The Pioneer History of
 Orleans County, NY

Chapter V
The Log House

Online Edition by Holice & Deb




Description--How Built -- windows and Doors -- Walls Raised at a Bee -- Chimneys -- Ovens -- Cellars -- Double Log House -- Coped after Indians Wigwam -- Fires -- Great Back Log -- Lights.

The log house, as it was constructed and used by the first settlers of Western New York, as "an institution," belongs to a generation now gone by. No new log houses are now being built, and the few old ones now standing, will soon be destroyed by the relentless "tooth of time," and of those who were their buildings and occupants, soon not one will be left to tell their story.

The most primitive log house, to which we refer, was rather a rough looking edifice, usually 12 or 15 by 15 or 20 feet square. It was made of logs, of almost any kind of timber, with the bark on, by rolling one log upon another horizontally, notching the corners to make them lie close together, to the height wanted for the outer walls of the house.

An opening in one side was left for a door, and commonly another for a window. Poles were laid across the walls for a chamber floor to rest on, to be reached by a moveable ladder. A ridge pole and rafters supported a roof, which was made of oak or hemlock splints, or elm bark.

Bark for roofs was peeled in June, in strips about four feet long, and laid upon the rafters in courses, held to the rafter by heavy poles laid transversly, and bound on by strips of bark. An opening in the roof at one end was left for the escape of smoke from the fire, which was built upon the ground under the opening. The remainder of the ground enclosed was covered with a floor of basswood logs, split, or hewed to a flat surface. The crevices between the logs were filled or "Chinked" as they called it, by putting in splints in large openings, and plastering with clay inside and out.

When a sash, lighted with glass, could be procured that was used for the window. Instead of glass, oiled paper was sometimes substituted. In an extreme case, the door was made of splints hewed flat and thin; but ordinarily of sawed boards, hung upon wooden hinges, and fastened with a wooden latch, which was raised by a string tied to the latch, and put through a hole, to lift the latch from the outside. Hence, to say to a householder, :his latch string was always out, was equivalent to declaring his generous spirit in opening his house to whoever applied for hospitality.

The carpenter and joiner work on the house was now complete. Masons, painters, glaziers, and all other house builders, had nothing to do here. The owner was his own architect, and commonly the house was put up at a "bee," or gathering of all the settlers in the neighborhood, gratis.

We read that Solomon's Temple rose without the sound of a hammer. The temple in that respect has no advantage above these early homes of the settlers or Orleans County. There was no hammering here, for these were no nails to be driven. Study blows with the ax did the business, and every thing was fastened with wooden pins, or withes.

If time and means permitted, and the wish of the owner was to indulge in the luxury of a chimney, he was gratified by building one end wall of his house with stone, laid in clay mortar, from the ground several feet in height, carrying up the remained of the end with logs in the usual way. A high cross beam, or mantel, was put in, on this a superstructure of sticks laid up in a square, as the walls of the house were, filled in with clay, was carried up above the roof and called "a stick chimney." This chimney and the wood work exposed to the fire, being well plastered with the clay mud, rendered the whole tolerably safe from danger of burning, giving little encouragement to insurance companies, whose agents never ventured to take risks on such property.

As wealth increased, and a higher state of civilization and architectural development was introduced in the structure of log houses, stone chimneys were built from the ground up. About the time when stone chimneys were first made,. Cellars under the log houses began to be convenient, as a depository safe from frost, adding much to the storage capacity of the house.

The introduction of brick ovens marks an era that may be called modern compared with the primitive log house. These ovens were sometimes made at a distance from the house, standing one a frame of the kind called Scotch ovens.

When the family had become sufficiently affluent to afford it, sometimes a chamber floor of boards would be paid upon the cross beams over head; leaving a hope in the flooring, by which a person from below could mount into the chamber on a moveable ladder.

And sometimes a wealthy settler, who felt cribbed, and confined too closely in a single room, would build an addition to his log house, like the first, and adjoining it, with a door between. The owner of such a double log house, was looked upon with envy and admiration by all the neighboring housekeepers, who wondered what he could do with so much room; and it would be remarkable and exceptional case if the owner and his family did not put on some airs and go to keeping tavern.

It would be several years before the general class of log householders got a barn. Straw and fodder would be tacked out for the cattle. And, if a shelter for cattle or horses was desired, some crotches of trees would be set in the ground for posts, poles laid across on these, and a pile of straw heaped on, and a shed warm and dry was the result.

The log house was copied from the wigwam of the Six Nations of Indians, as to its general form and structure. The bark roof was similar in both cases, but the Indians commonly built the walls of their wigwams of bark fastened to upright poles, with a floor, their fire on the ground in the center, the smoke riding without any chimney, found its way through a hole left open in the center of the roof.

Fires were sometimes made in these log houses of the white men, by cutting a log eight or ten feet long, from the largest trees that would go through the door of the house without splitting. This was run upon rollers endwise through the door, and rolled to the back of the fire place. A fire was then built in the middle of the log in front, and fuel would be applied to that place, until the fire would consume the center of the log; when the ends would be crowded together until the whole was burned. Sometimes such a back log would last a week or ten days, even in cold weather. The light from such a fire was commonly sufficient to illuminate the single apartment of the house at night. If more light was wanted, a dipped tallow candle, made by the mistress of the household; or a tape made of a dish of fat, or grease, with a rag stuck in it for a wick, would answer the purpose.

The Pioneer History of Orleans County, NY, By Arad Thomas


Transcribed by Holice B. Young

HTML by Deb

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