Two weeks ago, Joe McGill of the Slave Dwelling Project held a Candid Conversation and Sleepover at the Masonic Hall. One of the topics that arose during that conversation was the perception that the general public thinks of slavery only in conjunction with the plantation, not urban areas. I though this provided a good segway into a blog post about who built the Masonic Hall and Franklin.

Austin & Welch’s account ledger, showing the cost for hiring Herbert. Williamson County Archives.

This conversation starts with Herbert. Of the dozens of enslaved people who worked on constructing the Franklin Masonic Hall, Herbert’s is the only name we know. Herbert was part of the carpentry crew that worked to first construct this building in 1823. Austin & Welch, a Nashville firm, provided these carpenters and the lumber for the Hall. In their account book, they list the cost of his labor for seven days as $14, a substantial wage that indicates Herbert was a skilled worker. That he is enslaved is a given; no white employee would have been listed by first name only. Austin & Welch, however, did not own Herbert. They simply hired him out from his owner, who received the wages for Herbert’s work. Herbert’s master may have passed a portion of the wages on to Herbert. Or he may not have. This decision was entirely up to Herbert’s master.

Although their names, apart from Herbert’s, remain a mystery, the enslaved people who labored to build the Masonic Hall left traces of themselves in their work. Fingerprints in the bricks and adze-marks on the framing members of the floors give us glimpses into the lives and labors of this group for which the historic record remains so silent. The Masonic Hall’s construction story is typical for Franklin and most antebellum towns in the South. These landscapes were built by enslaved workers whose owners profited off of their labors. This process began long before skilled carpenters and brick masons arrived at the job site; it started with the conversion of raw resources into building materials.

Old growth poplar. Photo from https://www.pbase.com/image/130835569.

In the 1820s, Middle Tennessee still
boasted old-growth forests. Because of its abundance and work-ability, poplar was the preferred construction wood of Middle Tennessee house carpenters. Old growth poplar trees were huge, often eight to ten feet in diameter. The arduous and dangerous task of cutting them down and shaping them into wooden building members fell more often than not to enslaved men. If a lumberjack misjudged the direction in which the tree would fall, the result could be fatal. Even after sawmills were in use, the large wooden members (sills and plates) were still shaped by hand. This was hard work. After removing the bark, a worker began converting a felled log from round to square by hand with an adze. He stood on top of the log and bent over, chopping the wood beneath him with the adze until it was a roughly flat surface. He then chopped the sides of the log by hand with an ax with an offset head, which spared his knuckles from being constantly skinned, again working from the top down.

Vertical band saw marks visible on rafters of Masonic Hall roof.

Smaller wooden members, like rafters and floorboards, would have been cut at a sawmill. In the 1820s, most sawmills in this region had a water-powered band saw. By the 1840s, technology had changed and circular saws replaced band saws in sawmills. The sawyers working the sawmills however, remained the same: enslaved men. Carnton Plantation, just outside Franklin, had a commercial sawmill, run by enslaved sawyers, as early as 1849 (“The Enslaved at Carter House and Carnton,” BOFT, https://boft.org/the-enslaved-at-carter-house-carnton, Accessed 28 Feb. 2020). The band saw marks from the sawmill where the Hall’s rafters were milled are still visible.

The building blocks for the Masonic Hall’s masonry originated as clay. After being overturned, stamped, and freezing and thawing for several weeks, the clay was ready to be molded into bricks. Bricks were made by hand in wooden molds. Enslaved women and children typically molded the bricks. After being packed into molds, the bricks were removed and allowed to dry in the sun for several weeks. After the bricks had dried, enslaved workers stacked them into make-shift kilns and fired them, making them hard and weather-resistant. Every single brick in this building was made by hand, and the fingerprints of the enslaved people who molded them can still be seen in many bricks.

Fingerprints in one of the Masonic Hall’s bricks.


Building Construction
The various building components, once made, they were brought to the building site.
Construction crews in antebellum Middle Tennessee, whether carpentry or masonry, were often a mix of free, white journeymen and enslaved black workers, overseen by a white foreman. Building companies sometimes owned enslaved workers, but more often they hired them out from individual slaveholders. This was a practical financial decision. Purchasing a skilled enslaved worker was a significant investment for a contractor or company. The wages owed for a hired enslaved worker, however, were lower than those owed to a free, white worker. Thus, the cheapest way to build a construction crew was by filling its ranks with hired-out enslaved men. It is plain to see, in stark financial terms, why so many builders chose this form for their building forces.

Robert Courtney, a Franklin-based contractor in the 1830s and 1840s, did just this. According to his son William:

“My father was [a] contractor working from six to twenty hands. He had two white men as foremen, one in shop and one outside. The rest of force was slaves. Two of whom he owned, the others were hired from owners.” W.W. Courtney, Tennessee Civil War Veterans Questionnaires, Vol. 2, pp. 570-571

Sometimes skilled enslaved men who were hired out were given a portion of the wages they earned. This depended entirely upon the whim of their owner. Jessee Cowles was an enslaved carpenter in Franklin whose owner seems to have done this. Jessee came to Tennessee from Virginia as a boy. B Jessee to keep a portion of his wages from hiring our because Jessee saved enough money to buy his own freedom. Once free, Jessee Cowles continued to work in Franklin as a carpenter, eventually purchasing a house and buying four other family members out of slavery.

Historical records rarely tell the stories of men like Herbert, or even Jessee Cowles. As preservationists, we have to get creative. Let the built environment speak for itself. The Masonic Hall and antebellum buildings like it can tell the stories of the people who built it, the stories forgotten by the written historical record.