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Life in a Log Home

Part II: Building a Log Cabin

Much has been written about log cabins and most of us have visited such museums, but to refresh our memories, let's take another look at the physical aspects of the log home.

First, there is a difference between a log cabin and a log house. Cabins were cruder, built with round logs having most of the bark left on. The log house was a more "finished" structure, made of logs hewn "s quare" with the adze and broadaxe. AdzeThe adze blade was set on its handle somewhat as a hoe is. The woodsman first "chopped" notches in the top of the log, then turned it to the side. BroadaxeThe broad axe was used to slice off the uniform cuts made by the adze. The finished log was more rectangular than square, its depth or width depending upon the original tree and tapering some-what from the butt or wide end. This made one end slightly wider than the other; so in building the walls, the big ends of the logs were turned first one way and then the other to keep the walls level.

The logs were fitted together at the corners by means of notches and saddles. These join n "shop." The very earliest settlers sometimes burned their cabins to retrieve the hardware as they moved on farther into the wild-erness. Hangers for clothing or harness were made by in-serting a peg into a hole bored in the wall, or by nailing a forked stick in a handy place.

Windows and doors were cut after the walls were up and short "blocks" of logs were cut for the ends to rest on.

Open spaces in the walls were chinked with long wedges split from logs, like uneven slices of bread. Clay and sand or grass mixtures were plastered over them to keep most of the weather outside.

Log Cabin in WinterEarly homes were set true to the compass to help the. pioneers keep their directions straight, particularly on the prairie where there were few landmarks and where, on a cloudy day, it was easy to become confused and lost. The door was "to the south" to let in light and to mark the passage of time as the sun moved a shadow farther and farther along the floor.

Walls were usually "seven logs high" to the loft or cross beams, with a couple more for head space in the area. Rough boards from a sawmill, or crude ones split from logs, made the floor of the loft, providing sleeping space for the overflow from the "pallets" around the fireplace. If there was a pole bed in the corner, it might be shared by Pa and Ma (with Ma in the middle) and her sister who was "that way" and thus merited the comfort of one-third of a bed.

A log house which might be considered typical recently began a new life. This is the Glenn Sakulin house which was used in the reconstruction of the storehouse at old Fort Des Moines. The Sakulin house was 20 by 18 feet, with 6 1/2 inch thick hewn oak logs. It was built about 1840, in Richmond. Iowa. Some time later, probably about 1880, the original log home was used as the frame for a new house made of boards. In 1982, the logs were rediscovered and incorporated into the Birthplace of Des Moines project. At that time, the old logs were found to be so hard that thumb tacks and roofing nails broke off when they were driven in to mark the logs.

Was wood different back in the 1840's? The Department of Forestry at Ames says that the trees cut by the earliest settlers had grown, perhaps for centuries, on virgin soil rich in the elements that produced lumber of superior quality. Instead of deteriorating, as our later growth timber does, it actually seemed to harden with time.

Originally published in the Annals of Iowa, Vol. 37, No. 8 (Spring 1965) Copyright 1965, State Historical Society of Iowa Excerpt reprinted by permission of the publisher.
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