Centuries old thatching still fresh today

We take the roof over our head for granted.  Plywood covered with felt paper and shingles keeps us dry and secure.  But in the 1600s what seems like a simple task today was much more involved. The Henricus Historical Park tells the story of living in the 17th century and the efforts to stay warm, dry and secure. In preparation for the next event in a year-long series commemorating the site’s 400th anniversary, the re-creation of Rocke Hall is nearing construction.

Last week, William Cahill, a professional thatcher, demonstrated the arduous task of thatching a roof on the park’s newest addition, Rocke Hall, the re-created home of the Rev. Alexander Whitaker.  Cahill will spend six to eight weeks completing the roof, which will be ready in time for the park’s scheduled March event.

An Irishman, Cahill immigrated to the states in 1986 after spending several years traveling with a thatcher from England to work on roofs in Jamestown and areas in New England.  He has been perfecting his craft for 30 years. Along with his work on Rocke Hall at Henricus, he thatched the roof for the re-creation of Mt. Malady and has worked in nine states thatching roofs for historical, whimsical and recreational structures

Cahill said his favorite process of thatching a roof is harvesting the reed.  Saying, “I like harvesting [the reed] but I like the beginning and the end too. The middle part - it’s work.”
The harvested reeds are grown in marshes.  At times, Cahill will use cattail in the top part of the roof.  “It is a pretty decent footprint in the ecosystem [of things,]” he said.  All the materials used are collected locally “at least within 200 miles.”  

Cahill said in the early days of his work materials were imported from Turkey, South Africa, Asia and China.

Once the reed is harvested, Cahill bundles and dries them in stoops that look like tepees.    The pitch of the stoop for the drying process is just as important for the pitch of a successful thatched roof.  “When the pitch is right, the water will run off,” he said.  A 45 degree roof is the minimum for a thatched roof and according to Cahill that is the pitch used during the days of Henricus.  The dry-out period is a 3-month process.  “The three-month period takes the shrinkage factor out.”

Cahill lays the bundles on the roof with the butt-end facing out and secures them to the roof beams with staking. A thatch roof can endure heavy winds and rain.  Nine to 10 layers of thatch on a typical roof will create a thickness of one foot.  Cahill said a thatch roof has close to an R-30 rating and in the summer time the interior will be 20 degrees cooler under a thatch roof and 20 degrees warmer in the winter time.  

Cahill said the most important factor in thatching a roof is “to have your wits about you.”

Completed in 1614 Rocke Hall was considered a mansion during its time, according to John Daniel Pagano, historical interpretation supervisor at Henricus.  “This would be a mansion by 17th century standards,” he said.  One thing they cannot show at the site is that Rocke Hall was also given a hundred acres.  Rocke Hall is the only building that will have a second floor at the Citie.

According to a release from Henricus, “Rev.Whitaker was an influential and highly respected man in the Citie of Henricus.  His position as minister made him the logical choice to provide a home for Pocahontas when she was brought to the settlement in 1613.  He tutored Pocahontas in the English traditions and oversaw her conversion to Christianity.  As a close acquaintance of John Rolfe, Rev. Whitaker probably introduced Rolfe to Pocahontas, his future bride.”


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