Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Log Cabins
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 available.

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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