Cheryl St.John on Log Cabins

cheryl_stjohn_logo.jpgWe tend to think of log cabins as symbols of early American life, and indeed they embodied the inventive and hardy spirits of those who blazed new trails and settled on the frontier. The first log cabin in the Unites States was most likely built along the Delaware River in New Sweden by Scandinavian immigrants. The Swedes, Germans, Russians had been making cabins for years. Swedish settlers built log cabins when they came to Delaware in 1638. Other colonists followed their example.

When great numbers of settlers began to move westward after the Revolution, they found thick forests in Tennessee, Kentucky, and the Northwest Territory, and the log cabin became the typical home of the backwoodsman. The log cabin made the transition to the New World beautifully. With lush forests and raw materials at hand, log cabins were the perfect homes for settlers. Many times trees had to be cut to create living space or to clear fields for farming anyway.

log_cabin 0Building with logs didn’t require much skill or special tools. A sharp axe, an adz and a strong back did the job, and the new lodging went up quickly. Most could last a couple hundred years if built well, and the inhabitants were warm in winter and cool in summer.

Once the trees were cut, the farmer stripped away branches and bark so insects weren’t left behind to crawl into the house or weaken the structure. The builder then cut notches for fitting the logs atop each other. Once stacked and fitted, he then chinked or calked with mud or clay, grass and moss mixtures.

LogCabin00Roofs were made of available material, though cedar was prized because the wood split straight and resisted rot. The owner nailed the shingles to a beam and board framework. More logs could also be used as roofing, provided they were split lengthwise and fitted close on the frame. The gaps could be filled the same as the walls. A thatched roof needed a lot of upkeep, had to be replaced every year and often harbored insects, small animals and snakes. Many used sod placed flat over planks, and after a few years the earth compacted and became waterproof. Later in the 1800s, builders used corrugated tin. Can you imagine the sound of a rainstorm or hail?

abraham-lincoln-boyhood-log-cabinLog cabins were not all one room dwellings with lofts, as we tend to imagine or like we see on Little House on the Prairie reruns. Many had several rooms and even second stories. Fireplaces and chimneys were made of stones and chinked with mud or clay. Sometimes the chimney was made of sticks or wood.

stjohn.jpgThe floor was hard-packed clay or dirt. Since living in a cabin made its occupants vulnerable to attack, there were usually no windows. Besides glass was expensive and difficult to transport. Most people hung wooden shutters over oiled paper. In summer, the inventive settlers covered the openings with cheesecloth to allow air in and keep bugs out.

Probably the world’s most famous log cabin is the one in which Abraham Lincoln was born. When we think of log cabins we think of hard work, ingenuity and independence, all virtues of our pioneer ancestors.

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26 thoughts on “Cheryl St.John on Log Cabins”

  1. Good morning, Cheryl. I love the whole idea of a log cabin but am sure that I would not have enjoyed the drafty floorless ones but have you seen the modern ones? There is an original, i believe, log cabin at the museum in Fremont Nebraska. Wonderful place to visit and not far from you.

  2. Hi, Cheryl. Thanks for an interesting post. I teach Iowa History to fifth graders and we measure out a typical size of a log cabin and then have a Ma, Pa, and 3 or 4 kids in the area and they are amazed—maybe even appalled—at how small the living space had been! One kids summed it up, “This is as big as my bedroom!”

    My sister has seen “cabins” in Norway and she says they are/were very elaborate. A lot of them were built up on massive stilts.

  3. For some reason this post took my mind to Europe during our log cabin time. Americans had a much better lifestyle than the common European at this time.
    Just think –land was cheap. A man could build his own house with plentiful trees. Wildlife abounded so a family could hunt and gather to supplement their meager crops.
    No wonder people suffered the treacherous crossing to this new country!
    Proud to be an American for so many reason!

  4. Good morning, Cheryl. I love the look of log cabins and homes, and would have one now if I had money and a place to put it.
    There are tiny, old deserted cabins still standing in rural areas here in Utah. Remembering what my mother used to say when we drove past one still makes me smile.
    “Now, there’s a little love-tester!”

  5. There is something so romantic about a log cabin tucked away in a wooded area in the mountains. A lake nearby, lots of wildflowers. Sigh. My ideal retreat.

    Maybe someday I’ll find one of my own – filled with all the modern ammenities, of course. But I can pretend I have the frontier fortitude of my predecessors.

  6. Good morning, Connie! I have a couple of friends with new log cabins and they are spacious and lovely! I’ve never seen the one in Fremont, but I have seen Abraham Lincoln’s log cabin in Illinois.

  7. Hi Deb! Lovely to have you drop by. Where abouts in Iowa are you? I’m a Nebraska girl, but travel to the Des Moines writers group on occasion. Was just there a couple of weeks ago.

    I did see photos of cabins on stilts when I was researching. Thanks for the info.

  8. Oh, Elizabeth, I just love that love tester quip. Isn’t that the truth? I am rewatching Into the West on cable an episode at a time and there was a log cabin in the program I saw yesterday. Must have been what made me think of this blog.

  9. I love log cabins, I would love to have one to retreat to during certain times of the year. I would want it to have the modern things of today but it would great to have one in the Tenn moutains next to a river or lake so you could spend time there and do some fishing! Some of the modern log houses are beautiful but very expensive to build!

  10. I’ve always loved and wanted to live in a log cabin for as long as I can remember. I just like how they look. So warm, cozy and inviting. Besides they’re different from the thousands of other houses that all look alike. I like different. There were no log houses in this area of Texas. No lumber to build them with. People here lived in dugouts or houses built of dried mud bricks. They look too primitive for me. Interesting blog!

  11. What a beautiful post — I love the pictures. And I, too, love the log cabins. In Vermont and Montana, there are new beautiful log cabins that are incredibly wonderful to live in. People who own these love them. And they are a thing of beauty on the prairie or fields of Vermont.

  12. I too love log cabins. We were just up in Charlottesville, VA and saw a restored one on a garden tour. Less CAN be more!

    Thanks for this post.

  13. Were most of them squared off logs like in your pictures, Cheryl? It seems like those are the ones I see and yet, when you read about buildinga log cabin they don’t talk about working the outer edges of the log to smooth them and square them.

    That seems like it’d be even more massive of a job. How did they do that? Were those logs that had been somehow run through a saw mill or was that done by hand.

    Yes, I know, I’ve asked enough questions you can now write another blog post. 🙂 Please get on that immediately.

  14. Can you imagine wanting a cup of coffee and step one is….chop wood.

    Wow, deterrent to over indulging in anything when it’s so hard to come by.

    There’s an incredibly um….let’s say RUSTIC log cabin in Pioneer Village in (near) Grand Island, NE. Huge gaping spaces between the logs. I wondered if that wasn’t honestly more what most log cabins looked like. Those you have pictures of, Cheryl are so sturdy and TIGHT. I suspect many of them were rickety and breezy.

  15. what beautiful places to live!
    i get all dreamy eyed when i think of living back in the “good old days” (then reality sets in and i realize how much work every day life was)

  16. Cheryl, I teach in Brooklyn, Iowa, about an hour east of Des Moines. Thanks for asking. 🙂

  17. I love the looks of the log cabins but I have to have plumbing lived ton long without it as a kid and wouldn’t do that for anything.
    Do you remember they had that cabin up here at the Morman temple I don’t think it is there anymore now that they have a big new building.

  18. Yes, Brenda, plumbing is an essential!

    Tanya, I don’t know why the floors were commonly dirt, except that they didn’t have to worry that much about keeping it clean. lol

    I suppose with all that avilable lumber in the forested areas, they could have made wood flooring. But without a saw mill, it would have been tough to get the boards level. I’m sure they did that stuff by hand though. Gee, I’m helpful.

    Next, I’ll get right on Mary’s questions….

  19. We live in NE Tennessee. There are an abundance of old log cabins in this area. You will see them abandoned in fields, but most often they are still being used. There are some that have been exposed when people decided to renovate their housed. The old log cabins had been added to and covered over with siding. Several friends still have the old log barns on their property. Many have been moved to better sites so they can be preserved.

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