Log cabins are more than just physical structures. They conjure romantic notions of the pioneering days of American history, when men and women were virtually self-sufficient providers of their need. Most of the original cabins in the Northeast rotted away long ago, symbolizing the end of that era. Much of the knowledge, the secrets of those skilled cabin makers, have been forgotten as well.
Twenty-two year old carpenter Doug Haver, of Madison, has been rediscovering many of those skills, rebuilding a 200-year-old cabin that was made by one of his ancestors seven generations ago. The 20' by 18' structure was moved from its original site in Pennsylvania to Madison earlier in the year by Doug and his older brother Rich, the owner of the cabin. To get the now handsome looking building here, the brothers first has to dismantle it piece by rotted piece, using their hands and machinery. Then they loaded it onto a flatbed, and had it driven to its pine nestled site in Madison.
Madison was chosen as the new location because Doug likes working and living in the area and intends to stay, and also because Rich, an advertising salesman in New York, enjoys skiing in the Valley and he wanted a second home. Furthermore, the Mt. Washington Valley is closer to his New York home than is the cabin's former site in the coal mining country of southwestern Pennsylvania.
Why bother to have a log cabin in the first place? Doug explained that the brothers enjoyed rebuilding their parents' log vacation home in Pennsylvania, which they had restored in 1975 as a family project. They learned as they built, making a few mistakes while acquiring skills once common among frontiersmen, but since lost over the years. Doug mentioned to Rich that he'd like to build another cabin, Rich said that he'd like one as a second home, and they both asked their father to keep an eye out for a reasonably priced cabin.
More antique log cabins still stand in Doug's native Pennsylvania than are left in the Northeast because they were made of hardwood such as oak, rather that the more easily workable pine which was used in the northern regions. Oak was harder to cut but it also was more durable, and many of the cabins hewn from it have survived. Many are still occupied, though they are often unrecognizable due to additions and clapboard coverings.
While all original log cabins are ties with the frontier past, the house that Doug's father found for the brothers turned out to be an even closer historical link to their own family's lineage. The connection was discovered by coincidence after the brothers had already purchased the then dilapidated building for the asking price of $500. Putting together the names found on tombstones behind the house's sight with historical documents, the Havers learned that the skill builder of the house was a Revolutionary War hero, farmer, housebuilder, and most importantly, a father, name John Villiers.
Villier's daughter married a George Haver in 1802, and then moved into a new house. By second coincidence, that new house, built by Villiers and Haver, is the same structure that was restored by Doug Haver and the rest of his family in 1975. Thus, 200 years and many generations later, both of the oak hewn cabins are back in family ownership.
While stirring some mortar to slap onto the now rebuilt and proud home, Doug corrected a common misnomer often used when speaking about log cabins. "This is a log house, not a log cabin. There's a difference," he remarked, explaining that log houses were intended by their builders to be permanent structures, built with pride as a display of their woodworking skill. They used oak because they were built to last. Unlike the lincoln-log styled pine cabins, the log houses usually used notches which left space between the logs. The Madison house is hewn with V-shaped logs, a style which was said to be good because it allowed rain to flow out of the corner joint, thus avoiding the rot which accompanied moisture buildup.
Log cabins, on the other hand, were usually built quickly as temporary homes or by poor craftsmen. generally, they were not hewed, and for the most part, they have not survived.
The log house in Madison is nearly completed now after five months of renovation and construction. All of the original logs except for the basic floor support are intact, and the building now has a new roof, kitchen, fireplace, and seven newly cut windows. It hardly resembles the sagging wooden structure depicted in Doug's year-old photographs. Doug remembered the building in its former state. "Parts of it were covered by rotten clapboard, the roof was falling apart, and wasps had built nests between the logs where the chinking had fallen out. The chimney was in especially bad shape - when we went to pull it down on the count of 'Three!', it toppled over on 'One.' Luckily, after working on my parents' house, I could envision what the house would look like with some work. I don't think that I would've been able to touch it otherwise."
A foundation was dug in Madison last spring, and the flatbed arrived with the house logs in June. In keeping with the traditional festive house-raising parties of the pioneers, Doug and Rich invited their friends to the house site on the Fourth of July, fittingly enough. The straight-sided logs were stacked by hand and with the aid of a cherry picker truck, one of the many conveniences used which had been unavailable to settlers such as John Villiers 200 years ago. "We used to joke that old John would probably be turning over in his grave if he knew what we were doing to his house," Doug laughed.
The question of authenticity in tools and design was dealt with a practical attitude, according to Doug. "We used broad axes to hew the notches, and we used other tools such as froes where we could without sacrificing time," he said, fixing fieldstone into the foundation with the mortar. "But we also figured that the settlers would have used the modern power tools if they'd been available to them. Even using them, it's still hard work. You build up plenty of callouses on top of your callouses as it is."
To the purist, the concrete basement itself, with its accompanying bulkhead entrance, would not be acceptable, not would the use of modern cement and insulation between the logs be looked upon favorably. Doug explained that his main concern was to rebuild the structure so it looked authentic yet was also functional for comfortable living, hiding modern additions such as electrical wiring underground and designing the kitchen so that the plumbing and appliances wouldn't be visible from the main room. "We didn't cut any corners, and it cost us more to do it the right way. We used handmade shakes instead of shingles for the roof, we handbuilt the window frames, and the foundation work I'm doing now with the fieldstone will make it look as authentic as possible, while still being practical.
As with their first restoration, Doug and his brother learned as they went along. Often they acted first and asked for advice later. "We more or less did everything backwards in terms of seeking help. but we just did most things right figuring it out," Doug said, adding that there are not many places a builder can go for advice anyway. "We went over to a restored log cabin village in Pennsylvania and we also read a few books, but it was more fun trying by ourselves."
Doug, who first came to the White Mountains to rock climb three years ago, admits to being somewhat of a non-conformist, a quality which he says helps explain his attraction to the difficult log house building task. "A lot of people probably wouldn't like building or living in a house this way, and that realization was part of the attraction for me initially," he said, grinning. "But I also like doing things for myself. It's really exciting now to be able to use old tools the right way, with some skill. It's lonely out here sometimes, but the cabin has a warmth to it, a personality. I sometimes just sit here, thinking of the people who've been here. If only the walls could talk."
Even though the oak floor boards have to be put in along with a number of other jobs left to be done, the young carpenter says that he is already thinking about building another log house, but from scratch. "I learned a lot building this house, just like I did with my parents' place. I figure each time, I'll just keep learning more. I've rebuilt two places now, and I'd like to see if I could make something myself. considering the work involved and the cost, I don't really know why. I guess I just like doing things from beginning to end, knowing that what I build will last."