The history & intrigue of the Appalachian log home
Thursday, 15 December 2011 15:11
The evocation of the log home incites images of a beautiful blend of past and present. One often envisions the modest, one-room structures of the past as well as the glamorous, awe-inspiring cabins that romanticize the term “vacation home.”
How did the log home of the past, which would most likely never be referred to as glamorous, become what it is today? What is it about log homes that draw people in? And does aesthetic appeal mean staying true to the traditional Appalachian style? Type “Appalachian log cabin” into any search engine and thousands of company Web sites appear, each claiming to recreate the “traditional” look and “rustic” feel of a genuine mountain home.According to an essay printed in the Digital Library of Appalachia, “Historical Survey of Log Structures in Southern Appalachia,” what can now be considered folk art can be traced back to mostly German, Scotch-Irish, English and Scandinavian cultures. This amalgam comprises the very essence of what modern Appalachian culture has become. The first American log homes can be traced back to 1638 in Delaware and Maryland; however, the Appalachian log cabin came from the influence of German and Scandinavian traditions in the 18th century. The masonry can mostly be traced to Scotch-Irish influence, and the design is a nod to the English. Most logs used during that time used would have been chestnut, oak, spruce and poplar.
What really separates the Appalachian log cabin from log cabins across America is the system of notching, what holds the logs in position. According to the essay, saddle or round notching was often used because it was “quick and relatively easy.” Another style is v-notching. “V-notching, characteristic of Pennsylvania German houses, found its way to the Appalachian mountains. Each log is hewn with an inverted V on the edge and on the underside. These fitted tightly together, forming a strong joint.”
While structures like outhouses were usually built in the rough, cabins were structured to be secure against weather and insects. The practice of filling the gaps was known as chinking, and it was done so with a mixture of clay and mud. Large spaces were covered by rocks or extra wood, and then holes and spaces filled with the mixture. This process is unique to old cabins; new structures of today often use concrete.
Restoration Specialist Jennifer Cathey of the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources said that preserving the old log homes of Western North Carolina is an important and growing effort among scholars and builders who have a connection to not only the architecture of the log home but the history.
She said that some restore with a careful eye on historical appropriateness, but plenty will move to modernize, not necessarily with the intent to maintain the older structure’s look.
According to “Historical Survey of Log Structures in Southern Appalachia,” the first homes of early settlers were often temporary, one-room structures used until nicer homes were built. The more elaborate, two-story homes had two rooms separated by a hall and a stairway that led to a long upstairs room, building an English style called “Hall and Parlor.”
“There are countless log houses that date to the earliest settlement period all the way to the late 20th century, as well as many rustic cabins that date to the 1920s and 30s, throughout the mountain region. Although some are abandoned, I’ve seen some small log houses that were adapted many years ago for use as hay or tobacco barns. Some you might not recognize when you see them—the log structures have been covered up by modern materials or additions,” Cathey said.
“Some good examples of well-restored log houses within the region are maintained by museums and historic sites. These include the Robert Cleveland Log House in Wilkesboro, the Vance House at the Vance Birthplace State Historic Site, and the David House at the Mountain Farm Museum in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.”
Notable log barns called “single cribs” were also built, which held livestock, corn or hay. Other buildings on the homestead were blacksmith shops, corn cribs, smoke or meat houses, tool sheds, well houses, wash houses and root cellars.
Public buildings came later as Appalachian communities began to grow. Gristmills, or mills for grinding grain, were erected. An example of one that remains today is Francis Mill, located just outside of Waynesville, N.C.
If the community was prosperous, there would be a one-room schoolhouse.
“Twentieth century log buildings that fit with the rustic revival tradition of log building include the large, three-story Worst Craft Cabin at Penland School, which is now houses offices, bookstore, and dormitory rooms. Penland also has preserved their Weaving Cabin, which was constructed in 1926 to house the school’s weaving program,” Cathey said.
Preserving log homes in Haywood County
Haywood County is not unlike the rest of Western North Carolina in that not even 100 years ago, many if not most of the homes were log structures. But log buildings can deteriorate rapidly without proper care and restoration. Authentic log homes, once the majority, are now rare. Those in good condition are even harder to find. But having the original structure is not only important to some, but it gives a true sense of authenticity.
“It becomes an artifact of Appalachian culture, and a picturesque backdrop for modern activity. Homeowners often adapt log buildings for contemporary living, providing modern conveniences while maintaining the original location and traditional look and feeling of the house,” Cathey said.
Bruce Briggs of the Haywood County Historical and Genealogical Society said that restored structures have been uprooted and moved to businesses; very few have stayed in the same place.
“A lot have been converted,” Briggs said. “If no one’s living in them, and you just let them go, especially the roof, they just cave in. These are not amateur structures; a lot of the cabins today use concrete, not dirt. You have to know what you’re doing.”
Dan Boyd, owner of Boyd Mountain Log Cabins and Tree Farm, is one of those people who works to modernize yet maintain log homes. He searches painstakingly for abandoned cabins and structures to restore and moves them to he and his wife Betsy’s home on Boyd Mountain, near the Great Smoky Mountain Mountains National Park in Haywood County. The cabins are rented out to visitors. All of his current cabins are anywhere from 150 to 200 years old.
Once he obtains and moves them, he restores them and modernizes them by installing kitchens, washer/dryer units, and other modern amenities. They’ve even installed fireplaces, Internet and cable, a far cry away from the modest 400-square-foot, one-room buildings he usually finds that housed entire families with multiple children.
Boyd likes to think about who might have lived in the homes, worked in these buildings and the stories the walls may hold.
“All these cabins have a history, everything from the home to the corn cribs and outhouses; they haven’t been touched for years. Local people and folks from all over the country come stay in the cabins after we’ve furnished them,” he said. “They like the atmosphere it provides. They like the look, the age and patina.”
Renovating homes is a family tradition for Boyd. He said he became interested as a young man from watching his uncle Ben restore log cabins and put them on his vacation site, Pioneer Village resort in Maggie Valley.
Boyd finds his homes all over the South—especially in Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia and Western North Carolina. He said there are differences between log structures in Western North Carolina and the rest of the Southern Appalachians.
“Around here, most cabins were smaller, 20 by 20, one-story, with an outhouse. In Tennessee and Ohio, they built a lot of larger homes, but you hardly see any of those here. It’s amazing how many people could fit in them.”
He also said in Western North Carolina he saw a lot of oak wood used and structures were notched in a dovetail format as opposed to the V-notch style.
A dovetail notch is most elaborate style of notching found in corner timbering. The top edge of the logs has a basic notch angled downward from back to front, and the bottom has a simple notch angled upward from the end, according to “Historical Survey of Log Structures in Southern Appalachia.”
Boyd said he sees very few log structures other than homes, although he pointed out that often the log cabins used as local churches in Haywood County are the originals.
Boyd prefers renovating the old, original structures to building cabins from new.
“Old log structures are getting scarce and expensive as time goes by, and the originals are getting harder and harder to find, but the kits and sod cabins just don’t work for me. There’s just a history there,” he said.
“Everybody I knew had a log cabin”
Frank Wood is a lifelong resident of Haywood County who grew up in a log cabin on Hemphill. This was nothing out of the ordinary.
“Back in my day [1930s], 90 percent of the people I knew grew up in log buildings,” he said. “Everybody I knew had a log cabin or knew someone who had a log cabin.”
Wood taught himself to build log cabins “like the old ways,” because it was easy for him and good money.
“Back then we didn’t have big companies or anything like that; we just got together with our chainsaws. I love to build them, all different sizes.”
Wood said he’s built cabins for all types of homeowners, from lifelong residents to people moving in from all over the country. He has built homes all over Haywood County and Asheville, N.C. Once, he even built log homes for prospective buyers who had a beachfront property in Myrtle Beach, S.C.
“If you can believe that, folks even wanted a cabin by the beach,” he said.
He’s also restored cabins he’s found all over the Southern Appalachians, like Boyd. He said he found cabins all over the Cataloochee area of the mountains.
“They were everywhere, just everywhere, back then,” he said. “We’d tear ‘em down and put ‘em back up somewhere else. I helped put two up in Cades Cove, took them from being an eyesore to looking nice. Some of those cabins had been sitting there since the 1830s. We set them up for people to look at them.”
Wood said that about 25 years ago he started noticing that people wanted a different type of log home, straying away from the traditional style he built earlier in his career. A lot of people moved in from out of town and didn’t necessarily like the look of the older type of log homes. Homeowners wanted a look that strayed from the simple style he saw in his youth in favor of elaborate homes made out of non-indigenous wood and materials and construction that would have never been used in the 1800s or even 80 years ago.
But Wood doesn’t think the more elaborate and modernized homes are necessarily an improvement.
“The old logs, they were much prettier,” he said. “The homes built today, well, to me, they just aren’t the same.”
The future of log homes
Whether or not historical value is important, log homes maintain their part as not only an important piece of folk art but also a wildly popular home choice in the mountains. According to the National Association of Home Builders, while log homes are still a common style for a vacation home, the majority are built as primary residences. Log homes are even touted as the “original Green House,” as trees are a renewable resource in construction and less energy to manufacture. Log cabins retain warmth better than drywall, are more energy efficient for the homeowner, and are quieter. Ever hang a picture on wood instead of drywall? It’s much easier.
“I think that a big part of the appeal of a log house or cabin is that they are literally made by hand and out of native materials. By working on or living in a log building, one might feel a direct connection to those who built it or lived there long ago. Because they are handmade and such a common housing form in the region, log buildings have become very symbolic of early 18th and 19th century settlers and folkways in Appalachia. Those who choose to reuse, restore, or live in a log building often want to connect to that history,” Cathey said.
But there’s a simpler, more tangible reason: “People just like them because they’re warm and inviting,” Boyd said.
Given their long and rich history throughout the Appalachians, that appears to be case.