The Log Cabin

   Nothing evokes sentimental thoughts of the old days better than a log cabin. The imagery of a little log cabin nestled in the shade of pine or hemlock trees with a faint wisp of smoke curling skyward from the stone chimney is one that we are probably all familiar with. At some time or another, during the course of our growing up, we are told or read stories of our colonial ancestors who blazed their own trails through the primeval wilderness, eventually clearing a tract of land and upon it building a log cabin. In spite of the hardships that they were forced to endure in that wilderness, the pioneer settlers were safe and snug in their little log cabin homes. The mere concept of the log cabin evokes a myriad of feelings of peace and solitude and the security that the word home is meant to entail.

   Unlike any other structure, the log cabin has always symbolized that intangible thing we call hearth and home. A stone house is more substantial and sturdy than any log cabin could ever be. But when we think about a stone house we tend to think of cold, drafty and dank spaces. A brick house, though not as substantial as a stone one, might be as sturdy and warm as a log cabin; but a brick house just simply will not evoke the same sentimental thoughts. When we think of brick houses we tend to imagine them in villages with prim, little gardens surrounded by white picket fences - very practical, but hardly the stuff of sentimental folklore and legend. A wood frame structure, although comprised of the same wood material that a log cabin is, does not evoke the same sentimental aura that the log cabin does. But why is that so?

   The imagery of the log cabin as a romantic thing is the imagery of "America" that has been fed to us by our grandparents, writers and moviemakers over the years. In that imagery the log cabin has often been associated with hearty and daring pioneer settlers. America has always prided itself on its daring and restless people. The Europeans, in the spirit of adventure and discovery, swarmed across the Atlantic Ocean and pushed headlong into this land. Not content to stay along the coast, they moved inland to make settlements along the rivers that flowed down from the mountains. Then they pushed into the mountains which should have been naturally inhibiting barriers. Neither the Indians whom they encountered nor the laws devised by the provincial legislatures to limit their encroachment on unpurchased regions could prevent them from pushing past the mountains. And we have continued to push further and further ever since. That spirit of adventure and discovery and the desire to make their own way formed the basis of the stereotypical perception of the new Americans as restless and pioneering. The immigrants who pushed their way across this continent were indeed very different from the families they had left in Europe, who had only their small shares of land - handed down through generations, divided and subdivided until there was no room left to divide. By the time of the discovery of America, practically all of Europe and the British Isles had been settled. The available acreage of the "homeland", whether that be England, France, the Holy Roman Empire or wherever, was limited. Therefore the people there tended to be more sedentary and stayed put. In America, on the other hand, the land was (or so it seemed then) limitless and those people who had been forced for generations to "stay put" and be couped up on a small allocation of land felt a sense of freedom to move out and stake their claims. They staked those claims in the immense forests of oak, maple, walnut and pine that greeted the eye in all directions. The log cabin, quickly assembled from the materials at hand, became a symbol of that sense of freedom, and that is the primary reason it has endured.

   As you have taken notice, I have referred to the log cabin thus far in terms of it being a symbol. A symbol, such as the log cabin as I have described it above, tends to embody a sort of gestalt phenomenon. Gestalt is a word which is most commonly used in referring to the arts. It means that the total of the thing in question equals more than the sum of its parts. The American flag that I fly outside of my house embodies a certain gestalt. The sum of its parts amount to a length of white cotton fabric, a length of red cotton fabric, a length of blue cotton fabric and quite a bit of white nylon thread which has been used to sew those fabrics together and to embroider the white stars on the piece of blue fabric. In terms of the sum of the individual parts, that flag amounts to very little. But the total of the flag equals a great deal more; it equals the unmeasurable pride I have in the knowledge that my ancestors helped to create this United States of America out of a string of colonial provinces, the incalculable value I place on the freedoms that I am guaranteed by the laws of this nation, and the innumerable promises of opportunities that I have the privilege to take advantage of. While the sum of the parts of that flag is simply the cost of some fabric and thread and the labor required to sew them all together, the total that the flag is a symbol of is so much more. In many instances, the log cabin, in American folklore and legend, has come to acquire a phenomenon of gestalt much like the flag. The sum of its various parts add up to a wooden structure comprised of so many felled trees and mortar chinking, but the total of the log cabin lies in the fact that it symbolizes the restless, pioneering American spirit.

   Having explored the log cabin as a symbol, let's now take a look at the sum of its parts in a bit more detail. Structures which used unsawn logs as their building material were not British in origin. We tend to think that, because of the fact that Great Britain held legislative control over the American colonies, everything that came to be in America was derived from her. That is simply not the case. As many of us who can trace our ancestry back to Northern Europe know, emigrants from the regions that are today those two countries brought their own lifestyles over with them. Those lifestyles were often quite different from those imported from Great Britain. There are no known references to log structures ever being built in the British Isles. In fact, when the English colonists arrived at Jamestown and Plymouth in the early-1600s, they initially constructed rough huts which were not log cabins. They immediately began work on constructing their favorite halftimbered structures. The log structure originated in the Scandinavian lands and the Russian Empire. The building form was brought to America by the Swedes about the year 1638. (It might be noted that Russian immigrants who moved eastward through present-day Alaska and into Canada also brought the log cabin with them.)

   The Swedish settlements were made in the Delaware Valley and it was there that the log cabin was later seen by many of the other immigrating peoples who passed through that valley on their way to the emerging port at Philadelphia. As a result, the German and Ulster Scot immigrants who arrived at Philadelphia and then moved into the western frontier of the Province of Pennsylvania, borrowed the idea and spread it westward. The migration routes of those German and Ulster Scot settlers traveled through southern Pennsylvania and northern Maryland following the roads cut by Forbes and Bouquet in the 1750s and 1760s. Those routes, including Forbes Road, passed through the town of Bedford and continued on to Pittsburgh. Others, such as the Cumberland Trail, passed through the town of Frederick and continued on through Cumberland, Maryland before veering northward through the southwestern corner of Pennsylvania. They were eventually continued into Kentucky and the Ohio Valley. All along those roads, and along the numerous side trails that branched off of them, log cabins sprouted.

   When a pioneer family first ventured onto the tract of land which they claimed as their farmstead, they were confronted with two problems: 1.) they needed immediate shelter from the weather and wild animals, and 2.) they could not immediately construct a full-sized dwelling house. As a result, they tended to construct a type of shelter which was known as a half-faced camp. That structure consisted of three walls and a roof made of light saplings spaced somewhat close together and interwoven with brush and smaller twigs. The fourth, open side of the structure was higher than the rear so that the roof sloped from front to back and directed any rainwater away from, rather than into, the interior space. Outside of the structure, but close to that open side, would be kindled the fire for cooking and heating. The half-faced camp would be used as the family's home while the house was being built.

   {Those of you who were born and raised in the Mother Bedford, and familiar with the the unique Bedford Subdialect of Pennsylvania Dutch, will probably take notice that the term half-faced is commonly used - albeit in a slightly altered pronounciation, where the "a" in faced is pronounced as the "a" in past - to denote something that is only partly finished or rough.}

   The first pioneer families to take up land in certain regions had to manage the construction of their dwelling houses by themselves; the father would do all the work himself or be assisted only by any sons he might have. In later periods, as more and more settlers moved into that same region, the men of the entire settlement would pitch in for a house raising for newcomers. The activity afforded them all some much needed socializing.

   The fact that the log cabin was constructed entirely of hewn and notched logs made it possible for the pioneer settler to build one with only a few tools. If it was all he had, an ax (usually a broadax) was the single tool necessary to do the job, but if the settler had a knife handy or an adze, they could do a much better job with less effort. Iron nails, being expensive and hard to get, were not used in the construction of the log cabin, except perhaps for attaching the floor boards. Most of the parts that needed to be attached in a log structure would be done so with wooden pegs. It is believed that at times when a settler decided to move to another region or simply into another dwelling house on his own lands, the old house would be burned in order to retrieve the iron nails that might have been used in it.

   Now is the time to make note of terminology in regard to log cabin and log house. Up to this point I have used the name log cabin in a rather loose way because I was referring to the structure as a symbolic thing without getting particular about its actual physical construction. The structure which is called a log cabin was generally composed of a single room that was about ten feet by sixteen. The log house, on the other hand was usually larger and consisted of more than one room and floor. In a log cabin, the builder, in most cases being the male head of the house, with or without any sons to assist him, was interested primarily in getting a shelter built that would be more substantial than the half-faced camp. Bark would be left on the logs and they would be piled, with their ends projecting past the walls in a crib-like fashion. The corners where they crossed would be notched simply at the top and bottom so that each log would lie close against the ones above and below. The door and any windows would be cut out after the walls were up. That manner of construction required more logs to cover the wallspace, but at least there were few cracks to worry with. Any cracks that were between logs would be filled in, or chinked, with clay mixed with moss. The roof might be covered with bark or clapboards split from logs. The overlapping clapboards were held in place by slender poles running lengthwise along the roof. Either way, whether constructed of bark or clapboards, the roof tended to leak badly. Floors of the log cabin, because the intention was simply to get the building constructed, were often just packed dirt. The enterprising settler might split logs and lay them split side up on the dirt floor, but that was more the exception than the rule. The fireplace and chimney of a log cabin tended to be constructed also of logs daubed thickly with clay to make them fireproof. Doors were constructed by fastening clapboards to cross-pieces with wooden pins. Window holes were often covered with oiled paper or cloth. Although not transparent like glass, oiled paper was translucent and would permit light to enter through the window and a shapes (such as approaching humans or animals) could be discerned through it.

   In some cases the single room might have a loft at one end. The loft would provide additional storage or sleeping space. The loft was normally where the children slept because there would be little room in the cabin for a stairway. Access to the loft was either by pegs pounded into an adjacent wall or by a slender ladder.

   The log house tended to be more complicated and elaborate than the cabin. The actual building of the log house was not all that complicated, but it would have been hard, tiring work. After the trees were felled, they were stripped of their branches and then braced in some way to prevent them from rolling. The settler would then make a series of cuts with his ax across the grain, so to speak, along one side of the log. The wood left between the cuts would be chipped out and another series of cuts would be made down the same line. The process of making crosscuts and chipping the wood out between them would continue until the desired depth was reached. The same process was carried out along the opposite side of the log. When the two opposing sides were roughed out, the log would be turned and again braced and the same thing was done to the remaining two sides. If the settler had an adze he would be able to smooth out the rough spots along the face of the sides of the log. To do that he would stand atop the log and draw the adze, which was much like a hoe with a sharp edge, toward his feet. In the same way that a garden hoe will dug into the earth and shave off a chunk of it, the adze dug into the log's surface and shaved off a portion of wood. The more dextrous the person doing the adzing, the smoother the finished log would be. The adze tended to remove the majority of the scoring cuts that had been initially cut into the log with the broadax. Many people, when viewing a hand hewn log in an old house, believe that the cuts across the faces were made in the adzing process, but they are no doubt score cuts that went too low to be "sanded off" with the adze. When a stockpile of hewn log were prepared and set aside, the settler would prepare the foundation.

   The foundation often consisted of a cellar over which the house would rise. This might come as a surprise to many readers. The stereotyped image of the log cabin is generally one in which the cabin has a dirt floor. But that would have been very impractical to the pioneer homesteader. Without a frost-free, but cool space beneath the house in which to store harvested vegetables and fruits, another building would have had to been constructed just for that purpose. In view of the amount of back-breaking effort they called for, structures were built to accomodate all the necessities of life. If possible, the dwelling house was built over a spring. It is romantic to believe that that was the practice in order for the settler to have a water supply in case of an Indian attack, but there is one little detail that people who believe that fail to recognize. Log houses very seldom, if ever, were equipped with an interior access to the cellar. Access was through the outside to avoid taking up valuable interior space. A pioneer settler and his family would have been in as much danger if they attempted to leave the safety of the house to get into the cellar for water as they would have been going to an outside well. The fact of the matter is that a spring in the cellar would have allowed it to be used as a milk-cooling room. Cellars normally had dirt floors, and were sometimes referred to as "root cellars" because the dirt floor could be dug into and vegetables such as potatoes could be buried in the loosened dirt. There they would be less apt to mold, despite the fact that they might "take root". The walls were constructed of local fieldstone mortared together with a clay cement. For many years historians claimed that the stone walls of log house cellars were set without the use of mortar. That belief arose from the fact that there seldom was any evidence of mortar in most walls of log houses at the present time. The simple fact that mortar composed of clay has a tendency to erode after enduring decades of weather is often overlooked by historians who want a quick answer to their questions. The walls of mortared stone rose to a height just higher than the ground level.

   The square-hewn logs to be used for the walls were lain directly onto the top of the stone cellar wall. There is little evidence that the "sill" log, which lay directly on top of the stone cellar wall, was fastened in any permanent way to the stone wall. Apparently, it was believed that the weight of the log house when completed, would be sufficient to anchor it firmly on the foundation. There were only two sill logs, usually placed on the longest of the two walls. The logs which lay closest to the stone cellar wall on the ends of the structure were not strictly considered "sill" logs since their notched ends rested on the sill logs and they therefore constituted the first course of the wall logs. If the length of the house was such that there was a fear of the floor sagging, a middle sill log might be connected to the actual sill logs by mortise and tenon and then supported by a stone pillar in its center. The floor beams of the log house were called sleepers and stretched between the two sill logs on four to six foot centers. The sleepers were cut from slender trees so that they would fit conveniently on top of the sill logs without conflicting with the next higher log course, or else they might be notched with a lap joint to fit into the thin space that would come to exist between the sill log and the log above it.

   The floor was usually constructed of puncheons, which were logs with only one side hewn flat. That flat side would be placed facing upwards and the round, unhewn side downward. Lap joints would be cut into the ends of the puncheons and wherever they would lay across the sleepers. They would then be laid in place, sometimes being pinned to the sleepers and sometimes not, depending on the skill and motivation of the settler building the house. After the floor was laid, the logs for the walls could be lifted into place one by one.

   Unlike the log cabin, which the pioneer settler erected as an interim shelter, the log house was expected to be used as the dwelling house for many generations. For that reason, greater effort was put into the workmanship in order to make it something to be proud of. That greater effort is most readily seen in the types of joints employed where the logs met in the corners. The logs of the log cabin, as noted above, were quickly joined by simply cutting notches in the log where it would cross the log beneath it, and where another log would cross it on top; the ends were left to project outward. For a neater appearance, the settler wanted his log house to have straight, even corners and that desire required more complex types of joints. As shown in the illustrations below, the square-notch would have been the simplest of the joints, but it would not have been the strongest. The strongest, and most commonly employed joint was the chamfer-and-notch.

   The logs were laboriously hoisted up and into place one after the other by whatever resourceful method the settler could think of. The most common method was to slide them up to the higher levels by slanting two other logs from the ground to the topmost level. One or two of the men, by use of a makeshift pulley system, would pull the log upward with the use of ropes while another would push it from below with a pole. Once the next log was pulled and pushed up to the top level it needed to be notched and worked into its proper position. With the wall logs in position, rafters would be fashioned and lap jointed into the wall logs. They were then attached together at the peak of the roofline by wooden pins. As the wood dried and shifted over time, the roof might sag a bit allowing the rain and snow to enter at the peak. To correct the situation a bit, the wooden pins would then be pounded in further to tighten that joint. Shingles, some thirty inches in length, were attached to the roof rafters either by wooden pins or nails if the settler could afford them. The shingles were normally one-half inch in thickness at the butt end; they tapered practically to nothing at the opposite end. The shingles were overlapped so that only about six inches of the butt end was exposed beneath the next layer.

   The cracks between the hewn logs required being filled with some material to keep the cold weather and unwanted animals out. The material, no matter what its composition might be, was called chinking. The most common material used for chinking was usually near at hand: a mixture of straw and clay. The clay, by itself, might have worked if no straw was available, but the straw helped to bond the clay together. If a source of lime was available, some would be mixed into the clay and straw mixture and it helped to strengthen the chinking. After the walls were completed, the inside surfaces were either covered in plaster or simply painted with whitewash. Plaster was the preferable wall treatment because it helped to insulate the walls by retaining the heat generated by the fireplace. Stories have been told of log cabins and log houses so poorly insulated that a man who might have come in from the cold with his clothing water-soaked and frozen, while sitting in front of the fireplace with a raging fire, would feel the warmth on the side facing the fire. But the clothing facing away from the fire would remain frozen because the heat issuing from the fireplace could not be retained in the room. Plastered walls helped to retain some of the heat. Whitewash, an inexpensive type of paint made by mixing lime and water, was not as durable as plaster, nor did it provide any insulating properties to the house. It would flake off after a period of time, and therefore had to be repainted often, but at least it provided a cleaner look than the exposed logs did.

   The exterior walls were very often covered with clapboards, which was in turn whitewashed. Very seldom were log houses constructed with the intention of leaving the logs exposed on the exterior. Exposing the logs of a log house presents a very pretty picture and with today's wood preservatives, it is possible that exposing the logs would not harm the integrity of the logs. A log house, built a hundred or more years ago would not have had the benefit of being coated with a weather and insect resistant preservative. Therefore it had to be preserved in some other way. On of the best preservatives the pioneer settler could use was a coat of clapboards. The clapboards, of course, were no more resistant to the ravages of the weather or insects such as termites, but it was easier to replace a clapboard here and there than to replace any of the logs in the structure. The addition of clapboard siding helped to cut down on drafts also because the chinking might shrink and pull away from the logs it was clinging to. Log houses which originally had clapboard siding which was later removed can be identified by the fact that the window and door trim stands away from the rest of the exterior wall. When they were first constructed, the window and door trim would have been put on before the siding, which was butted up against that trimwork.

   Before leaving the subject of the exterior siding one last material should be mentioned. Some older log houses were originally covered with a veneer of brick or stucco. The homesteader who felt affluent enough to be able to afford brick no doubt believed that his new and expensive siding would not only impress his neighbors but also outlast their homes. Stucco, a form of plaster cement, was also utilized as a covering material and was definately more durable than whitewash; it did not need to be repainted each year. Brick and stucco presented their own problems to the life of the log house. Brick is porous and allows water to soak through to whatever is behind it. In the case of a log house, the brick covering would actually accelerate the rotting of the logs it encased. Brick had a way of buckling, cracking and falling away from the log structure, and therefore was not as durable as it might have originally seemed. Stucco, on the other hand, created a covering so dense that the logs could not "breathe" and therefore deteriorated through excessive drying.

   Windows in log cabins were normally small and covered with oiled paper or cloth because of the expense and rarity of glass panes. An earlier newsletter subject was the 1798 U.S. Direct Tax. That tax was commonly called the "Window Tax" because the valuation of properties was based, in large part, on the number of windows and panes of glass the dwelling house possessed. Anyone who examines estate inventories from the 1700s and early-1800s will readily notice that an item that often appears is "panes of glass". Glass, in the form of panes for windows, was by no means cheap, and therefore few settlers could afford it when they first established their homesteads. Windows of glass were reserved for the big dream home that the pioneer homesteader wished for. In some cases, the decision to finally construct the log house and make the move from the temporary log cabin, might have been influenced by the acquisition of windows with glass panes.

   So what can be said of the sentimentality that surrounds thoughts of the log cabin? Was the log cabin, and by extension the log house, any more secure and stable than any other? In view of the fact that the log cabin could easily be set afire by attacking Indians, you can't say that it was any more secure than any other structure. In view of the fact that, without the correct exterior covering, the log cabin or house was drafty and difficult to heat, you can't say that it was any warmer than a brick or stone dwelling. And in view of the fact that the logs of a log house were less resistant to rot and deterioration than other building materials, you can't say it was any more durable. The thing that has endeared the log cabin (and log house) to generations of Americans is the symbolism it embodies as the first true home for most, if not all, pioneer settlers. In a frontier that was rife with dangers and uncertainties, and regardless of its shortcomings, the log cabin was the first stable refuge for the pioneer settler.