CLINTON >> With great precision and attention to historical accuracy, stone artisan Andrew Pighills is rebuilding an 18th century stone smokehouse on the grounds of the Clinton Historical Society.
Watching Pighills handle the old granite slabs, some weighing almost 100 pounds, and hearing him talk about the historical significance of the materials and the work required to rebuild the smokehouse shows his commitment to his craft.
“I’ve been doing this 45 years and I love it,” he said. “I love doing it. I’d be happy if I dropped dead — it’d probably be a little stone, hopefully — by the time I drop dead because I won’t be able to lift these big ones anymore, but I would happily drop dead with a stone in my hand.”
Until last week, the 8 feet by 6 feet, 6 foot high smokehouse stood for more than 200 years on property owned by St. Alexis Orthodox Christian Church, directly across the street from the historical society’s “Old Brick” at 103 E. Main St.
It is believed the smokehouse was originally owned by the family of Capt. W. H. Williams, who built the red house at 110 East Main St. around 1710 and the smokehouse, directly behind it, maybe around 1810, according to Alex Martins, a member of the Red House committee at St. Alexis Church.
“It’s unique because it’s stone, you don’t see a lot of stone smokehouses,” said Dave Bautz, president of the Clinton Historical Society.
In recent years, the structure was deteriorating, unused, in virtual obscurity.
“In a sense it’s a hidden gem in that it sat there undisturbed all this time,” reflected Bautz. “People knew of it who were interested, but really, because it was on the church property, nobody had any idea what was going to become of it.”
The church realized they lacked the resources to maintain the smokehouse and approached the historical society.
“We had it for many years and after a while it was leaning,” said Martins.
“It became a problem and we could not keep it up anymore,” he added, “so we offered it to the historical society and they accepted after many meetings.”
While the historical society is investing about $6,000 to have the structure rebuilt on their site, the project is worth more than just a dollar amount.
“It feels good in many senses because we can kind of put our money where our mouth has been,” said Bautz.
“We’ve spent the year talking to other people about preserving historic structures and making sure that they aren’t destroyed and here we’re stepping up - we’re investing quite a bit of money doing this – and making it a structure that the town doesn’t lose,” he added.
The smokehouse would have been used for smoking fish, fowl, hams and bacon, explained Bautz. While it is unknown when it was used last, the historical society hopes to start using it once it is completely reassembled on their property.
That’s where Pighills’ reputation and experience comes into play. He owns English Gardens and Landscaping of Killingworth.
Everyone involved with the project applauds the master mason’s craftsmanship and is confident that he is the right individual to tackle a project of this magnitude.
“He knows his stuff, that’s for sure,” said Martins. “He knows every stone, he knows every mortar. He just can really put it back together quickly.”
David Townsend, chair of the historical society’s Buildings & Grounds Committee and an authority on antique houses, concurred that Pighills was the perfect choice for the job.
“You can look at a man’s work and you know whether they know what they’re doing or not and (whether) you’ve picked the right guy,” he said. “So we did.”
For 45 years this Yorkshire, England native has been perfecting his dry wall masonry skills. He believes he was meant to be working on this project, especially after talking about the history with Martins.
“He was saying that there’s probably a good chance that the original builder was English,” Pighills said, in his thick British accent. “So it would be great, you know, for another Englishman to rebuild it.”
In an effort to maintain historical authenticity, Pighills will be using lime mortar, produced in Plainville by Edison Coatings, on this project.
In two days times the skilled mason dismantled the colonial structure, granite slab by granite slab, and transported the pieces across the street to the historical society property. Paying close attention to the placement of each slab, Pighills strategically lined up each granite piece, in the flatbed of his truck, according to its position in the original smokehouse.
Once across the street they were arranged on the ground, directly behind the historical society’s brick house, in preparation for the rebuilding. Mindful of the property lines and septic system, the smokehouse will be located in close proximity to the kitchen.
“Luckily we have this little spot,” said Bautz. “We kind of just squeezed it in there.”
While the exact date of the smokehouse is unknown, there are certain pieces of historical information that help pinpoint the year it would have been operational.
Pighills and Townsend agree that quarrying or cutting marks on some of the granite slabs harken back to the days of splitting the stone with the pins and feathers method, also known as the feather and wedges method, a precursor to the star drill.
“If you go look at our antique houses all up and down the whole coastline, depending on the date of the house you can see the transition,” explained Townsend.
“You can look at the stone and how it was quarried and right off it tells you, ‘OK, 18th century, early 19th century,’” he added. “This is 18th century.
Based upon the sophisticated markings, Townsend believes the structure was built around 1750 to 1800.
While Pighills is committed to rebuilding the structure with historical accuracy, there are changes that are imperative to ensure the rebuilt smokehouse is structurally sound.
“One of the gable ends was leaning like this,” he said, as he motioned with his hand.
“What I do know is that on that side of the building that was leaning, one, there were some poor foundations put in, and two, there was some poor building techniques where they hadn’t crossed all the joints.”
Therefore, Pighills will be making some structural changes.
“It will be built without any running joints and it will be built without those four or five poor choice stones that were in the foundation,” he explained.
While he admits he has a great deal respect for the original builders while working on such a historically important structure, he is passionate about fine craftsmanship.
“I’m mindful of the person who’s been before, so I don’t want to change it too much,” Pighills said, “but where I see sort of poor building technique then I will change it. You won’t know that I’ve changed it. I’ll get rid of all the running joints.
“So, yes,” he added, “I’m mindful of the person who’s been before, but I always believe the craft comes first. So I will build it to the best of my ability.”