Dendro-Detective Chronicles: Doorways to the Past

Can this Extension specialist solve the mystery behind an old manor door?

Mike Gagnon inspecting a piece of wood

Recently, I was presented with a unique inquiry. An old rustic mansion was getting some much-needed restoration work in western Massachusetts, and the restorer needed some help identifying some old doors (Figure 1). The house was built by Horace A. Moses between 1909 and 1912 and is commonly known today as the Manor House (Figure 2), which serves as the centerpiece of the Horace A. Moses Scout Reservation. Much of the inside of the house is trimmed in oak, but the doors looked different to volunteer/woodworker Tom Barker, who reached out to Extension to see if we could determine what the mystery wood species was. 

Figure 1. Mystery doors

Over the course of my career, I have developed a particular passion, and a bit of skill for wood identification, so naturally I jumped at the chance to sleuth out the answer. In what feels like a previous lifetime, I worked at UNH as a Research Technician for Dr. Barrett Rock (Professor Emeritus of Natural Resources and the Environment). During this time, I was also tasked with teaching the lab section for Dr. Rock’s Wood Science course for several years. If you know what you are looking for, wood characteristics are like a fingerprint that gives away what species of tree it came from, and the growing conditions it was under when it was alive. Equally fascinating as the science behind identifying wood is the history that accompanies various objects made from wood; the insights into the past from where things came, how they were made, and an appreciation for the craftsmanship of our predecessors. Wood can even provide clues to climate change, and patterns in changing forest communities across the landscape over time. There is a lot of information trapped in those rings!

Figure 2. Horace A. Moses House

Speaking of interesting history, Horace Moses was an industrialist, agriculturist, and noted philanthropist during his time. Moses was once the owner of four paper mills, two of which he combined under the name Strathmore Paper Company. While Strathmore Paper Company is long gone, the name Strathmore is still applied to a degree of quality paper today. In some of his other endeavors, Moses also ran a large dairy farm and a commercial apple orchard. The Manor House is in Russell, Massachusetts, just a few miles west of the cities of Springfield and West Springfield, Massachusetts. Moses was a firm believer that the industrialized city and the rural farm work together, and that the man or woman who tills the soil was the primary source of all wealth. This belief led to Moses being one of the primary inspirations behind the Eastern States Exposition, also known as The Big E Fair. He was heavily involved with 4-H, and was a champion for encouraging the productive development of young people. The 4-H dorm at the Big E is named the Horace A. Moses Building. Hundreds of young people participating in The Big E through 4-H, Future Farmers of America (FFA), and the Scouts sleep and take meals in the Moses building every year. This significant building is nationally known as the birthplace of the nation-wide Junior Achievement Program, a program Moses helped shape for 27 years when it was in its infancy. Having been an agriculture teacher and FFA advisor for 10 years myself, I was surprised to find such a direct connection to the cubic centimeter sized piece of wood I was now trying to identify.

Now back to those doors. As it turns out the Manor House doors were made from white ash (Fraxinus americana). Below you can see pictures of the samples I received from the stile of a door (business card for scale), along with a cross-section of the wood at approximately 20-40x magnification (figure 3).

Figure 3. Samples from the Horace A Moses House doors

To help explain how I deduced that these doors were made from white ash, let’s discuss some of the basic steps you take to identify a piece of wood. Much like with tree identification, you start by deciding if it is a hardwood or a softwood. These two terms are confusing because hardwoods can be soft and vice versa, so they more specifically mean deciduous or coniferous. Does the tree have broad leaves that fall off in winter, or needle-like or scale-like foliage that stays on the tree in the winter (for the most part)? When it comes to the wood, if it is a softwood it is called a “non-porous” wood. This is also confusing because wood is made up of billions of cells that act like straws for moving water and dissolved nutrients, so therefore wood must be porous by nature. Well, in softwoods the straws (cells called tracheids) are tapered at both ends so they are not open like a straw until you cut them open. Hardwoods on the other hand have more diversity in their cell types. They have dense fibers, and huge cells called vessel elements. These elements are open on both ends and stacked on top of one another creating structures called vessels, or pores. The presence of vessels makes the wood “porous”. The difference between softwoods not having vessels and hardwoods having vessels is the result of about 200 million years of evolution.  

Once you determine if the sample has vessels, further identification is all about how the vessels are arranged early in the growing season and later in the growing season in an annual or seasonal ring of wood. We generally refer to this as earlywood (EW) and latewood (LW) (Figure 4). Oak, chestnut and ash all have clusters of large vessels in the earlywood and are in a group of hardwoods we call ring-porous woods. See Figure 4 below for a visual reference to the comparisons of diagnostic features of these three species of wood. Since they are all ring-porous, we will need to add another layer of detail to separate them further.

Rays are a good place to start. Rays are thin groups of cells (ray parenchyma) that are arranged in linear files radiating out from the center of the tree towards the bark. These cells contain living contents, therefore more water, and are the place where wood naturally splits when it dries (often called checking). In oaks, the rays are huge and in ash and chestnut the rays are very narrow. Oak rays can be 50 cells wide (50 seriate) making them easily visible with the naked eye. In contrast, the unicellular rays in chestnut are barely visible with 10x magnification. Ash rays are 1-3 seriate and can be seen clearly with 10x magnification. So, seeing no big rays in the sample ruled out oak.

Now to separate ash and chestnut a bit more. Ash will have 2-4 rows of earlywood pores, then solitary or small groups of latewood pores with lighter parenchyma tissue around the pores, sometimes forming wings or bands in the outer latewood. Chestnut has large oval pores in the earlywood and numerous wandering or flamelike patterns of tiny pores throughout the latewood. In ash, the larger earlywood pores often share walls with other pores making pore multiples. Those groupings can look like bubbles stuck together. Chestnut earlywood pores tend be more distinctly solitary and oval as previously mentioned.

Figure 4. Common ring porous wood features and species comparisons in cross-section.

The interesting thing about the ash doors from the Manor House was that the wood came from a very slow growing tree (Figure 3). Sometimes this is a common trait in an old growth tree with a large diameter that is producing very small rings each year. Small rings can also result from site-specific competition a tree is under amongst other trees in the forest. This slow or suppressed growth is often a reason for active forest management where future crop trees are released from competition to help increase their diameter growth by reducing their competition for light and nutrients. The door sample I looked at was about 1cm thick and had 8 visible years of growth, or about 20 rings per inch of wood. Ash is typically a faster growing tree and would have about 2-3 growth rings in a cm of wood or 5-7 rings per inch of wood. Another tricky aspect to identifying the door wood was the lack of light bands of parenchyma, which are usually characteristic of ash in the outer latewood. I suspect the slow growth is the reason for the lack of connecting lighter tissue in the door sample rings. The earlywood seems more complete and the latewood seems more stunted, possibly due to extended drought stress on this tree.

While not as exotic as American chestnut, ash is still an interesting species for interior panel doors. With the current pressure that ash is under due to the Emerald Ash Borer, it will unfortunately soon be equally as exotic a wood product as the once commonplace American chestnut was over one hundred years ago before the chestnut blight wiped out our chestnut trees.

When I first started on my journey to identify a small piece of wood, I never expected to stumble across such a rich history. The brief and incomplete history of Horace Moses I included above is just a fascinating example of where a sliver of wood from an old door can lead you. Things I might (and you might) never have learned otherwise.

If you have a mystery forest product that you would like identified, feel free to contact me to discuss how you can submit a photo or a physical sample for identification.

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References

  1. R. Bruce Hoadley. Identifying Wood, Accurate Results With Simple Tools. 1990. The Taunton Press, Newtown, CT.
  2. R W. Kidd. A Look Back, A History of the Horace A. Moses Scout Reservation, Russell, Massachusetts. Second Edition: 75th Anniversary - 1945-2020. 2020. Boy Scouts of America
  3. L. Szepelak. Manor House Needs Some TLC, June 15,2016, The Westfield News.  https://thewestfieldnews.com/manor-house-needs-tlc/
  4. Figures 1 & 2, By: Tom Barker

Author(s)

Mike Gagnon
Forestry Field Specialist
Assoc Field Specialist
Phone: () 641-6060
Office: UNH Cooperative Extension, Taylor Hall, Durham, NH 03824