Tree rings hold the key to Hickam House's age

Tuesday, September 29, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 8:54 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, September 29, 2009
Hickam House, located in Rock Bridge Memorial State Park, may be torn down if wood sampling performed by the MU forestry department proves the structure was built in the 1960s instead of the cited 1820 to 1830.

COLUMBIA— When Mike Stambaugh and his wife exchanged vows at the Hickam House in 1999, he never thought a decade later he’d be there fiddling with a different kind of ring.

“It’s a beautiful cabin and certainly has a lot of history there,” said Stambaugh, a research associate with MU’s forestry department. “It’s been standing for a long time, kind of symbolic for what you hope a marriage would be.”

On Sept. 21, Stambaugh and his colleague, Richard Guyette, a research professor with MU’s forestry department, circled the cabin in Rock Bridge Memorial State Park analyzing the structure and searching for clues of the house’s elusive age. During the next few weeks, the pair of dendrochronologists, scientists who study tree rings, plan to do tree-ring analysis and core sampling on the log walls of the house.

“I’ll take samples from the logs in the cabin and compare the pattern in the tree rings to known patterns,” Stambaugh said. “The pattern in the log cabin will only fit in one place in time.”

At an informational meeting on Sept. 8, Park Superintendent Jim Gast discussed tearing down the Hickam House. In the late '60s or early '70s, the house was reinforced with modern technology. Currently, park officials are unsure if the original logs were used in the renovation process. It is believed the cabin rests on the original 1830s site.

Park officials will not decide the cabin’s fate until after Stambaugh completes the log analysis. Stambaugh and Guyette plan to sample the logs in mid-October and anticipate that it will take a month to get the results.

“I don’t know what we’ll do if it’s deemed to be historical,” Gast said. “It’s nice to have the cabin, but if it’s not historical then we can’t maintain it.”

The crumbling walls and deteriorating logs look out of place next to the remodeled chimney, fireplace and split-shingle roof. While the updates were designed to mimic building styles of the early 1800s, the neatly assembled stone fireplace sits awkwardly on the cabin’s dirt floor.

Gast said the house is beginning to sag and, if left in its present condition, will continue to deteriorate. If nothing is done, eventually the cabin will be unsafe for park visitors.

The cabin’s uncertain background and unstable structure led officials to believe the house wasn’t worth the funding necessary to save it.

Stambaugh heard about the park’s plan and offered to perform wood analysis on the structure free of charge.

Stambaugh said the outward condition of the logs indicated that parts of the house might be older than the 1900s, but there were a couple that showed evidence of replacement. "Most of them look to be older, but we’ll see what the tree rings bring out," he said.

In the event the state parks division decides to move forward with dismantling the cabin, Gast said the park would try to sell the chimney, wood and any other salvageable materials. If another entity is interested in the whole cabin, however, the park is willing to sell it as is.

A 1985 document written by a private citizen, Judie Erbschloe, outlines the cabin’s muddled history but offers no clear answer to the age of the logs. This text conflicts with the memory of Scott Schulte, who held the position of park superintendent from 1978 to 2004.

“The oral tradition was that in 1967 there was a house in the present location of where the cabin is,” Gast said. “The house was deemed not to be appropriate for a state park so in the late '60s and early '70s when they began tearing down the house they discovered this log cabin inside of it.”

According to what Gast refers to as local tradition, the park restored certain aspects of the structure when the log cabin was discovered within the walls of the house.

David Sapp, former president of the Boone County Historical Society, said with each modification the cabin loses historical value. If the majority of the cabin is actually from the early 1800s, however, it’s an important piece of Columbia’s earliest history.

“You can’t consider it a historical artifact if that much of it is not historical," Sapp said. "It might represent the shape, but ideally you want as much as possible of the original piece.”

If the park chooses to dismantle or move the Hickam House, Sapp said he would like to preserve as much of its history as possible.

“For example, I would certainly want to have it carefully photographed and its location documented, measurements made and whatever other data we could get," Sapp said.


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Carla Jimenez September 29, 2009 | 1:35 a.m.

Nice lead, Mags. Really clever. :)

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