How to Build a Really Good Log Cabin

IMG_0393Joel McClendon’s cabin, built around 1760, still stands at the head of the creek that bears his name.  Elsewhere in the western parts of North Carolina there are other such homes, many of them built in the 18th century and occupied till the 20th.  They are nothing like the dirt-floored shacks of the early Virginia planters, and not much like the Lincoln-log cabins of our imagination.  Constructed out of the insect-and disease-resistant heartwood of giant trees, squared off with axes , and held together with elaborate dovetail joints, these homes were built to last.

It took four to six men – neighbors or family members – only a few days to build such a cabin.  The first day was spent in felling trees, cutting them to the proper length, squaring them off, and hauling them to the house site, where they would be laid out in proper position for each wall.   Another member of the team would find, fell, and split a tree four or five feet in diameter, the right size for making clapboards for the roof.

On the following day the neighbors would gather to raise the walls.  One man with an ax would stand at each corner, carefully cutting out the dovetail joints for each log, then lifting the log into its position and fitting the joint into the  proper space in the log just below.  After a few rounds of logs were in place, a puncheon floor was laid.  “Puncheons” (below, right) are logs split in half, with the cut faces smoothed off with an ax.  A log chimney was constructed at one end, with an inner wall of stone or clay to separate the fire from the wooden walls.  By the end of the second or third day the roof, IMG_0398chimney, and floor would be in place.

The final day would be spent in leveling the floor, chinking up the gaps in the walls, and  constructing a few simple pieces of furniture.  Then there was a feast.  The women of the neighborhood would bring “pot pies,” consisting of chicken or quail, cured ham, onions and potatoes, seasoned with spices and covered with a pastry crust.  There would be copious quantities of hard cider or brandy, followed by a dance that lasted the entire night.  “And it was not rare to see women, more than forty years of age, cheerfully join in the same dance with the young.”

This account is taken from Journey to the Piedmont Past,  by Kay Moss and others, part of the 18th-Century Backcountry Lifeways Series published by the Schiele Museum of Natural History, Gastonia, North Carolina.

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