By Dasha Morgan- This past Saturday an interesting and enlightening history of American log cabins was presented by Jennifer Cathey, the Restoration Specialist of the State Historic Preservation office, at the Vance Birthplace in Weaverville.
The log cabin has been a symbol of humble origins since the early 19th century and captures one’s imagination. In fact this architectural form has seen a revival, although these cabins are updated and more comfortable. Cathey showed a slide presentation and discussed many basic characteristics of the early settlers’ log cabins. After the informative presentation the visitors toured the historic and reconstructed log cabins on the Vance property in the picturesque Reems Creek Valley.
From the early 1790s to the late 1830s, the Vance family and eighteen enslaved people lived and worked on this farm, which is open to the public with many examples of early American craftsmanship.
As the early settlers came to this area they needed to build themselves a place of shelter from the elements. There was plentiful old growth timber all around them, thus many frontiersmen built log cabins. The mountains and hillsides are dotted with many examples of these structures. The origins of this type of construction most probably were brought over from the Scandinavian countries and Germany.
Quite naturally, the early pioneers used the tools they had available— axes, gauges, adzes, chisels, mallets, and files, although no nails were available in many areas to help construct home. Many cabins were only temporary residences for one reason or another, not permanent. Sometimes the cabin consisted of only one room with no window—called a Single Pen Log Cabin—possibly with a loft or not. A Double Pen is a cabin with two rooms; multiple pens had more rooms, possibly of unequal size. The Saddlebag plan consists of two adjoining log pens that share a central chimney.
A Saddlebag is often the evolution of a single pen with an end chimney, expanded by adding a second pen onto the chimney end wall. The Dogtrot plan may be seen with variation in many parts of the country. Its covered passageway between pens provide both air circulation and shelter from the heat and in addition guards the separated pens from a spreading fire. All these plan types were typically built in the form of one or one-and-one-half story settlement cabins.
Some of the cabins were only on the ground floor; others two floors with some sort of stairway. At later dates more rooms and a porch could have been added. Sometimes the settlers laid a wood floor with varying size planks; sometimes the floor was just dirt with no foundation. The type of wood used helps to date the cabin. The hewn logs were tightly held together with chinking or daubing, if not, air and light easily came through the logs, creating quite a draft and some visibility. As glass was usually unavailable and the settlers may have wanted some light in a room, a window frame was put in but could be closed with a shutter when needed.
Cathey spoke about the various types of joinery used: saddle notching, “V” notching, half dovetail, full dovetail, and “square” notching secured with pegs or spikes. Most notching methods provide structural integrity, by locking the log ends in place, and give the pen rigidity and stability. She told and showed examples of chinking and daubing a cabin. Wood, stone, rags, paper, red clay, perhaps with some whitening and/or hydrated lime, were all used to fill in the gaps. In the Appalachian area you occasionally see the remnants of old cabin walls which were covered with old newspapers.
There was no uniform treatment of a cabin’s interior. It often depended on the resources of the owner. The room could have an interior finish (paneling) or not. On the Vance property, the kitchen area in the cabin was not finished, but the bedroom was handsomely paneled.
Roof pitch and chimney placement could vary tremendously, as could the presence or absence of a porch or overhang. In most cases wood shingles were the first roof covering used on the earliest 18th and 19th century log houses. Chimneys could be placed in many areas of the cabin, sometimes at one end or the other or both, and other times in the middle of the cabin to allow the fireplace to heat more areas. The danger of a fire, however was omnipresent and always a consideration.
Throughout western North Carolina one can find many styles and shapes of cabins. Some display beautifully restored cabins. At the Penland School of Crafts in Maggie Valley, Dora’s Place was typical of other mid-nineteenth century single-family residences high in the Blue Ridge Mountains. It was originally a double-pen log house (2 room) with dog trot (open area in the center) and gable-end stone chimneys. The walls were covered with old calendars and newspapers. It has been remodeled since and is in use at the school.
Cathey mentioned that the Sherrills Inn in Fairview is at the core a log house and that the Carson House in Marion is a fine example of another early double pen, dog trot log cabin. The original log section of the Carson House was built in 1793 by Colonel John Carson after he fought in the Revolutionary War. Oconaluftee and the Mountain Farm Museum outside Cherokee have a collection of historic log buildings gathered from throughout the Smoky Mountains.Buildings preserved on the site include a house, barn, applehouse, springhouse, and smokehouse.
To learn more about early American history, one must visit these homes and museums. Many American presidents were proud to have had their origins in a cabin. The most famous, of course, is Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president from Kentucky. A model of the original cabin can be seen enshrined within a Neo-Classical Memorial building at the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park in Hodgenville, Kentucky, Andrew Jackson in 1767 was the first president to be born in a cabin on the Crawford plantation in South Carolina. Many other presidents and famous Americans, such as Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, and James Buchanan, were all born in an iconic log cabin. Summer Workshops
The Vance Birthplace State Historic Site, along with the Preservation Society of Asheville and Buncombe County, are offering a series of workshops highlighting the historic buildings that make up the Vance farmstead this summer. On June 8 from 1:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. photographer Jackie Evans is taking a guided photography walk through the picturesque site. So bring a camera to photograph the log buildings and panoramic views.
On June 22 from 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. the site welcomes local wood workers Nate Chambers and Drew Langsner as they demonstrate the production of hand-split shingles (shakes). Mr. Langsner, owner of the former Country Workshops, a woodworking school and store that focused on traditional craftsmanship, and Mr. Chambers of Chambers Woodcraft, will discuss proper wood and tool selection. Then, with the help of experienced instructors, participants will try their hand at the art of shingle making. Registration is needed, with a fee of $40.
The last workshop in the series welcomes Michael Logan from Logan Restoration on Saturday, July 20 from 9:00 a.m. to 12 p.m. The cost is $25. Utilizing the reconstructed 1790s Vance Birthplace State Historic Site, this class will focus on the construction and restoration of windows in an old log cabin. Logan will lead participants through everything from assessment and epoxy repair, to splicing in new wood. With guidance from an experienced professional, guests will gain hands-on experience of these long-time techniques.
For further information go to www.historicsites.nc.gov. and check under events. This former Vance family mountain plantation is at 911 Reems Creek Road in Weaverville 28787. It is open Tuesday – Saturday 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. , closed Sunday, Monday, and most major holidays.
Admission is free.
The five-room log house, reconstructed around original chimneys, and its outbuildings evoke the period from 1795-1840. Vance’s political career as Civil War officer, North Carolina governor, and U.S. senator is traced at the State Historic Site in Weaverville.