The Way We Were

Beginning nearly three centuries ago, Scotch-Irish settlers built log cabins throughout Rockbridge County. More than 400 of these earliest of American homes still stand—some abandoned, others partially renovated or restored. 

Photography by Anne McClung

Rockbridge County, in western Virginia around Lexington, was largely settled in the early to mid-18th century by Scotch-Irish immigrants. The county got its start, by and large, in 1730, when Virginia Governor William Gooch offered a man named Benjamin Borden a land grant of half-a-million acres. A New Jersey native, Borden spent a lot of time in Williamsburg before visiting and becoming enamored with the so-called Valley of Virginia, with its gentle rolling hills and abundant forest. Borden’s land grant came with a few stipulations, including one that 100 families would have to settle within the tract before he could receive title. Another, according to historian Oren Morton in his 1920 book, A History of Rockbridge County, was that all new settlers in the tract would have to build log cabins to stake their claims.

By 1738, the area was actively under development—some 90 cabins had been built by Scotch-Irish settlers who’d migrated to the area from the north. This was the start of a long period when the log cabin was the home of choice in the colonies. Initially, log building techniques came from Swedish immigrants who had settled in the Delaware Valley in the mid-17th century. Their homes in Sweden had been made of logs. Toward the end of the 17th century, German immigrants began to settle throughout Pennsylvania—and they too brought log building techniques with them.

Three decades later, the Scotch-Irish started to arrive from Northern Ireland. Unlike the Swedes and the Germans, the Scotch-Irish knew nothing about building with logs. (The typical Scotch-Irish home in Ulster was a makeshift hut with a thatched roof.) However, they soon learned from their continental and Scandinavian counterparts how to work with logs—and then tweaked Swedish and German building techniques as they moved south. The log structures of Rockbridge County reflected their new craftsmanship. Of course, the first Scotch-Irish dwellings were primitive. As Morton notes in his book, “They were round-log cabins, and sometimes the floor was nothing better than the naked earth.”

Peter Drake, a Rockbridge native who’s spent 30 years restoring and rebuilding log structures, says that although many species of trees were used to build log cabins, the early settlers favored chestnut. It is light in weight, especially compared to oak, easy to split, easy to work and very durable. The trees were felled with axes, measured with nothing more than a stick, and sawed to the desired length with a crosscut or two-man saw. Once logs were cut, they were hewn and notched. Hewing, a German skill requiring the deft handling of a poleax and a broadax, allowed for a closer fit of the logs. Notching was done in one of four styles: the V notch (perhaps the most common), the saddle notch, the half dovetail and, rarely, the full dovetail. Notch choices depended on the builder’s heritage.

Logs were rarely more than 24 feet long, so a larger dwelling required two separate structures to be built about 10 to 20 feet apart, with a roof covering the space between. These German-influenced abodes were called double-pen cabins—but they had other names as well: “dog-run house” or “two pens and a passage.” One version of this two-unit log structure was called the “saddlebag” and featured two cabins built close enough together to share a common chimney, thus eliminating the breezeway. Drake says that though double-pen cabins are rare in Rockbridge, some nearly perfect examples are still standing. Drake himself lives in two rustic cabins that he built in the 1960s—out of logs first hewn in the 1790s.

Logs were the most common building material west of the Blue Ridge Mountains for several decades—through the middle of the 19th century. And not just for homes; schools, churches, post offices and outbuildings were all built of raw wood. That explains why so many log buildings are still around today. How many? During the 1990s, the Ruth Anderson McCulloch Branch of Preservation Virginia conducted a reconnaissance survey of structures more than 50 years old in Rockbridge County. The surveyors found some 400 log structures—and many more have since been discovered. John Kern, director of the Roanoke Regional office of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, says that Rockbridge County is the only county in the state that has such a comprehensive survey of old structures.

Some of the log homes discovered by the surveyors are abandoned. They’ve gone back to nature and sit forlornly on roadsides or back among the foothills of the mountains. Others are original cabins that stand on the same spots where they were built and have been kept up or slightly modernized. Still others might be called “undercover” log structures—meaning they’re covered over with more modern materials such as clapboard or stucco, and one might not know whether they are log or not. And, finally, the survey uncovered what I categorize as “recycled” cabins, which includes a large number of log structures that have been rebuilt from original materials, usually on another site, and given almost all of the amenities a new house would have.

All but the abandoned structures have residents. Says Dennis Williams, 51, who has lived in a log cabin—actually two built together—all his life, “I grew up this way and don’t know any other difference. The old house is cold in the winter, and there are no straight up-and-down walls, and there are a lot of creaky noises at night. I have a little electric but no hot water heater. I heat my water on the wood stove. It’s not much, but it’s all I know and it’s peaceful.”

Pamela Simpson, an art history professor and historian at Washington & Lee University, says that Rockbridge County natives feel a special connection to the old log structures precisely because there are so many of them in the area. And why so many? “One factor is the Scotch-Irish preference for log building in the 19th century,” says Simpson. “Another is that Rockbridge has been blessedly free of the developments and urban encroachments that have wiped out this legacy in other areas. We are still a rural county, and the buildings have survived.” Beyond that, Simpson adds, “there is a sort of romance we associate with log buildings. They seem so American to us. They provide us with a [tie] to values we prize about the frontier.”

Philip Clayton, a lifelong Rockbridge resident, has rebuilt many log structures in the area. “When I was 5 years old,” he says, “I discovered one of my first boyhood heroes, Daniel Boone. He lived in a log cabin and married a woman named Rachael. Naturally, I intended to someday live in a log cabin and marry a woman named Rachael. I got the cabin, but never Rachael. I built a log and stone house using old log cabins and barns. The ax and chisel marks are still visible on the logs. I’ve often looked at those old marks and wondered who made them, where did they eventually go, who are their descendants and are they still here in the shadow of the mountain.”

Anne McClung is the author of the book Rockbridge County Log Structures.

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