Interest grows in thatched roofs The Chronicle Herald

ANNAPOLIS ROYAL Visitors to the Historic Gardens have the opportunity to see a rare example of an authentic thatched roof.

Volunteers gave up their long weekend to thatch the south-side roof of the Acadian House on the gardens property. The north side of the house was thatched in 1995.

The crew has been working under the guidance of Jef Achenbach, a 57-year-old research technician at Acadian Seaplants Ltd. in nearby Cornwallis.

Achenbach and his wife Karen, horticultural manager at the Historic Gardens, live in Perotte Settlement. He also did the original thatching job on the north side.

Its holding up nicely, Achenbach said Saturday as he carried bundles of Norfolk reeds up the ladder.

A properly constructed thatched roof can last anywhere from 50 to 70 years.

The proper name for this particular reed is phragmites, also known as elephant grass in the Annapolis Royal area. The reeds are long and hollow and can grow about three metres high.

The plant is not native to Nova Scotia but there is a plentiful supply growing in the marshland just down the path from the Acadian House.

Karen Achenbach related the story that a railway landing used to be located near the marsh. Years ago, a circus train stopped at the landing and bedding used for the elephants was swept out of the railcar. That bedding contained phragmites that seeded the stands of reeds that flourish today, hence the name elephant grass.

Achenbach talked about the thatching process as he worked. He estimated that about 400 bundles of reeds were needed to finish one side of the house.

Thatching is a re-appearing skill, he said. In the past two weeks, Ive trained a dozen thatchers.

Achenbach learned the thatching technique from books. He also visited the Plimoth Plantation in Massachusetts to learn more.

Thatching starts with poles stretched across the roof. Next, a layer of reeds is tied to the poles. Then bundles of reeds are put on in courses across the roof, from bottom to top. Rods, called sways, hold the bundles in place.

Its a technique that can be traced back hundreds of years to France and Britain.

There is documentation that the Acadians may have used thatched roofs, Achenbach said.

Keith Crysler is chairman of the Annapolis Royal Historical Society. He gives all the credit to Achenbach for the Historic Gardens newest attraction.

We are so grateful to have one of the very few people in North America who can thatch, Crysler said.

The original thatching was done 17 years ago and its as if it were done yesterday.

Now that the Acadian House project is nearing completion, whats in store for Achenbachs thatching talents?

While he admits his phone isnt ringing off the hook with roofing jobs, there is interest in a reed-harvesting machine he owns and in the Norfolk reed product.

It has an insulating value of R-40 with 16 inches of thatch, he said.

Contrary to the Hollywood depiction of thatched roofs, they are difficult to set on fire.

There are many opportunities for the public to see the Acadian House this summer. Special events at the Historical Gardens include the rose festival beginning July 1 and the Annapolis Royal house and garden tour on July 7. The spotlight will be on the Acadian House and 17th-century life in the Annapolis Royal area during Cradle of Acadie, August 1-15.

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