A Short History of the American Log Cabin: An Enduring Architectural Heritage

There is this lingering pop-cultural image of America, which, even if you don’t follow pop culture, you’re likely familiar with. It has a man swinging an axe through frozen air in a snow-covered landscape, the iron biting into the soft wood of a 50-ft tall pine tree growing ramrod straight out of the snow, sending little chunks of softwood flying like embers. The next montage we see is of the all-American hero wading through knee-deep snow carrying a round log on his shoulders, hauling it through the snowstorm to pile it on top of other logs. All this, to build a home for himself and his family, that will keep them warm and protected. 

This home is the American Log Cabin – a cultural and architectural icon of America.

Perhaps you’ve seen Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa do exactly this in preparation for a fight against a barely human, steroid-fed Russian fighter. 

Or you’ve heard the story of how Abraham Lincoln was born in a bare-bones log cabin his father Thomas built with his own hands. That story, now a part of American lore, serves to emphasize the humble origins that Abraham Lincoln rose from. But it is, in fact, a metaphor for the utter Americanness of America itself – in America, anyone can achieve greatness. Even those born in stripped-bare log cabins.

Not just Lincoln, but as many as 7 American presidents were born in log cabins. The first of these Andrew Jackson was born in 1767, and the last, James Garfield in 1831.  Between them came James Polk, Millard Filmore, Franklin Pierce, James Buchannan,  and of course, Abe Lincoln. Together, these 7 are known as the log cabin presidents, a term they all took pride in, for the log cabin was the ultimate symbol of their humble origins, their hard demeanour, and their American .hearts.

The log cabin in Illinois where Abraham Lincoln was born is today a historical site. There are popular children’s toys called Lincoln Logs, that allow children, and even adults to build miniature log cabins with small, notch-fitted pieces of wood. The Lincoln Logs, invented in 1916 by the son of the famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright,  became an instant hit not just with children, but with adults because they struck at a very deeply held association of the American identity with the log cabin.

The log cabin, was, after all, always the humble abode of those two archetypes of America – the settler and the frontiersman. Men with few possessions, but brimming with spirit and resourcefulness,  who took from the American wilderness the one resource it had in abundance – timber – and made out of it homes to live, love, and laugh in.  Men who got off crowded ships from Europe with little but the clothes on their backs, and decided to seek their fortunes in solitary windswept prairies, fearsome primordial forests of 100-ft tall redwood, snow-capped mountains, and unforgiving sunburnt desert. Living off the land, and battling the elements.  Men like the real Thomas Lincoln and the fictional Rocky Balboa, who, though separated by some 200 years in time, are linked by this one enduring American symbol. 

How Did the Log Cabin Come to America?

The log cabin has its roots in Scandinavia, and for a reason. To build a log cabin one needs an abundant supply of tall, straight wooden logs such as Pine and Fir that can be stacked on top of each other.. These were typically found either in northern Europe or in high-altitude regions of temperate latitudes. The pinewood acted as a great insulator, keeping the inside of the cabin warm in sub-arctic temperatures. 

By the 13th century, however, Europe was on the brink of exhausting its timber supplies. Besides housing, pine was in great demand for shipbuilding and for use as fuel in iron and steel foundries, and Europeans had run through pretty much all the pine nature had endowed their land with. 

This desperate appetite for good quality timber in large part, was the reason European powers scrambled to colonize North America. The nearly endless supplies of untouched, first-growth timber in the Northern United States and Southern Canada that had never before been logged was worth its weight in gold for timber-starved Europe. 

To cut, haul, and export timber, Europe sent down its poorest, most destitute men. These men became the earliest colonists. The lives they lived in a new land, on a new continent, were bare, elemental, harsh. There was the constant struggle against the elements of nature, the ever-present threat of hostile natives, the dangers of the wild. 

Against all this, their only defence was timber. 

The colonists built fortresses of timber, and the earliest settlements that came up were made of timber. By day they cut down timber, floated it down raging rivers, and hauled it into ships made of timber to be sent to the homeland starved of timber. 

And then emerged the first log cabins. 

The first colonists to build log cabins were the Scandinavians – Swedes, Danes, Norwegians, and Finns – because the log cabin was how they had lived in their homelands. The British, French, Dutch, and Germans had centuries ago switched to making homes out of brick and stone once they ran out of wood. It was the Scandinavians who still possessed the art and craft of making the log cabin, 

As for the native Americans, they rarely used Pine or other kinds of wood for making houses. Most Indian tribes were nomadic.  Their traditional dwellings were made of wooden poles and buffalo hides, called Teepees, or using grass and mud, in which case they were called Wattle-and-Daub houses. 

The Scandinavians were soon outnumbered by a flood of immigrants from nearly every other country in Western Europe. The competition forced them to move out of the countryside, and into the newly emerging American urban centres, drowning out their ethnic and cultural footprint from rural America.  The more affluent settlers were now also beginning to build houses out of fired clay and brick.

However, in an interesting case of cultural diffusion, while the Scandinavians themselves disappeared from the American countryside and its wilderness, the log cabin remained. Perhaps on account of its practicality and suitability to its environment, it was picked up by other settlers, and it soon became a quintessentially American architectural form.

As the American frontier pushed west and south, the log cabin went with it. The log cabin had every advantage that made it indispensable to the frontier folks. It could be built within a matter of days by one man working alone. A group of men could put one together in a single day. Its construction was simple. Wood had to be chopped and logs stacked one on top of the other. The logs were held in place, not by cement or nails, but by dowel joints, also made of wood. Nails are avoided, as with time, the logs tend to compress under the weight of the logs on top, and any nails driven would either pop out, or come out of alignment. 

This absence of nails or any other chemical binding agent is perhaps the most remarkable feature of the log cabins of this era. This made the log cabin handy for people on the move – it could be assembled and disassembled in little time. It was equally valuable for those who wished to stay put on the land, for the redwoods, oaks, and cedars of America could last for generations. 

Image Courtesy: Owen Wassell on Unsplash

The Modern Era

In 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe published her anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The cabin, of the said uncle Tom, an African-American slave to a White southern planter, was, a log cabin, that Stowe described thus

“The cabin of Uncle Tom, was a small log building, close adjoining to the house, as the negro par excellence designates his master’s dwellings”

Stowe’s novel, and the ideas it represented, spread like fire. It became the second best-selling book of the 19th century, behind only the Bible. It split America down the middle on the question of race and slavery, and 13 years later, America went to war with itself.

When Abraham Lincoln, the President born in a log cabin, met Harriet Beecher Stowe of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, he is said to have famously remarked “Is this the little woman that sparked off the great war?” 

By the time the war ended,, America was beginning to give birth to great cities to which more and more people flocked to live in modern housing made of brick and stone. The log cabin soon began to disappear from the countryside, just as the timber itself was beginning to wear thin. 

The settler conquest of America was complete now.  From coast to coast, railroads and telegraph poles were now being strung across the continent, and the rate of logging reached an unsustainable pace.  It is estimated that between 1830 and 1890, the port of Bangor in Maine had exported more than 8 billion board feet of timber to countries far and away, making it the largest port for shipping timber in the world. The next wave of immigrants – among them the Poles, Italians, the Chinese, the Hindus, and Sikhs from India – all found their first employment, and their first toehold in America in logging timber in this timber-felling madness that had swept America.

By this point, even America, with its seemingly endless reserves of timber was exhausted, and the log cabin, having lived for millennia, having journeyed from Scandinavia to America, finally saw its twilight. 

But not before one final swansong  – the Chateau Montbello, a 211-room hotel in Montebello, Quebec, Canada, built in 1930. The hotel stands to this day and is the largest log cabin structure in the world. It was designed by Viktor Nymark, a Finnish immigrant to Canada, a parting stamp of Scandinavia on the architectural icon it gifted America. 

Today the American log cabin survives mostly as a tourist attraction. Modern American log cabins are a luxury affair, with comforts and amenities of urban housing, glass and fiberglass windows, hot water, bathtubs, the works. The log cabin also lends its name to products that wish to display an Ameican heart, such as the famous Log Cabin Syrup. And it survives in pop-culture, as the enduring, endearing image of the birth of America. 

If you wish to read more about log cabins we suggest the following books: 

The Log Cabin: An American Icon by Alison Hoagland.

Log Cabin Pioneers: Stories, Songs and Sayings by Wayne Erbson.

Featured Image Courtesy Peter Thomas on Unsplash

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s