Log Cabin Evolution, The American Frontier and Settlement Construction

Categories: Homes / Dwellings

Early settlers probably made their first log cabins by simply stacking tree trunks one on top of another and overlapping the trunks at the corners. Over time, their building processes got more sophisticated. For example, they eventually createdinterlocking corners by cutting notches in the ends of the logs.

To make their log cabins warmer and resistant to bad weather, settlers would fill the cracks between logs with mud or moss (called daubing) or sticks and rocks (called chinking). Fortunately, the insulating properties of wood tended to make log cabins cozier than wooden huts covered with animal skins.

Log cabin builders would look for the tallest, straightest trees they could find. These were often pine and spruce trees, which were readily available in large numbers in the forests that covered the unsettled frontier.

As people began to grow in their experience with building log cabins, they developed better tools to help in construction. Over time, a family could build a new log cabin from the ground up in just a few days.

Since most log cabins were not meant as permanent dwellings, not many old log cabins still exist. When English settlers began to come to America, they often built more traditional houses and converted existing log cabins to outbuildings to be used as animal shelters or sheds.

Now that we know how to make doors and door-latches, locks, bolts, and bars, we may busy ourselves with building an American log cabin. It is all well enough to build our shacks and shanties and camps of logs with the bark on them, but, when one wishes to build a log cabin, one wants a house that will last. Abraham Lincoln's log cabin is still in existence, but it was built of logs with no bark on them. There is a two-story log house still standing in Dayton, O.; it is said to have been built before the town was there; but there is no bark on the logs. Bark holds moisture and moisture creates decay by inviting fibrous and threadlike cousins of the toadstool to grow on the damp wood and work their way into its substance. The bark also shelters all sorts of boring insects and the boring insects make holes through the logs which admit the rain and in the end cause decay, so that the first thing to remember is to peel the logs of which you propose to build the cabin.

There is now, or was lately, a log cabin on Hempstead Plains, L. I., near the road leading from Mineola to Manhassett; it is supposed to have been built when the first white settlers began to arrive on Long Island, but this was what was known as a "blockhouse," a small fort. In 1906 Mr. I. P. Sapington said: "I think that I am the only man now living who helped build General Grant's log cabin." Grant's house was what is popularly known in the South as a "saddle-bag" log house, or, as the old Southwestern settlers called it, a "two-pen," the pens being two enclosures with a wide passageway or gallery between them, one roof extending over both pens and the gallery.

General Grant was not afraid of work, and, like a good scout, was always willing to help a neighbor. He had a team of big horses, a gray and a bay, and the loads of cord-wood he hauled to St. Louis were so big that they are still talked of by the old settlers. In the summer of 1854 Grant started his log cabin, and all his neighbors turned in to help him build his house.

American Log House

The American log house differs from the Canadian log house principally in the shape of the roof. Our old settlers made steep gambrel roofs to shed the rain.

"Gambrel! Gambrel? Let me beg
You'll look at a horse's hinder leg;
First great angle above the hoof,
That's the gambrel, hence the gambrel roof."

The Canadians put very flat roofs on their log cabins, usually composed of logs laid over the rafters, making them strong enough to support the heavy weight of snow. The American log cabins, as a rule, are built in a milder climate, and the flat sod roof is peculiar to our Northern boundary and the hot, arid parts of our country. We build the chimneys outside of our log cabins because, as the old settlers would say, "thar's more room out thar" (see Figs. 271, 273).

One-Pen Cabin

Fig. 229 is a one-pen cabin. To build it we first snake our logs to a skid near the site of our proposed cabin (Fig. 167), from which we can roll our logs to our house as we need them. Lay out the corners and square them (Fig. 180); notch the logs with a rounded or U-shaped notch (Fig. 165). Remember that all the logs should be two or three feet longer than the walls of the proposed building, but the notches must be the same distance apart in order to make even walls. The protruding ends of the logs may be allowed to stick out as they happen to come, no matter how irregular they may be, until the cabin is erected; then with a two-handed saw and a boy at each end they can be trimmed off evenly, thus giving a neat finish to the house.


Hints and suggestions in cabin construction. 


The largest, straightest, and best logs should be saved for sills or foundations. If you are building a "mudsill," that is, a building upon the ground itself, the sill logs will be subject to dampness which will cause them to rot unless they are protected by some wood preservative.

Wood Preservative

If the logs are painted with two or three coats of creosote before they are laid upon the ground, it will protect them for an indefinite time and prevent decay. Hugh P. Baker, dean of the New York State College of Forestry, writes methat— two or three applications of warm oil with a brush will be very helpful and will probably be all that the ordinary man can do. Creosote is the best preservative because of its penetrating power and the way it acts upon the fibres of wood, and in the end is cheaper than a good many other things which have been used to preserve timber. In fact, various forms of creosote are best-known preservers of organic matter. There is no advantage in using charcoal at all and I presume suggestions have been made for using it because we know that charred wood is more durable. Linseed-oil is good; ordinary white-lead paint will be better, but neither of them is as effective as creosote, and both are more expensive. You will find thatcarbolineum and other patent preparations are recommended very highly; they are good but expensive and the difference in price between these patent preparations and ordinary creosote is much larger than is justified by their increased value. Creosote can be procured in large or small quantities from a number of concerns. I think we have been getting it for about ten dollars per barrel of fifty or fifty-three gallons.

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