Nature Bulletin No. 736-A December 15, 1979
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation
Some historians claim that the log cabin, symbol of pioneer life,
originated from those built by Swedes and Germans who were early
colonists in Delaware and Pennsylvania. However, the first settlers in
Kentucky and north of the Ohio River came from Virginia and the
Carolinas. They all built log cabins differing from the Swedish and
German types which, of course, they had never seen.
I think that log cabins -- like the sod houses built by homesteaders on
the Great Plains -- were born of necessity and expediency. Both were
products of the pioneers' ingenuity and skills in utilizing materials
Many pioneers, having selected the site for a home, quickly built an
openfaced shelter, a 3-sided lean-to having a sloping roof of poles
covered with brush, grasses and clay. It was in such a temporary home
that Thomas Lincoln and his family spent their first winter after
moving from Kentucky to southern Indiana.
The next job was to "get somethin' growin' in a hurry. " So the
undergrowth and small trees were cleared from a patch of ground,
piled around the edges as a fence, and corn, potatoes and garden seeds
were planted between the big trees. To kill those trees and admit more
sunshine, they were girdled: a notch was cut, through the bark and
into the sapwood, entirely around each trunk.
Then the settler went to work, all by himself unless he had a teenage
boy, cutting trees and logs as straight and uniform in size as possible,
in the lengths required for the sides, ends and gables of a cabin --
commonly from 16 to 20 feet long and from 10 to 16 feet wide.
Although many an isolated pioneer had to somehow roll and skid the
logs into place by his own laborious efforts, usually the "raising" was
an occasion, a festive occasion, when every neighbor came to help.
After a rectangular foundation of four big logs had been laid, axmen
were stationed at the corners. When a wall log was rolled to a pair of
them they notched the under side near each end, so that it fitted snugly
upon the ends of the cross logs and, if possible, left little or no space
between itself and the one beneath it.
Ordinarily, after the walls were up and the ridge pole and rafters, or
longitudinal roof poles, had been added, it was the owner's job to
finish a cabin. He had to roof it; cut openings for the door, fireplace
and a window or two; and chink the walls with splints of wood held in
place by clay, moss, or crude lime mortar. Sometimes he laid poles on
top of the walls, from side to side, as the floor of a "loft" or attic where
a "passel of younguns" would sleep.
The roof consisted of clapboards rived from bolts of green oak or ash
with a frow and a mallet. From 3 to 4 feet long and about an inch thick
at the butt, they were laid in courses and held down by poles and
weights. A clay floor, and windows covered with thin deerhides or
greased paper, commonly sufficed until they could be replaced by glass
windows and a puncheon floor -- hewn from small logs of oak or,
preferably, tuliptree -- or a floor of boards from a sawmill.
The wide fireplace, for cooking as well as heating, was frequently of
the primitive "cat and clay" construction difficult to describe without
illustrations. Some, however, were built of or lined with masonry.
Primitive log cabins and methods of building them may be seen at
New Salem State Park in Illinois. Improved double-cabin and two-
story types, with hewn logs, have been restored at Spring Mill State
Park in Indiana.
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Update: June 2012