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 Texas : Features : Columns : "Charley Eckhardt's Texas"

TO BUILD A HOUSE
Texas Log Cabins and Log Houses

by C. F. Eckhardt

Building a Log Cabin

The first house a man might build, at least in East and Central Texas, was a log cabin. Log cabins, by the way, looked nothing like the log houses usually called 'log cabins' today. The most common size was 12" x 14", usually the logs were not dressed-that is, the bark was left on-and most commonly a log cabin had no fireplace and only a dirt floor. The logs were saddle-notched like the ones in the old Lincoln Log sets, and that was a recipe for ultimate disaster. Water collected in those saddle notches, and water rots wood. A log cabin almost invariably started deteriorating at the corners.

The dirt floor-and the ground the mud sills or bottom logs sat on-was usually level, and the corners were perfectly square. The ground was leveled by building a dam or dike of mud around where the house would be built and pouring water inside the dam. Water would collect in the low spots and the high spots would be exposed. Then, with hoes and shovels, the builders would scrape down the high spots and use the dirt to fill in the low spots, resulting in a level area.

To square the corners, the builders would use a surveying instrument that probably was used to square the corners of the pyramids of Giza. It was a piece of rope. A knot was tied in one end. Three equal measures-the length of a man's forearm (a 'cubit'), usually-were measured off on the rope, and a second knot was tied. Then 4 of the same measures were measured off from the second knot, and a third knot was tied. After that 5 measures were measured off and a fourth knot was tied. The first and fourth knot were pegged together, and when the triangle was stretched, the angle between the first and the third knots, with the second knot as the apex of the triangle, was exactly 90. This is the famous 3-4-5 right triangle that formed the basis for the Pythagorean Theorem, with which we became familiar in plane geometry in high school. Most of the builders of log cabins and log houses had never heard of the Pythagorean Theorem, but nearly everybody knew how to make a right angle with a piece of rope.

The door on a log cabin would usually be made of splits-boards roughly riven from logs with a froe or splitting wedge--and they would be pinned together with pegs, the holes drilled with hand-augers. Hinges would usually be leather, and as a rule the door-there was usually only one-would swing inward rather than out. That was so it could be securely locked, usually with a huge wooden bar. If there were windows, and there usually weren't in a log cabin, they weren't glass. Normally they would be glazed with thin-scraped, oiled rawhide, which was translucent but not transparent. If there was a saloon nearby it was possible to collect clear whiskey bottles, break the necks off them, and build a frame around them. The frame could then be set into the wall and pegged in place. This sort of 'glass window' admitted a lot more light than rawhide, but it was awfully hard to see anything distinctly through one.

Building a Log House

As soon as possible a family built a log house, which was entirely different from a log cabin. For a log house the logs were 'dressed'-squared with a broadaxe-and had V-notches in them, the V facing down for drainage. Normally a log house was set on some sort of footing rather than on the ground, and in cedar country heavy cedar posts were usually used to lift the framework of the floor off the ground. If large flat rocks were available they were often stacked to make the piers for the house.

Huge logs, usually 2 feet in diameter, were used for the 4 main beams of the house, and they were usually fastened together with pegs rather than notched. Over these would be laid a 'puncheon' floor. Puncheons were splits from logs, sometimes as much as 4 inches thick. The floor would be rough, but it beat dirt.

Normally such a house was built as a 'dogtrot' or 'saddlebags' house, known outside Texas as a 'Texas house.' There would be 2 rooms with what today would be called a 'breezeway' between them. In early Texas that was known as a 'dogtrot.' Doors from both rooms would open onto the dogtrot.

One room was the kitchen, and in early Texas there was a fireplace for both cooking and heat in the kitchen. It was also, when the weather was cold, the 'family room,' which explains why Texans tend to gather in a house's kitchen. It's in our genetic makeup to do that. The other room was the bedroom, which was occupied by the man and his wife, with-usually-the youngest child sleeping in a trundle bed under the parents' bed.

Usually the house had a ceiling even over the dogtrot, and above it a loft. The entrance to the loft was usually a trap door in the dogtrot, with a ladder for access. The rest of the family-and families were large in those days-slept in the loft. The girls slept at one end, the boys at the other, separated by a blanket or a hide hung from a pole across the loft. The ladder was removable, and as a general rule once the family went to bed the ladder was taken down and stored under the house, to prevent any unauthorized entry to the loft-or any unauthorized exit.

Even the dressed logs had gaps between them, so the gaps were 'chinked.' The filling might be mud, but more often it was a mixture of clay and a stuff books call 'bitumen,' which was natural tar, found around 'oil springs'-natural oil seeps.

The roof would nearly always be shingled, the shingles made from hickory if possible, split from short pieces of well-seasoned hickory with a froe and a mallet. They might be pegged to stringers laid across the rafters, or they might be weighted down with rocks.

On the front and back of the house there were usually wide, veranda-like porches. As the family grew and prospered, the porches might be closed in to make a parlor and a dining room on the front and perhaps extra bedrooms on the back. This, of course, would close in the dogtrot, which became yet another room. Behind the walls of many an historic home in Texas you can still find the dressed logs of a dogtrot house, long since closed in and, in many cases, forgotten until new owners decide to remodel the interior of the place.


C. F. Eckhardt
"Charley Eckhardt's Texas"
>
August 2, 2006 column

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