Scientists attempt to determine age of Hickam House

Tuesday, October 20, 2009 | 5:37 p.m. CDT
Mike Stambaugh examines the rings of a piece of wood extracted from the Hickam House located in Rock Bridge State Park on Tuesday. Stambaugh of the MU forestry department, will examine different pieces of wood to determine the age of the house. Pending results, the Hickam House could be torn down to make room for new park facilities.

COLUMBIA — The orange coring drills and bright green ladder looked foreign within the weathered walls of the Hickam House at Rock Bridge Memorial State Park.

On Tuesday morning, dendrochronologists Mike Stambaugh and Richard Guyette,  scientists who study tree rings, extracted samples from the logs of the Hickam House. The sampling was in response to a recent dispute about the age of the structure, which bears a plaque dating it to the 1830s.


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“In this cabin, the logs are the definitive material of when it was built,” Guyette said.

Stambaugh and Guyette hope to offer the park an answer to the cabin’s elusive age through tree ring analysis. In the late 1960s or early 1970s, the house was reinforced. Park officials are unsure if the original logs were used in the renovation process and are discussing whether to dismantle the cabin.

Park Superintendent Jim Gast and Kim Dillon with Missouri State Parks supervised the procedure.

At 8:45 a.m., Stambaugh took the first sample from the north wall of the cabin. The pen-sized core slid gently into a Ziploc bag, which was labeled for later analysis.

Just after the team deemed the first sample sufficient to obtain a date, thunder roared and the scientists sought shelter inside the crumbling cabin’s walls.

Stambaugh and Guyette continued sampling from the interior.

“This looks like an original log, but it could be a replacement from 100 years ago,” Guyette said as he motioned toward the bottom log of the east wall. That sample was infested with termites and produced nothing more than dust.

Consequently, the team removed a piece of the wall’s chink and sawed a 1-inch cross section off the end of the ancient white oak log.

“It’s a whole different story if you can see all of the wood, compared to just the core,” Stambaugh said.

To determine the age of the wood, Guyette and Stambaugh will examine other previously dated pieces of wood from the area. By comparing the samples, the scientists should be able to offer park officials an estimate of the wood’s age.

“That one’s definitely datable,” Guyette said. “It has lots of rings. We have lots of white oak reference chronology.”

The team successfully extracted four core samples and an additional three cross sections from the walls and rafters. Of these samples, Stambaugh thinks four or five will yield information to help date the cabin.

He expects to have the results within the next few weeks.

“I’m doing this on my free time,” Stambaugh said. “So, it depends how late I stay up at night. I’ve got to drum up about 25 hours.”

Gast discussed tearing down the Hickam House at an informational meeting on Sept. 8. If left in its present condition, the cabin’s sagging walls will continue to deteriorate. If nothing is done, eventually it will be unsafe for park visitors.

Initially, the cabin’s uncertain background and unstable structure led officials to think the house wasn’t worth the funding necessary to save it. However, the cabin’s fate will not be decided until Stambaugh and Guyette determine the results of their sampling.

Guyette and Stambaugh, who married his wife at the cabin in 1999, offered to perform the tree ring analysis at no cost.


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