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What was life like in a log cabin?

ANDY HALLMAN/Ledger photo

Historian Michael Zahs demonstrates how settlers would have used an ax to chop logs during his program “Life in a Log Cabin” Saturday at the Jefferson County Park Nature Center.
ANDY HALLMAN/Ledger photo Historian Michael Zahs demonstrates how settlers would have used an ax to chop logs during his program “Life in a Log Cabin” Saturday at the Jefferson County Park Nature Center.
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Michael Zahs asked the crowd gathered in the Jefferson County Park Nature Center how many of them had been in a log cabin. Most of the room raised their hand.

“None of you have,” he said, bursting their bubble. “I don’t know of a single log cabin in Iowa.”

It was a shocking revelation for the 30 or so people who had come to the nature center Saturday morning to hear Zahs’s program “Life in a Log Cabin.” Zahs is a former history teacher who has spent his retirement collecting historical artifacts. What could he mean there are no log cabins in Iowa?

Zahs explained that a log “cabin” was a temporary structure meant to last only a couple of years. The bark was left on the logs, and no siding was put overtop. The more permanent structures settlers lived in were more properly referred to as log “buildings,” which were sided. However, that distinction has been lost over time, and the term “cabin” has come to be used for any small structure made of logs.

Earliest structures

Native Americans did not build with logs because they lacked axes sharp enough to cut them efficiently. Zahs could tell several people looked puzzled after he said this. Haven’t archeologists found Native American axes? Yes, but these were used to chop bark off the tree, not to cut the tree down.

The first people to build with logs on the continent were Swedish settlers in the early 1600s. Zahs said Norwegians were good log-builders, but the Bohemians were most skilled of all. He said this is because of the dovetail notches the Bohemians cut into the logs so they interlocked. Zahs said the English were not as good at cutting notches.

It’s hard to know how many log buildings are still standing because the logs have been covered with siding. Zahs mentioned that people of Winneshiek County (Decorah) believed there were two log buildings in the county. A local historian set out to verify that, and found there were in fact 140 such buildings in that county alone.

Getting started

When is a good time of the year to build a log house? Zahs posed this question to the audience, who guessed nearly every month of the year. Some figured spring would be a good time to start because of the long stretch of warm weather in which to build.

However, Zahs said spring is the worst time for cutting trees because they are full of sap. Axes bounce right off. Instead, the best time is to wait until November or December.

Most log houses were either 14 by 16 feet, or 16 by 18 feet. This is because it was hard to find a tree taller than that.

Zahs demonstrated how the settlers cut with an ax. They raised it high and let it fall to earth, not trying to force it down. Zahs said forcing it down would have been too tiring, and there was no one to take your place if you got tired. Log houses were usually built by just a couple of people.

Hardest parts

The most difficult parts of the log house were the door and the roof. The door was difficult because the builder had to create a frame to prevent the structure from collapsing after the door was cut from it. Not only that, but there was no metal on the frontier to use for hinges, and wooden hinges didn’t last.

Zahs said some people lived in their log houses for years with no door at all, or oftentimes covered only by a quilt. Houses were built facing south to minimize the bitter cold that entered them from nasty northerly winds. In the winter, all the settler’s livestock crowded into the house at night not just to keep warm but also for protection from predators.

“It would have been really nice to snuggle up to a milk cow on a 20-below day,” Zahs remarked.

Shingles were an important piece of the house, but they had to be seasoned for a year or two before they could be installed. Zahs demonstrated how shingles were made. A tool known as a froe, a 10-inch blade attached at a 90 degree handle of roughly the same length, was inserted into a log. The builder would repeatedly strike the head of the froe with a hammer, cutting away a thin piece of the log that would become a shingle.

Shingles performed better the more they were exposed to rain because the water caused them to expand, creating a better seal. Zahs said people of the era remarked, without any humor intended, “Our roof is so good it only leaks when it rains.”

Fireplace

A functioning fireplace was the difference between life and death on the frontier. But how can we start a fire without the whole house burning down? This was a major problem for early settlers.

Chimneys were built just outside the house from a mixture of wood and clay. However, wet clay melts and dry clay flakes. That meant the clay had to be replaced constantly to insulate the wood from the fire. Chimney fires were such a hazard that settlers kept a long pole outside their home. If the chimney caught fire, the settler used the pole to push it over so it wouldn’t burn the whole house down.

Life

Zahs talked about what life was like for people who inhabited log houses. Early spring was the worst time of year because the settlers were running out of their rations meant to last all winter. Zahs mentioned that skirmishes between settlers and Native Americans tended to occur during this time when food was scarce.

Zahs asked members of the audience to raise their hand if they were born between November and February.

“You probably would not have survived,” he said, noting that infants could not be kept warm enough over the winter.

Pioneers who survived the winter counted their blessings. They weren’t picky about what they ate or what they smelled like. Zahs said most people did not bathe from October through April.

“It wouldn’t be so bad if you weren’t the only one,” he joked.