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Today's log homes are often spacious and elegant, but in the 1800s log cabins reflected the hardships of life on the North American frontier.
The roomy log "cabins" we build today are likely to include skylights, whirlpool tubs, and other luxuries. However, for homesteaders settling the American West, log cabins fulfilled more basic needs. Wherever timber was readily available, a log cabin could be built in just a few days using only a few simple tools. No nails were needed. Those early log cabins were sturdy, rainproof, and inexpensive. Some of the first buildings constructed in a colonial frontier were log cabins like the Chicken, Alaska Post Office.
Log cabin construction came to North America in the 1600s when Swedish settlers brought building customs from their home country. Much later, in 1862, the Homestead Act influenced the design of America's log cabins. The Act gave "homesteaders" rights to open land, but required that they cultivate it and build homes at least ten by twelve feet in size, with at least one glass window.
The PBS television series, The Frontier House, documented efforts of three modern American families to build and live in frontier style log cabins. Deprived of modern comforts such as indoor plumbing and kitchen appliances, the families found life harsh and exhausting.
Examples of Log Homes and Cabins
Log cabins are examples of building with local materials. When pioneers encounter trees, they cut them down and built shelter. A log cabin built by homesteaders on the Alaskan frontier would be something to be proud of c. 1900-1930. How might they have constructed it? A frontier style cabin would often have notches cut with an ax on the ends of each log. The homesteaders would then stack the logs and fit the notched ends together at the corners.
The log cabin of poet Robert W. Service (1874-1958) may have been built this way. Called the Bard of the Yukon, in Dawson City, Canada, this retreat was ahead of its time with what today is called a "green roof." The Revolutionary War shelters at Valley Forge in Pennsylvania probably had wooden shingle roofs.
Log Cabin Construction Facts
Do you think you could build and live in a frontier style log cabin? Before you answer, consider these log cabin facts: The frontier style log cabin was introduced to the New World by Swedish settlers in the early 1600s-pioneers who perhaps had lived in cabins in the Swedish Lapland. It used no nails; contained only one room; was only 10 feet wide; measured 12 to 20 feet long; had at least one glass window; included a loft area for sleeping.
To build a frontier style log cabin: lay a rock or stone foundation to keep logs above the damp soil; square off each log; cut notches on the top and bottom of each end; stack the logs and fit the notched ends together at the corners; "chick" (or stuff) sticks and wood chips in the gaps between the logs; fill remaining spaces with mud; cut open a door and at least one window; build a stone fireplace; rake the dirt and gravel floor smooth.
Does this sound too rustic? If you prefer your "cabin" to have all the modern amenities, there are plenty of ways to learn the craft-week-long schools, training videos, and plenty of books have been published by people in the know.
Log Home Affordability
They're not called "cabins" anymore. And they're not made from the timber growing behind your lot. The Log and Timber Home Council of the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) suggests that anyone who can afford to build a home can afford to build a beautiful log home. Here are some of their secrets:
- Choose stock plan "kits" with pre-cut and pre-drilled timber.
- Choose a simple, rectangular design.
- Go small and simple, with an open floor plan.
- Think like a pioneer and build only what you need at first, then add on porches and extras.
- Do the start-up work yourself. "As much as 35% of your budget will go to clearing your home site, excavating a foundation, creating a driveway and installing utilities," claims the NAHB Council.
- Keep the design of the roof simple.
- Choose a builder trained in log home construction.
- 16 Secrets of Affordable Log Home Design! Log and Timber Home Council of the National Association of Home Builders accessed August 13, 2016
- Chicken, Alaska Post Office photo by Arthur D. Chapman and Audrey Bendus at flickr.com
- Frontier Log Cabin, Alaska Homesteaders, photo LC-DIG-ppmsc-02272, Carpenter Coll. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Div. (cropped)
- Photo of man notching log by Thinkstock/Stockbyte/Getty Images (cropped)
- Photo of Robert Serivce cabin by Stephen Krasemann / All Canada Photos / Getty Images
- Photo of cabin at Valley Forge by Aimin Tang / Collection: Photographer's Choice / Getty Images (cropped)
- Photo of Swedish cabin by Cultura Travel/Philip Lee Harvey/Photolibrary Collection/Getty Images (cropped)