Keeping A Native Roofing Tradition Alive

May 5, 2014

The Solstice House at Sunwatch Indian Village
Credit Renee Wilde

Spring is roofing season – time to check your roof for damage it may have sustained during the winter.  Near the banks of the Great Miami River in Dayton, a man is making an unusual roof this spring, using materials most that most people would never consider. Community Voices producer Renee Wilde has our story.

Tucked between a busy interstate and a pair of train tracks lies a prehistoric site called the Sunwatch Indian Village, and in that recreated village something unusual is going on. An Irishman is keeping a Native American tradition alive.

William Cahill harvests sheeves of native grasses
Credit Renee Wilde

William Cahill lives in Cincinnati and has a skill set only one other person in the United States shares. He’s a Master Thatcher.

"My wife says your working in a trade that’s back in the dark ages," he says.

Today William is working on a structure called the Solstice House. Also with him is Bill Kennedy, an archeologist and Curator of Anthropology for the Dayton Society of Natural History. They are harvesting and bundling sheeves of native grasses to use in creating an authentic thatched roof.

So just how does one become a Master Thatcher?

"I did an apprenticeship back in Ireland for about five years, and after I left school," says Cahill.  "So I’m in it for over thirty years now. So I’m doing the roofing of all sorts. So I think I like the outdoors and being my own boss."

Thatching may not be the most popular roofing choice in today’s US homes, but chances are your ancestors had one.

"All peoples in the world have generally used some form of thatch of some point in their history. So unless you are a full-blooded eskimo, no matter who you are, some, if not most, of your ancestors at some point lived under thatch," says Bill Kennedy.

Living in harmony with nature is an important part of William’s work. He practices a sustainable harvesting of the grasses used in the thatching process, and at places like Sunwatch, he is able to actually harvest native grass on site.

Willam’s thatched roofs are durable and weather tight. Naturally warm in the winter and cool in the summer, and absolutely beautiful to look at.

"You know the colors are all these natural, yellowish fading to brown, to sort of light greys," says Cahill.  "And some of them, depending on where they’ve been exposed, you know while we were out harvesting and had left some of the material, and there is a nice weathered look to some of it. But yet, it’s very vibrant when it’s first put up there, and there’s a spring to it."

Cahill's hands as he creates the thatched roofing
Credit Renee Wilde

As William was working, he was approached by Justin Hueston, a local man of Cheerokee decent. He came to ask advice from the Master Thatcher.

"Seen some of William’s work at some of the other parks like Fort Ancient, and he does some real good work," said Hueston.

William is on the road an average of 250 days a year, creating structures for museums, zoos, and private residences. He’s even created one for Martha Stewart.

As we stood inside the Solstice House admiring William’s work he said it’s hard but it has it’s rewards.

"You feel good inside, you know, most of the time on it. You know I would have to say it really is satisfying.  It’s physical, so it is. But you're awake, you know what I mean. You're alive, so you are, and you know it..The beauty of my job is the fact that there’s great satisfaction at the start and at the end. I’ve often said on jobs that if I can’t go back and have a cup of tea with them, no matter how good the job has been, I’ll have failed."