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Antique Panels Saved From House Fire Unveil History

Published: August 20, 2016

Three seemingly blank pieces of gray panel hang on the wall of Town Historian Dan Cruson’s office in the Edmond Town Hall. Yet, when a single spotlight shines across the boards, the glow unveils a piece of Newtown history.

Viewing the panel with the proper illuminations reveals that there are carvings all over the wood. The artwork appears to show a seemingly fictional town that was inspired by what Newtown looked like in the first half of the 19th Century.

Mr Cruson explained, “It has a series of houses and paths between the houses.”

One of the shapes appears to be a church with a chimney stack and smoke coming out the top. At one point, Mr Cruson thought it might have been one of the first depictions of St James Church, which was down in the Grays Plain area. Upon further inspection, he realized it could not be an accurate depiction of the church “because it has the addition on the side and the way it was located.”

In total, there are about 25 buildings spread across the boards, including one in a corner that looks like an elaborate factory.

Another standout carving can been seen in the center of the top panel. It shows a structure with three rows of windows. The roofline can just barely be seen, because of where it is placed on the board. Mr Cruson believes the construction of this house was part of the artist’s imagination, since he does not know of any house in town that big or with that many windows.

“It has two front entrances,” he said. “The interesting thing about this is that duplex houses in the 18th Century are very rare.” Also, where the entrance doors are placed is characteristic of an older building, typical of the 1800s or earlier.

No matter how many times Mr Cruson examines the piece, he says he always seems to find more details to it. Recently, he discovered there is a man etched in one of the doorways of a building. The people are depicted thicker than a stick figure, but subtle enough to have difficulty finding.

Mr Cruson explained, “It’s kind of like a gigantic Where’s Waldo, because the more you look at it the more you find.”

In addition to the concrete drawings of buildings, paths, and people, he said there are “some oddball carvings.”

There is a circle with a dot in the middle, which appears to show that the carver used a compass to outline it. To the right of that is some crosshatching that is hard to identify what it is supposed to represent. Another image looks like a gigantic pup tent. There are also several houses that have no perspective to where they end.

There is a large “E” purposefully etched in the panel near the bottom corner, which appears to be how the carver chose to sign the piece.

The house that the boards were initially attached to, on the corner of High Rock Road and Bennetts Bridge Road, was built in 1770 and was owned by the Sherman family. Mr Cruson suspects that the carvings were done by one of the Sherman boys, but he is not sure by who exactly. There were a lot of people named Ephraim and Ezekiel in the family, so the “E” on the board makes it almost impossible to trace the true artist, he added.

“I don’t know what the father’s attitude was,” Mr Cruson said, “but throughout the 19th Century every kid had a pocket knife and would whittle on everything.”

These three wood panels, along with a few other blank ones, were salvaged from the original building after a fire destroyed the home. The panels had survived because they were under the overhang of the porch. There are, however, black scorch marks burned onto the left side of the panel.

After the fire, the owner rebuilt the house, but in a more modern style. The boards were saved and brought to the Newtown Historical Society because the owner “wanted it to go to a home where it would be preserved.”

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