Growing up in the northwoods, there are many cabins stored in my memory. The “our cabin” on Vermilion, the Priesthouse, our shack at Dam Seven Flowage, my grandfather’s cabin in the same place – which preceded it (where my mother was born), the cabin at Big Noise – built of perfectly matched cedar logs, the “Cedar Chest” built palisade style, at Wilson Lake, and Cy Young’s cabin on Wilson, built by my great-great-grandfather.
Every log cabin builder settles on a style. Mine is pretty mundane. It used to be known as the saddle notch. Chinkless, with scribed notches, using a caliper with a level attached and a Norwegian scribe to ensure the logs met. I’ve seen log cabins in other parts of the country – the most recent in Florida this winter. The builder was quoted as stating he never felt comfortable in a dwelling where you couldn’t throw a cat through the cracks. Interesting concept, but a bit foreign to anyone who’s lived through a Northwoods winter. I suppose in warmer climes – the breeze would be nice.
Great-grandfather Morris used a triangular notch. Easier make and sheds water best – keeping the notches dry.
The best log builders, in our area at least, were always the Finns. I was surprised to find that my great grandfather had paid two Finns to build the homestead. Having seen the quality of his log cabin work, it was odd to think he found the Finns work to be superior.
My grandfather spoke of sawing the floor boards and roof boards of the homestead. They were 3 inch thick, by 18 to 24 inches wide – though not symmetrical. One board might be 18 inches wide on one end – and 24 inches wide on the other. They were pit sawn. I’ve done some pit sawing, and it is a terrible job – especially if you’re the man in the pit!
Once the floor boards were in place, they were nailed down on the ends. The heads of the nails were left up – a danger to anyone in stocking feet. After three years, when the boards had seasoned, they were taken up and carefully hand planed on the face and also on the edges – so no cracks remained between the floor boards. Nothing was ever varnished or painted in the homestead, but the floors and walls were a beautiful honey color – from the virgin white pine used in construction.
The rooms were spartan. There were no doors, just strategically placed drapes, probably old blankets. The kitchen was large, and the parlor was larger, and an old photo shows all the guns hung on pegs – filling one wall. There was an old musket that may have been in the Revolution, or the War of 1812, the Enfield caplock that Great-Great-Grandpa Girard carried in the Battle of the Crater before Petersburg, great grandpa’s .30 Army Winchester, and Old Esther. There were many other guns as well. With that many boys in the family, there were bound to be guns.
The Morris boys had names like “Abraham Lincoln,” “Thomas Edison,” “Daniel Webster,” “John Wesley,” and “Wesley Whitcomb Riley.” Vivian, the eldest daughter, had her gun too. She was an incredible shot. I once saw her shoot a bear at a 1/4 mile from the top of a fire tower with a 30-30 saddle-ring carbine. Figuring the drop on a bullet from that height takes some doing. She was mad for bear. Claimed you couldn’t bake decently without bear oil.
Also in the homestead parlor was a pump organ. My great-grandfather, a huge man, had hauled it on his back about ten miles. There were no roads – just trails. Every so often the Methodist circuit rider would make his way to the clearing and Dorthea, my great grandmother, would play, while a couple of the kids pumped the organ and everyone sang songs like “Old Hundred.” They were big on music, that crew, and as they grew older every one played an instrument. Some of the songs have lingered, and we sing them still. The songs are almost like a history book, and some go back to the 1500s.
Not sure how spiritual they were at the homestead. The family were Puritans, once – then Methodists after the Great Awakening. I believe great grandfather and great grandmother were Christians, but some of the kids got involved in bootlegging and making moonshine. Some died of alcoholism. Grandfather kind of got rescued by a wily preacher, after he moved out of the woods, who trapped him into teaching Sunday School. It wasn’t too long before the reality of God’s Word touched his heart and I look forward to seeing him again. What a great and wonderful day that will be!
Back to cabins:
Finns usually hew the logs square and dovetail the corners. When I was in grade school, many of my Finnish friends were still living in such dwellings – many of them over 100 years old, and still sound as the day they were built.
Besides the cabins which were homes in our family, there were the “shacks.” Grandfather had the “Hundred Mile Trapline,” once Wild Bill Pemble took off for parts unknown. Every ten miles was a shack. Each shack was on a lake – well not right on it – that’s for summer people, but just off in a stand of woods to protect it from winter winds. Each shack also had a dugout canoe. My great-grandfather and grandfather were experts at dugouts. Though they sometimes made birchbark canoes, they would only last an average of two years – due to the rocky conditions of the rivers – while some of the dugouts still survive.
Grandfather showed me how they would build a dugout. They would shape the exterior, then drill in from the exterior a specified length, 3/4 or even 5/8 inch. They would then shape the interior using an adze, chisels, and finally sand and a brick – to sand it fine. When they reached the depth of the holes they’d drilled – they knew it was time to quit. Once the interior and exterior were shaped, they would fill the dugout with water, heat rocks in a bonfire and, using two antlers they would place the hot rocks in the water – until the water boiled. Once the water was boiling for a time, they would wedge the sides apart – making the canoe wider. This process took five or six boilings to get the shape just right. The process was helped immensely by the advent of the Model T Ford – each one of which came with a handy jack. This jack was helpful when changing tires – and also much easier than using wedges for widening the canoe.
Got off track there a bit. Subject was cabins. Some of my best early memories were waking in the loft and smelling my mother making pancakes on the wood cook stove, or baking bread. She always made good bread, but the bread she baked in the oven of the wood cook stove seemed to have a special taste never matched in a modern kitchen.
I guess there is always some nostalgia when dealing with childhood memories, but the sight of a cabin, viewed from afar while snowshoeing through a blizzardy winters day, or viewed over the heaving gunnels of a storm tossed canoe, always has a special place in my heart. It says, “Come into the Warm!” My mother always had the light on for us.