With its gabled roof, oak clapboards and vast central chimney, the Fairbanks House looks to have come from another world. But in reality, it’s been here longer than any other building around it – almost 400 years, in fact. According to experts, it’s the oldest house of its kind in the United States, and it has the history to prove it.
When European settlers first arrived in America in the 16th century, they encountered a wild and inhospitable land. In fact, many of the first colonies ended in disaster, as supplies ran out, disease decimated their populations and clashes with Native Americans escalated into all-out wars.
However, the settlers persevered, and by the time that the Mayflower arrived with its cargo of English Pilgrims in 1620, a number of colonies were already thriving across the modern-day U.S. And despite difficult conditions, those passengers established the Plymouth Colony in what is now Massachusetts.
Eight years later, the Massachusetts Bay Colony was founded, and settlers in their hundreds began arriving in New England. And even though they hoped for a fresh start on the other side of the Atlantic, many of their practices – such as the houses they built – remained reminiscent of the world that they had left behind.
One of these settlers was John Fairbanks, a Puritan from Yorkshire, England. In 1633 Fairbanks arrived in the Massachusetts Bay Colony along with his wife, Grace, and their six children. And after spending three years in the settlement at Watertown, they decided to relocate.
Along with a number of other families, the Fairbankses founded the settlement of Dedham, MA. There, they acquired land amounting to 12 acres and set about building themselves a home. But rather than rely on his own amateur building skills, John decided to employ master craftsmen to do the work.
Beginning in 1637 the craftsmen constructed a timber-framed home for the Fairbanks family. Originally, it was a two-story property with a gabled roof and a large chimney in the center. Outside, the building was clad in oak and cedar clapboards, while the front door led directly into a lobby.
Whilst the home was relatively modest to begin with, John was a man of some means. Apparently, his trade was manufacturing spinning wheels, and these vital pieces of technology were in high demand. And as the Fairbanks family’s fortunes grew, so too did their Dedham home.
Although the first stage of the house is thought to have been completed in 1641, the Fairbankses continued adding to their property over the years. At some point, extra space was created with the construction of a lean-to towards the back of the building. Then, a new wing was added to the eastern side of the home.
In about 1654 the Fairbankses added a west wing to their home. However, it was to be the last addition that John himself would oversee. Fourteen years later, the head of the family died, leaving the house at Dedham to John, his eldest son. A successful businessman like his father, John grew the family’s fortunes and eventually purchased another house in nearby Wrentham.
When John died in 1684 his two youngest sons – Joseph and Benjamin – inherited the house at Dedham. And while Benjamin took a share of the attached farmland, Joseph moved into the family home. For two generations, the property was passed down through the Fairbanks family, until one son decided to let his brothers buy him out.
By then it was 1755, and the house came into the ownership of Samuel, Israel, John and Ebenezer Fairbanks. But Ebenezer soon bought the shares held by his brothers, making him the sole owner of the property. And it was during this period that some of the most significant alterations took place.
Beginning towards the end of the 18th century, a series of modifications were made to the Fairbankses’ house. First, another wing was added on the east side, followed by an extension that created a larger parlor. Then, a new wing was constructed on the west of the property.
Back then, the Fairbankses were prosperous, and luxurious additions such as wallpaper adorned the house. But as Ebenezer grew older, he handed responsibility for the house over to his son – and the family’s fortunes began to wane. Without his forefathers’ talent for business, Ebenezer Junior soon found himself in debt.
Sadly, it was around this time that the Fairbanks received another blow. Jason, Ebenezer’s younger brother, was found guilty of murdering his sweetheart Elizabeth Fayes. And when he was sent to the gallows in 1801, it caused a scandal that would haunt the family for many years to come.
With the decline in the Fairbankses’ fortunes, the elaborate additions to the family home drew to a halt. As time passed, in fact, the only concession made to modern living was a privy, installed in 1881. Aside from that, the house remained stuck in the past, without luxuries such as electricity or running water.
By that time, the house had passed to the female line of the Fairbanks family. After Ebenezer’s wife Mary died, her three daughters inherited the home. And when they passed on without any children, a niece, Rebecca, took over ownership of the property. Eventually, in 1904 she was forced to leave for good.
That wasn’t the end of the story, however. In 1905 John’s descendants formed the Fairbanks Family in America organization and purchased the property, turning it into a museum. Today, it is open to the public, giving visitors a taste of life in a bygone age. And every year, members of the family return for a reunion in their ancestral home.
Over the years, many different rumors have emerged about the old house. They included the claim that parts of it were imported from England when John and Grace first arrived on American shores. However, analysis of the property’s wooden beams has determined that the earliest parts date from 1637, a year after the Fairbankses arrived in Dedham.
Despite this, the Fairbanks House still enjoys a singular claim to fame. As the oldest timber-frame home in the United States, its long and colorful history has earned it a designation as a National Historic Landmark. And hopefully, this status will ensure that it remains for many more generations to come.