By Ashley Kath-Bilsky
"Home is the nicest word there is." ~ Laura Ingalls Wilder
Like many little girls, I loved the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. In fact, the Little House books were my first introduction to historical literature, and instilled within me a curiosity and lifelong fascination for how people lived in the past.
I still gravitate toward historical fiction and non-fiction, both as a reader and writer. And whenever I get the chance, I love to visit places where I can actually see firsthand how people lived long ago. Since childhood, I have visited many historical sites. My travels have taken me from Revolutionary War battlefields in New England to a haunting windswept battlefield east of Inverness, Scotland called Culloden Moor.
From famous landmark American homes like Monticello and Mount Vernon in Virginia, to breathtaking castles in Scotland and England. I have gazed in wonder at intricate lime wood carvings by Grinling Gibbons at Hampton Court Palace (see below), and warmed my hands by a peat fire in a stone Crofters cottage in the western highlands.
But there is nothing that touches my heart quite as deeply as a simple, hand-hewn log cabin.
Don’t get me wrong, I love architecture and admire all the work and extraordinary talent that has contributed to buildings like Hampton Court Palace or the innovative genius of Thomas Jefferson in designing Monticello. But there is something about seeing a log cabin that has been preserved from the mid-1800s that I cannot help but admire. And one of my favorite places to visit (and learn about) log cabins is in Fort Worth, Texas.
Nestled in a beautiful wooded area off University Boulevard is a wonderful collection of log cabin homes which make up a Living History Museum called The Log Cabin Village. Although owned and operated by the City of Fort Worth since 1965, it was a group of residents in the 1950s who had the foresight to form the Pioneer Texas Heritage Committee and preserve some 19th century log cabins before they were lost forever.
An initial six buildings were acquired from the North Texas area and painstakingly relocated to the site in Fort Worth. They were not designed by famous British architects like Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723) and John Nash (1752-1835). There were not skilled craftsmen employed and paid to do the labor. They were built by men often alone in the wilderness, like Charles Ingalls, who first cleared the land, then went about chopping down trees and cutting logs that were on average 1-2 feet longer than the desired length needed for the structure. The logs were then dragged or rolled to the building site.
When you consider that the homes at Log Cabin Village were all constructed around the 1850s, you can readily understand how difficult it must have been to not only have the supplies you needed, but the time it took to construct your home – usually very quickly. One would think that chopping down enough trees and cutting logs was the most difficult part. But a great deal more went into building a cabin that would provide safety and shelter for your family.
Hewing the logs (converting a round log into a square timber), came next and could be quite time-consuming – especially for one man. A hewing axe or broadaxes was used. Basically, the axe had one side that was flat and the other side of the axe was beveled. [See picture below] Hewing the logs created a tighter fit, as well as a more polished finished with flat wall surfaces.
Once the smoothing or hewing was done, great care then had to be taken in notching the logs. Suffice to say that the weight of the cabin rested on its four corners, and the weight-bearing stability of those corners depended on how well corner notches were made. However, it was important that each log did not rest ‘flush’ against the other. They had to be separated from each other by a space of an inch or more called a chink. The next step was then to fill in that space with chinking, to protect against cold, wind, rain, and snow.
Mud, clay, lime, pieces of split wood, shingles, and stones were used as chinking. Red clay was often used in North Central Texas. Hilly areas also used small rock fragments which were prevalent. In addition, since limestone was available in most of North Central Texas, a lime plaster was applied as a protective coating over the chinking.
Due to inclement weather or the need to build a shelter as soon as possible, many log cabins did not have a traditional stone foundation. Roofing consisted of a ridgepole with split logs or wooden boards extending down to the top of the cabin walls. To protect against rot and leaking, everything from sod, bark, earth, clay, and even leather were used. However, the best thing to use were shingles, which usually had to be specially ordered or were perhaps available for purchase at a fort or a general store – if you were lucky enough to live near a town.
Seeing the American frontier craftsmanship that went into the building of the log cabins at The Log Cabin Village is fascinating, but you also cannot distance yourself from the fact that each cabin was someone’s home—a home where they lived, raised children, struggled to survive, and often died. Some of the people who lived in these homes were important men in the history of Texas, men like Isaac Parker.
Isaac Parker was a pioneer, soldier and lawmaker who served in Elisha Camp’s Company in 1836. He was also a member of Congress for the Republic of Texas from 1839-1845, a State senator, and a lifelong friend of Sam Houston. In fact, Parker County in Texas is named in his honor.
The Parker cabin was built around 1848, making it the oldest structure in Tarrant County. Its design is that of a double-log room construction connected by a covered breezeway (often called a dog trot). A large fireplace was located in each of the two log rooms.
In addition to living in this two-room log cabin with his wife and children, Isaac brought his niece, Cynthia Ann Parker (and her infant daughter named Topsannah) here in 1860, after they were discovered by Texas Rangers. Unfortunately, Cynthia Ann did not want to be rescued.
For those who are not familiar with the story of Cynthia Ann Parker, she was captured during a Comanche attack in 1836 when she was 9 years old. Although beaten and mistreated as a slave, in time, she would become the beloved wife of Peta Nocona, a Comanche chief. The story of Cynthia Ann Parker is a tragic one. Having spent 24 years with the Comanche, she now considered them her people, and longed to be reunited with her husband, Peta Nocona, and their two sons, Pecos and Quanah Parker. When her baby daughter died of pneumonia, Cynthia Ann—giving up hope she would ever see her sons again—starved herself to death. However, her son, Quanah, would become the last great chief of the Comanche.
Built circa 1853, the Tompkins Cabin is a one-room log house with a loft. Its owner, John Baptist Tompkins was born in Virginia on 21 October 1820, and arrived in Texas with his wife, Sarah, in late 1857. Originally located in Parker County, the cabin was situated on fertile land, and Tompkins was a progressive farmer who used innovative crop rotation methods as well as experiments with various seeds. His primary crops were wheat, oats, and hay. And his apple, pear, and plum trees were believed to make up the finest fruit orchard in the area.
SHAW CABIN & GRIST MILL
Although not originally a grist mill, the Shaw Cabin is one of the few working grist mills in Texas today. I LOVE the fact you can visit this Grist Mill and purchase fresh, warm cornmeal just like the way it was milled in the 19th century.
The cabin itself was built around 1854, but the milling equipment (pictured below) dates back to the mid 1860s. The equipment came from a saw mill located in Moline, Texas, and had been in continuous use for over 70 years until it stopped working in 1930. In 1970, the City of Fort Worth purchased and installed it into the Shaw cabin.
As for the owner of this cabin, Thomas J. Shaw was originally from Tennessee. At age 19 in 1838, he made the first of many trips to the western frontier where he assisted troops in what is known as the “Trail of Tears”; the forced relocation of the Cherokee nation to the Oklahoma territory. He eventually returned to Tennessee.
But in 1851, a now married Shaw moved to Texas, first settling in Paris then moving to Fort Smith, Arkansas. When a group of families traveled through Fort Smith on their way to Texas in 1845, Shaw and his family joined them. The fifteen families arrived in Parker County in October, 1845. Due to heavy rains, they were forced to camp on the banks of the Clear Fork of the Trinity River. Eventually, they would cross the river and stake out the sight for their homestead. The Shaw Cabin was erected on this sight.
Shaw had great skills as a carpenter and house builder, and became quite well known for his log cabin building. Many inexperienced homesteaders sought his help. A prosperous farmer, Shaw served as Parker County Commissioner, Justice of the Peace, and a Notary Public. He also helped with the actual organization of Parker County and voted in its first election.
Built circa 1855, the Pickard Cabin is a one and a half story home. The second story has a loft which was used as the sleeping quarters for the Pickard children.
William Sidney Pickard, and his wife, Malissa Ellen Dickson, were originally from Tennessee. In October 1856, they began their journey to Texas. Accompanying them were William’s father’s family and slaves. Upon arriving in Parker County, William’s father purchased a 320-acre farm in Spring Creek. The family began improvements and started raising horses using the stock they brought with them from Tennessee. In 1863, after William Sidney Pickard returned from the Civil War, he purchased this cabin and lived here with his wife and eight children.
Another prominent citizen of Parker County, William S. Pickard served as County Commissioner and as President of the Parker County Pioneer Association in 1895. He died in his home on 15 January 1898.
THE LOG CABIN VILLAGE
"So they all went away from the little log house. The shutters were over the windows, so the little house could not see them go.” ~ Laura Ingalls Wilder"
These are just a few of the log cabins that have been preserved at Log Cabin Village in Fort Worth. Among the others you will find here are the FOSTER cabin, one of the few surviving plantation style homes in Texas, and a one room, board-and-batten schoolhouse. Built in 1872, the MARINE SCHOOL features handmade benches, a teacher’s desk, and blackboards that were painted on the walls.
Remember, the Log Cabin Village is a Living History Museum where you can not only see how these homes from the 1800s were made, but walk inside and truly see how pioneers lived. A variety of period artifacts are on display. You can walk through the village on your own; each cabin has information posted about its history and a staff member in period costume is present to answer any questions you might have. Or, you can arrange to take a tour called "Meet the Pioneers", very popular with school children and scouting troops. Participants are divided into groups and then visit each cabin where their historical interpreter discusses Texas frontier history, as well as demonstrates various crafts from the 19th century. Demonstrations vary, but include weaving, candle-dipping, blacksmithing, and milling.
“The real things haven't changed. It is still best to be honest and truthful; to make the most of what we have; to be happy with simple pleasures; and have courage when things go wrong.”
~ Laura Ingalls Wilder
I hope you enjoyed this post, and perhaps found it useful. What I love about history is that it really is a part of all of us—individually, as a community, and as a country. And that makes it all the more important to preserve it whenever we can. In closing, I have to send out a heartfelt ‘thank you’ to Laura Ingalls Wilder, whose opened a door into the past for me with her book and made it live again. ~ AKB
For more information about the Log Cabin Village, visit their website at:
Fort Worth’s Log Cabin Village – A History: Terry G. Jordan, Texas State Historical Association (1980)
Early Family Home - The Early Life Settler Series: Bobbie Kalman, Crabtree Publishing Company (1947)