Thomas Jefferson's Plank-Kilns

By Self, Robert | The Chronicle of the Early American Industries Association, Inc., March 2005 | Go to article overview

Thomas Jefferson's Plank-Kilns


Self, Robert, The Chronicle of the Early American Industries Association, Inc.


In January 1804, Anne Cary Randolph wrote to her grandfather in Washington with bad news: "I am very sorry to inform you that the plank house is burnt down. John Hemming's was here last night and he told us that the floor of the hall and the Music gallery was burnt up and that it was as full of plank as it could be of which not one inch was saved."1 Reacting almost immediately, the president, Thomas Jefferson, wrote hired joiner James Dinsmore, who was in the midst of remodeling Monticello:

The loss of so much plank by fire & otherwise is one of the most afflicting circumstances I have had to meet in the whole course of my building & the only term to it seems to he the conclusion of the work. To rover the kiln-house with slabs will be only to require double time & fuel to season with and probably to consign another kiln full to the flames. We must therefore purchase bricks somewhere, cost what they will, to cover the house with an arch as here represented [Figure 1]. It will take about 1500. whole bricks, clinkers. The gable ends may be closed with stone, leaving in the Southern one a smoke hole as is shewn in this drawing, so that stopping that and the firehole at the bottom of the other end, a fire may be extinguished in a moment for want of air, even if it has already made some progress. So the external covering of wood may burn down without affecting the plank. Speak to mr Lilly to get the bricks and to mr Hope to do the work as soon as the weather will admit and in the meantime endeavor to piovide make a new provision of plank. John Perry proposes to get the scantling for the N.W. offices this winter, which I should prefer if it can be secured from waste. I am afraid the flooring plank he was to lay upstairs is among that lost, and that we shall not have those rooms ready for the plaisterer.2

The "plank house" was a wood-fired kiln used to dry lumber, particularly flooring plank. Jefferson used this method of seasoning at Monticello, the University of Virginia, and at Poplar Forest, his retreat in Bedford County, Virginia. This paper will present preliminary research on Jefferson's use of kiln-drying, which seems to have been otherwise rather uncommon during his period.

By describing the fire in such devastating terms, Jefferson underlined the effect it apparently had on his building schedule, but he had formulated a remedy to help prevent a recurrence. From his letter and sketch, we know that the improved kiln was to have stone gable-ends with an arched brick ceiling, "and an external covering of wood." Less is known about the design of the kiln that burned. However, from Jefferson's description, it seems he is suggesting alterations to the surviving core rather than the construction of an entirely new building. Six months earlier in July of 1803, Jefferson noted a payment in his memorandum book, "Settled with Michael Hope for the plank-kiln and sundry jobs. Paid him 100 D. Balance still due him 56.25."3 Hope, the same man who was to rebuild the kiln, was a stonemason who worked for Jefferson between 1802 and 1805. Based on this information, the plank-kiln constructed by July 1803 was also probably a stone structure that was improved after the fire by filling in the gable ends with additional stone and adding a vaulted brick ceiling.

Jefferson's memorandum book entries are not specific enough to reveal when the new kiln was completed. However, the location of a kiln is plotted on three separate survey plats of the mountaintop done between 1806 and 1809. Only in the final version is it clearly labeled "kiln" (Figure 12). That this is a lumber kiln and not a brick, lime or charcoal kiln is confirmed by Jefferson's notes for a survey of the First Roundabout in 1806.4 Photographs taken of the site in the early 1980s show a large mound with a narrow stone-lined shaft (Figure 3). Clearly not big enough to be an entryway, it may be the "firehole at the bottom of the other end" described by Jefferson. …

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