His­tory Les­son

Novice cabin builders de­scend on James Madi­son’s Montpelier es­tate to try their hand at cre­at­ing a his­tor­i­cally de­signed Ap­palachian-style cabin.

Cabin Living - - Contents - CBC

Novice cabin builders de­scend on James Madi­son’s Montpelier es­tate to try their hand at cre­at­ing a his­tor­i­cally de­signed Ap­palachian-style cabin.

Many cabin en­thu­si­asts love the look of his­toric cabin struc­tures. But what about ac­tu­ally cre­at­ing one? That’s what par­tic­i­pants in a new of­fer­ing from Montpelier’s LEARN (Lo­cate, Ex­ca­vate, An­a­lyze, Re­store, Net­work) pro­gram were able to ac­com­plish dur­ing a week­long course on the prop­erty this Fe­bru­ary. Par­tic­i­pants paid $1,000 (which in­cluded on-site lodg­ing) to be a part of the recre­ation of field slave quarters that the prop­erty’s ar­chae­ol­ogy depart­ment had ex­ca­vated in 2010.

The depart­ment reg­u­larly hosts arche­ol­ogy pro­grams, which in­volve par­tic­i­pants search­ing for sites with metal de­tec­tors for finds. This was its first foray into more hands-on con­struc­tion. “Craig [Ja­cobs of Sal­vagewrights, con­trac­tor for another restora­tion project on the prop­erty] and I had talked about it when he was there on-site putting to­gether the tim­ber-frame build­ings [as repli­cas of do­mes­tic slave quarters next to the man­sion],” re­calls Dr. Matthew Reeves, di­rec­tor of ar­chae­ol­ogy at Montpelier. “He had seen the types of pro­grams we do, where peo­ple come out for ar­chae­ol­ogy and spend the week. And we talked about how cool it would be if peo­ple came out for a week and learned how to do the kind of tim­ber smithing that they were do­ing. It would be much more than just the hew­ing and the notch­ing; it would be help­ing to bring back a part of our his­tory that’s been lost, and just what a pow­er­ful thing that would be.”

To en­sure the his­tor­i­cal ac­cu­racy of the build­ing, Montpelier’s ar­chae­ol­ogy depart­ment sought the as­sis­tance of Wil­lie Gra­ham, the lead his­tor­i­cal ar­chi­tect at Colo­nial Wil­liams­burg, and other area ex­perts from Wil­liams­burg and Mon­ti­cello for ar­chi­tec­tural in­for­ma­tion. Gra­ham com­piled the draw­ings and his­tory for the ap­prox­i­mately two-room 345-square­foot struc­ture, with a hearth on each side. It’s likely that each room housed a fam­ily, with a pos­si­ble loft over­head.

Par­tic­i­pants learned the craft and

tech­niques from Ja­cobs. Ja­cobs’ team at Orange, Vir­ginia-based Sal­vagewrights — a company that spe­cial­izes in re­assem­bly and his­tor­i­cal ma­te­ri­als — felled the short­leaf yel­low pine logs and de­liv­ered the wood to the site, where the par­tic­i­pants then pro­ceeded to cut and fin­ish them us­ing mostly tra­di­tional tools. (A chain­saw did help pro­vide some nec­es­sary short­cuts.)

First, to cre­ate a square log, the log was placed with the crown up to mea­sure the di­am­e­ter, and sub­se­quently mark the cen­ter and sides. (In this case, the logs were roughly 7 inches in di­am­e­ter, so those mark­ing would note the cen­ter, as well as 3.5 inches to the left or right of it.) They would then mark th­ese lines down the length of the log with chalk.

With a chain­saw, they scored sec­tions, us­ing the chalk line as a base depth for each notch. They would then take an axe and chop away the sec­tions — a tech­nique re­ferred to as jug­gling — which would cre­ate two rough-hewn sides. The log would then be turned on its side, and us­ing log dogs to hold the log in place, the par­tic­i­pants would hand-hewn the log more finely with an axe.

Each log weighed about 350 to 500 pounds. Though the lower cour­ses were set by hand, a fork­lift was used to help set more el­e­vated ones. Once set, the par­tic­i­pants would go through the process of mark­ing up the V-notched cor­ners.

“There were three things I wanted the stu­dents to take away with them: the skills to build the struc­ture, a feel­ing of the quarters them­selves and a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of the skills of the slaves to cre­ate th­ese struc­tures,” Ja­cobs states.

Many had the op­por­tu­nity to gain a new per­spec­tive on the con­struc­tion process and the his­tory of the struc­ture (with a few blis­ters along the way). And as a re­sult of their ef­forts, more will be able to ex­pe­ri­ence what this type of cabin would have looked and felt like dur­ing that time pe­riod.

“The log struc­ture is pretty much go­ing to look like what a lit­tle log build­ing would like ex­cept it would still have ex­posed rafters and no chink­ing or dob be­tween the logs,” Reeves ex­plains. “But you will be able to walk into the log struc­ture and get an idea of the in­te­rior space as well, which is pretty cool.”

The depart­ment hopes to of­fer ad­di­tional cour­ses to cre­ate sim­i­lar quarters and po­ten­tially some of the barns its team also ex­ca­vated at the south yard site.

LEFT AND ABOVE: Par­tic­i­pants simultaneously worked on the var­i­ous tasks re­quired to get the logs prepped for place­ment within the ex­te­rior frame of the cabin, from mark­ing di­am­e­ters to cut­ting them cor­rectly to fin­ish­ing the square faces through age-old tech­niques.


Chain­saws were used on-site to score logs and cut notches into the cor­ner of each log. A cor­ner board helped par­tipi­cants mark

cor­ner mea­sure­ments prop­erly on each course. A slick was used to fine-tune the an­gle and cut of each cor­ner to en­sure the

logs fit snugly to­gether.

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