Sunday, February 23, 2014

Log Cabins in Nebraska

Whitwer Site
This weekend I explored a cabin site that was built by Nicholas Whitwer an immigrant from Rohrbach Switzerland. Mr. Whitwer lived in a dugout for several years until the log cabin was constructed in the early 1870’s. The area the cabin was located in is remote and for the most part untouched by modern agriculture. With the help of the land owner I was able to locate the cabin foundation (metal stake in center of picture is the middle of the cabin) and even found part of one of the oak logs complete with bore hole for a wooden pin that held the wall together. The owner also showed me the dugout and well. 

Whitwer cabin after being used as barn
I learned from another resident in the area who is 93 years old (I should say young because he still cuts his own fire wood) that the cabin was torn down in the late 1940. He was able to save some of the wood and later carved a horse out of it. See the accompanying picture. This old guy is probably one of the most interesting people I have ever met and a wealth of historical knowledge. He remembered playing in the cabin as a kid. He said that the Whitwer’s cut the logs with a pit saw and they were not hewn. He said there was no daubing or chinking that the cabin planks were fit tight.

Horse carved from cabin log
What makes this story so interesting to me is that oak logs were used. There were few trees of any kind this far west in Nebraska, but this location was unique as it had a very large growth of oaks. The area was soon clear cut and the oak logs were used to build a flour mills in both Norfolk and Oakdale Nebraska.  

Contrary to popular belief log structures in early Nebraska were quite common. The first documented log structures in Nebraska were built by James Mackay in 1795. Many more log structures were built for trading posts involved in the fur trade in the state. In 1819 Fort Atkinson was constructed of logs. It was huge, holding around a thousand troops and consisted of many log out buildings. In 1846 the Mormons built a little over 500 log cabin in the Winter Quarters located north of present day Omaha. They did most of this in a little over two months!

Sod houses were first made by Mormons at Winter Quarters, but they really did take off until around the 1880’s when most of the good land was taken and most of the trees were cut down. Most photos of sod houses come from the Solomon Butcher Collection. He made over 2000 and his photos saturate history books. It must be pointed out however, that most of Butchers work contains pictures of sod houses constructed primarily in the area of Custer County Nebraska towards the end of the ninetieth century.  

2 comments:

Jonas Jensen said...

Fascinating story, thanks for sharing.
Brgds
Jonas

Gorges Smythe said...

Interesting. I recently learned of a sod house that was built and used in this area for many years. It's the only one that I ever heard of in this state of heavy woodland (West Virginia). Here, the log cabin was king in the early days. It, too, was built after a lot of the land had been cleared for agriculture.