Notes From The Frontier
How Log Cabins Were Built
Try chopping down just one tree by hand and you'll realize how hard it was carving a home out of the wilderness. It took muscle, sweat, and blood.
The log cabin is an American icon. The rough-hewn, squat and humble house has long been lionized in our lore. It was the gritty abode of folk heroes like Daniel Boone. The lowly domicile of one of the nation’s greatest presidents, Abraham Lincoln. The shabby shelter of pioneers and immigrants seeking their dreams in the wilderness. It’s a symbol of honesty, hard work, and unvarnished truth central to our national identity.
Even before Lincoln, as early as the 1840s, the U.S. President William Henry Harrison touted the log cabin to promote his bona fides as a tough pioneer and Indian fighter. When his opponents mocked his humble beginnings and ridiculed him, claiming he’d been born in a log cabin (he wasn’t), he very cleverly embraced the image. His friend Daniel Webster, defended Harrison, writing: “At the close of the Revolutionary War… my father erected…a humble cabin amid the snow-drifts of New England, [and] strove, by honest labor, to acquire the means for giving to his children a better education, and elevating them to a higher condition than his own.” A year later, the author of ”The Pioneers” and “Last of the Mohicans,” James Fenimore Cooper, romanticized log cabins and a symbol of the American spirit was born.
Although Harrison was the first President to brag he was born in a log cabin (even when he really wasn’t!), seven other Presidents DID have that ignoble origin: Andrews Jackson was the first, as well as Ulysses S. Grant, Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, James Buchanan, James Garfield and, of course, Lincoln.
More writers praised the log cabin. Henry David Thoreau wrote of building a cabin on Walden Pond to return to a virtuous simple life. The American ecologist and conservationist, Aldo Leopold, lived in “The Shack” and wrote his famous “Sand County Almanac.” Log cabins were a fixture in Hollywood Westerns. In the 1930s, Roosevelt’s jobs program, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), built thousands of log cabins in parks across the nation. And in 1916, one of America’s most classic toys, Lincoln Logs, were developed by Frank Lloyd Wright’s son, John, and came with instructions on how to build miniature models of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Abraham Lincoln’s. They became so popular, most baby-boomers grew up with Lincoln Logs. They are still made and just a couple of years ago, in 2016, the wooden relics celebrated their 100th anniversary.
Americans love the gnarled romance of log cabins, but the reality was far from romantic. Anyone who’s tried to swing an axe and chop wood knows just how back-breakingly hard it is. And that isn’t even the hardest part by far. Try sawing or chopping down 50-70 tall trees first. Then hitch a horse or mule to each log and drag it miles to your home site. Then you had to notch out the ends for the interlocking corners. (There were numerous techniques and styles for notching corners.) You also had to chop and plane off the limbs. Many pioneers planed off the bark or split the wood into square posts for a tighter fit. It was best to remove bark because it held moisture and invited rotting and insects.
Then you had to gather tons of stones dug up from the prairie, woods and stream beds to build a stone foundation. And while you’re carrying stones for the foundation, you’ll also have to move several additional tons of field stone for the fireplace and hearth. Then you have to gather clay, dirt, sand, and carry water to mix it for mortar. (Ever tried to stir concrete? It’s like wrestling an alligator. Exhausting.) Now you have to mortar the heavy stones together to build a fireplace. When you’ve built the chimney walls about two or three feet from the floor, you’ll probably want to insert an iron, oak, or chestnut bar into the mortar across the hearth. You’ll hang pots and Dutch ovens off that to cook over the fireplace fire. (Some pioneers even hung a fancier iron cooking “crane” that could swing out from over the fire, so stews, soups, and other dishes could be spooned straight from the pot.) While building the chimney, when you can’t lift the rocks any farther above your head, you’ll have to build a ladder from tree limbs, so you can stack the rocks at least 8-12 feet high for the stack.
If you were pioneers on the northern plains, you might have trouble finding enough rocks for a foundation and chimney. In this case, a flat stone was often placed at each corner of the log cabin to give the cabin a firm foundation. Or, you could pack the earth very hard and lay base logs on the dirt. But you’d have to coat them in creosote first to protect them from rotting. You’ll have to make the creosote by boiling down pine tar--a nasty, awful job. If you don’t have rocks for the chimney, you’ll have to build it from logs. You would make the chimney with short logs or limbs stuck together with mud or clay and coated inside with mud or clay, if you couldn’t find enough stones to line the chimney flue.
After all this, you’re nearly dead with exhaustion but you’ll sit on a tree stump and admire your hard work and feel a sense of accomplishment. But you’re not even half done. The hardest part is yet to come. Now you must begin building the log walls setting the largest logs on the stone foundation so they don’t sit in moisture and rot at the bottom. Then you have to lift each log into place, piling each one higher and higher and fitting the ends into the alternating “saddle notches.” The logs—usually 8-10 inches in diameter and 14-18 feet long—were most often of pine, fir, spruce, or tamarack for their straight, lodgepole shape. An 18-foot log could weigh 500 pounds and was not easily lifted and maneuvered into place. Not only that, logs were never perfectly round, had limbs and knots, and were thicker at one end than the other, so they had to be pieced together like a puzzle for a snug fit. (Many cabins had low roofs limited by the height a man or two could lift the logs.
Once the walls are up, you’re ready to build the gable ends for the roof but you’ll have to lay rafters running crosswise between the gables. There were lots of ways to build gables with horizontal logs or upright logs, or even covered with wood shingles. But whichever way you built them, the steeper the gables, the dryer your roof and the longer it will last because the water will run off quickly and your shingled, sod, barked, or thatched roof won’t retain moisture, which will help prevent it from collapsing.
Although construction techniques differed, many pioneers built the walls solid, then cut out the openings for the doors and windows. When the walls reached the height of the opening, square holes were sawed out, then another log laid above for the top sill. Glass windows were a luxury most pioneers didn’t have. They used greased paper or canvas instead to allow in a little light, with shutters they kept shut during winter. Doors were often hung with leather hinges unless pioneers brought hardware with them. Sometimes, area blacksmiths could forge door hinges.
Doors and windows were usually framed with boards cut from logs. Planking was also used for the roof across the gables. Commonly roofing was made with shingles cut from logs. Cedar was used if available because the natural resins in the wood protected the wood from moisture. But roofs were also covered in sod, bark, or prairie-grass thatch, as well. If gables were steeply angled, a loft under the roof could serve as a second story for sleeping.
Many pioneers actually brought flashing with them in their covered wagons or purchased them to seal the gaps between the chimney and roof and prevent water leaks. That was also crucial to keep the roof from rotting. If flashing wasn’t available, they would use tar to waterproof and plug gaps.
One of the final steps was chinking to fill in gaps between logs, stone and window openings. This was important not only to keep out the cold, but also insects, vermin, and snakes. A wide variety of materials could be used for this process, from small sticks or pebbles, to clay, mud, grass, swamp moss, oakum, livestock hair, corn cobs, leaves, or all the above. Recipes for chinking mortar often included mud, clay, sand, mixed with water (or “spit” as some pioneer recipes called for), hog, goat or cow hair, and even livestock manure or buffalo chips. Contrary to some popular beliefs regarding log cabin building, logs were not fitted together as tightly as possible. The wood expanded or constricted with variances of heat and moisture from season to season. Chinking provided some flexibility in movement and enabled the cabin to withstand changes in wood or flexing from tornadoes or earthquakes. Chinking was also easily repaired from year to year, was cheap and made from readily available raw materials. Gaps between logs could also be filled with wood in the form of shake shingles, wedges or slender poles made from long limbs, but mortar was usually used to cement all pieces together and block air holes.
Usually cabins faced the south for sunlight and faced away from the west wind. Location was important for water accessibility, runoff, proximity to crops and livestock, and, sometimes, defensibility. Styles of log cabins varied wildly, based on the ethnicity or heritage of pioneers, availability of materials, the contour of the land, and the size of the family. The “four-square” was the simplest construction. Some had lofts or second stories, some had multiple rooms or wings, some had porches, cellars, or summer kitchens. Some even had open porches called “dog trots” or “possum trots” between two living areas, all under one roof. (Sort of like the pioneer version of a duplex.) Some even were built as housebarns that housed livestock in the lower level and people in the upper level, built especially by Austrian, Flemish, German and Swiss immigrants. This construction had special advantages: animal warmth rose up to the second level, only one structure had to be built for both human and beast and feeding and caring of livestock did not require going out in the frigid cold.
Whatever the style of log lodging, it was a monumental accomplishment to carve even the most humble home out of the wilderness. It was hard work and there was honor in it. Families raised many children and lost many too, started new lives, and built their dreams—and a nation—from the ground up in the American frontier.
PHOTOS: (1) This 18’ x 18’ 1800s log cabin, built possibly in the mid-1800s, is part of the “Pioneer Village” in the Spring Mill State Park near Mitchell, Indiana. It was originally the home of the pioneering Ferguson family, who raised 13 children in the cabin. (2) A U.S. Forest Service trapper in front of his cabin 1908. U.S. Forest Service, OSU Archive. (3) A dogtrot slave cabin at Belle Mont Plantation in Colbert County, Alabama. This cabin housed two families before and after Emancipation. Courtesy of Historic American Building Survey. (4) Navaho children standing in front of their Arizona cabin near Canyon de Chelly with sod roof. On some reservations, Native Americans adopted the white log cabin form of lodging. Granger Historical Picture Archive. (5) An Oregon four-square cabin showing very heavy chinking. (6) The Azel Dorsey cabin in the Lincoln Pioneer Village near Rockport in southern Indiana, is a two-story cabin with a six-over-six, double-hung sash windows, and an enclosed chimney on the east. The floor is made of “puncheons,” heavy pieces of roughly dressed timber, hewed out with a broad ax and secured with pegs. (7) The Daniel Grass Home in the Lincoln Pioneer Village in southern Indiana is a two-story cabin with “dog trot” front in middle and six-over-six double hung sashes. The lower two cabins were built then a second story was added, resting on the two with a dogtrot between them. (8) A diagram showing the basic parts of a log cabin. From the website: Ilovehisotry.utah.gov. (9-13) Important parts of a log cabin. (9) Saddle-notched log corners, one of the most basic and simplest notching techniques of long round logs cut from tall trees in which a notch was axed out of the end of the log to fit in with an opposing notch of another log. The bark could remain on the log or planed off. (10) A box-notch corner of square split and planed logs. (11) Example of “chinking” between logs. Chinking was often made of mud, clay, sand, mixed with water (or “spit” as some pioneer recipes called for), hog, goat or cow hair, corn cobs or husks, grass, hemp, or oakum (frayed rope), or even livestock manure or buffalo chips. (12) Shake shingles were often used to roof cabins. They were split from logs, often cedar if available. (13) A typical stone hearth in a log cabin with an iron cooking bar at the top to hang cooking pots or Dutch ovens.
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"How Log Cabins Were Built" was first posted on Facebook and NotesfromtheFrontier.com on November 23, 2019
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