Log House (circa 1850)
Wood was by far the cheapest and most freely available building material in Early America. Surrounded by vast hardwood forests, the early pioneers of North America developed a distinctive log architecture that later became enshrouded in myth and romance. At America's first permanent English colonies in Virginia (1607) and Massachusetts (1620), the settlers retained the style of home most familiar to them in Tudor England. It was not until the late 1600's that Swedish and German immigrants brought from their heavily forested homelands the methods of building all-log structures with notched corners to hold the logs together. The Scotch-Irish emigrants who pushed the frontier west across the Allegheny-Appalachian mountain chain into the wilderness adopted this type of building, which was inexpensive and quick to construct. In Canada, the French colonists also developed their own distinctive styles of log architecture.
In 18th and 19th Century America, there was a definite ditinction between a log "cabin" and a log "house." The cabin was a temporary structure of round logs often without windows lived in only until a better structure could be built. The log house was built of "hewn" logs, squared so that the logs fit more tightly together. The log house had windows, and was often plastered inside. After the basic construction of the house, "chinking" was put between the logs to fill in any open space. This usually consisted of small stones or blocks of wood packed into the space and then covered with a mixture of clay and lime. Our structure at the Wolcott House Museum Complex is properly a log house, not a cabin.
The Log Cabin Myth
In actual pioneer times, covering in Ohio the period between the first settlements in 1788 and the pasning of the frontier by the 1820's, there was no romance or poetry associated with log buildings. The log houses were then often made to appear like frame buildings by nailing wood siding on the outside or they were covered over and incorporated into a larger, more pretentious dwelling, as in the "Wolcott House." Many log houses were simply torn down as their owners became more affluent. By the late 1830's, people dwelling in log buildings were often a source of ridiculefor cultivated Easterners.
In 1839 William Henry Harrison was for the second time a candidate for Presidency. Although Harrison in reality was born in a plantation home in Virginia, he had lived for many years at North Bend, Ohio, near Cincinnati and was ridiculed as a Western bumpkin by the Eastern press. A reporter for a Baltimore newspaper humorously suggesting ways to get rid of Harrison, wrote that the nation should "Give him a barrel of hard cider, and settle a pension of two thousand a year on him, and he will sit the remainder of his days in his log cabin by the side of a "sea coal" fire.
This anti-Harrison reporter ended up giving the Harrison campaign its rallying point. Their hero of the Battle of Tippecanoe was depicted as a humble person who was a friend of the common man. The log cabin and a barrel of cider became the immortal emblems of the 1840 campaign, along with the cry "Tippecanoe and Tyler too!"
The Harrison campaign was possibly the most colorful one in American political history, with such stirring events as a massive rally held at Fort Meigs in June 1840 and attended by perhaps 40,000 people. Harrison was swept into the White House by a landslide, and every American politician after him who could claim birth or occupancy in a log home sought to duplicte the success of "Old Tippecanoe". The log cabin became a part of the American myth, a symbol of the struggle of the common people to tame the wilderness and attain political power. Ironically, the log home was romanticized by descendants of the same people who took the first opportunity to move out of a log building or to conceal the fact that the dwelling was built of logs!
The History of the Wolcott House Museum Log House
This log house is the one building in the complex with an unknown builder and construction date. Research has shown through tax records that the house was probably built sometime after 1853, long after the passing of the pioneer period in Ohio history. The building originally sat along the north bank of the Miami and Erie Canal in Maumee, between White and Elizabeth streets. It was owned for one year (1888-1889) by Noah Navare, a member of the prominent French-Canadian Navarre family. This led some people mistakenly to believe that it had been built in much earlier days by the Navarres.
In 1893, James Love purchased the property on which the log home was situated. Mr. Love, a railroad employee, built a wood floor over the original dirt floor, added a front porch, and increased the roof height by adding two logs all around. The home was inherited by Calvin Love, who became mayor of Maumee in 1913 and then postmaster in 1933. In 1948, Mr. Love gave the log home to Wayne Pfleghaar, a recently discharged Navy veteran who was caught in the post-World War II housing shortage. Mr. Pfleghaar moved the house to his property on West Wayne Street. Unable to add onto the log house and live in it because of building codes, Mr. Pfleghaar used it as a storage building.
In the early 1960's, the Historical Society of Northwestern Ohio and the Maumee Valley Historical Society merged and planned to open the Wolcott House to the public as a museum. To provide added historical interest to the site, Ruston Avyers, a board trustee, persuaded Mr. Pfleghaar to donate the log home to the Historical Society. With the assistance of the Wheeler family, the cabin was moved to the museum site in 1963 and opened to the public. Log buildings are among the most difficult to maintain against dry rot and other maladies common to wooden structures. Over the years the majority of the log house's original wood has been replaced through restoration. The house has been lovingly restored by volunteers and now includes period furniture and household tools of the time.
Interpretation of the Log House
Most historic homes present to the public an 1800's version of "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous". Usually only the homes of the wealthy are preserved and opened for viewing. At the Wolcott House Museum Complex, we are very lucky because we have three dwellings illustrating different historical lifestyles in the early Maumee Valley - a relatively wealthy family living in the Wolcott House, a middle-class farm family in the Gilbert-Flanigan House, and a less affluent family dwelling in the the log house. We interpret each of the houses on the tour for the historical period 1845-1850. Sticking to one date for all three houses helps unify the interpretation in the overall museum complex. People building and living in a log home in the 1850's would have been of relatively humble means and occupation. Since the house is only one large room with a small loft, almost all the family's possessions would have been visible at any given time. Despite their probable humble origin, the family might have had a few pieces of high-quality pewter or china. Perhaps they would be family heirlooms brought from Ireland.
Children and visitors would often sleep in the loft overhead, on cotton "ticks" stuffed with straw or corn husks. The loft was reached by a ladder and often bitterly cold during the winter. The fireplace and hearth were really the center of the home. Here was where the family did its cooking with a few sturdy cast iron, copper or brass pots and implements; here is where the family would gather in the evenings, especially during the Maumee Valley winters. Here too, the family would entertain any guest who happened to be passing by. Reminiscences by residents of the Maumee area in the 1830's and 1840's indicate that it was not uncommon to awaken in the morning to find several Indians sleeping on the floor by the fire. One woman who lived near Perrysburg at that time, recalled that during the 1840's and 1850's, Indians frequently came to the area to gather white ash to make baskets. She said, "When father was at home we often had the floor covered with Indians stopping for the night". Although those who lived in log dwellings usually recalled in later years the hospitality and simplicity of earlier days, there is no doubt that life in a log house was also crowded, dirty, and uncomfortable, especially during the winter. Those like the Wolcotts sought to escape this way of life as quickly as they could. Those who remained in log homes were the working-class people of their day, whose lives, as Randolph Downes said, were "as uneventful and monotonous as the work they had to do and from which they escaped to better things as soon as opportunity offered."