Researchers Uncovering W.Va.'s Human and Environmental History

Nov 30, 2015

A team of researchers at West Virginia University is creating a unique portrait of the Mountain State. The Historic Timbers Project is unveiling West Virginia’s human and environmental history one dusty old barn at a time.

Shawn and Kristen explore the McNeel Barn outside of Hillsboro in Pocahontas County.
Credit Andrew Carroll / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

On a cold November day, Kristen de Graauw and Shawn Cockrell are climbing around an old barn near Hillsboro in Pocahontas County. Kristen is a Ph.D. candidate in Geography at WVU and the project manager for the Historic Timbers Project. Shawn is the lab manager for the Montane Forest Dynamics Laboratory at WVU and the lead technician for the project.

The project has two, interrelated goals: to figure out what the pre-settlement forests of West Virginia were like and to date historic structures.

Since there aren’t many old trees left, the only way to figure out what the forests of West Virginia used to be like is to take core samples from old logs that settlers used to build barns, cabins, and houses.

Today, Kristen and Shawn are exploring a barn owned by the McNeel Family to determine if it’s a candidate for tree-ring dating. The barn is the size of a large two-story house and made of big faded brown logs.

They are searching the structure for tree bark so they can determine if there are enough logs to take samples from to accurately date the structure. A log is a good candidate sampling if it still has bark on it because that means they know the outermost layer of the log is intact.

Which is important because they use dendrochronology, or tree-ring dating, to determine the age of the structures. Kristen explains how it they use tree rings to date structures.

“If we having a living tree that’s a really old, maybe it’s a three hundred years old tree, but it’s living,” she said. “If we take a sample out of that, we know that the outer date on our sample is the year that we’re currently in. Then we are able to count back through time and figure out what the inner most date is on that tree is. We can then compare our log structure data we have with those tree rings and find the overlap between that living tree and that log structure were the patterns lock in.”

Kristen and Shawn speak with Bill McNeel from the Pocahontas County Historical Society outside of a barn build by his ancestors.
Credit Andrew Carroll / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Shawn adds that the process is exciting for the researchers and the building owners.

“We meet people just as enthusiastic as we are, but coming from a different angle,” he said. “We’re enthusiastic because we’re gaining access to this great storage of ecological data and the people who own these structures get us to come in and take the sample and tell them an inferred construction date. Everyone is just as excited as the next person.”

After their initial survey, the researchers will return in the summer and use drills to take core samples from the logs. From these samples, they can gather not only an inferred building date of the structure, but also a lot of data about the environment that the tree grew it.

Kristen says she can determine a lot from looking at tree rings.

“I can look at a tree ring and see the growing season and dormant season of that tree. So it’s not just annual data that we’re look at. We’re looking at seasonal differences,” she said.

Which is really important because there aren’t many other ways to gather this kind of data in West Virginia due to heavy logging during the turn of the 20th century.

Kristen is working on this project as part of her dissertation. However, she didn’t start with the idea of working with historic structures in West Virginia. Her initial research sent her to Mongolia to investigate ancient forests, but that wasn’t for her.

“It was great but my heart wasn’t in it,” she said. “But what I do know is that I like West Virginia. I like historic structures and I like the idea of knowing what our forests used to look like.”

And she couldn’t be happier with her decision to work in West Virginia.  

“It was kind of amazing. Now I’m doing what I want to do. I’m enjoying it. I’m motivated. I’m excited.”

Shawn and Kristen walk around the Kee Cabin on the grounds of the Pocahontas County Historical Society Museum in Marlinton later that afternoon as they work to determine if the property can be tree-ring dated.
Credit Andrew Carroll / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

They have already worked on dating five structures in Greenbrier, Pendleton, Pocahontas and Preston counties with more buildings set to be dated this summer. The inferred building data of the structure is then used by individuals and groups working to list the structures on the National Register of Historic Places or apply for grants to aid in preservation.

Kristen says this provides researchers with often-overlooked environmental data held in the logs.

“The people who go in and date historic structures, I don’t think that they’re even thinking about it. Not only can we date this barn, but this whole barn was a forest and it’s just sitting there. It’s archeology now.”

Historic Timbers Project will continue its work this summer with support of the West Virginia Humanities Council and the Montane Forest Dynamic Lab at WVU.