Preservation experts ride into Natchitoches to save historical wagon structure

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HPTC employee Samantha Ritchie removes nails from the gable end of Oakland’s wagon shed. Preservation specialists work to reuse as many of the original materials as possible when performing historical restoration work.

Nathan Wilson | Reporter
National Park Service preservation maintenance specialists are working to restore one of the historical structures at Oakland Plantation.
Project leader and exhibits specialist, Kyle Bernard described the significance of the building. “It depicts how plantation life was at the time,” he says. “There was an emergency stabilization effort two years ago just to keep it standing, and now we’re there to take those stabilization measures out and actually make it a stable structure.”
The National Park Service prioritizes keeping as many of the original materials intact as possible. Bernard explains how they’re accomplishing this goal with their current project. “A lot of the framing is still original, the gable ends, one of the doors looks to be original, so we’re trying to preserve as much of that historic fabric as possible,” he says. Some elements of the shed have been replaced before and the provenance of others is lost to time. “It’s kind of replacing a replacement already for the exterior poles, (but) the interior poles are still all original,” he says. “We’re replacing pieces of the standing seam roof, and we don’t have a ton of documentation on whether that was an original. I sincerely doubt it. I assume it was shingled at some point.”
When materials are replaced, Bernard and his team go to great lengths to obtain suitable replacements. “The material that we’re using we’re trying to match as closely as possible to what they used in the past. Since a lot of it is structural, we’re using rough sawn cypress that we’re getting locally from Jeansonne’s in Alexandria that matches pretty much exactly what was used to construct it originally.” He indicates they are using modern alternatives for the load-bearing elements out of a concern for future safety. “That gets into an engineering question and (with) the public safety issues we are using pressure treated posts locally sourced from Natchitoches Wood Preserving,” he says. “All of that is guided by the Secretary of Interior’s standards and guidelines for preservation.”

The National Park Service doesn’t maintain the specialists required for the restoration work in the Natchitoches area, so the four person team reflects a cooperative effort between the Historic Preservation Training Center (HPTC) in Maryland and the Western Center for Historic Preservation in Wyoming. Bernard describes their joint effort as having two team members from Maryland and two from Wyoming. “What HPTC does is we’re somewhat of the umbrella unit for the Western Center for Historic Preservation and we’re kind of merging into one thing now,” he says. “We undertake preservation and restoration projects throughout the park service.” Their current trip isn’t their first project in Natchitoches Parish. “We were actually out at Cane River last year working on the slave cabin at Magnolia.” He points toward key assistance his team receives from the local park staff. “We have support from Cane River Creole and some of their staff who obviously are our points of contact and our people on the ground and our project partners.”

This article published in the April 30, 2022, print edition….
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