|Rustic-era log cabin at Babcock State Park, W.Va.|
The Midland Log House
There's good reason to associate West Virginia with old-fashioned log architecture. The Virginia-West Virginia border country was once the furnace in which the original "Midland Log House" was forged. In "A Field Guide to American Houses," house historians Lee and Virginia McAlester describe the origin of the quintessentially American log structure in the 1600s in a manner I couldn't hope to put better:
"It began in the middle colonies (Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Deleware, Maryland), where Germanic immigrants from heavily wooded areas of central and northern Europe introduced techniques of building with logs hewn square and placed horizontally, one on top of the other, to make a solid wooden wall. The massive structure was held together by various systems of carefully interlocking or notching the squared timbers where they joined at the corners of the buildings."
Once this form of log construction had been demonstrated, the Germanic or "Continental" log house was adopted by neighboring settlers from western Europe who were unused to working with the abundance of timber, and they modified the methods to suit their sensibilities.
|Ruble log church, Burning Springs|
The McAlesters note that in rural areas such as West Virginia, many log houses survive "relatively intact" because of their strong, massive walls, though the principal draw-back of building with log was in expanding these strong, massive walls to provide additional space. Log houses are generally made up of room-sized square or rectangular units or "pens," and the strength of each is dependent on four interlocking corners. Attempts to add or interconnect pens might require that the original pen be disassembled. Pens also lost strength when doors and windows openings were created, and so openings were kept at a practical minimum.
For more than a century log construction continued to be the dominant form of building for most inhabitants of rural western Virginia and the new State of West Virginia, at least until the late 1800s century when the completion of railroads into the mountainous interior made milled lumber an affordable option. Wooden balloon-frame construction then rendered log obsolete in more populous areas.
The Rustic Style
On the heels of the demise of log construction, however, came a glowing appreciation for the form. Log became fashionable, and where timber had often been sheathed under clapboard, exposed logs in rough and rounded form grew trendy, particularly among the new elite.
Bruce D. Bomberger in The Preservation and Repair of Historic Log Buildings described the phenomena as it occurred across the U.S.
|Rustic porch , Babcock State Park|
The new rustic style fast became part of the landscape of state and federal parks in the U.S., including those in West Virginia, where outstanding log architecture may notably be found at state parks at Babcock, Hawks Nest, Lost River, Holly River, Kumbrabow.
"From the turn of the century through the 1920s," Bomberger writes, "Gustav Stickley and other leaders of the Craftsman Movement promoted exposed log construction. During the 1930s and '40s, the Civilian Conservation Corps (C.C.C.) used log construction extensively in many of the country's Federal and State parks to build cabins, lean-tos, visitor centers, and maintenance and support buildings that are still in service."
Such rustic-homes may now be found throughout West Virginia, deep in the forests and even in suburban neighborhoods. I encounter them often in the outskirts of town and in countless fishing and hunting camps along the state's major streams. Nostalgia for both rustics and originals may even be growing. In a recent interview, cabin designer Vickie Darby confirmed that new luxury log homes are being built with greater frequency, and I think that's good for cabins old and new. The media is also picking up on the log movement here, and the DIY Network now broadcasts a television series, Barnwood Builders, which follows a team of craftsman based in Lewisburg, W.Va., as they salvage barns and timber structures.
So I think it's a good time to be a log cabin in West Virginia. I expect an increased interest in restoration to grow steadily through the years, and I hope log architecture continues to dominate.
Five Log Structure Tips: Part 1
In the second installment of this series concerning log construction, I'll discuss historical building methods and preservation, though for now I'd like to address a number of questions often posed to me and remarks I hear referenced in discussion of log cabins and houses. Please feel free to contact me with any questions you have in addition to these:
|Relocated house, Ravenswood|
Can a house's history be inferred through its construction? It's exciting to consider why builders might have chosen to employ a particular mode of joinery, for instance, but it's best to search for documentation as well. Building methods were often dependent on local traditions, the skill of the builders, the desire of the owner, and the availability of materials.
Rather than replace damaged logs, repair them. According to the National Park Service, this can generally be accomplished at less cost, in less time, and with less possible damage than replacement. Repair also preserves integrity, including tool marks and wood from species no longer obtainable in original dimensions. Repair is usually accomplished by splicing in wood or through epoxies and should only be performed by a craftsman.
Dry the property out. Excessive moisture promotes fungus and insect infestations, so moisture should be dealt with promptly. Repair or install guttering, and grade the ground away from the foundation, especially where fewer than eight inches exist between the sill log and ground. Remove debris and vegetation that prevents air from circulating around the building, and kill and gently remove vines, the tendrils of which may erode daubing.
|Tightly fit half-dovetail|
Briscoe, Frank. "Wood-Destroying Insects." The Old-House Journal. Vol. XIX, No. 2 (March/April 1991), pp. 3439.
Caron, Peter. "Jacking Techniques for Log Buildings." Association for Preservation Technology Bulletin. Special Issue: Alberta Culture. Vol. XX, No. 4 (1988), pp. 4254.
Cotton, J. Randall. "Log Houses in America." The Old-House Journal. Vol. XVIII, No. 1 (January/February 1990), pp. 37-44.
Elbert, Duane E., and Keith A. Sculle. Log Buildings in Illinois: Their Interpretation and Preservation. Illinois Preservation Series: Number 3. Springfield, IL: Illinois Department of Conservation, Division of Historic Sites, 1982.
Goodall, Harrison. "Log Crown Repair and Selective Replacement Using Epoxy and Fiberglass Reinforcing Rebars: Lamar Barn, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming." Preservation Tech Notes, Exterior Woodwork Number 3. Washington, D.C.: Preservation Assistance Division, National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, 1989.
|Log beneath clapboard, Roane County|
Hutslar, Donald A. The Architecture of Migration: Log Construction in the Ohio Country, 17501850. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1986.
____________. Log Cabin Restoration: Guidelines for the Historical Society. American Association for State and Local History Technical Leaflet 74. History News. Vol. 29, No. 5, May 1974.
Jordan, Terry G. American Log Buildings: An Old World Heritage. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1985.
Kaiser, Harvey H. Great Camps of the Adirondacks. Boston: David R. Godine Publisher, Inc., 1986.
|Me at a cabin near Maben|
Rowell, R.M., J.M. Black, L.R. Gjovik, and W.C. Feist. Protecting Log Cabins from Decay. U.S.D.A. Forest Service Products Laboratory, General Technical Report, FPL11. Madison, WI: Forest Products Laboratory, Forest Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1977.
St. George, R.A. Protecting Log Cabins, Rustic Work and Unseasoned Wood from Injurious Insects in the Eastern United States. Farmer's Bulletin No. 2104, United States Department of Agriculture. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1962 (Rev. 1970).
Tweed, William C., Laura E. Soulliere, and Henry G. Law. National Park Service Rustic Architecture: 1916-1942. San Francisco, CA: Division of Cultural Resource Management, Western Regional Office, National Park Service, February 1977.
Wilson, Mary. Log Cabin Studies. Cultural Resources Report No. 9. Ogden, UT: United States Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, 1984.
|Goddard home, Alderson, fashioned from three cabins|
Should you have questions about the sale, purchase, or preservation of historic property in West Virginia, please feel free to reach out to me by phone at 304-575-7390 or by email through Foxfire Realty. If I can't answer your questions, at least one of my many informed colleagues should be able to help.