Log Cabins and Sod Houses


Mitchell County, Iowa

     The first Mitchell county homes were of log construction, with a few built of prairie sod. Because of excessive rains, the latter were not so common.

     The log cabin furnishes material for an interesting and a fascinating story and comprises an important link in the lives of the pioneers. The log house was the first house in America, from the Atlantic Seaboard across the plains and mountains to the Pacific. Such men as Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, and the famous Kirkwood of Iowa, spent their childhood days in log cabins. The Hamlin Garland family spent their first year in Burr Oak Township in a log cabin. As the frontier moved westward, so did the log cabin. As soon as saw mills were constructed and native lumbers was sawn from logs, then frame houses build of boards began to appear. But it was after the Civil War and when the railroads were constructed and Lumber could be shipped in, that the log house began to disappear.

     In Mitchell County many were built. The first home in Osage was a long house built by Hiram Hart on the sough side of Main Street on the site of the present Cleveland Hotel. The first home in Mitchell was built of logs on the sough side of the river road as

The Boyd Log House -- Click picture for original

it enters Mitchell, one block east of the Tom Thompson home. The first place of abode in St. Ansgar was a log cabin erected by Claus L. Clausen just southwest of the present site of St. Ansgar. The first home in Union Township was a log house erected on the Halsley Boyd farm, then the Woolworth farm and now the Max Patterson farm. This home was also a stop on the stage couch line from Stacyville to Austin, MN. It was used until 1917. Stacyville, McIntire, Otranto, Riceville, and every other settlement in the county, to say nothing of the many farm, had log houses as their first places of abode.

     These old log houses blend in any landscape because they are a part of the natural surroundings. They were cut from the sturdiest oak and walnut timber. They were solid and immovable. These first log houses illustrated the hospitality and friendliness of the early pioneers. The latch string was always out to the travelers and the neighbors. A cabin, 16 by 20 feet in size, would often house a family of eleven children and wayfarers besides. Often a second cabin was built, as on the Galen Docken farm, to accommodate people who were traveling through. The early log house was practically indestructible--withstanding Indian attacks, as well as the ravages of the elements, the sun, the wind and rain by summer and the blizzards by winter.

     House building bees were common. The logs were cut and dragged to the site of the building. Then they were squared by the use of the broad axe with a curved handle and by the use of an adz. All of it was hand labor. The most important and intricate part was to fit and mortise the corners, so the matched places would angle downward and shed water, and to slope inward, to hold the log in place. When properly made, the greater the pressure, the tighter the logs would grip and hold. Shakes or boards lapped would make a waterproof roof. These were used as soon as sawmills had been installed, although some were split by hand. In the absence of wood for roofing, hay made from the long prairie grass was substituted.

     The first log houses were often built without floors. Then later, a puncheon floor would be added; it consisted of split logs matched together with the flat side up. When lumber became available, logs would be used for stringers or joists and the newly sawed boards covered over for a floor. Quite often, if time and material were short, the south side of the cabin would be left open for awhile. Windows were usually covered with waxed paper until glass was available. One story homes were called "cabins," while those with an upstairs were called "log houses."

     Ranking as early as the log house, but not as common, was the sod house. Some of the early settlers in St. Ansgar area did use them as their first place of abode, the Frank Zemanek family, the John Bohach family, the Beduer family, and the Tollefsons family lived in sod houses. They were constructed if time and material did not permit a more permanent home. The prairie sod was cut in strips and blocks, and the side walls laid up much like a masonry wall. The roots would hold and bind the blocks together. It is understandable that this type of structure would be very warm in winter and cool in summer. The one drawback was the danger of washing away during periods of heavy rainfall. They were more commonly used in the Dakotas, where a drier climate prevailed.

     Probably the one greatest thing to make the log house in American Institution, was the fact that the pioneer built it himself, with an axe, a hammer, an adz and a saw, together with more tireless effort than we would spend today. The pride of accomplishment has been typical of Americans, and is our heritage today.



     Although practically every home of the early pioneers and settlers was constructed of logs, very few of them remain today. Many of them have been covered with house siding for protection and added warmth, and some of them have been incorporated as part of a more recent modern home. Below is a listing of those log houses which remain, to our knowledge.

     On Section 13, St. Ansgar Township stands the log house which was formerly the home of the parents and family of Palmer Olson of St. Ansgar. This house has been unused for a number of years, and was constructed at the time of the advent of the Clausen Colony which settled St. Ansgar.

     On Section 35, Otranto Township, the old original log house built and occupied by the ancestors of Orlando Brenna, has become a part of the modern home now occupied by Orland Brenna and family. It comprises the living room quarters of the home, and is very comfortable.

     On Section 35, Otranto Township, on the Esther Groth farm is a deserted log house. It was erected by the Graves family, ancestors of Orlando Brenna. It is the two story type, with logs to the eaves and boards in the gable ends. This house is in fair condition to this day. It was located at the edge of the timber bordering the Cedar River, and was visited many times by the Indians camping in the area.

     On Section 15, Newburg Township, is the home of Annis Thorson. Part of his fine modern home is the old original log house built on this farm by the Thorson Pioneers. Recently Mr. Thorson removed a part of one wall to install a window, and found the log structure to be in perfect condition.

     On Section 29, Cedar Township, located on what is now the Bishop farm is a two story log house. This was the home of the Indra family until recently. The house has been covered with house siding, and is not occupied at the present time, although it is in good condition.

     On Section 12, Cedar Township, is a one story type log cabin. It is constructed in the conventional way and has a loft above, but not a regular second story. It is on the Galen Docken farm, and was formerly the lodging place of the Docken family consisting of eleven people. The loft was reached by means of a ladder and was used for sleeping quarters. Formerly the Docken family had a second log cabin, which was used for travelers and visitors, but it no longer remains.

     On Section 16, Cedar Township, on the Lloyd Staff farm there still remains a one story log cabin. It too, did have a loft, but the ceiling part has been removed. This was constructed by members of the Odden family in pioneer days. It is used for storage at present and is in a good state of repair.

     On Section 16, Cedar Township, on the Brandau farm, is a log structure which was built in pioneer days for a granary. It is about the size of a log cabin and is presently used for storage.

     On Section 36, Rock Township, part of the present house consists of the original log house on this farm, now known as the E.C. Indra farm. This too, has been covered on the outside, and the inside is a modern looking as the rest of the house.

     On Section 23, Otranto Township, is the home of Larry Meling. The loving room part of his house is an old log house, covered over and with a bedroom, kitchen, dining room and porch added. It was formerly owned by Raymond Carlson.

     On Section 28, Burr Oak Township, is the home of Gustav Niess and family. Part of the house in which the Niess family lives is a log house built in 1866 by Adam Gray. It is built of walnut logs. Since then the log part has been added to and sided.

     On Section 2, St. Ansgar Township, is the W.C. White farm. The house is a log house built by Hans (Rust) Hanson one of the original members of the Clausen Colony. It is still used, although remodeled into a modern home.

     On Section 2, St. Ansgar Township, is the Norman Nelson Farm. Nels Nelson built a log house here and it has since been incorporated into the present house. It is vacant at the present time.

     On Section 11, St. Ansgar Township, is the site of the Dean Rockellow home. Part of the present house is of log construction, built by Erick Stovern.

     On Section 11, St. Ansgar Township, is the site of the Kenneth Warrington farm. Part of the present house was built of logs by Assor Knudson Assorson.

     On Section 14, St. Ansgar Township, is the Henry Boerjan Jr. farm, formerly the Gaylord Groth farm. The log portion of this house was built by Jacob Asleson Groth, maternal grandfather of Luther Tollefson.

     On Section 21, Otranto Township, there is the Norman Blakestad farm. Part of the present house is built of logs, and was erected by Gullick Blakestad, paternal grandfather of Mrs. Luther Tollefson.

     All of the above mentioned original log cabins were built by members of the original Clausen settlement near St. Ansgar. They were all built in 1854 or 1855. They have stone basements, driveways to the second story to facilitate the unloading of hay, by hand, into the bins on either side. Also, they are framed with heavy hand hewn timbers, mortised and pinned.

     Probably the best known log house remaining in the county today is the Gilbertson Log House, presented to the Mitchell County Historical Society by John Boerjan, on whose farm it was located. It was built in the late 1850's, and was used by tenants of the Gilbertson family, by visitors, and in more recent years it was rented as a place of abode. It was occupied until the late 1940's. The Historical Society moved it to the Mitchell County Fairgrounds for preservation and display. It has been restored in whatever respects were necessary, and is now open to the public at Fair time or on appointment, and is furnished in a pioneer style.



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Transcribed in Aug. 2002 by: Neal Du Shane

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