Building of a Log Cabin in Ohio County, WV

This description of building a log cabin appears in chapter three, Life Among the Early Settlers, in The Story of Wheeling City and Ohio County, West Virginia and Representative Citizens published in our American County Histories: West Virginia collection.

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Building of the Log Cabin

In the early history of Ohio County, an important and interesting event was the building of the log cabin. A certain day was set apart for the accomplishment of the undertaking, and the settlers for miles around were notified of the time and place at which they were to assemble and assist in its construction, which invitation was always responded to by them with alacrity. Upon arriving at the scene of the cabin’s intended location, they chose an experienced individual who was styled the “captain,” and who assigned to each his respective duties. Four of the most active and expert men in the use of the axe were chosen as corner men, who were required to clear the site, square it and place a large rock at each corner to build upon, after being properly leveled, then saddle and notch with precision the logs in finished and complete order.

The “captain” would then assign a number of men to select from the trees, near the site as possible, the largest growth, straight grained white oak for clapboards, which they were to fell and to crosscut into proper lengths. Then to split the cuts into square bolts and then to rive or split them.

Another set of men was required to provide puncheons for floors, doors, windows and chimney-corner jambs, out of such timber as was best suited for that purpose, such as oak, chestnut or ash, which made good floors when spotted on the underside at the ends out of the wind, and rested on sleepers placed at regular distances apart, with the upper straight and well dressed. These, when top-dressed by a competent adzman, made an excellent substitute for plank, which at that early day could not be obtained for the reason that there were no sawmills.

The “captain” would then send out a detail to cull out near the site suitable standing trees and fell them and chop them off at proper lengths for the proposed building, with teamsters to haul them in as they were logged off by dragging them on the ground by a chain with a hook at one end of the log. Other teamsters provided with rough wooden sleds hauled in the clapboards, puncheons and such other materials as would be required in the completion of the structure.

Log Cabin

Log Cabin

Other preliminaries having been arranged, the “captain” would take his position and make proclamation to the remainder of his forces, directing them immediately to prepare smooth skids, the necessary number of forks with grapevine or hickory withes around the prongs and two or three strong cross sticks inserted through holes bored in the lower ends to give hand holds to push by, and also to provide a sufficient number of hand-spikes of tough, small, round dogwood, hickory or ironwood some four feet long with ends shaved smooth, to be used by the men to bear up the logs while passing them to the corner men or to the foot of the skids, as might be required. Then no one but the “captain” was to give any directions relating to the further progress of the building; as each log was hauled to the spot he with a glance of his eye or an inclination of his head would make the necessary directions, and by his order the log would be conveyed to the corner men upon hand-spikes with sturdy men at the ends walking on both sides of the log bearing it up to its destination; then the second log was brought forward in like manner, each being placed after being spotted flat on the underside so as to rest level on the cornerstones as the end logs of the building would be equidistant apart between the ends, then the ends would be prepared by the corner men with what was familiarly known as the “saddle,” which consisted in this: the expert corner man would bevel off at an angle of about 45 degrees each side of the ends of the log, the two bevels meeting at a point on the top center of the log presenting an end view of the upper half of the log.

This preparation was to receive the transverse logs notched at each end and so as to nicely fit over the saddles. The two logs thus placed and fitted, the “captain” would select the two nicest logs being straight for the front and rear bottom logs; being sills, these two logs when in the hands of the corner men would be notched deeper than the other logs, so as not to throw the floor too high from the ground. The corner man at each end of the log would cut their notches so exactly at the same angle and at the same time as to exactly fit their respective saddles and thus make a solid fit and out of wind. This dexterity on their part doubtless gave rise to the aphorism, “He cuts his notches close.”

Log Cabin

The four foundation logs having been notched and saddled and in their places and tested to see if they were square, the next thing-was to cut the slots in the sills to receive the sleepers, which, if prepared by being scotched straight on the upper sides, were cut to right lengths and fitted at the ends so as to rest solidly upon the slots, and to put them in their places, though this was frequently done after the building was raised.

All things being ready for the superstructure. the “captain” with a shrill and emphatic voice selects a log and his forces bear it to the corner men, resting one end of the hand-spikes on the top log already placed, rolling it upon the two saddled logs; it was then fitted and made ready in the proper manner and placed plumb on the wall by a practiced eye aided by the pendulous axe held loosely at tip of the helve between the thumb and forefinger of the experts.

When the routine was continued and the building became too high to reach the handspikes upon the wall, then the skids resting on the ground at the butt ends would be reared up to the corners on the front side, and one end of the structure nearest to the collection of the timber which had been hauled in. The logs are then selected one by one and carried to the foot of the several skids, placed on them and rolled up as far as the men could conveniently reach; and being stanchioned and held the necessary numbered forks were placed under each end of the log inside of the skids with lower ends held firmly down to the ground were by order of the “captain”’ manned at the cross handles at each end of the log and at a given word were slid up the skids by the uniform motive power thus applied to the top, where by the leverage of hand-spikes in the hands of the corner men it would be thrown on top of the already saddled logs and by them rolled to the back wall; the next log in like manner would be shoved up and received by the corner men for the wall upon which the skids rested; these being fitted the two logs intersect as transverse would in like manner be placed on the ends of the last two logs, all being done with exact uniformity and celerity and neatly fitted to their respective places in the wall. If the cabin is intended to be more than one story, at the proper height from the top of the sleepers from the lower floor slots would be prepared for the joists, and if they were on the ground would be fitted in like manner with the sleepers.

Then the building in the routine already described having been carried up to the square, thereupon the two ends of the structure would be raised, the eaves bearers projecting about 20 inches beyond the walls, and notched down and saddled back far enough to receive the timbers hereafter described; when the two ends in front of the building were notched at the upper tips in the shape of a letter V to rest the upper ends of the skids, then the batting pole for the back side of the cabin would be shoved up to the front corner men and rolled to the back eave, and be notched down upon the saddles projecting some fifteen inches beyond the outside plumb of the wall: then the first rib would be sent up to the corner men and rolled back to its proper distance inside of the said batting pole and be notched down so as to give the pitch of the roof from the center of the batting pole to the top surface of the said rib; then the front rib and batting pole would in like manner be sent up and placed in the same order as those in the rear; then the first two gable logs would be placed in notches cut in the ribs, and chamfered at the ends to suit the pitch of the roof, the other ribs and gable logs being placed so as to preserve the intended pitch of the roof; the upper and central one being called the ridge pole is notched down in such a position that a straight-edge would from the center of the batting poles upward touch the upper surfaces of all the ribs and ridge pole respectively at the indicated angles.

Log Cabin

Log Cabin

Then the cabin is ready for the clapboards, which are laid down upon the ribs with lower ends resting against the batting poles, with small spaces between, which are top covered in like manner, so as to break joints, and the eave courses being so laid down, knees out of the hearts of clapboard bolts of proper lengths are prepared at each end resting endwise against the batting poles to hold up the weight poles which are placed upon the two eave courses of clapboards as nearly over the ribs as possible, and in like manner another course of clapboards is on each side laid down abutting the weight poles and being kneed as described. Another weight pole is put in its place to hold down the boards, and so on until the entire cabin is roofed and weighed down as per program.

The forces detailed to furnish material in the early part of the day would, long before the cabin was raised and covered, have finished their several allotments of labor, and have reported themselves ready for further service: they would again be subdivided, and their respective duties under the direction of the “captain” be assigned to them. Some would be employed in cutting out the openings, such as doors, windows, and fireplaces and jambing them up with materials prepared for that purpose, others in laying the floor as already described, others in building the chimney, back and side jambs for the outside fireplace, others in preparing “cat and clay” with which to top out the chimney and to put in stone back wall and fireplace jambs, others in making doors out of long clapboards prepared for such purposes and hanging them on wooden hinges and fixing wooden latches, others in scratching down slightly with a broad-axe the inside walls, and others in chinking and daubing the cabin and filling up the hearth even with the floor, and flagging it with broad, flat stones, if such material was handy, and putting cross sticks in the windows upon which greased paper would be pasted as a substitute for glass.

Upon its completion a general house warming, so called, would be participated in, in the shape of a country dance, together with other innocent amusements, which would often last during the entire night as a prelude to its occupancy by the family.

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