For Doug Towle, restoring old homes is second nature. He fixed up his first Colonial in 1969 and has been preserving historical properties ever since. But it wasn't until house No. 14 that Towle could say he saved what is believed to be one of oldest homes in the U.S. The circa-1665 Garrison-style saltbox was constructed by George Farley, one of America's earliest settlers, and was occupied by his family for 12 generations.
Transplanting history: Towle was approached by the Farley family because they wanted to sell the land where the home was originally built in Billerica, Mass. They thought the land would be more valuable without the home so, after a three-year battle in court, the Farleys were allowed to dismantle the property and put it in storage.
"Most historical societies want to keep properties like this but don't have funds to restore and keep them," Towle explained. "The family came to me because they knew my work." Towle transplanted the home piece-by-piece to a green hilltop with mountain views in Gilmanton, N.H. He added contemporary appliances, central air conditioning and a good heating system but made sure all the furnishings and building materials were true to the historical period.
"It was an arduous process because it's a saltbox copied from what they had in England. It has a framework made of oak, which is not what we typically see here," he explained. "The windows are also different from Colonials. The wood section between the panes is thicker, so I had to have custom-made windows and find that wavy, distorted glass."
Typical for First Period homes, the house has a lean-to, a 30-foot-long room with a kitchen, brick fireplace and "borning room," where women would historically give birth. The master bedroom is filled with 17th century decor including a Pilgrim-styled reproduction bed frame and antique crewel bed hanging. Other period details include wide-pine floors, Indian shutters, gunstock corners and barricade doors.
"The property was saved down the last nail and will be around for hundreds of more years in a place where people can see it," Towle said.
Recreating a homestead: In addition to rebuilding the saltbox, Towle recreated an early American homestead complete with a 18th-century one-room schoolhouse, corn crib, barn and carriage shed as well as a 19th-century water tower.
"People said you need to build an 'ell,' a connecting building between the home and carriage shed," Towle said. "I found a Colonial, not Pilgrim-era, one in a nearby town and reconstructed it, giving me a foyer, a great dining area and second-floor family room."
In fact, all of the outbuildings are transplants to the idyllic Frisky Hill landscape. Towle found a late-1700s schoolhouse a mile away that had been closed since 1917. "I had to reconstruct it entirely, but I found a picture from 1909 of how it looked," he said. "I collected all the desks and textbooks from that period."
Once the project was complete to Towle's satisfaction, he put it on the Gilmanton real estate market for $1.85 million in 2011. In October 2013, he dropped his asking price to $1.495 million and listed the home with Roy Sanborn of Four Seasons Sotheby's International Realty.
"I went overboard on this one," Towle said. "I have over $2.4 million in it." If he gets his asking price, it will be $1 million less than he spent in renovations.
"People say, 'Why are you doing this?" he said. "I love the legacy I have left behind. I guess it's obsessive. Even though I turned 71 today, I still enjoy doing it."