Norris Dearmon column: From tepees to mill houses
Who knows for sure what the native Americans used for housing in our area 12,000 or more years ago? Many believe the tepee was most commonly used; but other types were also used. The tepee was made from small saplings cut, leaned together and wrapped with animal skins. There was a flap at the top so smoke could escape.
While visiting in the Rocky Mountains several years ago, we came across an Indian village built under an overhang on the side of a cliff by the Mesa Verde Indians. One of their dwellings had 200 rooms in it, all built of carved stone blocks.
Other buildings were smaller. For worship, a circular space was carved out in the floor near the center of the area. The village was only accessible through a hole in the rock ceiling, which could be covered. A long wooden ladder was used to reach the first stairway. It was an interesting and ingeniously built village.
When the white men arrived, they had been living in more sophisticated housing and naturally wanted the same. The only tools they had were some types of saws and axes. They had to make do with what they had. Trees were plentiful, so they went about using them for everything. Log structures became common.
Trees of similar size were cut. The logs were squared off and notched on the ends so they could be stacked on top of each other and pegged. Enough room was left between them so they could daub mud in the space to keep the heat and cold out. One door, one small window and a rock chimney was common. The chimney was used for cooking and heating.
As the settlers enlarged their families, often they would build an addition several feet over from the original and extend the roof from the first. Thus, a breezeway was formed, which was very popular down South. The house was called a “dog trot” house. The space provided a place to relax and sometimes had a nice breeze blowing through. Porches and other amenities eventually sprung up.
Until recent years, a house of that type was located in south Kannapolis. Some houses of today could be called the same when a hallway is constructed from the front door to the back.
As time went by and materials were available, master carpenters known for winding stairs and other amenities were employed. Locally, the Stirewalts and Phifers were well known men of that caliber.
When mill houses began to be built in Kannapolis and other mill towns, often the same design was used with every other house, having the porches switched. Some were four large rooms with a chimney in one of the front rooms. A small fireplace was on both sides of the chimney. A flue would be built in the kitchen for the wood burning cook stove. A porch across the front was provided for the inhabitants to relax on and a small porch was at the back for access to the out house.
The “shotgun” house was also built. It consisted of three rooms in a row with a chimney in the middle room next to the front room. A fireplace was built on each side of the chimney. A small front porch was on the side of the front room with a door going into the middle room. Again, a flue was built in the kitchen with a back porch on the opposite side of the front. I know of only one left in Kannapolis.
A variation of the shotgun house for a two-story was used. An extension on the side for the stairs and entrance hall was added. A closet under the stairs was also included, a first for early mill houses. Wardrobes were used for clothing storage. There are none of the five-room, two-story houses left in the mill village. There are still a few two-story houses left, but they were the much larger houses. They were for the overseers and foremen.
Early settlers always built near a spring for water. Later, hand dug wells lined with rocks were used as the population grew. Eventually, boring was used. Today, boring is much faster.
In Kannapolis, mill houses used community wells until the 1930s, when water lines were run to the back porches of the houses as filter plants were being built. Needless to say, there were a lot of frozen pipes in the winter. The houses had no foundation skirting, locally called underpinning, so pipes were exposed. Some people would wrap the pipes with paper or quilts to protect them.
Today the houses have all kinds of names, such as Colonial, Ranch, Modern, Tailer, Modular, Contemporary and many more. I do not believe people today really appreciate what they have. The worst living conditions of today are better than what the early settlers endured.
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Norris Dearmon is a historian and a volunteer in the History Room of the Kannapolis Branch Library.