Dake of Castleton
HOUSE-JOINER EXTRA ORDINARY
By HERBERT WHEATON CONGDON
HOUSE-JOINER. That was the way Thomas R. Dake described himself back in the early 1800s, the period in which he made over a Vermont village. Today we would rightly call him an architect and esteem him Vermont’s most brilliant practitioner of that ancient art during the first quarter of the Nineteenth Century . . . and the least known.
Architects, as they are defined today, were practically nonexistent in Vermont a century-and-a-half ago. We accept them as specialists in planning, products of college and university who, like lawyers and physicians, have undergone lengthy instruction and education, served their internship and finally (in many States) have been licensed to practise their profession. Too often they arc forced to become men of drawing-board and office, their creative work taking shape under the supervision of a corps of technicians. Few could saw a straight cut, lay a brick or join timbers with mortise-and-tenon. To contract for the erection of the building they have designed is forbidden by the Code of Professional Ethics.
The diploma, gown and hood of the Master’s degree seem empty honors when compared to the "forty dollars worth of carpenter’s and joiner’s tools, with two suits of clothes, one suitable for publick days" that were once the customary award. Beyond the award lay the reward, seeing the child of his brain take shape through the labor of his own hands helped by his journeymen and apprentices under his immediate, personal, supervision and manual participation every minute of long days until it was completed.
The master house-joiner was truly the architect, archi-tekton, literally the master-builder. Like his helpers, he was frequently employed by the day; but he was the Master! Often it was he who went into the snow-carpeted forests and cut great first-growth pines of his choosing. It was he who hewed and laid out the sturdy roof trusses, making the first as a pattern for the others. It was he who cunningly devised the gracefully curving spiral staircase, self-sustaining and as solid as a rock. He designed and made the best-room mantel with its wide panel above the shelf that fitted a cherished family portrait. Intricate geometry was a plaything. He had learned from his Master in apprentice-days the secrets of proportion and the principles of sound construction. He knew his trade as well as his art.
Today we wonder how it came about that those old houses are so good architecturally. They may be Quaker-plain, but the interrelationship of wall and opening and slope of roof, the charm and suitableness of rooms, have little likeness to the vernacular architecture of the present. Our sense of proportion is blunted. We feel it is hardly worth the trouble to get sash and doors that are just right for their places, now that they come ready-made, especially if it means delay. "I don’t care what the house looks like," says my client, "if it keeps me warm and dry and doesn’t cost much." The women’s magazines are filled with clever subterfuges of decoration and furnishing that will minimize bad proportions and wrongly placed openings.
Fundamentally, then, the charm of the old houses is due to the fact that the people who built them . . . and those who paid for them did care. But that does not wholly explain how "common carpenters" did such beautiful work nor why in the brief decade that centered around 1850 the standards of good taste in architecture (and other arts) fell to such lamentably low levels. It is encouraging to find them slowly rising now, at least among Vermont’s country carpenters .... and their customers, too!
Of course these carpenters were not equally gifted. They might be roughly classified as (a). farm-folk compelled by circumstances to be able to "do anything," turning out really good carpentry in fine proportion but with no thought of beautification, (b) men who had gone through an apprenticeship which had given them not only manual skill but an understanding of design in its various branches, and (c) those who had developed inventive genius in design over and above a mere ability to copy, who were able to amplify the germ-idea of their pattern. It is noteworthy, however, that all the men in these classifications possessed in a high degree a feeling for good proportion that has since become unusual. Dake belongs in the third class. He was an inventive genius of great brilliance, as well as a master-craftsman in wood. For those who are concerned with Heredity and Environment as influencing adult life, the following information has been collected and deductions drawn. Factual material is backed by references and circumstantial evidence. Mere guesswork is identified in the text as clearly as possible. The illustrations of Dake’s work are, of course, important as direct evidence. It is unfortunate that buildings cannot always be definitely dated. Town Land Records cover only transfers of land "with buildings thereon." In some cases dates are frankly derived from the architectural evidence where neither diaries nor records are available.
In contradiction of the Biblical proverb, Dake is more honored in the village where he spent most of his life than elsewhere. Legends have gathered about his memory, legends that do not stand up even to amateur research. The "American Guide Series" book on Vermont calls him Thomas Royal Dake, following local tradition. Dake himself never used a middle name, not always his rightful middle initial "R," as attested by numerous documents bearing his signature and filed in the office of the Town Clerk of Castleton. His father was no silversmith as the local tradition states, but an industrious farmer and active land-trader in the "West Parish" of Windsor, Vermont. Dake did not emigrate to Ohio, as some stories go, but his son Thomas C. did; the names have been confused. The origin of these attractive myths seem to be due to letters from a granddaughter of Dake’s, the late Mrs. James J. Goodale of Cleveland, Ohio, a daughter of Thomas Ceylon Dake. These letters were written to the late Miss Mary Gerrish Higley of Castleton, an enthusiastic collector of Castletoniana and admirer of Dake the architect. Miss Higley’s valuable collections, at her death, were divided between the Secretary of the Federated Church congregation and Mrs. Hulda Cole, librarian of the Castleton Teachers College. Some letters etc., were destroyed at Miss Higley’s request. It is said they were not of historical significance.
The letter mentioned above is dated at Cleveland, Ohio, December 12,1921. After personal introductory matter there are several apologies for "poor memory" and mention of assistance from Mr. Goodale (not a Dake descendant) whose memory is said to be "better for genealogical matters," which do not interest her. "All I distinctly remember" the letter says "is the fact that two Dakes came over from England in 1680 and settled in Connecticut." Several other bits of genealogical data are then given (mostly in agreement with accepted records), the middle name is given as "Royal" for Thomas R. Dake, his father is said to have been a silversmith, and the letter draws toward a close with the statement misunderstood by Miss Higley "Grandfather was married a second time and she is the Grandmother
I remember, for we lived in Ohio." He may have visited there, or they may have visited in Castleton. The Castleton tax records and land records show him a resident of that village until his death in 1852.
Now for facts. Our Thomas Dake’s grandfather was a physician, Dr. John Dake. Old records spell the surname with charming inconsistency Deake and Deak also. Dr. John Dake married Hannah Foster’ and practised in Hopkinton, Rhode Island. Both he and his wife seem to have been of Rhode Island families. They had at least three children. The present study is concerned only with the first three, John, Joseph and Benjamin, for all three in due time emigrated to the new settlement, Windsor, Vermont, on the bank of the Connecticut River.
Benjamin Dake, son of Dr. John, was born in Hopkinton, R. I., November 27, 1753 and married Elizabeth Reynolds March 23, 1779, at South Kingstown (Kingston today) the Rev. Emmanuel Case, Assistant, officiating. The young couple seem to have lived there for a short time, and it may be guessed that he was a farmer as that part of the present Town is still a farming community with its tiny village, South Kingston. Their first child was born there, a year later, and named George Washington Dake. Benjamin’s elder brothers had already gone to Windsor and it may be guessed that they wrote back with persuasive enthusiasm to him, for he followed them to Windsor and had settled there in time for his second son, Benjamin Foster Dake, to be born in Windsor, Vermont, in 1782.
The third son born to Benjamin Dike and Elizabeth Reynolds his wife was THOMAS REYNOLDS DAKE, the full name and date of birth, December 22, 1785, being in the Windsor Town Records. Benjamin and his family lived in what was then called "the West Parish" of Windsor. It is now a separate township, West Windsor, a place of hill-farms and forest land, a small village called Brownsville and a couple of named localities, Hammondville and Sheddsville. There are the usual number of small family burying grounds and almost-deserted cemeteries. In one of these no doubt arc the graves of Benjamin, his wife, and possibly some children. Farmland that is going back to forest is difficult to explore for old gravestones. Those of the Dakes have not yet been found.
The three original Dake men settling in Windsor seem to have differed considerably in personality and citizenship. John, the oldest, was a prominent citizen, holding various public offices, one of which was Surveyor. One of his successors in this office was Asher Benjamin, later to be known as a famous architect and author in Massachusetts. When John Dake died March 22, 1791, he had a big funeral and suitable publicity in the Windsor newspaper which called him "Dake the Pioneer." Incidentally, this newspaper, The Vermont Journal, is still being published and has furnished from its fragile old files a good deal of information and background material.
Of Joseph Dake almost nothing is known. There are records of his children and of John’s, but he seems to have been a quiet and retiring man. Benjamin Dake had been a private with Rhode Island troopsand was on the Windsor payroll as a Revolutionary soldier in 1781 and was granted a pension in Windsor in 1832. Apparently esteemed as a farmer, he was elected Hog Reeve in 1782 and served on a Petty (sic) Jury in the same year. He is thought to have died in 1835. There is every indication that he was a farmer all his life, but the Windsor Land Records show that he was also an active land-trader in what is now the Town of West Windsor.
The settlement of Windsor began about 1764 and to a large degree in the vicinity of the Connecticut River. The back country, the West Parish, was exceedingly hilly and very heavily forested. The settlement showed by census sixteen families by the end of 1765. In 1791 there were 1,542 inhabitants and in 1820 the official census showed 2,950 persons, the largest Town in Vermont. Under such conditions there would be a demand for timber. . . and a good chance to add to a farmer’s income by land trading. It is not unlikely that Benjamin Dake became prosperous, and that he could do well by his children.
It is beyond the scope of this study to follow the fortunes of his two older sons, George and the younger Benjamin. Our present concern is with the third, Thomas. The boyhood and youth of Thomas R. Dake is quite unknown. Presumably he went to a "little red schoolhouse" not too far from his farm home. It can be inferred that in a rapidly growing community he may have been fascinated by the sight of men at work on new houses. It is not impossible that his father had the means and the desire to build a new and finer farm-home during Thomas’ formative years. It is obvious that something drew him away from farm-life to the "art, trade and mastery of house-carpenter and joiner," to quote from an indenture he made with a youth many years later. The first definite fact that we have of his adult life is in the records of the Town of Castleton, Vermont, the statement that he took the Freeman’s Oath on September 1, 1807. This Oath is required of all citizens on attaining their majority as a prerequisite to voting. The date was the first Tuesday in September which at that time was Election Day. There was no requirement for a definite previous residence within the County or Town then, so he appeared before the Selectmen, properly introduced of course, and was sworn in. As simple as that!
In view of the great importance of Town Meeting among all Vermonters, habitually held in March, it seems almost certain that he had not reached Castleton at that time or he would have taken the Oath then, as he had reached his majority the previous December. He may not have come directly from Windsor to Castleton. He may have been out of the state, learning his trade, as discussed later.
Whenever it was that he reached Castleton, legend has it that he worked for—or with—Jonathan Deming, a well-established master-builder and member of the local Congregational Church. Deming knew his trade thoroughly, but lacked inventive genius—ability to design. He seems to have accepted Dake, not as an apprentice, but as a master workman on whom he could rely for design, ornament and the more elaborate forms of joinery. Dake may even have lived in the family as an apprentice would. The book of records of the Congregational Church, volume 1, lists Thomas R. Dake as signing the Society’s Articles. Nowhere is there a record of any apprenticeship having been served by young Thomas Dake. These agreements, called "indentures," were made between the parent of the apprentice, usually 16 years old, with a master for the five year period until the lad attained his majority. In early days the document was torn in two, half being retained by each party to the contract. The matching together of the jagged, toothy edge (whence the name indenture) proved the authenticity of the paper. With the development of careful and official record-keeping this custom died out and the indenture was often, but by no means always, filed with the Town Clerk. At this critical period of Thomas Dake’s life we are faced by problems that cannot be solved by the accepted means of letters, diaries, or official records. The latter are few. No diaries or letters have been found. So, from a minimum of known facts and the direct evidence of the houses built by Dake in Castleton shortly after his arrival there, we may weave our tapestry from the few facts on a warp and woof of deduction, intelligent guesswork.
Young Dake’s education, it seems fair to say, was a major factor. His reasons for abandoning farming for building we shall probably never know. Having made that choice, any ambitious young man would seek fertile fields to work. Why not Windsor, seething with activity, growing fast? It had better communications, by the river, than most Vermont towns. There was prosperous farmland across the river in New Hampshire. Why not one of the other river-towns if he wanted to strike out in new fields? That, too, we shall never know. We can draw inferences from Castleton legends and a very few old letters, even from scattered entries in old books of accounts, that he was a quiet, introspective man, leaning on others to an extent. Success then as now depended on Push and Pull and possibly he preferred the second quality.
Therefore, the next strand from the scanty but tangled skein has to do with another family, the Langdons. Down in Farmington, Conn., Ebenezer Lankton (as it was then spelled) was born May 20, 1738. He married Katharine Green of the same town, who was born June 2, 1742. They had six children: Ira, 1761; Chaunsee, (who later spelled his name "Chauncy"), born November 8, 1763 (of whom more later); Gad, born July 6, 1767; Bulah (sic) born April 26, 1769; Mary, born December 3, 1771 and Ebenezer (jr.) born March 4, 1775 who married Polly Stocking of Berlin, Conn., date unknown. She was born September 17, 1775 and died February 6, 1865. Ebenezer jr. died in Castleton, Vermont, September 18, 1849. This information is from old Langdon family papers which authenticate their information by the statement that dates of birth and death are copied from headstones, mostly in the cemetery at Sheddsville, in what is now West Windsor. These dates seem to be confirmed by the Vermont Vital Statistics Office, which add pertinent information as to death-dates and burial place. Ebenezer sr. in these records is given the middle initial R, and his death-date December 25, 1826, his place of burial, Sheddsville Cemetery, West Windsor. This is nearly two years after he had brought suit against Selah Gridley of Castleton to collect a debt wherein he is described as "of Windsor." Langdon family papers state that Ebenezer sr. and his family moved from Farmington, Conn., to Windsor in 1790. The 1790 Censusof Windsor, Vermont, records Ira Langdon (Ebenezer sr.’s older son), his wife and a daughter. Ebenezer jr. does not appear in it until 18oo and then only two of his children are listed. Probably the others were by that time married. Ebenezer jr. is listed with his wife and two children, a boy and a girl, the boy being Marcus, born in (West) Windsor August 25, 1801, died in Castleton November 29, 1864. Two of these Langdons are significant elements of the Dake problem.
Chauncy (sic), the second son of Ebenezer Langdon sr., seems to have been a brilliant man. He graduated from Yale in 1792, studied law in Hebron, Conn. (about 25 miles from Farmington, his birthplace) and at about the time his parents moved to Windsor, Vermont, he went to Castleton, Vermont, where he practised law. He seems to have had faith in the future of Castleton, a faith justified by his later success there, and perhaps he influenced his brother Ebenezer jr. to move to Castleton with his wife and young children.
Ebenezer was about twelve years younger than Chauncy. On his arrival in Castleton in 1803 he developed a water-power on the outskirts of the village. He seems to have made many friends, for in 1812 he was sent as the Town’s representative to the Vermont Legislature. His older brother, Chauncy, succeeded him and served in that capacity in 1813, 1814, and from 1819 to 1822. Chauncy had previously served as Judge of Probate, 1799-1800. Ebenezer seems to have done some farming and dealt in wool, perhaps raising sheep too.
So much for fact. It is to be remembered that the Langdons and Benjamin Dake’s family had been neighbors in West Windsor, a small community. Both families farmed and "traded land." It may be surmised that Ebenezer jr., pleased with his own success based on his move to Castleton, urged young Thomas Dake to "go West, young man" and follow the Langdon’s lead. The wise and popular Chauncy may have had something to do with it, too, for it is at least probable that he visited his father, Ebenezer sr., on the farm home in West Windsor. The Town is small, so this could not have been far distant from Benjamin Dake’s dwelling. For the same reason the children may .have been at least acquainted with one another. These two Langdon men were making money. They may have craved handsomer homes than could be built by the Castleton house-carpenters. Perhaps they were impressed by young Thomas Dake’s education which is such a mystery to us. It may be significant that Dake built homes for the young scions of these two Langdons. It may be that Thomas Dake felt the "pull." We know that he went to Castleton only fdur years after Ebenezer jr. did. We can only guess at his reasons.
The mystery of young Dake’s education in the "art or trade of house carpenter and joiner" cannot be solved at the present. Here, too, there are certain significant facts and the direct evidence of the buildings he designed and built, which may be used as bases for intelligent guesswork.
Windsor village has its South Meeting House of great beauty and distinction. It had a number of very beautiful and ornate houses built for wealthy citizens of which there are some relics left. These were erected in the closing years of the last decade of the Seventeenth Century and in the first decade of the Eighteenth, the work of the distinguished master-builder, Asher Benjamin of Greenfield, Mass., who spent several years in Windsor. He was something of a wanderer, and judging by the larger number of buildings he designed in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont, was a good business-getter. He was also something of a missionary, eager to teach others what he knew. He wrote, illustrated and published six books on architecture inspired by some of the English publications like those of the Brothers Adam.
The Windsor Gazette, a weekly newspaper now called The Vermont Journal, carried the following advertisement in its issue for January 5, 1802 and the three succeeding ones:
To YOUNG CARPENTERS, JOINERS AND ALL OTHERS
CONCERNED IN THE ART OF BUILDING:
The Subscriber intends to open a School of Architecture at his house in Windsor, the 20th of February next, at which will be taught THE FIVE ORDERS OF ARCHITECTURE the Proportions of Doors, Windows and Chimneypieces, the construction of Stairs, with their ramp and twist, Rails, the method of framing timbers, length and backing of Hiprafters, the tracing of Groins to Angle Brackets, circular soffits in circular Walls; Plans, Elevations and Sections of Houses, with all their Ornaments.
The Art of drawing Plans and Elevations, or any
other figure perspectively will also be taught
December 28, 1801
There is no reference to these advertisements in the news columns of the paper. It is not known whether the "school" died a-borning or succeeded to some degree in Windsor or elsewhere. Benjamin sold his house in Windsor and left that village within a year or two after his effort to start America’s first School of Architecture, the date of his departure being conjectural.
To seize some flimsy clues, consider the opportunities that young Thomas Dake might have had for instruction by Asher Benjamin. The lad was sixteen years. old when Benjamin’s advertisement was first published, the usual age for apprenticing with a view to "graduating" at twenty-one, majority. His uncle, John Dake, was a pioneer settler of Windsor, prominent, popular, and well-to-do. Caleb and John Benjamin were also pioneers of the settlement. No connection has been proven between Asher and either of them, nor is Asher Benjamin’s father known. What brought Asher to this frontier village, rapidly growing in wealth and population, away from his many commissions and connections in the "civilized" States down the Connecticut River?
It is a fascinating mass of material for fiction; the talented youngster, Tom Dake, his kindly, plodding elder brothers and indulgent father, the brilliant teacher from the south, all ending in apprenticeship with Asher Benjamin as his Master. The loyal apprentice departs with his Master when the school-project fails, and attains his majority while Benjamin is completing the Charles St. Church in Boston, getting home too late for the 1807 Windsor Town Meeting, then going over to Gas tleton during the summer to help worthy, unschooled and aging Jonathan Deming, friend of Dake’s former neighbors, the prosperous and influential Langdons. The only trouble with it is that not a record can be uncovered as a foundation for the flimsy tissue of possibilities. Let us go back to Castleton and sober fact; Thomas Dake at the age of 2 I was a well-trained architect.
Castleton was settled largely from Connecticut. Col. Bird’s first visit from his home in Salisbury, Conn., was made in 1767 by way of Bennington and Manchester, where the road ended. Beyond that lay Rutland, over thirty miles of blazed trails. From what is today Vermont’s second largest city he went westerly, but lost his way and came out at Whitehall, circling back to where placid Castleton dozes nowadays. By 1775 the new settlement counted thirty families and eight or ten unattached souls. Israel Buel, the first child born there, was the son of Ephraim. About forty years later the Buel Block was built, the brick building that houses town offices and still bears the old sign, carefully repainted, "G. Buel, Hat and Cap Store," a puzzle to tourists in search of headgear.
When Thomas R. Dake reached Castleton, Israel Buel, if still an inhabitant, would have been only thirty-five years of age. It was a new town and the people of the village were sure it was going to be an important one. Arunah Hyde with his dreams of making it the stage-coach center of the State was nearly a quarter-century in the future. There is a list of the local business men, probably made up about 1810 but without mention of the source of the information. It includes under the heading "Carpenters and Joiners" Jonathan Deming, Mr. Thompson, John Houghton, N. Granger, T R. Dake, Freedom Brown, Clark Stevens & Son. There is no explanation of the sequence. Deming and Granger belong in the Dake story.
The Demings were among the first settlers of Castleton, coming up from Connecticut where Jonathan was born in 1756. He had two wives, Ann, who did not live very long, and Jane, who was born in 1761 and died August 29, 1828. Jonathan outlived her, dying April 16, 1836. There were a number of children, among them a son Wait who died August 5, 1817 at the age of 26, and the young physician, Luther, who died at the age of 31, January 4, 1829; and of course Sally.
Jonathan Deming seems to have been a lovable character, an upright and a patient man. A carpenter and joiner by trade, a skilled workman but with little artistic sense, he built the first Congregational Meeting House. This was begun in 1789 and was a long time building due to constant squabbles with and among the church authorities. The tale of their first "settled minister," out of place here, is both comedy and tragedy but with Deming’s troubles gives color to inference that both men had to deal with some extremely rugged individualists whose spiritual virtues were not obvious. The Church account books show that Deming was consistently paid less than his bills called for, for example. Yet with all these troubles, Jonathan continued his religious work in the parish, his donations to its support, and his work for it as a carpenter.
Two years after he had taken the Freeman’s Oath Thomas R. Dake married Sally Deming, September 24, 1809, daughter of his employer Jonathan Deming. He built his homestead on South Street for his bride according to custom. This was the first of his Castleton houses. It is a simple dwelling, not greatly changed from its original appearance. To be sure, the former northwest ell is gone as are all but one fireplace. There remains an interesting arch framing a door into that ell. It may have led to his office. The chief feature of the plain exterior was the entrance porch on the easterly front. The distinctive porch was removed recently, too decrepit for repair. It is important as the earliest evidence of his eagerness to depart from tradition and also because it was copied in elaborated form in the first house he is known to have designed for a client, the wealthy merchant John Meacham. Later known as the Meacham-Ainsworth house, it is on the main street and is now a tourist home, "1810 House," so called from the date of its erection.
It may be surmised that a cautious businessman would investigate so young a man as Dake very carefully before intrusting him with the building of a mansion. Probably he visited the Dake homestead. If so, he seems to have liked it and far from being repelled by the unusual entrance porch, willingly accepted its design with suitable modifications. As built for Meacham it is of the Corinthian Order instead of Done, its upper part enriched by carved swags and garlands, smaller repetitions of those used in the frieze of the main entablature and with more ornate leading in the side-lights of the entrance doorway than Dake had used in his own home. It may be significant that Dake used similar ornamentation in the Harris house which some think he built about 1818, and that it is strikingly like the ornamentation of some of the Windsor houses built by Asher Benjamin. It may merely mean that both Dake and Benjamin had access to the same books which illustrated these well known motifs. It does not, however, answer the natural question "where did Dake get these scarce books"? Unfortunately, we do not know what sort of stairway Dake designed for John Meacham in the hallway behind this entrance. A later owner of the Meacham-Ainsworth house made sweeping "improvements" during the black-walnut era, replacing the original stairs with a clumsy Victorian affair, changing partitions and replacing at least one of Dake’s mantels with an uninspired white marble one.
The stairway in Dake’s homestead is a gem, a fine example of the curved or spiral staircase. This type, unusual in a small and inexpensive house, is enriched by ornament to a degree that is rare even in costlier homes. The first thing seen as one enters it suggests a special gift to a deeply beloved bride. At any rate, he lavished hand work on it and as no similar ornament occurs in his other houses in Castleton, he probably did the carving himself. The newel is a graceful piece of lathe-turning, the slender hand-rail very comfortable to the hand. The stair-spindles or balusters, following the fashion of the period, are plain, rectangular in section, slim but sufficient for stiffness. So well was this lovely stairway built that after 140 years use, a good many of them with cruel neglect, it is solid and strong as when Sally first ascended it.,
While the exposed ends of the steps are simple, with mouldings applied to form panels, the curved string was enriched by Dake with incised ornament as charming as it is unusual. Here long panels of needed work (tiny half-cylinders instead of the more familiar grooves or flutes) are separated by little chevron-panels framed with reeds at right angles to those in the longer panels. With the changing lights and shadows from the entrance headlight, the angle of incidence of the light-rays constantly changing as the curving stairs sweep upward, he attained an effect of great richness with a minimum of work. The whole design is of faultless proportion and the detail seems to be quite unique, at least in Vermont. When Mr. Meacham visited the young man’s home he must have appreciated the stairs quite as much as he seems to have liked the unusual entrance porch.
In these days of machine-tools we cannot but wonder at the patience needed to execute such a piece of work. The only machine-tool known to these old-timers was the lathe. All mouldings were worked out of the wooden strip with a moulding plane.