parlor chamber and the hall chamber. “Chamber” was the word used for “upstairs room,” so the parlor chamber was the room above the parlor, and the hall chamber the room above the hall. The house faced south, instead of towards the street, and was only one room deep. There were two cellars, and we know from Jonathan’s death inventory that they were used to store mostly foodstuffs. By modern standards these were close quarters for a family of eight, but at the time the house was rather grand. Dedham’s first recorded property assessments were made in 1648, and Jonathan’s house was valued in the top 25% of Dedham property.
Between the original construction and Jonathan’s death in 1668 the Fairbankses added on to the house. Referred to as “the new house” in Jonathan’s death inventory, this addition was probably on the west end of the house, connected to the hall. The death inventory shows that this room housed tools for the farm, for wood working, and for making cheese. The hall chamber (the room over the hall or kitchen) was also used as a store room for hops, tools, and flax and wool.
The hall was where the cooking and eating took place. Cooking in the 1600s was hard, hot work. The main meal of the day was probably prepared in the morning and eaten around noon, giving good daylight for both preparation and cleanup.
The parlor, the other first floor room, had the highest concentration of valuable objects according to the 1668 inventory and served as a sitting room, a public area for entertaining guests and as a bedroom. The parlor chamber above the parlor was also used as a bedroom. Interestingly, the most valuable things in the house at the time of the estate inventory were the bedding, mostly linen and wool. Today we are used to having easy access to relatively cheap machine-made cloth, but in the 17th century all cloth had to be processed by hand from animal or plant fibers.
In addition to the contents of the house, Jonathan owned a good deal more land than his original 12 acres and had swine, cows and a barn full of hay.
Passing through generations
When Jonathan died he left his house to his oldest son, John. On the occasion of John’s death in 1684 the house and property were left to his two sons, Joseph and Benjamin. The two brothers divided the property and Joseph got the house.
Joseph died in 1734, leaving the house to his son Joseph. He left the house to his own son, also named Joseph. This Joseph owned the house briefly and then sold it to his brothers John, Israel, Samuel and Ebenezer in 1755. Ebenezer bought his brothers’ shares and lived in the house until his death in 1812, at which point the house passed to his son, Ebenezer, Jr.
Ebenezer, Jr. lived in the house until his death in 1832 when he willed the house to his wife, Mary. Mary in turn lived in the house until her death in 1843, when she left the house to her three unmarried daughters, Prudence, Sally and Nancy. When the last surviving sister, Nancy, died in 1879, she left the house to her unmarried niece Rebecca.
Rebecca was the last family member to live in the house, moving out in 1904. On Rebecca’s departure, the Fairbanks Family in America, Inc. (a genealogical membership organization made up of descendants of the original Jonathan and Grace) opened the house as a museum. The Fairbanks Family association has now owned and maintained the Fairbanks House for over 100 years.
Over the years there were several additions to the original house. The lean-to addition on the north side of the house is believed to have been added in the 17th century. It was probably constructed after 1668, since there is no mention of it in Jonathan’s estate inventory. The current west and east wings were added around 1780-1800. An extended family lived in the house at the time: Ebenezer, Sr. with Prudence and several of their children, and oldest son Ebenezer, Jr. with his wife Mary and their growing brood. The privy off the lean-to (originally a dairy) and the mud room entrance to the east wing are 19th -century additions.
A historical treasure
The present house and its collections represent the evolution of a building and a family over nearly 270 years. The decision was made not to attempt to restore the house to its appearance at any one period of time, so the Fairbanks House today provides detailed evidence of the many different time periods of its construction and use. Much can still be seen of the original woodwork and the 17th-century construction methods. Since the builders who constructed the house were English carpenters from the region of East Anglia, the Fairbanks House is a valuable resourse for English architectural historians as well as American.
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. Other excellent sources of information are:
Abbott Lowell Cummings, The Fairbanks House (Boston, Massachusetts; New England Historic Genealogical Society), 2002. (Available from the Fairbanks House gift shop)
Abbott Lowell Cummings, The Framed Houses of Massachusetts Bay, 1625-1725 (Cambridge, Massachusetts; Harvard University Press), 1979
New England Begins: The Seventeenth Century (Boston, Massachusetts, Boston Museum of Fine Arts), 1982.