Bill Birney’s ancestors came to Delaware County from Ireland in 1849 and were stonemasons and stonecutters by trade. He has a far distant first cousin whose last name adorns a roadway not far from Neumann University in Aston, PA. To say Bill is a stonemason sells him short. As he stands outside of the old meetinghouse about to hew a 12 inch diameter white oak log, he talks easily about poplar floor boards being kilned, the ages of local Quaker outhouses, how to reconstitute centuries old mortar, and the composition of the nearby creek bed that might be used to make new mortar. He seems to be a Renaissance Man of old buildings. And Judy Reese, the docent at Chichester Meetinghouse has snagged him to do this difficult task of restoring the meetinghouse to the condition it was in when it first arrived in Chichester in 1769.
Judy Reese ran into Birney when she and Paul Indorf from Swarthmore Meeting, paid a Quakerly visit to a Darby Meeting for Worship in Chester Quarter. Judy had researched bids for a Chichester restoration of half of the meetinghouse, which had become home to a family of industrious gophers and hoards of termites. Judy and Concord Meeting had been looking at these bids from a few modern contractors. Prices were high and the replacement materials would be all modern. Bill was doing restoration work at Darby Meeting. In talking to Judy and Paul, he asked to bid on the project. One of his selling points: he’d be using all materials that were originally used in the building’s creation, utilizing tools from that era. White oak joists, poplar wall and floorboards; and he’d even sift through the ground to dig up and reuse the original mortar and plaster pieces hiding centuries below. Birney would approach the restoration as an ancient craftsman. He would also be available to do educational demonstrations of the tools, techniques, and materials. Judy had found an anonymous donor, related to one of the original members from 1769, who would pay the costs. He was especially interested when he saw Birney’s bid that honored the history of the Chichester Meetinghouse.
Bill Birney has a bit of a quirky appearance and a personality to match. Judy’s a bit quirky also (just look at that Judy-size Bouvier service dog which unapologetically follows her around). But both of them are very smart people who deeply favor learned trade skills and Life experiences over advanced degrees. Birney trained in restoration under the direction of Richard “Tucker” Mackie of Cecil County, Maryland, a well-known local historian and politician. One of his historic properties served as Birney’s restoration apprenticeship. As Bill related, “The first timbers I ever hewed out were white oaks from his farm in Cecil County while he watched, critiqued, corrected, and finally approved. I knew Mr. Mackie all of my life and he told me about many of my relatives all the way back into the thirties”.
Judy’s conversation with Bill at that first meeting convinced her he not only had the knowledge and craft to do the work at the meetinghouse but also the heart. His bid was acceptable and Concord Meeting approved him starting the work. A small committee has been formed to oversee the work which includes Ray Hamilton, Concord Meeting’s treasurer, as well as Judy Reese, Paul Indorf, Nancy Webster, and Ryan Berley. The anonymous donors are also part of this group.
Birney’s assessment of the project came after floorboards had been torn up and much of the walls removed, thus making it hard to exactly duplicate the original. Besides the replacement of the floor under-structure (white oak joists), the floorboards and wainscoting (paneling), there are shutters to restore, a latrine to put back in order, and a chimney to repair. Some floorboards on the eastern side of the building must also be replaced. Birney aims for as authentic a replacement as possible. That includes reusing all the old nails, the original shutter hardware and mortar and plaster. He and his co-worker, Robert Martin who is a blacksmith, have developed a method to restore the hardware to usable condition. The plaster and mortar can also be reconstituted through a burning process.
Authenticity can only be complete if you use the tools that were common in the mid eighteenth century era. Bill’s team, which also includes Travis Brooks, uses the following: felling axe, broadaxe, foot adze and a froe. They are from the mid to late 19th century for the most part. In producing the floors and wainscoting, they will be using handplanes and handsaws back at Bill’s shop in Maryland. Notice that these are all hand tools. Electricity at the site is unnecessary. When I interviewed Birney onsite, he and Robert were busy hewing a 14 foot 12 inch white oak down to a 6 x 6 joist using nothing more than a broad-axe and manly grit. It was quite impressive.
The result of this work will be a meetinghouse that is back to pristine condition, something that comes up to the level of a National Historic Register site. Judy is looking forward to the day when residents from that part of the county who last had an active Quaker meeting over a century ago, can come visit the property, listen to talks on early Friends and the impact they had on the local community, and watch demonstrations of historic construction techniques. There will still be much to do once this restoration is finished. There is talk of restoring the 2 story barn that is 50 yards way and doing work on the 7 acres of woodland in the back to make it walkable, Judy Reese is always on the lookout for financially abled and interested f/Friends to help.
–Rich Ailes, Middletown Meeting (all photos by Rich Ailes)