Wesley Graham family by their single pen log cabin, Monitor Community near Springdale (Washington County), about 1893. From left, Calvin, Hulda, Ervin, Wesley, Callie, Dollie, Nancy, Frankie, and Doss Graham. Willard Graham Collection (S-92-35-2)
The Shiloh Museum of Ozark History located in Springdale, Arkansas regularly offers in-house exhibits on Ozark life. They are known for their extensive photo collection and regularly create online exhibits as well, such as the recent exhibit on Ozark log construction entitled, “Single Pens, Saddlebags, and Dogtrots.”
Log cabins have become a backwoods stereotype. But this style of construction is a highly skilled art form dating back to both German and Swedish log building techniques. European settlers brought these skills with them to the mid Atlantic colonies down through the upland south. When people began moving out of southern Appalachia to the Ozarks in the early 1800s, they brought the log building traditions with them.
Log cabin is a phrase used to refer to any form of log construction, but, “ a true cabin,” reads the exhibit literature, “is made up of single square or rectangular unit called a “pen.” The size of the pen was dependent upon the size of the log two men could comfortably handle, usually between twelve and eighteen feet in length.” Once built, a pen could not be enlarged, so to add on to the log structure builders would add additional pens, thus creating three different styles of cabins. The Double Pen is made of two log pens sitting side by side with two front doors and chimneys on the end. A Saddlebag is made of two pens siting side by side with an interior doorway and a chimney on the inside. And a Dog Trot (sometimes called a possum trot),perhaps the most well-known regional style, consists of two pens connected in the middle by a covered breezeway.
The online exhibit offers several photos and diagrams of the various log styles, including a great shot of a 1910 “cabin raising” in the Onda community near Prairie Grove. There is also a whole section devoted to the ins and outs of construction techniques, including dovetail notching, split wood shingles for the roof, and “chinking” for insulation, a product made from wood chips stuffed in-between the gaps of the logs and then covered with “daubing,” a form of lime mortar mixed with sand, clay or mud.
By the early 1900s log cabin styles died out as milled lumber became affordable. This led to the timber frame housing styles that eventually came to dominate the rural landscape. In many cases families added timber frame structures to their preexisting log cabins, and many farmhouses today may be hiding an original log cabin somewhere behind their frames. The exhibit also touches on how the Ozark log cabin became a marketing tool for regional tourism, including Coin Harvey’s famous 1905 Mount Ne cabin called “Missouri Row,” which he used to draw visitors to his Benton County resort.
All of the photos featured in the exhibit are form northwest Arkansas, but these building styles were just as popular in this region, and you can still see and abandoned and/or preserved log cabins throughout central Arkansas. Are there log buildings on your property? Do you have family photos of historic log cabins in your family? I’d love to hear about it and possibly share your stories and photos with other readers.
Learn more about the Shiloh Museum here.
The Seed and the Story is a partnership with theCourier and Post Dispatch newspapers in Pope and Yell County, Arkansas. This weekly column explores folklife, oral history, and community in central Arkansas, particularly the Yell County area where the column originates. Columns are often written in partnership with the McElroy House: Organization for Folklife, Oral History, and Community Action and humbly attempt to bridge intergenerational themes in the region.