Imagine coming to a new land and having to build a house, plant crops, and make tools, furnishings, and clothes in order to survive. For the folks who began settling the Arkansas Ozarks in the 1820s and 1830s, one of the most important skills they brought with them was the ability to build a home from logs.
So why does the thought of a log cabin often conjure up two such different images of early Americans? On the one hand is a type of rough nobility—think hardy pioneers and young Abe Lincoln reading by firelight. On the other hand is the stereotype of the poor, ignorant, backwoods hillbilly.
City dwellers might view homespun clothing, loose hogs, and corn patches as primitive, but in truth the people who lived in log homes were self-sufficient, independent-minded farmers. They used their skills and resourcefulness to raise families and live off the land.
The Log Building Comes West
Building styles evolve over time. They are influenced by many factors including cultural traditions, available building materials and skilled workers, and the need to solve problems unique to a certain terrain or climate.
As early as the 1830s land shortages in the east forced a growing population to move westward toward new frontiers. As settlers gradually migrated across the country, so did their particular architectural styles and building techniques.
Scholars have defined several folk-culture regions in the eastern half of the United States. The cultural traditions found in the Ozarks reflect those of the Upland South (southern Appalachia). In turn, these traditions originally derived from those found in the Middle Atlantic colonies where small, one-room log homes were generally built using German log-construction techniques. Swedish log-construction techniques, which in part used round logs, are found further north along the Atlantic seaboard.
According to census records, between 1830 and 1880 the majority of new settlers in the Arkansas Ozarks came from Tennessee and Missouri. Most were native-born Americans of Anglo-Saxon origin, but some were of African descent, brought here as enslaved workers.
Traditional Ozark Log Buildings
Most early homes were one-room deep and one-story high. That’s because traditional log-construction techniques made it difficult to interlock two or more logs to create a long wall. And unless a second story was part of the original construction, adding a new floor to an already finished house meant removing the roof and starting anew.
The Ozark homebuilder was tradition-bound. Because of a shared idea of what a home should look like, there were few variations in home styles from builder to builder. In general, log homes had a definite “front” along the length of the house, normally facing the road. Homes were often symmetrical, the left half mirroring the right. When additions were needed the simplicity of the architectural style meant that it was easy to add on while maintaining a visual balance.
Many log buildings are called log cabins, but a true cabin is made up of a single square or rectangular unit called a “pen.” The size of the pen depended upon the size of log two men could comfortably handle, usually between 12 and 18 feet in length. A pen was an indivisible unit, both in the way it was constructed and in the mind-set of the builder. To enlarge a home, one had to build another pen or attach a shed, not enlarge the existing pen.
There are four types of log buildings found in the early Ozarks, the rarest being the saddlebag.
|Single Pen—One pen with a front door and an exterior chimney on one end.|
|Double Pen—Two pens, side-by-side, with two front doors, an interior doorway connecting the two pens, and two exterior chimneys on either end.|
|Saddlebag—Two pens, side-by-side, with two front doors, an interior doorway connecting the pens, and a central interior chimney.|
|Dogtrot—Two pens connected by a covered, central breezeway, with two or more doors on the front of the house and in the breezeway, and two exterior chimneys on either end.|
Log structures weren’t only used as homes. On the farm, animals and hay were kept in log barns, log smokehouses were used to cure meat, log corn cribs held dried ears of corn, and log springhouses protected natural springs. Neighbors shared skills and resources to build log churches and schools for the community. The first courthouses were often built of logs.