New Brunswick

Tree-ring expert uses attic beams to date historic Sackville homes

Conservation biologist Ben Phillips has been spending a lot of time lately in dusty attics and dank basements in the Sackville area.

Conservation biologist excited to see what wood samples from earliest homes in Tantramar region reveal

Conservation biologist Ben Phillips is taking core samples or "tree cookies" from beams in the first homes built in the Tantramar region in an effort to determine the exact date they were constructed. (Submitted by Ben Phillips)

Dendroarchaeologist Ben Phillips has been spending a lot of time lately in dusty attics and dank basements in the Sackville area.

"I just climbed out of the attic of the Bell Inn — it is one of the many buildings in the Tantramar region that we're trying to date," he told CBC's Shift.

Phillips is working with the Tantramar Heritage Trust to determine the age of some of the oldest homes in the Maritimes, including the Bell Inn in Dorchester, by taking core samples or "tree cookies" from wooden beams.

"We can actually use the wood that's left in those old beams and we can look at the tree rings inside of that wood and measure each ring and look at the pattern," Phillips said.

"We can match that to known tree-ring chronologies and actually find a kill date for the wood."

Buildings may date back to 1700s

Phillips, an instructor in the department of geography and environment at Mount Allison University where he manages the Acadian forest dendrochronology lab, says tree rings can reveal when the trees were cut, right down to the year and the season.

"In a lot of these cases that we're working on now, these buildings are from the early 1800s and possibly the late 1700s. There wasn't good records kept for a lot of these buildings so finding accurate dates helps to match with the architecture," Phillips said.
Conservation biologist Ben Phillips is using dendrochronology to accurately date historic buildings for the Tantramar Heritage Trust. 8:14

After inspecting dozens of old homes he has found that many of them actually have small beams since the first settlers didn't have many resources and built modest homes as quickly as possible in the early days.

He said there are many people in Sackville with many theories on the age of oldest buildings in town.

"There's a storm of questions and we're trying to put those questions to rest."

"With tree rings we can date when wood was cut, right down to the season so it adds a lot of accuracy. Maybe a building — we know it was built within the decade ... but tree rings will tell us the exact year."

'These buildings are old growth forest'

Phillips says to him the beams are the last link to the old growth forest of New Brunswick.
Ben Phillips says the homes of the first settlers in the Sackville area likely date back to the late 1700s and early 1800s. (Submitted by Ben Phillips)

"These buildings are old growth forest," he said.

"We've cut our forests so many times and there is so little old growth left in New Brunswick that the tree-ring record has been lost from the 1700s and 1600s. So we have to use these old trees that were cut and built into structures as the only remaining tree-ring resource left in the province."

For Phillips the most exciting part will be extending the tree-ring record and adding to the data base of tree-rings from centuries past.

"I'm probably the only nerd in the region who is really looking forward to that part of the project. I think everyone else is probably looking forward to hearing the actual dates on these different buildings and what that says about past architecture."

with files from Shift