Saturday, December 6, 2008

Cabin Building Volume One

Forgive me. This is yet another post that is not about France. It is entirely too difficult to keep up a blog about France when you are not there. This will be about Nancy and I building our cabin outside of Livingston, Montana. If you've tuned in to see something about France, I apologize. But I can refer you to two blogs that we follow, that are about our part of la belle France. and It may be that no one is interested in stories about our cabin building, but I know Linda, the present owner of the cabin, will be. (The photos below are pictures of old prints in a scrapbook, so they are not up to the usual digital standards.) A year before we started building our cabin, we bought the land and Nancy worked tirelessly to construct the tipi that we lived in off and on while building. It was the second one she had made in her life. (Someday she can tell you about that.) A tipi is a wonderful temporary structure, and is portable if you have a couple of horses or a pickup. We had also constructed a small shed to store tools and other gear. It quickly became the "cook shed" and we spent more time in there than I ever would have imagined. We had a barrel stove in the tipi to keep us warm in the winter but it was not like living in a real house. We split our time, living in our Park Service housing and the tipi in the summer, and in the winter we travelled when the snow and cold prevented us from building.

But as you might imagine, we spent a few winter nights in the tipi while trying to get things done. One night it was -28 degrees F in Bozeman. It wasn't too much different where we were. We slept in five sleeping bags. That is, each of us in two bags and one unzipped and thrown over both of us. I got up three or four times that night to build another fire, and it would be warm for a few hours. As soon as the fire died, the temperature inside of the tipi was pretty close to the outdoor temperature. O'Malley slept on a thin rug on the frozen ground, and I don't think he minded too much. But we're not stupid; we got up in the morning and decided to take a trip somewhere down south.
This is the basic pier foundation in March of 1995. We had started construction the summer before. We laid out the footprint of the house and we had a rough idea of what we were building. We'd spent many hours drawing the floor plans and elevations. We had about four books on building log cabins, one of which was the "bible". Our expectations were very modest. We wanted a cabin similar to the Forest Service and Park Service cabins we'd stayed in. Except on a slightly larger scale. But the plan was: composting toilet and outhouse, sun showers, kerosene lights, wood stoves and french drains.

Most of the piers were concrete block filled with concrete and rebar, sitting on concrete footers that in turn were sitting on bedrock which was down a foot or two in the thin rocky dirt. One pier had to be a large tree stump, which you can see in the picture. In about a hundred years, someone is going to have to jack up the cabin and put a real concrete pier there.

Because we didn't want to trash the building site by getting a conventional logger with motorized equipment, bulldozers and donkey engines, we searched for a horse logger. Later that unseasonably warm March we hired Elroy Martin to bring his two draft horses up to the property and cut us some house logs. The cutting was the easy part. Hauling them to the house site was the hard part. He had two Belgians named Belle and Bobbie. Belle was the young one, just learning the trade, and Bobbie was the old hand who had done this a thousand times. We went up the building site one day to watch. Elroy had cut about fifty trees a few days earlier. He would hook up Bobbie and she would haul about three or four logs to the site. It would take them about 15 minutes per log, depending on how far away they were. Then, Elroy would give the old girl a rest and hook up Belle and we would get to see a minor rodeo for a little while. Eventually Belle would get one log to the site in 45 minutes to an hour. Elroy would then harness up Bobbie again. I would imagine Elroy spent about the same amount of time with each horse, but Bobbie did three quarters of the work. (No different than any other workplace in America.) I can tell you it was one of the most fascinating sights I have ever seen. Very elemental and satisfying. Not much had changed in this process for a long, long time. Leather harnesses, steel chains and horsepower. Only the chainsaw gave evidence that we were in the twentieth century.

Later that summer, about six months after Elroy, Belle and Bobbie had gone, we wandered over the area. The only evidence of logging were piles of limbs, some stumps and horse manure. It was the least destructive, best looking logging site I have ever seen. The amount Elroy had charged us was a bargain, cheaper than with having it done with machinery. I still can't imagine why this method is not used more often.

Then the real work began. You can build a log cabin without peeling the logs, but it harbours insects and dirt in the interior of the cabin, and it's definitely not as handsome. We had approximately fifty or fifty-five logs to peel. As you can imagine, they were extremely heavy. Much of the weight was moisture and bark, and by peeling them we took off a significant amount of the weight. As the summer progressed the logs got lighter and lighter and took much less effort to move. In the photo you can see one of our drawknifes and a partially peeled log. At this point we measured the length and girth of each log, gave it a number, marked the number in crayon on the butt and wrote the information in a little book. As we were building the cabin, we could determine what we needed in the way of a log, consult our book and go find that particular log.

Nancy and I set to it, peeling logs until our backs were sore, our hands were blistered and our arms were about to drop off. We peeled about a quarter of the logs together, and I had enough to begin building. Nancy, poor soul, kept on peeling logs while I was having the time of my life.

At about this point, we went back to work in Yellowstone. We would drive up to Livingston on our "Friday" evening and head back home on our "Monday" morning. Work was basically a rest from our labors on the weekend. Our boss, Kathleen said to me, "I know about five hundred people that say they want to build a log cabin. But you two are the only ones I know who are actually doing it."


Linda said...

Thanks Doug! I love having the story of the building of the cabin to save on my computer. I wait with bated breath for the next installment. Tim Dillard had told us you used horses to skid the logs. I feel bad for tearing the place up so much putting in water lines and septic after all the care you went to logging it. I still love this place more than anywhere I've ever lived. Thanks once again for all your hard work.

Anonymous said...

What a lot of HARD work! I wouln't have known where to begin..not to mention how to finish! You created a beautiful cabin and thank goodness it survived that terrible forest fire in Montana a few years ago.

What may seem like an ordinary life to you, seems totally "extraordinary" to me. I'm glad I know you!


Professor Nan Fandel said...

I'm really trying to find out about Leran, France, because I have arranged to go there soon, and I came across your blog posting on the top 10 things you missed about Leran.

I'm also feeling a little unsure of the lodging we arranged through a private owner of a house, and hoped maybe you could shed some light on it.

Can you email me back?

Thank you!

North of Andorra said...

We can e-mail you if we knew your e-mail address. Try me at