The creation and building of an early log house was not an easy task; and once the basic log house was built, families had to live through nature’s vagaries and unpredictable behaviour through all four seasons of the year. See how our ancestors managed to undertake that first step of settlement, from log to timber-frame houses. Prepare yourself for an interesting journey!
– Peter Hicklin
Log Houses in Sackville?
by Paul Bogaard
When I first came across this sketch some years ago in the Memoir of LeBaron Botsford, M.D. (1892) I was interested in how St. Ann’s looked in the 1800s. How little it has changed! But what of the other things included in this sketch?
Since the church is portrayed accurately, even in detail, might it also be so for that little two-wheeled carriage? It turns out it is a pretty good sketch of a one-horse “Shay,” the kind imported to Sackville in the early 1800s. And what then of the fencing? Well, with few cedar trees growing in this area, the classic cedar “snake” fence was likely not used here; so, the type of fencing shown is more plausible. All these, and the vegetation, too, bolstered my confidence that LeBaron, his niece (who authored his Memoir), or their illustrator were capturing accurately how things looked in Sackville Parish long before they could be captured in photographs. Only then did it occur to me that we could trust how early “log cabins” are depicted in this sketch. And I hope so, because, at least to my knowledge, the illustration in this Memoir is the only image we have of a log-built home in the Sackville area.
This image makes me wonder if the illustrator thought log cabins were as commonly seen as fences and carriages? And, since St. Ann’s was built in 1817, were there still log cabins around at that time? And then the questions just come tumbling out: can we trust that log cabins were of this size, with a modest door and a window of a least nine panes? Would they really have used boards on the roof (resting on top of poles it looks like) and leave the ends of the logs overlapping in the way shown? Notice that the little building to the right uses vertical posts, and runs its roof boards the other way. Is this simply artistic license, or were both these techniques utilized? And what about that cabin in the rear of the Memoir sketch? It is not very clear but it seems to have a central chimney and those might just be shingles on both roof and sides. How realistic is that? Could they have nailed shingles on top of a log construction?
In the May issue of The White Fence, No. 68, I made my case that the Tantramar Heritage Trust owns, if only by happy accident, the “first frame house in Sackville Parish.” If that is the case, folks must have been living in some other kind of house during the decades leading up to 1790 when George Bulmer built one using timber frame construction.
George’s son, Nelson, tells us that his father first built a log cabin to house his family and then began planning for a proper “frame” house . Perhaps what Nelson describes was once the typical pattern repeated throughout the old Township of Sackville, and for that matter, all of old Nova Scotia and northern New England. These areas were all resettled at about the same time. But if there are few remaining log houses, despite their once being quite common, that seems puzzling. Several of the early timber frame houses, like George Bulmer’s, are still with us.
There are no surviving examples of log houses in Sackville for us to examine, and little seems to be known about them. So, in order to find some answers to these questions we will begin by reaching out to northern New England, then we’ll look elsewhere in the Maritimes, and finally to the area surrounding Sackville as we zero in on what can be said about log houses within Sackville.
Northern New England
A lot more work has been done on early houses down in New England, where they have faced the same puzzles about early log homes. James L. Garvin, who works for the New Hampshire Division of Historical Resources, issued a report in 2009 on a log house newly discovered, a few miles north of Concord, from under several layers of clapboard and more modern additions. His report is filled with interesting details, as is his more general A Building History of Northern New England (2001), but what I found most striking was his pointing out:
…this house is currently the only known log dwelling to survive in New Hampshire. As such, the building represents the sole example of a building tradition that was once predominant on the New England frontier.”
It seems likely to have been a tradition once predominant throughout old Nova Scotia, and still predominant past 1784 when New Brunswick was partitioned off as a separate province. As common as log houses may once have been, apparently they did not survive the ravages of two centuries either here or in northern New England, unless incorporated into larger additions and covered over with shingles or clapboards.
From his examination of this rare example, Garvin was able to report that the carpenters were “using sawn boards where convenient (for floor and roof) but retaining the tradition of hewing the heavier elements of the building.” Apparently, the earliest sawmill in the immediate area was erected in 1761, so this log dwelling could only have been built after that. While a few log buildings are known in New England from a hundred years earlier, these were along the coast and exclusively built as “garrison” houses for trade purposes and especially for defensive protection. Log construction began to be more extensively used for dwellings as New Englanders pushed up into New Hampshire and southern Maine. By the 1760s they were common enough to appear on inventories of houses and house types. These listings show: “The majority of buildings in frontier settlements were ‘logg’ or ‘poll’ houses and barns, with framed houses in the minority.”
In his Building History Garvin cites the case of one community that listed 14 log houses, 20 pole houses, 3 “camps,” and 6 frame houses. His interpretation is that “pole houses” were those in which the logs were left in the round (with the bark sometimes left on) and overlapped at the corners. “Log Houses” in these listings referred to those where the time was taken to hew the logs square, so when overlapped at the corners the joints were tighter and the hewn logs stacked more closely. This latter type could easily be covered over with clapboards or shingles. Perhaps these match the two types we see in the illustration from LeBaron Botsford’s Memoir.
There is evidence from northern New England, as Garvin records, that such log dwellings “were supplanted by larger and more permanent framed houses as soon as possible, and their replacement was regarded as proof of progress in any settlement.” As a result, between the 1760s and the 1790s, what had been predominantly log or pole houses shifted to frame houses. While we do not have (at least not yet) local inventories as complete as those Garvin relies upon, what he reports provides a good sense of what we might expect. And the motive he cites must have been what, in the early 1790s, encouraged George Bulmer to move his growing family out of their first log house into the first frame house in Sackville Parish. From that point on there was likely a similar shift to frame houses.
Like northern New England there are very few log houses left in the Maritime provinces, however common they once were. But there are a few that enable us to see what they were like; not from Nova Scotia, curiously, where none are listed that are of log construction. On PEI a few houses have been found in which earlier log houses have been imbedded within later additions and renovations, but we cannot see much in these cases. There is one case, however, uncovered about 15 years ago near Rustico called the Doucet cabin. It was likely built around 1770 when the Doucet family was allowed to return. You can see that it was built of logs that had been hewn square and had been covered over. I might add: neither PEI nor New Brunswick retain any Acadian houses – log or otherwise – that date from before the Expulsion.
There are also a few examples that have survived in New Brunswick that are from the early decades of the 19th century. These can be seen at the Village Historique Acadien where two have been moved, and at King’s Landing Historical Settlement where two have been recreated. Both of the cabins moved to the Village Acadien are of square-hewn logs. The Mazerolle cabin (pictured above) has dove-tailed corners and had not been covered over, whereas the Robichaud cabin with notched corners was covered with hand-split shingles.
A log cabin built by the Killeen family in the 1820s has now been re-created at King’s Landing. When I visited there this summer the guide was not only in costume but re-enacting the Irish mother who would have lived there in the 1830s. She explained that they first relied on a rude shelter while they built the log barn, leaving the logs in the round, and, she exclaimed, “we were well pleased to get into it!” (See it in the rear of the photo above.) Then they took more time with their present log home, hewing the timbers square, fitting them tightly and eventually covering them over with cedar shingles. From that point on the “pole” barn was used by their livestock.
One could carefully “chink” in between the round logs of a polestyle cabin (as seen in the photo above, top) and tramp the dirt floor flat, but living there would not have been as comfortable as with tightly fitted hewn logs, covered over weather tight on the outside, a wooden floor and a large stone fireplace inside (photo above, bottom). We should not impute too much to the illustrator of LeBaron Botsford’s Memoir, I suppose, but the difference between pole-style and hewn-log cabins seems to be represented in that sketch. A small cabin with notched logs still in the round is drawn on the lower right, and in the background we see what looks like a tidy cabin all covered with shingles. Since St. Ann’s was built in 1817, these Westcock cabins (whether imaginary or real) would have been contemporary with the Killeen cabin.
A search of the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick uncovered images that depict just these first steps towards a pioneering family’s first home.
The illustrations above make it easy to imagine what it might have been like to begin with a temporary “camp,” while preparing the logs for one’s first home, and then constructing a sturdy log house. Figure 1 looks to be more or less the same size as each of the cabins we have seen so far, with space for a loft, and a first rugged looking barn, all sitting amidst unavoidable stumps. The next stage would be to begin clearing out those stumps, the work of several years. With more crops and increasing livestock would come the need for a bigger barn, and in the meantime one could cover over the cabin with clapboards or shingles, and begin thinking of additions, or even a proper new timber-frame house.
As we tighten our focus to the area surrounding Sackville, we have to rely upon information that comes from the stories, reports and correspondence, because (so far as we know) there are no log houses that have survived. We have seen examples of what log houses looked like, that the logs were hewn square or could be left round, and that each would have needed a fireplace and chimney. Despite differences in detail, they seem to be roughly the same size. The smallest would still need to be big enough for a family to live in, and the largest could not be so large that it was difficult to find tree trunks of sufficient size. And as common as it once was to settle a new area relying upon log houses, within some years (over a thirty year spread in northern New England) we would expect a shift into more permanent houses, usually timber framed.
So, how well do these expectations fit the stories from our surrounding area?
From the 1760s: A report still exists prepared by John MacDonald in 1795 for Lt. Gov. Des Barres on the condition of the tenants living on his land in the Minudie, Maccan, Nappan area. Des Barres first brought tenants onto his large grant after 1765, and this report describes their situation 30 years later. The chimneys, MacDonald tells us, were of stone, topped off with wood sticks and clay. The houses typically had cellars… and in general:
The premises of every one seem to be a house from 18 to 25 feet long & as many in breadth without porch or partition but the outer door opening immediately into the sole room.
So, we learn that these tenants either built or were provided one-room dwellings of roughly similar size, and since they had cellars, they likely also had board or split-log floors. These considerations plus the detailed description of their chimney construction all lend themselves to the likelihood these were log cabins. They may during the intervening years have been covered over with either clapboard or shingles. I wish he had clarified these matters, although in this, as we shall see, MacDonald was not alone.
From the 1770s: One Yorkshire settler, Nathaniel Smith, left a treasure trove of early letters dating from 1774 to 1789. Nathaniel’s oldest son, Benjamin, had come over in advance and purchased 1500 acres that already included a house and barn. By June 20th of 1774 Nathaniel is writing back to Yorkshire explaining:
Our next house is not likely to be got up this year as we have so much oather work to do, the old one is better than expected. We intend adding to it this summer a pretty good foreroom and a lodging room backward. This may do very well for one of our families afterwards as the old house is strong and will make a very good kitching and milkhouse…
We are not told explicitly if the old house, presumably the one that came with the property, was built of logs but that seems most likely. That fits with the old house being strong, better than expected, and would make a good kitchen, the fate of many an early log house. After all, Nathaniel had come from Yorkshire never having seen a log house as there were none anywhere in England.
By November 6th, with their first harvest behind them, Nathaniel writes of progress with their new house:
We have just got the new House covered in and expects to go into it soon. …It is very expensive to build in Nova Scotia, a Mason 5 per day, a joiner the same. We have carried on our work with our own Family, the Sellar only excepted, which was done last year, I was glad when I came to know the expense of the sellar that the rest was laying level with the ground. Nails, door hinges, smocks, boards, etc is the chief expense, as we have plenty of the stritest and finest wood I ever saw.
One might expect Nathaniel to build his new house as a timber frame structure, since that is what he would have known, either that or brick or stone. But there are reasons to question that: joiners like masons are expensive, so the Smiths do the work themselves. That makes a brick or stone house highly unlikely, and a frame house would need a joiner, someone who not only had the skills to create the mortice and tenon joints required, but knew which type of joint was needed in which places and the especially tricky sequence required to raise a timber framed house. Whereas, anyone who could handle an axe could fell trees and notch the corners for a log house, and with a bit more skill they could hew the timbers square and make an even tighter and stronger house. And there’s more:
We seamed all tollerably adapted for our own turn and have so fare gone forward with some applase. The chimneys are four in number is looked upon to be as well constructed and firmly built as any in the Country. The woodwork is very little inferior to the best I see… this we must hire.
One does not “seam” a timber frame house, but that is exactly what is required of a log house: you fill in the seams between the horizontal logs. This does not, I concede, settle the matter. As with MacDonald, I can only wish he had said, log or frame.
And then Nathaniel mentions chimneys “four in number.” Now, if he had meant to say four fireplaces (joined to one or even two chimneys) that would make good sense, and confirm this house not only had two rooms on the lower level but also had another two rooms above them. By comparison, four separate chimneys are not to be seen in even the grandest of homes in this area. While, even a lowly log house can have two or more fireplaces.
So, as likely as it still seems that most settlers began by making do with a log house, neither MacDonald’s report nor Nathaniel Smith’s letters confirm this explicitly. Fortunately, the next story does confirm the pattern of beginning with a log house.
From the 1780s: Gene Goodrich, who is soon to come out with a book on John Keillor and his building of the well-known “Keillor House,” has uncovered an accounting of what Keillor owed to one Harmon Trueman, 1801 Oct 28th to 2 ½ Days Work laying Floor 16/…
And 1803, Sept 10th To 2 Days Work hewing Timber @ 6/per day… To 9 Days Work @ Clapboarding @ 6/6 per Day…
Gene has been able to establish, that when John Keillor moved to the newly established Dorchester Township in the 1780s, he first built a log house. Much later, he had built his fine stone house (renovated as a museum by the Westmorland Historical Society). Keillor’s log cabin was sold to Edward Chandler and his new bride. There they remained for some years while arrangements were made to have their even grander stone house built, just up the hill. What helps make sense of this sequence are these accounts suggesting Harmon Trueman was hired to lay wooden flooring (perhaps in an area of the Keillor cabin needing repair, after twenty years of use) and two years later to hew timber and put on clapboards. While this timber could have been for other uses, since it was hewn, it seems more likely that it would have been for repairs or an addition to the Keillor cabin. And the clapboarding is almost certainly to have been for covering Keillor’s log house.
In this case, too, we might wish the records were more explicit, but it is clear that the Keillors began with a log house, and so did the Chandlers, perhaps because it was expanded, repaired and dressed up in clapboard. In 1820 we have a story which leaves no doubt: It is a Trueman family story recounted by Howard Trueman in his The Chignecto Isthmus and its First Settlers (1902), quoting from a letter written by the daughter of Amos Trueman:
“When my father first came to live in the place now called Truemanville it was a dense forest. In summer the only road was a bridle path. In winter, when the snow was on the ground, they could drive a pair of oxen and a sled along the road. The winter my father was married, as soon as there was enough snow and frost, he and one of his brothers and another man set out to build a house.
They loaded a sled with boards, doors and windows, and provided themselves with bedding and provisions to last till the house was finished. They then hitched the oxen to the sled and started on their twenty-mile journey and most of the way on a trackless path.
When they arrived at their journey’s end, they erected a rude hut to live in and commenced building a house. They did not have to go far for timber – it was standing all around the site chosen for the house.
They built a very nice log house, 15 ft. by 18 ft. …
After they had built the house they returned home, having been absent about three weeks.”
So, here we find a rude camp being set up, and learn that three men could put up a small log house in about three weeks. We don’t know whether the logs were hewn square, but the house was thought “very nice,” and they brought with them the boards, doors and windows they would not easily be able to fashion in the dense forest. And interestingly, even though you grew up in the Trueman’s large, brick family home, if you were determined to push into northern Nova Scotia and settle within what was still dense forest, you began by building a log house. And that was in 1820.
Back to the 1770s: There is one last report that I have skipped by, the account of two Yorkshire farmers, John Robinson and Thomas Rispin entitled A Journey Through Nova Scotia…(1774) in which they reported back to other prospective emigrants on the conditions and opportunities they had found. Their report contains detail about the houses they saw that is useful: they were sometimes built with two stories, utilized a central chimney with multiple fireplaces, and were usually covered over with shingles on the roof and clapboards up the sides. But they also say some puzzling things about house construction that confuses what they encounter here with what they knew from back home.
Rather than attempt to sort this out here, we should at least mention what they include in the Appendix to their report. Wanting to reassure those back in Yorkshire of properties for sale, they provide a sort of 18th century real estate ad. It lists 56 different properties for sale located in Horton, Cornwallis, Annapolis, Granville, Amherst and Tantramar. While six of these properties listed no buildings (just the acres of marsh, cleared upland and woodland), the remainder all listed houses, many with barns, and of these many were said to be log houses and/or log barns.
It would be useful to compare this with the proportion of log houses mentioned by Garvin, but I don’t think we can trust Robinson & Rispin to give us an accurate inventory. What we can trust is that the use of log houses was common and widespread in all the early townships of Old Nova Scotia, and that includes what they list as Tantramar, that is, Sackville. And whatever the proportion in 1774 it was undoubtedly shifting away from log houses.
The most compelling evidence we have inside Sackville (other than LeBaron’s sketch) is the account from April 1820 provided by Mrs. Cynthia (Barnes) Atkinson and recorded by Milner in his History of Sackville. It is a listing of inhabitants along the Main Post Road, beginning at the aboiteau between Sackville and Westcock, and working its way through lower Sackville (with a few detours) and on out to Middle and Upper Sackville. It often records who purchased the land, who built the house, and occasionally mentions the type of house. For the present we will confine ourselves to what she can recall about each house.
A sampling ⎯ of the third house up the hill from the aboiteau, she says:
Christopher Humphrey inherited from his mother the farm that he occupied. She had built there a commodious log house. It had four rooms downstairs and two chimneys with fireplaces. She kept public house there for some years. She brought up a family of five children…
From what we have learned, we can appreciate that this was larger than the average log house–well worth some extra comment on her part.
The next house was west of Salem Street. It was occupied by a widow, Mrs. Richardson… It was a log house built by her eldest son, Christopher. … The next house—the first frame one built in the parish was owned by George Bulmer. It was located at Boultenhouse’s Corner and is still an architectural ornament to the plan.
We know already, that George first built a log house located, as it turns out, close to the two log houses mentioned above, in what Milner describes as the Salem district.18 Apparently, that log house was no longer there when Mrs. Atkinson generated this listing, forty years later. A couple of houses further along the road:
… was John Wry’s. It was a log house until about 1820 when Mr. Wry replaced it with a
frame house. He purchased it originally from Gershom Maxwell. …
Cyrus Tingley occupied a log house almost opposite the Charles Fawcett residence. …
Moses Delesdernier lived in a log house on one side of the highway and Major Wilson occupied a frame house on the other side.
And so it went from one side to the other, and from log house to frame.
Charles Dixon built a log house … then he erected a brick house near the site of the residence of the late James D. Dixon – in Yorkshire style – on the side hill, two storeys in front and one in the rear…one of the very few that had chimneys at both ends and plenty of fire places.
In all, Mrs. Atkinson told Milner of about three dozen dwellings, of which eight are identified as log, and another eight as frame. That is fewer log houses than listed by Robinson & Rispin, but as with their report, it is hard to say. Atkinson mentions over twenty without indicating whether they were one or the other. So, while I am tempted to say there was a 50/50 split between log and frame houses in Sackville as of 1820, I suspect there were a great many more frame houses. And that is certainly what we would expect since the shift from log to frame was well underway. On the other hand, there must have been some log houses covered over, or built onto so effectively that not even the astute Mrs. Atkinson knew that an earlier log home lurked underneath. Since we know the first frame house was erected around 1790, it is quite a testament to Sackville’s “proof of progress” that frame houses had grown to the majority in only thirty years. So, even though log houses had once been the predominant style, they were quickly replaced and to a surprising extent have been largely forgotten. We hear more about early houses built of stone and quite a number of brick. But, that leads me into another set of questions about early houses that I will save for another occasion.
Much of the evidence we have on log houses is from outside Sackville itself. We have depended upon information from elsewhere in the Maritimes, both near and far, and even from northern New England. Those examples have been chosen which are the most likely to shed light on the situation in Sackville, and Mrs. Atkinson’s recollections seem to help confirm these choices. And at the same time, what is known about other houses in the region around us helps confirm that Mrs. Atkinson has recalled a most likely account.
We still do not know for sure who was responsible for that detailed sketch in the LeBaron Botsford Memoir, though a friend of his reported to LeBaron’s neice that LeBaron “had a decided talent for drawing.” And we have now garnered enough evidence to confirm that what was included in that highly detailed illustration was plausible. The church is recognizably accurate, the two-wheeled carriage, the fence and vegetation are quite accurate, and now we have shown that both cabins are representative of what one would have seen at the time.
So, even if there are no surviving log structures in the Sackville area, it turns out we can glean a pretty good sense of how common they must once have been, and the strategically necessary role they must have played in enabling pioneer families to establish their households in this new land. And, who knows what we might find one day by peeking behind a few clapboards or shingles?
1 Memoir of LeBaron Botsford, M.D., by his niece, Frances Elizabeth Murray (Saint John: 1892). There is no indication who did the illustration on p. 27.
2 W.C.Milner in his History of Sackville (1932), relies upon Nelson Bulmer for several stories; the one which mentions that his father built a log cabin is on p.117.
3 James L. Garvin, “Report on a Log House in Franklin, New Hampshire,” Dec. 5, 2009 to the New Hampshire Division of Historical Resources, the State Historic Preservation Office; p. 1; the underlining was added.
4 Garvin “Report,” p. 9 and Building History, pp. 5-6; near Gagetown in NB, there are the remains of a curious older building, reputed to be from the 1760s. The story is that it was constructed as a “truck” house, or trading post, built heavily for protection. It has long called their “block” house, though it looks much like the “garrison” houses described by Garvin.
5 In his Building History, pp. 5-7, Garvin warns that the earliest settlers in southern New England in the 1620s and 1630s never used log construction (except for fortification) but were using English-style timber-framed houses. He refers to the landmark study by H.R.Shurtleff, The Log Cabin Myth (Harvard: 1939).
This early use of timber framing was embraced by the Acadians, who are known to have used this construction method, as shown in the reconstructed house at the Historical Gardens in Annapolis, N.S. Log construction, a technique that likely came later with Swedish and German immigrants into Delaware, began to spread when these new waves of settlers pushed west into Pennsylvania, and when residents of southern New England pushed north into New Hampshire, Maine, and Nova Scotia.
6 Garvin, “Report,” p. 11.
7 While this is consistently the information I have received from several individuals and institutions consulted, and there seem to be no log cabins on any of the online “heritage building” listings, it seems unlikely that there are none. As in the case of PEI, there are surely log cabins covered over or incorporated into larger houses.
8 See the website called “PEI Heritage Buildings” for a listing and photos of those houses found to contain earlier log houses.
9 There is a website for the Doucet cabin, but I recommend going to http://www.virtualmuseum.ca/ and searching for “Doucet.”
10 The Acadian historians Bernard Leblanc and Ronnie-Gilles LeBlanc have scoured the area for any possible remaining Acadian houses, of log construction or otherwise, and have found nothing dating from before the Expulsion. They do record a number of both log and frame houses all dating from the late 1700s and early 1800s as Acadian families struggled to reestablish themselves, and the variety of construction methods used. See their article “Traditional Material Culture in Acadia” in ACADIA of the Maritimes, ed. Jean Daigle (Universitéde Moncton: 1995) pp. 577-622.
11 Entries from the 1795 Diary of Captain John MacDonald Regarding his Inspection of the estates of Lt. Gov. Des Barres, transcribed by P. W. Orr (Riverview: 1994) from Des Barres papers in Public Archives Canada MG23.F1.Series 2.
12 Nathaniel Smith: Stranger in a Strange Land, ed. Pat Finney (Tantramar Heritage Trust: 2000) includes large portions of these letters organized around key themes.
13 These three quotes are taken from the original transcriptions of the Smith letters by Anne Calabrisi in her MA Thesis for Yale (1986), “Letters Home: The Experience of an Emigrant in 18th century Nova Scotia,” pp. 59, 62, and 66.
14 From the Loyalist Collection MIC FC LFR B6 P3 at the Harriet Irving Library, UNB.
15 The Chignecto Isthmus and its First Settlers, by Howard Trueman (Toronto: 1902) pp. 120-121.
16 A Journey through Nova Scotia containing a particular account of the country and its inhabitants, by John Robinson & Thomas Rispin (York: 1774) pp. 40-47.
17 Milner tells this story twice in his History of Sackville (1932), on pp. 23-25 and again on pp. 43-46; and while each account captures some information the other leaves out, they largely overlap and agree with one another.
18 For his one mention of the Salem district (where he associates it with the Christopher Humphrey farm) see Milner’s History of Sackville, p. 5.
19 This comment was reported to the author, LeBaron’s niece, and recounted by her in Memoir, p. 44.