Drivers whizzing through the busy intersection at Eastern Avenue and East Street in Dedham are likely to miss the wooden home that has stood on one corner for more than 300 years.
The Fairbanks House is the oldest timber-framed house in North America, built sometime between 1637 and 1641. The design came from England, along with Jonathan and Grace Fairbanks, the original owners of the home. Eight generations of the Fairbanks family lived in the house, leaving an example of what life was like for the average American family during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.
A museum today owned by the family association, the house protects a special history of the Fairbanks family, the town of Dedham, and according to Katie Sallade, an intern at the museum, any person in America.
“It embodies average American family life over more than two hundred years,” Sallade said. “I imagine [my ancestors] had a similar home to the Fairbanks House and used the same eating utensils and spinning wheels.”
Through the years, the house has shifted and settled. A roof sags, ceilings slant and walls slope. And though the biggest threat to a timber-framed home is fire, automobiles and the traffic at this intersection present another risk. In 1964, a car crashed through the east wing of the home, Meaghan Siekman, the curator said. Since then, a stone wall constructed along the road helps protect the house. Siekman said that several cars have hit the wall since then.
Visitors can see details like a bed warmer, a round clasp at the end of a long handle that would be filled with hot coal and then rubbed over the bedding on a cold winter night. The mattresses in the upstairs rooms were kept firm by pulling and locking the ropes underneath them into place. An ear trumpet is displayed in one room, showing guests how their ancestors treated hearing loss.
Visitors also see the evolution of lifestyle through the generations. Space dedicated to wood and textile work was replaced with rooms for entertainment, Siekman said. More examples of arts and music emerged as families had more free time.
Though accessible by train, the Fairbanks House is 20 minutes from more popular historical sites within Boston. Glynnis Fairbanks, who recently visited the museum, took the ride for personal reasons; she is a descendant of Jonathan and Grace Fairbanks. She was born in Massachusetts, but moved to Florida when she was eight. She remembers viewing clippings of the house, but this is her first visit.
“I have always been fascinated with history,” Fairbanks said. “But it’s my family. To see how they lived and to know this is where I came from; if this house wasn’t here, I wouldn’t be here,” she said.
According to Siekman, about 1200 visitors come to the historic site each year. Though some are descendants of the Fairbanks family, many are not.
“We’re trying to continue that push toward having this house be a representation of everyone in Dedham, everyone in New England, everyone in America, as opposed to one single family” she said.
For Siekman, the preservation of the museum is important for reasons beyond the architectural and historical significance.
“It gets [visitors] invested in their communities beyond going to see this museum for the day,” she said. “It’s gets them thinking about their communities in different ways and how they can become active in it.”
Third graders in Dedham visit the Fairbanks House. Siekman said that getting kids excited about museums could make them museumgoers for life.
“It makes them feel a part of something. It gives them a sense of who they are, where they are, and why this place is important,” she said.