Log Cabin Days


Back in the old days, shelter was almost everyone’s first need, upon settling on a homestead, that and planting some kind of crop in the ground. A marvelous book called “Texas Log Buildings; A Folk Architecture” differentiates very clearly the difference between a log cabin, and a log house. A cabin was small, dirt-floored and windowless, put up as a temporary shelter, whereas a house was larger, permanent, and carefully constructed; even elaborate. Many such were covered with siding and paint as soon as their owners could afford to do so. Frequently, the temporary cabin was reused as a smoke-house or a stable.

I’d always visualized such houses and cabins built out of rounded logs, like a ‘Lincoln-log’ house, but that method was only used by the relatively unskilled and/or in a tearing hurry. Most Texas log structures were built of timbers which had been roughly shaped on two sides and notched at the ends to make a square corner . . . and were also raised off the ground on corner piers, to prevent rot and termite infestation.

Logs were prepped before construction, either by cutting a shallow straight face on two opposite sides, or slicing a thick plank out of the center of the log. On rare occasions each log would be square-hewn on all four sides; usually only the bottom log and the topmost, which supported the rafters would be squared. Those logs would be the largest; if there was to be a wooden floor, the sills would be mortised, with the floor joists lap-jointed into them. A log house went up, fast once all the timbers had been prepped: the book gives an estimate of two men working two days for a fairly simple, square (single pen) structure, and three men working three days for a more elaborate one.

Roofs were usually constructed with the gable-ends on the sides of a two-slope roof, with pairs of rafters lap-jointed or mortised together at the roof-ridge, at about a 45-degree angle. Long lathes or slats run cross-ways between the rafters. Most log houses were roofed with cut shingles. Attached porches and sheds would usually have a shallower roof line, described as a “witches’ hat” in silhouette.

Doors and windows were cut after construction was completed, neither large nor numerous, since cutting them weakened the structure. The carpenters would set wedges into the spaces between the logs to prevent them sagging, and cut vertically until the desired size was reached. Then a frame of planks would be nailed or pegged into place to stabilize the cut logs. Another reason for having a minimum of windows in many parts of Texas in the early days was the ever-present danger of Indian attacks. A number of houses from that time actually had so-called shooting holes, two or three in each wall. Windows were secured with wooden shutters; before glass was available, oiled paper or thin-scraped oiled rawhide were use.

In all but few houses made from carefully fitted hewn timbers, there was a gap between each log which needed to be filled in order to make the house weather-tight; with thin slats nailed or driven into place, flat pieces of stone and mortar, or clay mixed with animal hair, straw, or moss… or just plain mud. In a house built of logs which had been rough-hewn, bark left on the top and bottom helped the chinking material adhere.

The most common floor-plan was called a “dog-trot” a pair of rooms with a covered breezeway between. When metal stoves had become so widely available, houses were retrofitted with them, and fireplaces removed. Larger windows were cut when cheaper glass became available. Later, many log houses were covered with siding; there being a whiff of poverty attached to living in such. Sometimes it is hard to tell that there is a log house underneath the siding and plaster, the porch added at the front, and the shed kitchen on the back. Armed with knowledge, I am resolved to look very carefully at houses in the very oldest neighborhoods, knowing that there may be a log house there, lurking in the heart of suburbia.