Showcase the Timeless Beauty of Hand Hewn Logs
Do you have clients who love the rustic and historical appeal of reclaimed hand hewn wood? If so, a reclaimed heritage log cabin may be worth considering.
Distinguished Boards and Beams has a revolving inventory of authentic reclaimed historic log cabins built from hand hewn logs by early American craftsmen. Incorporating one of these aesthetically rich structures into your project is a truly unique experience, as your daily life becomes linked to a genuine piece of American history. We have seen historic cabins restored as entire wings of or additions to luxury residences or even reassembled and featured as part of the architectural design inside a Twitter office building. Our experienced eyes for quality and skills in proper disassembly and reassembly ensure that your hand hewn cabin will last for many more generations to enjoy.
Own a Piece of History: Currently in Our Inventory — The Old Hill Place
We currently have in in our inventory a particularly distinctive set of hand hewn chestnut historic cabins, known collectively as The Old Hill Place. Built in the early 1790s for wealthy landowners on Kentucky frontier, The Old Hill Place was considered one of the finest and largest log homes in the region. Its hand hewn, cathedral notched character tells a documented story of fine craftsmanship and 18th Century life. We are currently offering a unique opportunity to see this gem in person, as it has been professionally reassembled at our facility in Carbondale, Colorado.
Finding antique cabins of this caliber is extremely rare, and it is even rarer to find owners willing to sell the original structures for restoration and reuse. In the case of The Old Hill Place, which was hidden on a country road, only locals and historians knew of its existence until very recently.
The rare set includes both a 3-story, 2160 square foot main home and a 2-story, 800 square foot kitchen that were originally joined by a dogtrot (breezeway). That is nearly 3000 square feet of space! The main home’s unusual size and quality of construction reveal that it was crafted by professional carpenters and woodworkers. Since the cabins were covered with clapboard in the early 1800s, the original hand hewn Chestnut logs have been extremely well preserved from exposure to the elements.
Each Cabin Possesses a Unique History
Researching the history of heritage cabins is an important part of the reclamation process and allows each cabin's previous lives to become part of a shared future with their new residents. Once again, The Old Hill Place stands out, having inspired historians to document an unusual amount of its story, including copies of the original land-grant documents, maps of the original survey, detailed write-ups by historians, and a newspaper article telling the cabin’s story.
As the newspaper article above states, the main home was built in the William Penn Plan architectural style of a rectangular floor plan with a massive, triangular-shaped central chimney that ventilated every room in the home. The historical architect referenced in the article notes that the only other fireplace he had ever seen with the same design was in the rear portion of George Washington's Mount Vernon residence.
The Old Hill Place's unique architectural features include:
- Well preserved Hand Hewn Chestnut logs.
- Rare William Penn Plan central chimney design.
- 3 full stories.
- 2160 square foot main home.
- 400 square foot kitchen.
- A height of 30 feet at its peak.
- Detailed historical documentation.
Distinguished Boards and Beams’ Cabin Reclamation Process
One must take care in choosing a reputable dealer when considering the purchase of a reclaimed log cabin. While some structures are in remarkable condition, it requires a trained eye to recognize if logs are unacceptable for reuse due to damage or decay. And there are many opportunities for damage to occur throughout the deconstruction, transportation, and reconstruction processes.
Distinguished Boards and Beams takes pride in providing customers with only those cabins composed of well preserved quality materials that have been reclaimed with the highest level of care to maintain their condition. We maintain a network of scouts who are experts at identifying the highest quality hand hewn logs. Our staff also personally oversees the entire reclamation process to ensure that each historic log is preserved and that we leave the original log home site in better condition than we found it.
Our professional reclamation process includes the following crucial steps:
- Locating only the highest quality structures. We select only those buildings whose logs are in outstanding condition so that they may be incorporated safely and beautifully into new projects.
- Authentic Restoration. In the event that any of the logs do need to be replaced, Distinguished Boards and Beams will choose a replacement from our comprehensive inventory.
- Dismantling professionally with expert care. When dismantling historic structures, we take extreme care to preserve the wood and integrity of the original structure. Buildings must be properly braced or they are at risk of collapse, which can damage or break logs. Experienced, professional handling of the logs as they are removed ensures that we maintain each structure’s condition.
- Creating a detailed numbering system for precise reassembly. When historic log buildings were constructed, their builders used a scribing system to mate specific notches to each other. When reassembled, the logs must be re-stacked to perfectly match the original pattern in order to be tight fitting, level, and stable. Distinguished Boards and Beams uses an advanced numbering system to ensure that reassembly is an exact re-creation of the original scribe mates.
Moving and Reassembly
The nature of stacked logs with notched corner joints and nail-free construction had, traditionally in Northern Europe, allowed for log homes to be disassembled and then rebuilt on a new home site. Rotting or damaged logs would be replaced during the move. This was a common practice when entire villages would move their dwellings to a new location. For early American settlers it was usually much more realistic and convenient to simply cut down more trees in their new location and use them to build another home. Transportation and travel were limited by wilderness, and vast forests in almost all directions ensured there would be building materials in the new location. Nails had to be hand-forged, which made them rare and expensive. When nail-construction was used instead of notched corner joints, families would often burn down the house before moving to retrieve all of the nails. Now that disassembling, transporting, and reassembling heavy log cabins is facilitated with the use of machinery, it is common practice to un-stack and re-stack heritage log cabins for use in new projects. The key to this reclamation process is recording the original scribing system that provides a map for mating particular logs with one another when re-stacking.
Are there hand hewn logs hiding in your walls?
In some cases, original structures still on their original sites have had their logs covered with new siding and interior wall paneling, hiding the original structure from view. Distinguished Boards and Beams often hears stories of homeowners who had no idea that beautifully preserved hand hewn logs were hiding under the surface of their historic home’s later additions.
There are also cases in which homeowners are not only unaware of the valuable hand hewn logs hiding beneath layers of drywall or siding, but they actually destroy the logs when tearing down or burning the structure to make room for something new. In fact, a neighboring historic home to The Old Hill Place in Kentucky had such an incident occur. We were informed by a local historian, who was nearly in tears, that he attempted to rescue a barn full of massive and beautiful hand hewn beams by agreeing to carefully dismantle the barn for free in exchange for the timbers. One evening a few days before he was schedule to aid in the disassembly, he looked over the hill to see the 18th century barn burning! All of the hand hewn timbers were destroyed.
Reclaimed Heritage Cabins Integrated into the Modern Landscape
The restoration and creative incorporation of heritage log buildings into new architectural designs has become increasingly popular as architects, contractors, and home owners rediscover the rustic beauty of the hand hewn logs composing these structures still dotting North American landscapes. Architects integrate reclaimed log buildings into new designs that emulate traditional styles while creatively blending into the modern architectural fabric.
Examples of Modern Reclaimed Cabin Integrations
One great example of how two historic reclaimed log cabins were incorporated into the top story of a luxury Breckenridge residence is the Ridge Ranch House by Allen-Guerra Architects. Other creative examples include the Yin-Yang West Residence by JLF & Associates, whose entrance integrates a heritage log cabin, and Miller Architects' Tall Pony Ranch, which incorporates both a reclaimed hand hewn homesteader’s cabin and barn into one Yellowstone Club luxury residence.
History of Log Cabins in America
Log cabins have become an iconic symbol in American history's mystique and folklore. We grow up with images of frontier heroes building them, founding fathers growing up in them, and an enduring dream of escaping to the warm allure of one. Our architecture, literature, art, music, and collective imagination continue to be influenced by this enduring image of home, so much so that one might believe that early American settlers invented the architectural style. While this may not be true, many of their foreign ancestors did.
The history of log buildings in cultures that immigrated to The New World in the early 17th century tells a story that goes back to the Swedes and Finns of the Bronze Age. Even the earliest American settler log cabins were relatively young when considering that the Scandinavian immigrants who had the knowledge and skill to build them were coming from a refined tradition that likely stretched back to around 5500 B.C.
Early American immigrants in need of expedient shelter overwhelmingly chose log homes because they were relatively easy to build and their materials called only for resources that were readily available in The New World. Immigrants whose cultures had long traditions of log construction were the first to introduce the style, well suited to America's vast forests of tall, straight timber. Many of those immigrants with no knowledge of log construction quickly adopted the style for the sake of survival.
New Sweden and the First Log Cabins in the American Colonies
In the early 17th Century, the Swedish Kingdom was considered to be a significant power in Europe and sought to increase its riches and influence by establishing colonies in the New World. In 1638, the first Swedish expedition reached Delaware Bay and began building their first settlement. Peter Minuit, leader of the expedition and former governor of the neighboring Dutch colony, strategically chose the settlement site at the confluence of the Delaware and Brandywine rivers for its trade value. The colony became known as New Sweden, and the first settlers quickly reached out to their homeland for help in acquiring the expertise of Finnish woodsman for the clearing of forests for agriculture and the construction of traditional log buildings.
Finnish Woodsmen and their Legacy of Log Cabin Construction
In Scandinavia, forest dwelling Finns were renowned for their skills in home building and forest clearing—two skills in high demand in the growing New Sweden Colony.
These woodsmen were experts at building sophisticated log structures that had evolved to include square hand hewn logs with double-notch joint systems. The notched joints allowed the logs to be stacked horizontally without the use of wooden pegs or nails (nails in pre-1850s America had to be hand-forged, making them expensive and heavy). Once stacked, the cabins simply needed a rafter system and to be covered with shingled roof. To ensure the building was airtight, clay chinking was used to fill any spaces between logs. Stone chimneys were usually built in one corner (bricks were also rare). If no stones were available, then twigs and clay were used. In New Sweden, glass had to be imported from Europe, so sliding wood shutters were used as windows.
Finnish Land Clearing
Finn livelihoods relied on a traditional agricultural land clearing technique called Burn-Beating. The process involved cutting down forest, burning the timber onsite, and then tilling and farming the enriched soil.
The Lower Swedish Cabin, built in 1640, is one of the earliest surviving examples of a typical New Sweden log home.
Tall, Straight Trees of The New World
With burnable forest and tall, straight trees well-suited for construction becoming scarce in Scandinavia, many Finnish woodsmen willingly volunteered when the Swedish Kingdom began actively seeking recruits to help the New Sweden colonists who were in desperate need of agricultural land clearing and new homes. From 1638 to 1655 roughly 600 Swedes and Finns settled in New Sweden along the Delaware, building small farms and forming settlements. Nearly all of the structures in New Sweden were built with logs, from sheds, barns, homes, trading posts, schoolhouses, and taverns, to churches and the royal governor's two-story home residence.
New York is Born from New Sweden
The Dutch gained control of New Sweden's sovereignty in 1655, but New Sweden residents were allowed to continue as a Swedish Nation and maintain their land holdings. When the English invaded the Delaware River Valley and took all of the Dutch colonies from New England to Virginia, New Sweden assimilated into the New York colony. The English gave all of the existing New Sweden residents land patents, and since few Englishmen immigrated for a time, the Swedes and Finns continued to be the primary residents of the Delaware River.
Quakers Settle en Masse and Adopt Scandinavian Architecture
Swedish and Finnish claims to their land ended in 1682 with the arrival of the English Quakers and William Penn, who claimed the New Sweden land under his charter for Pennsylvania. When the Irish, English, and Welsh Quakers arrived in New Sweden, they quickly adopted the Swedish and Finnish style of log construction as a way to efficiently and cost-effectively build shelters from readily available resources that were well suited to the Pennsylvania climate.
German Quakers Bring Their Own Tradition of Log Construction
German immigrants, drawn by the religious freedom offered by Penn's newly established Pennsylvania Colony, negotiated a tract of land in 1683 that became known as Germantown. Like the Swedes and Finns, these early German settlers brought with them a long tradition of log home building.
The first German settlers are credited with introducing what is known today by vernacular architectural historians as the Continental Plan. This plan includes a single-pen, or single-crib house (a one room house) with three rooms situated around a central fireplace.
Architectural Plans Grow in Diversity
As Swedish, Finnish, and German families migrated west, along with Irish and Scottish families who had adopted their architectural traditions, log buildings became more numerous, expansive, and diverse. Architectural vernacular distinguishes common North American designs:
- The Single-Crib or Single-Pen. A simple, one room house.
- The Continental Plan. A single-pen house with three rooms positioned around a central fireplace.
- The Saddlebag Plan. Two single-pen homes joined by a central chimney. This was also accomplished by adding a new addition to an existing log home, making the exterior chimney interior.
- The Dogtrot Plan. Two single-pens joined by a breezeway.
- Hall, or Parlor Plan. A rectangular single-pen partitioned into two rooms, one larger and one smaller.
Shelter as a Means of Survival on the Western Frontier
Settlers took New Sweden's architectural ideas westward where the immediacy of establishing a home and livelihood on the thresholds of new territories called for homes that utilized the most efficient and effective methods of shelter in each environment. Styles were adopted from local Native Americans included using coverings such as skins and bark on huts and lean-tos. Existing designs were continually modified to blend into each environment. For example, in hostile or colder areas, windows were often omitted for both protection and heat conservation. Since bullets and arrows could not penetrate thick log walls, a window-less cabin could withstand outside attacks. The thick walls were also much better insulators than timber frame houses or animal skins alone.
The Need for Expedient Shelter
The intense and time consuming labor involved in establishing a life on a newly settled piece of frontier land combined with the danger of not having shelter in hostile territories gave pioneers a sense of urgency in constructing shelters. Improving the land was usually the first priority and required a calculated strategy that began in early spring. The first task was to cut down trees to clear the land and provide building materials. Trees were either girdled, or ring-barked (killing a tree by removing a ring of bark), or cut down with an axe. The first timbers harvested were often used to make a temporary lean-to or hut partially dug into a hillside. After fences had been built, animals tended to, and fields planted, a second, more permanent dwelling would be built. This was usually a single-pen cabin ranging from roughly 12 feet square to a 20 by 24 rectangle. The crudest cabins had beaten dirt floors and no fireplace and were replaced after a few years with a more substantial cabin, becoming kitchens, sheds, or outbuildings.
As soon as they were able, settlers would build dwellings with square hewn logs. Squaring with a broad axe made the logs more resistant to the elements by removing outer layers more susceptible to decay. For detailed information on hand hewing techniques see our article, Hand Hewn Timbers. Wood Flooring commonly made of puncheons, or split logs fitted next to each other with the round sides down. Sleeping lofts were incorporated if a roof was high enough. Lofts could also be used for food storage.
One person alone could build a small cabin in one or two weeks. With two or more people to help with the preparation and lifting, the process could be much faster and result in houses that were much taller. A typical building process was as follows:
Felling and Hewing
- Tall, straight trees were felled and dragged to the home site by the builders or work animals
- Logs the builders intended to use from among the felled trees were marked dimensionally
- Logs were scored every 1-2 feet, deeply but just shy of the marked dimensions
- Scored bark and wood was removed, leaving the rough dimensions
- Final hewing was done with a broad axe to create squared level surfaces
- Notches were made on the end of the logs to create the joints
- Large stones were placed under the sill (the first row of logs), especially in the corners to serve as a foundation.
- Log skids were leaned at an angle against the first few stacks.
- Logs were leveraged up the skids and positioned with ropes and forked tools.
- Gaps in the stacks were filled with materials such as clay or moss daubing and stone or stick chinking. Some structures even used rope soaked in hemp oil.
Adding the Roof
- A rafter system was attached and secured with wooden pegs or nails (if available)
- Rafters could be reinforced with horizontal and diagonal beams and braces
- Wooden nailing strips were attached to the rafters with wooden pegs or nails
- Wooden shingles were attached to the nailing strips
- Fireplaces played a central role in the architecture and were essential for heat, cooking, and warmth. They were usually placed on end walls or in corners. In more sophisticated designs such as the Penn Plan, they were placed in central locations to simultaneously heat several rooms at once.
- Traditionally, one door opening was cut after the logs were in place
- Window openings (if any) were also cut after the stacking was complete. Sliding board shutters, animal skins, or semi-translucent greased paper were used for window coverings.
- Lofts for sleeping and food storage were often added to maximize space.
- In larger, more permanent homes, stairs were often added, along with interior finish carpentry around windows and doors.
Temporary Frontier Homes Become More Permanent
The intended permanence of these dwellings can be seen in the quality and attention to detail in their construction. Some structures were meant only to be lived in for a few years before the family moved further westward in search of better land. Sites were often abandoned as the former owners moved on.
Farmers and tradesmen each saw unique opportunity in the west. When farmers found a place they wished to settle more permanently, they often hired professional carpenters and masons who possessed advanced skills and specialized tools. Farmers bartered goods and services or paid in varying currency for the work of a skilled tradesmen.
Revival of Log Buildings
Around the middle of the 19th Century, as the frontier slowly disappeared and new technology saw the advent of manufactured and imported building materials, it seemed that the log cabin would fade away. However, its architecture was revived by the vision of developers for the wealthy, the commitment by the National Parks Service to build with materials that blended into the environment, and the public works programs of The Great Depression.
The First Luxury Log Retreats
By the middle of the 19th century, railroad companies began to see opportunity in promoting the nostalgia of America's log cabin history by creating luxury log cabins as an escape for he rich. While homesteaders in the west continued using log construction for expedient shelter and survival, the affluent in the east began to escape to resorts like the Great Camps in the Adirondacks of New York and the Poconos of Pennsylvania. This symbolized a significant shift in traditional log architecture as resorts and lodges incorporated expansive and lavish designs while still maintaining the rustic appeal of the early American log buildings.
National Parks Chose Architecture that Blended with the Environment
When the first national parks and forests were signed into being during the last quarter of the Nineteenth Century, log architecture was chosen because it blended into the heavily forested natural environment and could be sourced locally. Like the Great Camps, National Park Lodges at once recalled log architecture’s traditional roots and advanced its forms.
One massive example of a National Park log building is the Old Faithful Inn, built in Yellowstone National Park in 1904. It is 185 feet tall with 430 rooms and a total floor space of over 170,000 square feet. Since most of the materials used in its construction were locally sourced, this isolated mammoth structure cost only $140,000 to build!
The Great Depression and Log Public Works Buildings
During the Great Depression, public works programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), facilitated the construction of thousands of log buildings throughout national parks and forests in order to establish sufficient infrastructure to accommodate personnel, guests, and equipment. While millions of young men signed up for the CCC, architects were recruited to create both traditional and innovative log designs that utilized forests’ readily available resources and melded with local environments and harmonized with the Forest Service's philosophy of using natural materials for their building projects. The abundance of public log buildings sprouting up in America’s forests for all to visit caught the eyes and imaginations of the American public and led to a yet another revival of the tradition of log construction, reinforcing the future of modern log architecture.
Thanks to European immigrants who first brought the knowledge of log structures to The New World, the enduring and ever reimagined tradition of log architecture has become as American as baseball, the blues, and apple pie. The modern architectural market’s appreciation for the unmatched character, beauty, and historical value of antique reclaimed wood has created the opportunity to reclaim some of North America’s first hand hewn treasures, such as The Old Hill Place. Whether a modest escape in the woods or a luxury residence in the Yellowstone Club, modern reclaimed log designs provide direct links to another time and another way of life and tell the story of North America’s architectural heritage.
Contact Distinguished Boards and Beams for more information on how you or one of your clients can incorporate a reclaimed log cabin or any of our other reclaimed materials into your project design.