Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Log Cabins & Log Houses in West Virginia: A Primer

Rustic-era log cabin at Babcock State Park, W.Va.
These days I'm often asked to look at log cabins and houses in West Virginia, which I'm excited to do given the growing enthusiasm for rural living here. Every month I meet someone interested in buying or building or preserving a log structure, and I'm happy to help. Log buildings are not only historical, they seem to fit precisely into the rural landscape of West Virginia.

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 early Germanic settlers in the core area of Pennsylvania and adjacent colonies built large log houses with an almost square, three-room plan and a central chimney (the Continental log house). This pattern persisted as settlement spread westward from the core area to central Pennsylvania and then southward along the forelands and valleys in front of the Appalachian Mountain barrier which loomed to the west. In this secondary core area the Germanic settlers were joined by Scotch-Irish and English pioneers who quickly adopted the log building techniques, which were much simpler than constructing complex hewn frameworks to be covered with laboriously split planks or shingles.

"These settlers from the British Isles, however, modified the shape of the three-room Continental House into the familiar one-room deep linear plan with external chimney that dominated in the Tidewater South. Thus was born the Midland log house, a tradition that was carried across the Appalachians by frontiersmen to become the dominant Pre-Railroad Folk housing over much of the heavily wooded eastern half of the country."

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.

Porches were soon often added to accommodate outdoor living in good weather, and frame additions might be added once sawmills were established to provide cut lumber. Weatherboards then might also have been added to the exterior to provide an additional layer of protection from the elements. In some cases whole frame houses were built around early cabins, or the pens became a single room within a larger house, its existence as cabin sometimes forgotten. Even when clad in boarding, the size and placement of window and door spaces sometimes reveals the presence of an internal cabin.

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
"In the 1870s, wealthy Americans initiated the Great Camp Movement for rustic vacation retreats in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York. Developers such as William Durant, who used natural materials, including wood shingles, stone, and log—often with its bark retained to emphasize the Rustic style—designed comfortable summer houses and lodges that blended with the natural setting. Durant and other creators of the Rustic style drew upon Swiss chalets, traditional Japanese design, and other sources for simple compositions harmonious with nature."

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
What's the difference between a log house and a log cabin? Generally speaking, "cabins" were raised hastily and were often temporary. They were usually built of rounded logs, roughly secured, and often served as first homes for pioneers in the wilderness. The spaces between rounded logs were difficult to weatherize. Log "houses" were more permanent and built of square-hewn logs stacked horizontally and tightly notched. In the early 1900s, houses built of rounded logs became popular as vacation homes in West Virginia and across the U.S., though these were usually designed for permanence.

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.

If you wish to move a log house, move it in one piece rather than disassemble it. In the first place, if it qualifies as historic, it could lose its designation if moved (along with financing for landmarks that might go with it). In the second, log buildings rarely fit back together well once they've been taken apart, and the process of assembly can be far more expensive.

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.

Reading List

Tightly fit half-dovetail
For more information on methods to be employed in preserving historic log structures, I recommend the following provided by the National Park Service in Preservation Brief No. 26: The Preservation and Repair of Historic Log Structures:

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
___________, and Renee Friedman. Log Structures: Preservation and Problem-Solving. Nashville, TN: American Association for State and Local History, 1980.

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
Merrill, William. "Wood Deterioration: Causes, Detection and Prevention." American Association for State and Local History Technical Leaflet 77. History News. Vol. 29, No. 8, August, 1974.

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
For more information

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.