In 2006, when he was twenty-eight, McCauley and his girlfriend, Andrea Kinney, purchased an old Greek Revival home on Pontiac Trail. They set to work restoring the small dwelling—and McCauley spent hundreds of hours reconstructing the house’s history.
A former history major at the U-M, McCauley was, he admits, “obsessive.” He sifted through deeds, wills, maps, and census data, trying to establish when it was built. And when he still couldn’t pinpoint an exact date, this past January ¬McCauley went into his basement and carefully removed several pieces of subfloor that showed bark edges. He then sent the wood to a University of Tennessee lab that does “dendrochronology”—a process that analyzes tree rings and compares them to trees of the same species, from the same area, whose history is known. The white oak in McCauley’s subfloor was compared to a venerable oak from Cranbrook in Bloomfield Hills. Four samples in the $500 analysis agreed: 1845.
McCauley wanted to know not only when the house was built but who lived there—so he searched websites for the histories and genealogies of the former residents. “I’m a housepainter,” he explains. “This is what I do for brain stimulation.” And that’s how he uncovered the story of George Spathelf Jr.’s secret family.