Log House Heritage
As a home, bed and breakfast, or museum piece, log houses are about one-of-a-kind details
In late April 1775, William Caulk and two friends set about to do in Boonesboro what was essential but also extraordinary, though not considered so at the time. “In the eavening we git us a plaise at the mouth of the Creek and begin clearing. ... We Begin Building us a house & a plaise of Defense,” Caulk wrote in his journal. “ ... We git our house kivered with Bark & move our things into it at Night and Begin housekeeping.”
This effort took about four days.
Fast-forward more than 200 years. Most of Kentucky’s earliest log houses are gone. Those houses that have survived, though, live on—in original and sometimes new locations, and with adaptations and amenities that pioneers could never have imagined. One of the first surprises in trying to make use of a historic log house is how labor-intensive it is—be it a rustic cabin or log house being outfitted with modern conveniences.
When the Mays Log Cabin Village was moved 30 miles to Mt. Vernon in 1999, the cabins (some dismantled and some still intact) were transported on flatbed trucks along rural roads in the middle of the night. Even the transporting of one log house can be quite an undertaking. It took three flatbed trucks to move the William Rouse farmhouse—more than 200 logs—from what would become the new north-south runway at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport and 14 months to get the house reassembled and transformed into luxury accommodations at Burlington’s Willis Graves Bed & Breakfast. There is much to be learned and shared—so many one-of-a-kind details that might easily have been destroyed.
It’s almost impossible to get an accurate count of the remaining log houses in Kentucky, but there are “thousands in Kentucky,” says Marty Perry, National Register of Historic Places coordinator for the Kentucky Heritage Council. Many 19th-century houses of log construction are covered with weatherboards, says the Kentucky Heritage Council’s authority on log houses, Bill Macintire.
Moving a Log House
In July 1999, driving along Pennyrile Parkway, Gary and Teresa Dunning of Crofton were drawn to the sight of an 18x18-foot, story-and-a-half house in a pasture along the parkway. “How cute it was all grown up with vines,” Gary Dunning recalls.
The Dunnings asked the farmer if they could look inside. Added to the log house was a 10x18-foot kitchen. Cattle were using the cabin as shelter, but nonetheless the Dunnings fell in love with it: “We’ve always wanted something like that.” They offered the farmer $200 for the log house and a deal was struck. That autumn, the oak logs were numbered and prepared for the move two miles away to the Dunnings’ 96 acres.
Details in the structure, such as one-of-a-kind blacksmith-produced nails, point to the house being built sometime between 1810 and 1830. It was definitely standing in the 1850s, as it was mentioned in an 1857 deed, says Dunning, a retired manager of technical services at Pennyrile Electric Cooperative.
Each of the 52 logs of the cabin was 18 feet long and weighed about 400 pounds. Building a new foundation, positioning the logs, and putting on the roof took Dunning and three co-workers from the cooperative about four months to complete as they worked Saturdays and evenings on the project. To move the hearth in one piece, Dunning and his friends used a tractor with a boom pole. The hearth miraculously didn’t break apart. “We were lucky.”
Taking down a log house will separate the men from the boys, says Roy “Todd” Preston, president of the Magoffin County Historical Society, who helped to restore as many as 35 log houses. Preston rescued the log-built Win Post Office when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was building the Paintsville Lake dam and gave him a pass to salvage anything on the property. Also rescued were two other log homes. The post office building now sits, rebuilt, in Preston’s back yard and the log homes are part of Magoffin County’s Pioneer Village, a collection of 15 log buildings, where Preston and society volunteers give tours (weekends by appointment only, please).
Many reconstructed log houses include logs from several houses as some logs are beyond repair, due to weather, water, or termite damage. When Verona carpenter Terry Sawyer is traveling to inspect a log house, he looks at the trees en route. The surrounding forest, Sawyer has learned, is a clue to the kind of logs that the house is usually made of. Before saw mills and general stores, houses were built from what was readily available, even down to creating wood pegs twice the size of a pencil to secure a roof. Pioneers used as few nails as possible, observes Sawyer, who has worked on log houses since 1979. Often one wood pin would be used instead of today’s joist strapping method that utilizes lots of nails.
Many of the trees used to build log houses were 150 years old when they were cut down, so a house might be composed of logs that are now 250 to 350 years old. Settlers used beech, black cherry, chestnut, oak, walnut, and white pine, and sometimes a combination of woods in one house. Many surviving log houses tend to be poplar. Poplar grows straight up, with fewer branches than most trees, and the termites won’t touch it. If a foundation is solid (chiseled limestone is generally better than creek stones) and the logs don’t touch the ground, the house usually has a better chance of surviving. Also, log houses off the beaten path and on farms with small incomes have a greater survival rate as the log house continued to be inhabited rather than replaced by a more fashionable house, points out Margo Warminski, who last year oversaw 10 National Register nominations in Kentucky.
Various types of notching hold the horizontally placed logs together at the corners: diamond notching, saddle and square, full dovetail, half dovetail, and V notching, the latter three techniques producing higher quality notches.
Like the logs, the weatherproofing between them, called chinking, was a product of what raw materials were readily available. Dunning found a flour barrel stave in the chinking of his house. Sawyer found a whiskey and medicine bottle buried in mortar. Pigs’ hair is often found mixed with the mud, clay, and stone of chinking.
Skills of Log House Builders
Pioneers who built log homes used few tools but brought a myriad of skills to their work. A person can have a good grasp of modern carpentry, but many of these rules don’t apply when working on an old log house, observes log homebuilder Elmer “Red” Bentley.
When Bentley was restoring the Red Bud Schoolhouse in Renfro Valley, a couple of logs were so warped and twisted that they needed replacing. Using just any kind of log wasn’t an option, so he set about creating two 24-foot logs that would match the mid-19th century building. That meant using a broad ax and foot adz, common tools among pioneers. Bentley worked six hours to create the first log. Eventually, he noticed that if he allowed the ax to do the work rather than forcing the ax, the work went more quickly. The second log took an hour and a half. “When you learn it by trial and error, you don’t forget,” says Bentley.
Sometimes a pioneer’s first structure was a claim cabin, not meant to be lived in but rather as a sign post to tell other settlers that a particular piece of land had been claimed. Many settlers began life on the frontier in a lean-to that was little more than a pile of logs lying against crude supports. The lean-to was almost always replaced by a more substantial house, and the lean-to would then become some sort of storage shed or be torn down so the materials could be re-used.
Log house construction was more common before the Civil War; however, log houses continued to be built after the war, mostly in isolated rural areas. Todd Preston was born in a log house in 1928, the same house where his mother, Mollie Jane Helton, was born in 1890 when the house was new. Built on 40 acres between two hollows on Burton Fork of Mash Fork in Magoffin County, it was a two-room house with a fireplace in the center. Preston, one of the younger children in the family, helped his mother hoe the garden while his siblings went to school, and he fell in love with the house as his mother had. “She instilled that in us to love it,” he said.
For years, the Preston family held annual reunions at the log house, but in 1987 a fire destroyed it. Preston and two sisters stood there, looking into the valley and crying. “Reunions were never the same any more.”
Preston’s boyhood fascination with log houses has turned into a lifelong mission of saving other people’s family homesteads and telling their stories as part of Pioneer Village tours. “A log cabin village would keep us alive in young people’s minds,” says Preston, who turns 78 this month.
More than 3,600 log houses have been documented by the Kentucky Heritage Council, but many more are unrecorded, says Bill Macintire, whose work for the council sends him traipsing along streams and hillsides to survey log houses when citizens request an analysis of an old house. An architectural historian and log house scholar, he is surprised at the amazing variety of log houses that were built. Many repeated patterns can be seen, but there are also original features in each house, such as the heavy Pennsylvania-German roof truss he once saw, and variations in mantels and staircases.
When the typical square or rectangular cabin became too small for a family’s needs, a second pen (a rectangular stack of logs, which was raised and then roofed) would sometimes be added alongside it with a breezeway, or dogtrot, in the middle. Another option was the saddlebag house, created when an addition was built onto the chimney end of the original house and a new fireplace added at the back of the chimney stack.
The identity of those who did the actual building of a log house is often unknown today. If only the builders had written this information on one of the logs, says Nancy Swartzel, who, along with her husband, Bob, were the only people to claim the Rouse house and accept the airport’s offer to remove it from the airport property. Log homebuilders, says Macintire, rarely signed their work.
Houses live on in history beyond the building date, says Macintire, who analyzes about 15 historic houses a year. There is a tendency to tear off additions made to a log house, but sometimes original parts of a log house have been moved to the addition. For instance, a log house’s original door from the 1830s might be used in an addition built in the 1860s. If the addition is destroyed without a careful eye to this, pieces of the house’s original history will be lost, along with its later history. Additions to a house often have historic significance as well.
Preservationists determine what to retain and what to discard by analyzing whether a particular feature has resulted from abuse or wear. Aluminum siding nailed to logs, for instance, would be classified as abuse, whereas a wooden front step worn down after decades of use would be determined as wear and as worth saving.
The monetary value of an abandoned log house (not including the land) varies greatly, determined by the condition, size, type of wood, workmanship, and the number of original features. Red Bentley, now head of construction at Renfro Valley, bought a log house in 1980 in Laurel County for $640 and moved it 15 miles to his property on Wood Creek Lake. The going rate today, he estimates, is around $8,000 for a one-pen cabin. Another log house expert cited a range of $500 to $5,000. Still, bargains can be found, such as the Swartzels’ log house that was acquired for one dollar. The real cost is in the labor, unless the project is a volunteer effort as with historical societies. Kentucky has many abandoned log houses that could be restored, says Sawyer. “I’m still finding them all the time.” Log houses are “very plentiful” in Kentucky, reiterates Vintage Log & Lumber owner Jef Harris.
“I keep hunting log houses all the time,” says Bentley. The problem is that when you spot one from the road, you may have trouble finding the owner.
If you have a log house on your property and aren’t sure what to do with it, the log home can be quite forgiving if you do some minor maintenance. Often a simple repair, such as patching a log house’s roof, will help preserve the house for many years and even decades as you decide what to do with the house, says Macintire. Log houses share one thing in common with modern-built homes: water is the biggest enemy.
Wood shingles traditionally were used to cover the roofs of houses and barns, but most remaining cabins have metal roofing or asphalt shingles.
It’s best when a log house can remain in its original location because location contributes to the house’s authenticity and identity, but despite this, some log houses get moved to new locations. A log house on private property is at the mercy of its current owner, and no historical society—not even the Kentucky Heritage Council—has the authority to order a house saved. Some exceptions occur in designated historic districts, but most remaining log houses do not lie in these districts. Log houses are often bulldozed or burned down when a landowner wants to get rid of it quickly. “When the (perceived) historic value is low and development value is higher, then that building is not going to remain in place,” says Perry.
If you’re rehabilitating a log house that has a National Register designation, you can now apply for a Kentucky Historic Preservation Tax Credit, a state tax credit enacted in the spring of 2005.
When disassembling a log house, the logs must be numbered so that in reassembling them, the logs can be placed in the same order as the original builder placed them. Logs settle into a particular position over the decades and will fall into place when reassembled, says Preston. It’s important to know as much as possible about log houses before starting to tamper with one. “Painting a log cabin is the worst thing you can do,” points out Jef Harris.
Even as early as 1790, some builders covered the log structure with sawn weatherboards or riven clapboards. (Builders who did this believed that exterior boards added style and made the wood structure easier to maintain.) Due to the exterior siding, many log houses are not readily seen as log houses. Such was the case with the William Rouse farmhouse in Boone County and the Gilley farmhouse in Flatwoods in Greenup County. Ninette Amis, now in her 70s, was born in and grew up in the Gilley house and was told it was a log house, but didn’t know for sure until she actually saw the logs exposed during some interior repair work.
Estimates vary on when the Gilley house might have been built (anywhere from 1810-1830 to 1850-1870, but most likely in the 1840s), but it was probably the centerpiece of a large farm. As the house was purchased by Vintage Log & Lumber, based in West Virginia, and was to be moved from Kentucky, the city of Flatwoods stepped in and bought it for $24,000 so that it could be preserved, moved, and restored. The dismantling and reassembly of the house cost another $6,000. Like Amis, citizens of Flatwoods were astounded to see the original hewn wood facade of the house revealed once the siding was removed.
Amis, now retired after teaching 37 years, remembers her father, Wirt Gilley, putting water in the house in the 1940s. The Gilley Homeplace, as the family calls it, now sits in B.F. Crager Community Park and work is under way to furnish it in period pieces. “It’s like life beginning again, another period of the house’s life,” observes Amis, who has fond memories of the family at the dinner table that could seat 14 easily, and often seated 20, and stretched the length of the wallpapered dining room. Like the clapboards on the outside, walls covered in wallboard and wallpaper disguised the house’s log structure. “We don’t realize what we have until it is almost gone from us,” Amis says. “It’s something almost lost and coming alive again.”
It’s a common practice to remove clapboard siding and allow the log structure to be seen on the outside, although from a preservationist’s view the practice is misguided, says Warminski. Logs exposed to the elements, even when treated and sealed, will deteriorate faster than if they were to remain as interior supports, as the original builder had conceived the house. “A lot of people think that revealing the logs helps recapture or reveal something historical about the building, but in fact it does just the opposite,” says Perry. When an owner removes historic material from the house, he or she will “rob it of its ability to tell its story of the past.”
Details about a house’s past should be recorded if the owners change them. Recording the historic house on a survey form, and filing that record with the Heritage Council, will enable that story to be known even after the house is changed, says Perry.
Now retired, Gary Dunning and his wife have furnished their log house with period antiques, including rope beds, and sometimes spend a night or two in there. It has become a place for relaxation, to get away from the telephone, and also a place to cook using the natural heat of the wood stove. The project has personal significance as he fondly remembers his father and grandfather talking about the old Dunning dogtrot cabin in Christian County, which did not survive.
Gary and Teresa Dunning often think of the settlers whose ax marks are indelibly etched into the logs of their house. “We would like to talk with those people,” says Dunning, “and they’d like to see this cabin as it is now.”
People who own a log house are very proud of it, Warminski observes. “They have something rare and special...an American archetype.”
It is a tribute to hard work, both today and in centuries past.
Thanks to Bill J. Macintire, author of The Pioneer Log House in Kentucky, for the historical background on log houses.
LOG HOUSES YOU CAN VISIT
The Kentucky Department of Tourism lists the following sites where you can see old log houses. It is not an all-inclusive list. For more information, call (502) 564-4930 or go to the department’s Web site, www.kentuckytourism.com.
Bardstown Village, Bardstown
Lincoln Cabin, Elizabethtown
BitterSweet Cabin Museum, Renfro Valley
Mountain Homeplace, Paintsville
Visitor’s Center & Museum, Old Washington
Lincoln Homestead, Springfield
Lincoln National Historic Site, Hodgenville
Lincoln Boyhood Home, Hodgenville
Ft. Harrod, Harrodsburg
Radcliff Gunshop, Princeton
Constitution Square, Danville
Gov. Ruby Lafoon Cabin, Madisonville
Magoffin County Pioneer Village, Salyersville
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: LEARN MORE ABOUT LOG HOUSES
To find out what to do if a log house is on your land and resources on log houses, click on: log houses.