Because Ephraim was settled a long time ago, (in 1853), we are sometimes surprised to discover that there are still some very old log cabins in our little town. With all the modern building going on, who would want such an old dwelling? The answer is MANY people. There are old buildings that have been wonderfully refurbished, as well as brand-new-but-made-to-look-old cabins.
One of the oldest of them all is the Goodletson Cabin, built in 1854! It is now owned by the Ephraim Historical Foundation, and situated on the same property as the Pioneer Schoolhouse. If you haven’t visited this cabin in a long time, you might like to refresh your memory about what it was like to have such tight living quarters. It is a one-room cabin with a loft, and according to family records, 5 children and 2 adults lived there! In fact, (so the story goes), when winter came, they even brought the cow in for the night so the poor animal wouldn’t freeze! Today, many of us have pets in our homes, but a cow? I think not.
Perhaps everyone in this country assumes that log cabins were the first type of permanent dwelling in North America, but that doesn’t mean that our first pioneers invented the concept. In fact, Bill Bryson, in his book At Home, tells us that our first settlers from England built dwellings of dirt, which only lasted 10 years at the most! According to C. A. Weslager, log cabin construction has its roots in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe where trees were abundant. It is thought that the first log structures in Northern Europe were present by the Bronze Age (3500 BC)!
This is logical, because Britain was a land of very little wood, whereas Scandinavia was rich in enormous trees of many kinds.
Of course, in hotter climates, where trees were less plentiful, timber-framed structures were built. Skins and hides were stretched across each side to create a wall. Although this method certainly created a house of sorts, it had very little to recommend it as far as insulation against cold temperatures, and cold weather was a primary consideration…not just in Scandinavia, but in Ephraim!
Weslager goes on to tell us that the very first log structures were called “pirtti,” meaning a small cabin of round logs with a gabled roof, and an opening in the roof to vent smoke. With no windows, the smoke that accumulated within the cabin must have been hard to bear. Before window glass was available, many people created window openings, and covered them with lockable shutters. Fresh air was a desirable luxury.
Possibly the first cabins were simply stacked tree trunks, one on top of another, with overlapping logs at each corner. As time went on, people became more and more skilled in perfecting the buildings.
They learned that just cutting off the branches of the tree was not enough. It was important to cut the branch very close to the trunk, and then smooth off the area so that it didn’t create a high spot, which would prevent the log from resting closely upon the one below. The earliest builders probably chipped away at the branch’s joints with sharp stones. Imagine how lucky builders are now, to have sandpaper and electric sanders!
Hand hewing logs (creating four sides out of a round log, making them completely flat so that each fit closely upon the next) was a real art. Many men made their living by being master hewers.
When Ephraim’s founding pastor, Rev. Andreas Iverson, built his house on Moravia Street, he employed a man from Fish Creek to hew the logs. However, the small congregation thought that Iverson should have a “grander” house than a mere log cabin. They knew it would not just be the pastor’s dwelling, but it would have to be large enough to hold their church services until they were able to afford to build a real church. Iverson sailed across the bay to purchase lumber for siding, as there was not yet a lumber mill nearby. Numerous local homes have at least one exposed log wall within them, evidence of a bygone day.
Since the round logs never fit perfectly close to each other, spaces were created which allowed the warm air to go out, and the cold air to come in…along with bugs and/or snakes. The early builders began to fill the openings between the logs with dirt, then pebbles, then a combination of the two. Later they began to use moss and dead leaves. This filler is called chinking and over time, many substances have been developed for use in this way. Lately, you may notice that the chinking looks like mortar or cement, and sometimes it is. After several decades have passed, the chinking has to be redone, in order to be sturdy and impervious to both weather and critters.
We know that both round and hewn logs were used in cabins, and there were several methods of creating the ends where the logs joined one another at the corners of the house. At first, the logs were simply laid upon one another, and the ends could be uneven. Later, especially with hewn logs, notches were cut at the outer ends so that the logs would neatly fit into one another. If your children have played with Lincoln Logs, you’ll know that they have notches at the ends.
Believe it or not, most log cabins were…and are… built without the use of nails! Sometimes they used dowel rods for stabilization, and sometimes they were constructed over flat stones for further stability, and lately, full foundations are often poured. Since a log cabin compresses slightly as it settles, over a few months or years, any nails used would soon be torn out. The lack of nails means that a cabin can be taken apart, moved to another location, and rebuilt without damage to the building. We have seen this happen numerous times in Ephraim. The Svalhus at the Ephraim Historical Foundation is a good example of a cabin being moved from one part of Ephraim to another.
The next time you enter a log cabin, think about the skill that was involved to create it, and all without modern conveniences. The pioneers were sturdy, hardy, creative people!