How to Build a Log Cabin (April 2001)
When I was about 11 years old, my parents took all their extra cash and invested in a one acre plot of mountain acreage located at the very edge of the Calaveras State Park. It was on the top of the ridge which afforded us a prime view but had absolutely no amenities. The price was about $50 per acre.
Since the deed called for a natural type look to any buildings constructed on the property, we had to build it from materials at hand: trees.
Since there was no road to the top, that is where we started, and cleared tall trees for the cabin.
First you get a two man logging saw and chip out one side of the trunk in the direction that you want the tree to fall, usually uphill.
My older brother and my Dad did all the heavy stuff, while we kids, Roy and I dragged the trimmed branches away to cure for kindling. Also we had the unenviable task of hauling slate rocks up to the cabin site for fireplace footings. All points from the cabin were downhill, so instead of a leisurely two week summer vacation camping out in Big Basin, Big Sur or the Trinity mountains, we were put to work digging, hauling, toting water for the cement mix and all around slavery chores.
Where was Disneyland? Not built yet.
After the trees were down they had to be split in half with mallet and wedges. Green trees with sap oozing out are not good to use because as they dry they shrink, and if you have done the chinking then it is wasted.
We had not the luxury of power tools. The saw, axe, adze, hand drill, chisel, hammers, wedges and hand trowels were all the low tech tools that raised the whole structure. After we cleared the access road by chopping out buck’s brush, an evil plant if there ever was one, we had room to drive the Model A Ford sedan up to the work site. We have home movies showing the bedsprings tied onto the back of the car, chugging up a 30% grade.
Water, of course was at the bottom of the hill in a cow trough fed by a natural spring. No water tests were done before we put our plastic jugs under the pipe and waited to trudge up the hill once more with our drinking water for the day.
While we were building the main cabin, we slept in a canvas tent (Army surplus) or on cots under the trees. Sometimes we just fluffed up the pine needles for a mattress and slept on the ground.
A drawback to that was the easy access of the large fire ants that munched happily on my legs and served as an alarm clock.
Our sanitary arrangement was a platform built over a hole in the ground next to a cedar tree that was spared the axe for the duration. The view was very fine over the valley as you sat and meditated behind a canvas door.
After the main walls were up we did visit a local saw mill for the finished lumber for flooring, kitchen lean –to and future outhouse / toolshed. No interior siding was planned as this was a rustic cabin and we wanted the logs to show.
Later on when the ceiling was enclosed it only provided a nesting platform for the squirrels and had to be torn out again.
Furnishings were of the finest cast-off junk that my folks could find. Old plates, second hand rugs, cast iron wood burning stove and old chairs were relegated to the cabin when we got through with them at home. The refrigeration was ice blocks first, and then a gas fueled fridge was installed.
Was this a normal life for a family of five? Well, I had no choice but to go along and do my share of the chores. There was no special effort to keep us amused, but Roy and I made a small fort out of a big Spruce tree, and went hiking down to the main highway entrance to the campgrounds.
After a few years, I learned to bring a couple of good books. After dark our main amusement was to sit on the front steps and watch bats fly around. Occasionally we went out to the edge of the ridge to see the sunset.
Exciting? I could hardly take it!
What did I learn out of all that? Well, I knew that I was not center of attention in my family, that we made things ourselves with no help from any government agency, such as food stamps or heating allowance, and over the years that hill has gotten way steeper to climb.