May, 2015 · ISSN 1913-4134
The following article about Sackville’s first frame house, researched and written by Paul Bogaard, is probably best described as a case of investigative reporting. I think that the CBC would be proud to include this fascinating story into one of its detailed investigative reports. History does not always sit there, waiting to be found. Like archeological research projects, there’s a lot of digging to do. And Paul, over many years, patiently dug through many layers of archival soil and rock to get to the bottom of the secrets hidden by the Boultenhouses and Bulmers on their historic properties off present-day Queen’s Road, across Bulmer Lane and adjoining Marshview Middle School, in Sackville. Following my initial reading of the article, my first thought was “how many more?” So for those readers who may harbor similar research aspirations, read closely and use Paul’s productive efforts as a template for the work ahead. And when you solve the mysteries associated with a particular historic property or home, send us your story. Your newsletter is always happy to tell your stories, especially those that resolve long-standing mysteries and improve our ratings (or should that be readership?). I do not want to use too much space because Paul’s story and accompanying photos require valuable space and I close with my usual wish:
The First Frame House in Sackville Parish?
By Paul Bogaard
This is the saga of over twelve years research to confirm whether the Tantramar Heritage Trust really does own the “first frame house in Sackville Parish.” We had nothing like this in mind when the Christopher Boultenhouse property was purchased by the Trust in 2001.1 Our attention was focused on the handsome house of a Sackville shipwright, not on the back “ell” he used as a kitchen. All we found in the back was a storage area and a garage with a gravel floor.
At the time of our early research on this property, we were excited to discover about Boultenhouse moving into “lower Sackville” from Woodpoint in the 1840s, and even relocating his shipyard onto the Tantramar River. All of this occurred when many enterprises were shifting into what we now take for granted was the centre of Town. As the home of Westmorland County’s most prolific shipbuilder,2 we were eager to renovate it as our second museum — the only shipwright’s house in New Brunswick now open to the public.
Before we began that restoration, however, we found ourselves in serious need of office space, and decided to make use of that back ell. Only then did we begin to realize that the ceiling, walls and floors being uncovered seemed much older than the front house built by Boultenhouse. We seemed to have discovered an earlier house, but how much earlier? And, had it come with the property? We had already determined that Christopher Boultenhouse likely purchased this property from the Bulmers, but tracking this down through the convoluted land transactions preserved in the Land Registry Office proved elusive. Untangling all the twists and turns that we found there has taken repeated efforts over many years.
We might have dropped the matter at that point, but as luck would have it, Mount Allison had recently hired a specialist in dendrochronology (dating wooden structures by analyzing the growth rings present in the posts and beams of historic buildings) and we had done him a favour by allowing extensive sampling at the Campbell Carriage Factory.3 In return, he agreed to analyze the age of the timbers in the house we had just acquired and also the back ell that looked even older. The results revealed that the trees used for framing the main house — Tamarack, like the timber used in his shipyard — were cut down around 1840 while the Red Spruce used to frame the back ell had been felled fifty years earlier! A house from the 1790s could not have been built by Boultenhouse. If not, it seemed most likely to have been built by George Bulmer. That prompted me to reach for my copy of W.C. Milner’s History of Sackville recalling the story he tells of George Bulmer building the “first frame house in Sackville Parish.” Could that be? Could the Heritage Trust have reached out for a handsome shipwright’s house and unwittingly snagged the oldest frame house in the parish? (See Figures 1, 2, and 3.)
Well, there were complications. It was clearly established that we owned a house dating before 1800; those are very rare in Sackville. Indeed there are hardly any houses of that vintage remaining in the whole region.4 But showing that this one was the same as the house in Milner’s story proved difficult. Registry office information about deed transfers from Bulmer to Boultenhouse were a confusing morass. Not that we couldn’t find such transfers, but rather there were so many: the Bulmers were swapping and selling many parcels during that period and Boultenhouse was purchasing dozens of parcels. (He ended his days with over 40 deeds!)
We found the deed whereby, in 1784, George Bulmer purchased three adjoining “rights” or “shares” originally granted to an early Planter family, but could not find any record of his selling it or any portions of it. Moreover, the story in Milner says that the house built by George Bulmer was eventually sold to and lived in by Jonathan C. Black. And as Phyllis Stopps (who has completed extensive research on early houses in Sackville) warned me, there were a number of Jonathan Black houses and therefore other candidates for the “first frame house” in the Parish.
Milner’s story is very valuable for anyone interested in the earliest stories about Sackville’s development. He got the story, he tells us, from “an old lady long since gone to her rest, viz.: Mrs. Cynthia (Barnes) Atkinson,” in which she identifies all the houses that were scattered along the Main Post Road by 1820. Milner so appreciated this story that he told it twice! In one telling, he relates that “the first frame house” was at Boultenhouse Corner (where today Bulmer Lane converges with Main Street and Queens Road). But was it on the northwest side of that corner, where the medical clinic now stands, or was it to the southeast towards our Boultenhouse Heritage Centre (see Figure 4)?
When I returned to the Registry Office to see if I could clarify any of these issues, I could begin to see some outlines through the fog. One very unusual item, recorded as an Indenture in 1837, was between one of George Bulmer’s sons, Nelson, and his other siblings. It did not shed any light on the house in question but did explain that by the 1830s their father, George, had fallen ill and was no longer competent to handle his own affairs. It even mentioned that, at his death (George did not pass away until 1841), then and only then would his own extensive land-holdings be passed along to his sons and daughters (or their husbands). A most unusual declaration, I thought, but it certainly helped explain why there were no recorded sales of land from George Bulmer himself.
With that in mind, I soon found one sale from Nelson Bulmer, and another from James, that transferred parcels of the Bulmer Estate to Christopher Boultenhouse. And there were descriptions that confirmed they were somewhere within the 12-acre holding that Christopher was known to have owned. They were each identified as Lots #7 and #8 on a subdivision plan drawn up by their “attorney,” Jonathan C. Black.5 So, we now knew that the Jonathan Black mentioned by Milner played a key role in the dispersal of George Bulmer’s holdings, although no one has been able to locate his plan for this subdivision and thus leaving those lot numbers of little use. And neither of these descriptions included any mention of their father’s house. Later records show Boultenhouse purchasing a number of parcels directly from Jonathan Black and one of them began by saying it was for a parcel in Middle Sackville… so I set that one aside (in retrospect, a serious blunder on my part). But at the time, that seemed to be as far as I could go.
This may be a good point at which to flesh out some background. The person that built “the first frame house in Sackville Parish” had sailed over from Yorkshire when he was still quite young, twelve or thirteen years of age. He came on The Duke of York in 1772 along with his brother, William, the Freezes, Andersons, and notably Charles Dixon’s family who is said to have taken a fancy to young Bulmer. According to George’s son, Nelson, his father had come over apprenticed to Mr. Freeze, a stone mason. Apparently, they spent the next several years in Cumberland where there was likely plenty of work for masons rebuilding Fort Cumberland.6
The Fort was fully garrisoned by the British after it had been won from the French and for several years through prolonged guerilla warfare. But with British forces taking Fortress Louisburg on Cape Breton in 1768 and the Planter settlement of Sackville, Cumberland and Amherst townships well underway, the garrison was substantially reduced7 and little attention was paid to the upkeep of the Fort. At least until rebellious Americans began threatening British sovereignty in the 1770s; then there was need for repairing the stone fabric of the Fort and its buildings. Since a traditional apprenticeship lasted seven years, George Bulmer was likely kept busy there through the 1770s — his teen years. Thereafter, George’s prospects seemed to have improved and by 1784 he had successfully courted Charles Dixon’s second daughter, Susannah, and purchased a large tract of land between what today we call Queens Road and Union Street, extending from below Lorne Street to “the wilderness.” As recalled by his son Nelson, George purchased the “rights” or “shares” to the 1,500 acres granted to Nicholas Cook and sons and then immediately set about building a log house.
What Susannah thought about living in a log home we do not know, except to say that since the early 1760s this was the sort of house in which most couples started their families.8 She might have had more to say about living over in the Salem district (where later the Salem Baptist Church would be built, and where George built his log home) where there were already several other early homes… as it was a long way from her parents’ home on what is now Charles Street (see Figure 5).
I have absolutely no way of knowing, but it just seems very likely to my romantic spirit that when George set about building for his bride a proper “frame” house, he would situate it just beyond where the Main Post Road turned across his land, out on the brow of that height of land where, from the front of his new south-facing house, Susannah could easily look across to the next hill and see her mother hanging out the wash. For her, he would build “the first frame house in Sackville Parish”! And it also seemed that if the timber for that new house was cut down around 1790, the timing would be about right. But if I wanted to confirm that Susannah’s frame house was the same one dendrochronology confirmed was built in the early 1790s, we still had some nagging discrepancies to sort out.