No American who has been to a summer camp, a national park, or Disneyland is without memories of log cabins. As Alison K. Hoagland enthusiastically points out in her new book on a familiar topic, Americans from Davy Crockett to Laura Ingalls Wilder have extolled the virtues of buildings made of logs freshly cut from the forest, constructed by hardy pioneers.
Hoagland is well qualified to write about these buildings, having done stints as a National Park Service historian, professor of architectural history, and preservationist. Her 1993 book Buildings of Alaska, part of Oxford University Press's Buildings of the United States series, is full of examples of log cabins, some of which also appear in her current monograph. A number of the excellent photographs presented in The Log Cabin are her own, taken on trips all over the United States, during which she also collected postcards showing cabins as objects of popular culture. Like a good detective, Hoagland analyzes evidence from well-trodden sources as well as new discoveries, weaving it into a fresh and invigorating study that will serve as a definitive resource for some time to come. Her chapters treat everything from slave quarters to contemporary log homes in succinct, no-nonsense prose. She even includes two helpful sections on sources and historiography.
Hoagland begins by examining folk images and stories from the nineteenth century that introduce the log cabin as a distinctly American house type; she then goes on to define the form and the technologies that various ethnic groups used to construct their buildings. She carefully considers the controversy over the origins of log construction in the New World, noting early examples of structures made by Swedes and Germans along the Eastern Seaboard but also discussing the log-building traditions among Native Americans, explorers on the western frontier, and Russian immigrants in California. In the end, Hoagland argues, it was the diffusion by Anglo-Scots-Irish settlers moving west that gave the log house its enduring reputation as the sine qua non of pioneer building.
The political careers of William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, and Abraham Lincoln figure prominently in chapter 2, “Presidential Timber.” Dispelling some widespread misconceptions surrounding the rags-to-riches narrative attached to the “log cabin myth,” Hoagland unpacks the celebrity that followed both Lincoln and Harrison after their successful presidential campaigns. The quasi-religious worship of Lincoln throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries has been presented before, but seldom so clearly. Hoagland visited all of the birthplace and homestead sites associated with Lincoln, and she notes how interpretations of his living circumstances changed through the decades. She recounts the scarcely believable story of the purchase, transport, storage, and eventual resurrection of Lincoln's “birthplace” cabin, which traveled from Hodgenville, Kentucky, to New York's Bowery and back again. At one point its logs were mixed with those from a cabin once occupied by Jefferson Davis and shipped across the country on a whistle-stop tour sponsored by Robert Collier, the publisher of Collier's Weekly, in the 1890s. As the cabin thought to be Lincoln's was reerected in various towns and venues, it changed in size and even acquired an extra door. By 1911, shortly before the completion of the temple-like Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., the “birthplace” cabin was trimmed in size to fit inside a classical temple designed by John Russell Pope at its original Kentucky site. Like the pieces of the “one true cross” that appear in pilgrimage sites across Europe, this version of Lincoln's cabin bore little or no direct relationship to the artifact it purported to represent.
The association of Lincoln with log cabins remained strong in the early twentieth century, and when John Lloyd Wright, son of Frank Lloyd Wright, invented a construction toy using interlocking miniature “logs,” he named it accordingly: Lincoln Logs. Although not an initial success in the 1920s, Lincoln Logs became one of the most popular construction toys of all time, with manufacturer Playskool selling a million sets a year by the mid-1990s. Another popular culture phenomenon that Hoagland chronicles is the history of the Log Cabin syrup brand, which began sales in Chicago in 1887; the company chose its name to connect its products with Lincoln's iconic status. Most buyers of Log Cabin syrup today are unaware that it was originally sold in cabin-shaped tins, which became collector's items after they were discontinued during World War II.
In chapter 3, Hoagland takes up the association of cabins with poverty, particularly in relation to the dwellings of slaves and Appalachian mountain settlers. Her exposition here is especially sharp and enriched by recent scholarship. She notes that although slave quarters constructed of logs had been ubiquitous in many states, virtually all of these buildings had disappeared by the mid-twentieth century—pushed out of sight and so out of mind. During the 1980s, however, archaeologists and material culture scholars joined together to reconstruct the slave cabins at the Carter's Grove plantation near Williamsburg, Virginia. The slave quarters at Mount Vernon were reconstructed in the 1990s, and eventually similar projects were undertaken at other historic sites in the South. As Hoagland reminds us, the buildings in which slaves lived were generally dark (many had no windows) and filthy; tiny one-room hovels often housed whole families. Following the abolition of slavery, both Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois wrote about the conditions in log cabin slave quarters; Hoagland quotes Washington, who noted in 1908 that “the old, one-roomed log-cabins are slowly but steadily disappearing. Year by year the number of neat and comfortable farmers’ cottages has increased” (94–95). Negative associations with log buildings gave even the most perfunctory frame houses higher status among blacks, and eventually among poor white folks as well.
The longest and most affecting chapter in Hoagland's book is chapter 4, which deals with four literary approaches to the depiction of log cabins that made significant marks on the American consciousness. As one would expect, among the works discussed are the popular Little House novels of Laura Ingalls Wilder, first published from 1870 to 1894 (in the mid-1970s, Wilder's books spawned a popular television series that ran for nine seasons). Wilder's recollections of the several cabins built by her father are nostalgic and far from the realities of the hard-bitten existence of pioneer families. Writing much earlier, Caroline Kirkland adopted a more critical tone, informed by her upbringing in New York among well-educated, cosmopolitan elites. She and her husband were schoolteachers, and in the 1830s they decided to move to Michigan to pursue real estate opportunities. Two of her books, A New Home (1839) and Forest Life (1842), are realistic in their appraisal of the challenges faced by log cabin dwellers along the frontier. Kirkland eventually left Michigan and returned to New York, where she became a successful journalist, but her views contributed much to popular impressions of pioneer life during the following century.
If Kirkland and Wilder were ambivalent feminists, President Theodore Roosevelt and the naturalist Richard Proenneke wrote unabashedly masculine accounts of their exploits in the wilderness, earning fans throughout the United States. Several books have related stories of Roosevelt's adventures in the Dakotas, many suggesting that these were part of a necessary psychological retreat for him following the death of his first wife in 1884. Hoagland focuses on the buildings and the character Roosevelt built around the “strenuous life” of a cowboy, hunter, and frontiersman. Americans in the late nineteenth century were hungry for such clear accounts of self-sufficiency and bravery in a hostile environment, just as they would long for rose-tinted views of pioneer grit during the Great Depression and find them in Wilder's books. The log cabin could symbolize both, and much more, as Hoagland deftly makes clear in her unvarnished history of its impact on the nation's self-image.
As an apt testament to both the “simple life” and the virtue of honest craftsmanship, the rustic cabin had champions like Proenneke, an easterner who felt at home in Alaska's wildest places, and also Gustav Stickley, the enigmatic founder of The Craftsman magazine and several furniture companies. Both men produced elaborate chronicles of the building of their log houses, although Proenneke's twentieth-century cabin made of hand-cut logs and furnished with site-built furniture in Alaska was a good deal more craftsmanlike than Stickley's overwrought 1911 clubhouse at Craftsman Farms in New Jersey. Such elaboration on the bulky structure of log walls gave way to more elegant treatment of log frames in park lodges and hotels, such as Robert Reamer's magnificent Old Faithful Inn (1903–4) at Yellowstone National Park and early hotels at Yosemite and Mount Rainier National Parks. The sheer number of Depression-era park structures built by the Civilian Conservation Corps points to the durability and practicality of log buildings designed by modern architects and landscape architects working for the U.S. government. Many are illustrated in this book.
It is perhaps ironic that buildings associated with privation and the harshest wild places should eventually emerge as vacation and leisure retreats, but Hoagland finds both humor and nobility in roadside vernacular buildings that use logs as their monikers. Unexpected treasures featured in the book range from a concrete hot dog stand/restaurant in Los Angeles to the Rosedale Gift Shop in Natchez, Mississippi, with many a Log Cabin Motel in between. Even John Margolies, king of the roadside photojournalists, never included these gems in any of his many books. Hoagland also has a few words for the bumptious do-it-yourself cabins that became popular during the mid-twentieth century through how-to books.
The Log Cabin is a book that belongs on the shelf of every historian who cares about the perpetuation of the American Dream, as well as anyone who has ever slept in a log cabin, even those who did not go on to become president of the United States. The cover and design are first-rate, and every illustration supports the author's analysis. I will offer one minor quibble about the introductory chapter, which contains a bit too much summarizing of what is to come. Once the story begins, however, every page is a pleasure to read.