BY KATHY ROSS
Fourth in a series on the self-sufficiency of Appalachia
There are fewer images more tied to Appalachia than the log cabin, perhaps appropriately so.
It was the kind of structure a family could construct for itself, using the resources at hand, with many an early cabin built using few, if any, nails. The log cabin was ideal for the enterprising worker. It could begin small and be expand as needs grew. The basic ideas behind the log cabin influenced home and barn construction in the mountains even after sawmills made framed houses common.
Not that it was an easy task, building a log barn or cabin. Nor was it a perfect structure, often hot in summer, cold in winter, depending upon a fireplace in winter for heat, and a fire in summer for cooking. But it allowed Haywood County’s early settlers to use the resources they had in an isolated region.
Though many equate log cabins with “early days,” in fact Europeans had been living in the New World for more than a century before that type of housing became common. Though the English and Dutch had built log structures for military forts and garrisons, the log home arrived around 1638, when the Swedish and Finnish people settled in Delaware and Maryland, according to Historical Survey of Log Structures in Southern Appalachia, published by Berea College.
In the early 1700s, Germans arriving in Pennsylvania also brought with them the knowledge of log-home construction, and the Scotts Irish immigrants added to this their knowledge of stone masonry. The English ideas of home design, Swedish and German log construction and Scotts-Irish masonry combined to give mountain settlers the log cabin.
Leveling and Notching
Settlers had two major considerations in choosing a site for their cabin; they needed as level an area as possible — even on mountainsides, builders would find a somewhat level section of the slope for building. And they needed a water source, a good spring, nearby.
Tulip poplars were a favorite for log cabins, according to the late Duane Oliver, a retired professor and local historian who was born in Hazel Creek and lived his last decades in Hazelwood. The poplars were prized for their long, straight trunks and relatively light-weight woods. Other trees used for log cabins included chestnut, oak and spruce.
For the first shelter, the logs were often cut down and notched together without planing, or hewing. If a cabin was improved or built on, and the settlers had time, the logs might be planed on two sides, allowing them to fit together more snugly.
“The first course of logs was laid, as level as possible, on flat foundation rocks,” wrote Oliver in his book, Hazel Creek Then Till Now. “In the earliest cabins, logs were joined at the corners with saddle notches so that they would lock together when laid atop each other.
As the pioneers improved their cabin-making skills and when a second cabin or addition was built, half-dovetail notches that were stronger and longer-lasting came into use. Most cabins were about 16 by 20 feet, or at least all of those still standing in the park are about this size. When the logs were all in place, the cracks between them were chinked or ‘dobbed’ with clay mud to make the cabin as air-tight as possible.
“The roof, laid on saplings or split logs, was of wooden shingles, usually white pine, and rived or split with a broadax or froe.”
Usually the cabins included a loft, reached by a ladder, where the children would sleep. Early windows were covered by shutters attached with wooden or leather hinges, and doors were fastened with a wooden latch attached to a strong or thong.
Many times, Oliver wrote, a floor was not constructed, at least not at first, as the settlers needed to move into their shelters quickly. When time allowed, a floor of split logs would be laid.
The dog-trot design
Sometimes, as the family grew, settlers would build an addition to the cabin. One technique would be to build another cabin eight to 10 feet away from the first, then connect the two with a common roof, creating a “dogtrot” between them.
Many log barns were also built on the “dogtrot” principle, or “double crib.” The double-crib barn, as described by Berea’s Survey, consisted of two cribs separated by a bay or breezeway and covered by a single roof. The doors would face in toward the breezeway or face front. The first floor of double-crib barns would be used for stabling, with the feed stored overhead.
The log technique was also used to build other structures critical for survival, including the corn crib, a barn, and a smoke house. Often the spring house was also built of logs. Many examples of log barns remain in Haywood County, though most are no longer in use. However, the basic dogtrot, or double crib design is still used in many modern barns.
Most chimneys in log cabins were made of fitted field stones. Chimney construction was a skill, for the chimney would need to draw the smoke out of the cabin. A large flat rock would be used for a hearth stone, and the chimney stones would be held together with red clay, which would bake hard with the fires.
Sometimes people would add to the clay mix, to improve its strength. Among those additives were grain chaff, animal hair, rope scraps, even hog’s blood, according to Berea’s Survey.
Many old Haywood cabins and homes can be found with a framed room jutting at right angles to the rest of the structure. Most often these rooms were added-on kitchens, built after sawmills were established.
Fed Messer’s cabin
Life in the log-cabin was captured vividly in 1901 by a writer from the Charlotte Observer, who visited Fed Messer in White Oak. Fed Messer had achieved some fame for having lived in three centuries, being born in 1792. The story of that interview includes a detailed description of Messer’s log cabin, giving an idea of how early Haywood residents constructed their homes with few tools and even fewer nails.
“The home in which Uncle Fed and his daughter, Miss Sue, dwell is not attractive to look upon, nor would it be comfortable to the up-to-date people of this age,” the reporter wrote. “It is a double-roomed log cabin, with walls of hewn logs, which bear the marks of the ax; roof of rough riven boards; floors of heavy loose planks and chimneys of rock gathered from the hill sides and the streams.
“The building, which is in two sections and used for bedroom and kitchen, has become dilapidated and weather-beaten. … The doors of the building are hung on with hickory thongs. Hinges and staples were unknown to the architect of that house. The chinks between the walls were filled with clay and straw in earlier years, but most of them are open now. The wind rushes in and out as if it were tearing through a latticed barn.”
Houses in early Haywood County history varied, depending upon the resources of the landowner and the proximity to town. Homes in the county seat of Waynesville could be framed, but many early houses in the country were log cabins. A few were both. The Shook House, for example, in Clyde, believed to be the oldest standing frame-built house in Western North Carolina, was constructed around an original log cabin.
Many Haywood families still lived in log homes until the early 1920s. Mary Ann Sorrells, then 92, described growing up in a log cabin on Beaverdam, in a 2001 interview. She, four siblings and her parents all lived in a log cabin with one main room, a kitchen built onto the side, and a loft. The walls were chinked with mud and papered on the inside with paper from the Champion mill. Her four brothers slept in the lofts while Annie and her parents slept downstairs.
“We didn’t know nothing about a bathroom, she said. “And if you had a bath, you had to take it in a tin tub.”
“To get all of the necessities and a few of the luxuries of life into one or two rooms and a sleeping loft was a situation that did not leave much open floor or wall space,” Duane Oliver wrote. “Cabins were furnished simply from necessity, but they were not bare. Every home had heavy homemade tables, stools, chairs, chests, benches, cupboards, beds and shelves, not to mention a large loom, at least one spinning wheel, crocks, barrels, baskets and jugs.”
In addition to the items already mentioned, the cabin contained a wealth of smaller things. Candles were made by some of the first settlers from tallow and bees wax, a time-consuming operation, and the basic ingredients were not always available. Ready to hand and much more used were pine knots which provided a bright but smoky light. As soon as they were available at the end of the century, everyone bought kerosene (coal) oil lamps, and many Hazel Creek families used these until they left in 1944.
“Cabins were full of other things, too, many of them made on the homestead; quilts, coverlets, bedclothes … dishes of tin and wood for much of the century, crocks and barrels for pickling and storage, containers made from dried gourds and hollow gum trees, a water bucket with a gourd dipper … buckets and baskets for picking berries and holding such “dry” things were made by the settlers from wide sheets of bark stripped from trees with a knife, carefully bent to the desired shape and held together with vines or thinner strips of bark.”
“Nowhere are log structures more prevalent than in the mountains of Appalachia,” states the Historic Survey of Log Structures. “They have retained their regional integrity and serve to distinguish Appalachia from other regions of the country. Scholars, historians and others are recognizing the need to study and preserve these vanishing architectural remains of American pioneer life.”
Sources for this story include: “Historical Survey of Log Structures in Southern Appalachia,” published by Berea College of Kentucky. (Special thanks to the college’s Department of Appalachian Studies for providing a copy when it could not be accessed online); “Hazel Creek from Then Till Now” by Duane Oliver, published 1989; and “Recalling a hard life but a good one” by Kathy Ross, The Enterprise Mountaineer, Aug. 3, 2001.