Texas Log Buildings

[ Regional/Texas ]

Texas Log Buildings

A Folk Architecture

By Terry G. Jordan

This book preserves a record of the log houses, stores, inns, churches, schools, jails, and barns that have already become all too few in the Texas countryside.

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Paperback

7 x 9 1/2 | 240 pp. | 78 b&w photos, 23 maps, 17 illustrations, 7 tables

ISBN: 978-0-292-78051-4

Once too numerous to attract attention, the log buildings of Texas now stand out for their rustic beauty. This book preserves a record of the log houses, stores, inns, churches, schools, jails, and barns that have already become all too few in the Texas countryside. Terry Jordan explores the use of log buildings among several different Texas cultural groups and traces their construction techniques from their European and eastern American origins.

  • Preface to the Second Paperback Printing
  • Acknowledgments
  • 1. A Regional Folk Architecture
  • 2. The Origin & Diffusion of Log Folk Architecture
  • 3. Raising a Log Wall
  • 4. Corner Notching
  • 5. Construction of Floors, Roofs, & Chimneys
  • 6. Log Dwelling Types & Floorplans
  • 7. Log Public Buildings
  • 8. Rural Log Outbuildings
  • 9. Texas Log Culture Regions
  • Appendices
    1. A List of Texas Restoration Projects Open to the Public That Include Log Structures
    2. A List of Replicas or Reconstructions of Log Buildings in Texas
  • Notes
  • Glossary of Log Construction Terms Encountered in Texas
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Texas is the product of numerous cultural confluences. Over a period of three centuries, diverse ethnic groups founded colonies in the Texas countryside, fashioning a human mosaic with individual hues that remain discernible today, despite the blurring that has accompanied the process of assimilation. The southern AngloAmerican, the black, and the Hispano share cultural dominion of the state with Germans, Slavs, Scandinavians, Amerindians, and a host of smaller groups. No less diverse than the people were the physical environments within the state, environments ranging from arid to humid, from dense forests to open prairies, from rugged hills to table-flat plains.

Over the years, the various Texan peoples interacted with the local conditions of terrain, climate, vegetation, and soil to create a myriad of landscapes, Texan "places." As a cultural geographer, I am by training and inclination sensitive to these landscapes, to the material legacy of a diverse peopling. I have been taught to detect and appreciate even subtle differences between places, and each journey through Texas, often on roads I have traveled previously, reveals new dimensions of the cultural mosaic. As a sixthgeneration Texan, I not only observe these varied landscapes but also have a genuine and deep fondness for them. The multiple cultures of Texas find expression in features as varied as architecture, dialect, livelihood, religion, foods, and town plans? This book deals with architecture, one of the most obvious and visible aspects of culture. More exactly, the book is about folk architecture. The products of folk architecture are not derived from the drafting tables of professional architects, but instead from the collective memory of a people. These buildings, whether dwellings, barns, churches, or stores, are based not on blueprints but on mental images that change little from one generation to the next. In this sense, we can speak of an "architecture without architects." Folk buildings are extensions of the people and the region. They help provide the unique character or essence of each district and province.

Do not look to folk architecture for refined artistic genius or spectacular, revolutionary design. Seek in it instead the traditional, the conservative, the functional. Expect from it a simple beauty, a harmony with the physical environment, a visible expression of traditional culture. Folk-built structures tell us about the people and how they live. Folk architecture reveals as much about the culture it represents as do the professionally designed glass-and-steel skyscrapers and other delights of the latter-day architectural millennium in our own modern, technological civilization. More than that, folk architecture describes, for those who will observe closely, the physical environment occupied by a particular people. Weather, climate, native vegetation, and terrain leave their mark on the style and material composition of the folk house and other traditional structures. Even a people so far removed from Nature and ancestral folkways as we of late-twentieth-century urban Texas can learn much about our forefathers and the land they settled simply by investigating their buildings. And, conversely, a knowledge of the lifestyle of nineteenth-century Texans can help us understand many individual elements of the folk architecture. In sum, folk architecture cannot profitably be studied in and of itself, for it is integrally bound to both culture and environment.

Texas offers different styles of folk architecture. Many of the immigrant ethnic groups, both large and small, implanted their own distinctive architectural style, based in their cultural heritage and modified, if necessary, to fit the physical and cultural setting of the new homeland. Throughout Texas, folk architecture is a relict form. Most such structures are decaying products of bygone days and vanishing rural folkways. The folk house long ago became a badge of economic failure, to be occupied with shame by those who did not succeed in our competitive economic system. In our headlong rush to what we perceive as the "good life," to the city and suburb, to the industrial society, we have thoughtlessly discarded the folk architecture of our ancestors. But our forefathers built for permanence, and, in spite of neglect, abandonment, and vandalism, many architectural specimens of their handiwork survive. To some, these relics are unsightly nuisances. To a few of us, cultural geographers and sundry other eccentrics, they are interesting and worthy of study and preservation. Subversive though it may be, our minority finds the relict Texan folk architecture more appealing than the great majority of professionally designed structures we see risen and rising around us today.

Log Culture Complex and Social Stigma

I have chosen log folk architecture as the subject of this book. The term log construction will be understood to mean walls built of horizontally laid timbers notched to one another at each corner. Occasionally, some Texans have used the term in a broader definition, to include buildings of picket (palisado) construction, consisting of timbers or poles driven vertically into the ground. No attention will be devoted to palisade structures in this study, though they are certainly deserving of research.

My interest in Texas log construction began some ten years ago. I was attracted for several reasons, but perhaps mainly because the simple beauty of these pioneer buildings appealed to me and because they are among the most endangered of traditional Texas structures. Soon log construction will vanish altogether from districts where it was formerly common. Once too numerous to attract much attention, log buildings will soon be too few to permit meaningful research. My investigation of Texas log structures came at the eleventh hour and had an urgency about it.

There was a time when log structures were so plentiful and so universally accepted that they literally dominated the cultural landscape of most of the eastern half of Texas. Houses, stores, inns, churches, schools, jails, barns, and other buildings were of log, as were the ubiquitous split-rail fences. One writer has called this overwhelming presence in the landscape the "log culture complex. " In the accounts of some nineteenth-century Texas travelers, we can sense an awareness of the log culture complex. Their remarks were normally matter-of-fact, occasionally denigrating. Noah Smithwick, describing the Austin Colony capital of San Felipe in 1827, spoke of "twenty-five or perhaps thirty log cabins strung out along the west bank of the Brazos River"; while the town of Brazoria in 1831, according to a northern visitor, "contained about thirty houses, all of logs except three of brick and two or three framed."' Mary Eubank, whose first visual impression of Texas in 1853 was the hamlet of DeKalb in Bowie County, noted "a small place called Decab ... but I think Decabin the most appropriate name." The Englishman William Bollaert provided us with one of the most striking visual portrayals of the Texas log culture complex in a sketch he made of a farmstead in Montgomery County, north of Houston. In Bollaert's 1843 drawing are thirteen structures, all of logs, including a house, six slave cabins, a smithy, a corncrib, a well, a water trough, and various others.

So greatly has the landscape changed in the past hundred years that today the student of folk architecture must search diligently to find surviving specimens of the log technology. No human endeavors can achieve permanence, least of all wooden craftsmanship. To survive over any significant period of time, wooden architecture must be perpetuated, passing from one generation to the next. In Texas, log construction did not retain the transferral from generation to generation. Most log buildings in the state were erected in the 1800's, and I am aware of none built since 1945.

The precipitous decline of log construction was due in part to a social stigma. Log houses became symbols of the frontier, of backwardness, of deprivation. Status could be gained by discarding the log house and replacing it with one of frame, brick, or stone. At the very least, socially upward-mobile folk were expected to conceal the logs with milled siding. Even as early as 1826, founding father Stephen F. Austin was bearing with resignation his log cross, confessing that "we Still live in log cabins." Jacksonian democracy made it socially acceptable for a presidential candidate to have been born in a log cabin, but it was most assuredly not fitting for the candidate to continue living in one. Lyndon Baines Johnson wished mightily and in weak moments even claimed that he had been born in his grandfather's log house at Johnson City, a house architecturally more elegant by far than his actual frame birthplace, but I never heard that he expressed a desire to live there. It is no accident that the LBJ State Park is dotted with restored log houses but that the nearby Johnson family ranch house is of stone. Ironically, all of the LBJ Park log dwellings were built by Gillespie County Germans, whose descendants rarely supported Johnson politically.

By the third decade of the twentieth century, even birth in a log cabin was no longer socially acceptable. In 1925, a Texan recalling the 1850's was moved to remark that "it was not a disgrace to be born in a log cabin in those days. " Some misguided log house dwellers tacked artificial brick siding onto the exterior walls to conceal their shame. One who did not is a friend of mine--an elderly woman of Indian Creek Community in Cooke County, in the heart of the East Cross Timbers. She was born and raised in her fine dovetailed log house almost eight decades ago, and she has never lived anywhere else. When I first met her in the early 1970's, she was stoically enduring her nonelectric, rough-hewn dwelling as a badge of spinsterhood. "If I had a married, I'd not have to live in a house like this," she maintained. Her brother, who lives nearby, refers contemptuously to the dwelling, his own birthplace, as a "nigger house," though blacks have never lived there. If this woman's attitude has changed since I first visited her home, it is probably because I have brought five hundred or so of my students to look at, admire, measure, and photograph the structure in the intervening years. I suspect, instead, that she regards me and my students as slightly demented.

Perhaps the log house stigma and abandonment were best summed up in excerpts from a poem published in 1886 by Martha Whitten, recalling the Texas log dwelling of her childhood. The poem, "The Dear Old Home," reads in part:

The old house rough hewn--marked by decay
In time was torn from its site away;
One statelier far the acres graced.
The old with the new had been replaced.
It had spacious rooms, and an airy hall,
And roses climbing o'er the outer wall [...]
Thus time and progress have altered all
But still that home with joy we recall.

The decline of residential function is a clear and obvious indication of the threatening disappearance of log houses (Fig. 1-3). Already by the mid-1930's, log farmhouses accounted for only 0.7 percent of all occupied rural dwellings in Texas, according to a government survey." Fifty or sixty years earlier, in the 1870's, the percentage was likely well above fifty. The survey covered a sample of twenty-five Texas counties. The highest percentages and numbers of occupied log farmhouses in the 1930's were found in Big Thicket counties, such as Polk and Orange; in the piney woods of Deep East Texas counties, such as Bowie; in Cooke and other Cross Timbers counties; and in the wooded Hill Country of Central Texas, including the capital county of Travis. The total number of log houses observed in the twenty-five counties was 316. If we assume that the sample counties were representative ones, we can estimate a total of about 3,300 occupied log farmhouses for the entire state in 1934. If we also assume that many log houses covered with siding went undetected in the survey, we might raise the total to perhaps 4,000 or 5,000. Today I would estimate that there are no more than 600 or 700 occupied log houses in Texas, if we exclude those used as hunting cabins or weekend cottages. But such an estimate is tentative at best and impossible to verify. Some people are unaware that the homes they occupy have a log core, so skillfully and so early was the siding applied.

Log structures are much more consumable today as cords of well-seasoned firewood or as ready-made fence posts than as functional dwellings. Grass fires annually take an additional toll of these buildings, and others succumb to rot and insects. Back in the 193o's and 194o's, when big lumber companies were buying up huge chunks of East Texas farmland to put in pine plantations, log houses by the hundreds were bulldozed to attain the lower tax rates awarded to properties containing no residences.

A few log houses have been dragged off to zoolike restoration projects, to stand empty and unused, protected from vandalism by unsightly barbed-wire-crowned link fences or drowned in concrete sidewalks (see Appendix 1).12 An additional handful are restored, with widely varying degrees of accuracy, as conversation pieces or weekend cottages by the wealthy of Houston, Dallas, or some other city.

Bases for Diversity

I suppose I was also attracted to the study of log buildings because my ancestors, Anglo-Americans and Texas Germans alike, constructed and lived in such dwellings. It intrigued me that people as diverse as Deep East Texas Anglos and Hill Country Teutons employed this method of construction. I was also fascinated by the many subtle ways these two groups placed their distinctive cultural imprint on the log buildings they erected. If one error has consistently been made by writers considering Texas log folk architecture, it is an assumption that log construction is a basically uniform phenomenon, that there is only one way to build with logs. As a geographer, I was attracted by the spatial variations I observed in log construction from one part of Texas to another.

This spatial diversity has a number of root causes. One, already implied, involved cultural heritage. Anglo-Americans and Germans were by no means the only ethnic groups in Texas to build log structures. Afro-Americans acquired log building techniques during their slavery years, and many of the finest Texas log houses were built by black slave craftsmen. The typical slave cabin was log. After emancipation, blacks continued to use log construction, and a high percentage of the Depression-vintage log houses were built by blacks. The Cherokees, Choctaws, Alabama-Coushattas, and other immigrant Indian tribes who came from the southeastern United States to East Texas had also adopted log construction from the Anglos, and in fact members of these so-called Civilized Tribes may have erected the first log buildings in Texas, prior to 1815. The Alabama-Coushatta group in the Big Thicket retained log dwellings as their dominant type of housing into the 1930's. The United States governmental officials, who obviously regarded log housing as substandard, in 1928 began replacing the log dwellings of the Alabama-Coushattas with wooden frame homes.

Nor was the log culture complex uniform even within the Anglo-American population. Anglo settlers from the coastal plain of the Deep South or Lower South constructed log buildings different in numerous ways from those built by immigrants from the Upper South, including such interior states as Missouri, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Kentucky. In Texas, the lower southern subculture and its distinctive log architecture were implanted in East Texas, while interior and northern Texas were peopled from the Upper South.

A variety of immigrant groups directly from Europe copied Anglo-American log construction styles after arriving in Texas. Among those were the Germans of south-central Texas, the Norwegians of the Bosque County hills, the Wends or Sorbians of Lee County, the early Czech settlers in Austin and Fayette counties, and some of the Irish Catholics in the border area of Goliad, Refugio, and Victoria counties. The Swiss and Alsatian German colonists in Medina County introduced their own distinctive type of log construction from the hills and mountains of central Europe.

Another basis for the varied development of log architecture in Texas can be found in the physical environment. The pioneers who settled Texas found a diverse land, and their perception of environmental conditions influenced the character of their log structures. The declining size and diminishing frequency of trees to the west through Texas halted the advance of the log culture complex, permitting only scattered and isolated occurrence of log buildings in the western half of the state. Average room size declined in response to the smaller size of trees in west-central Texas. Houses in the tall pine forests of East Texas had rooms measuring 16 to 20 feet or more on a side, while many log dwellings in the West Cross Timbers averaged no more than 12 or 13 feet. In Young County, on the western perimeter of major log construction in Texas, the average log room measured only 10 1/2 x 12 feet, in Comanche County only 12 1/2 x 13 1/2 feet.

The type of wood locally available was also an important variable. Craftsmen in Texas built log structures out of pine, oak, cedar, cottonwood, pecan, cypress, gum, elm, bois d'arc, and probably several other types. Oak, cedar, and pine account for the great majority of Texas log structures. Post oak seems to have been very popular, and cedar was used in preference to other woods wherever it was available. Each wood presented certain advantages and disadvantages to the builder, causing him to choose among alternate techniques. Notch type, roofing, and other facets of the architectural style could be influenced by the type of wood being used.

Perception of local conditions of climate and weather may have encouraged the popularity of one or another type of floorplan. In hot, humid East Texas an open passageway or "dogtrot" was often left in the center of the log house,1s a feature less popular in North Texas, where winter "northers" turned dogtrots into frigid wind tunnels. A log kitchen built separate from the house was another warm climate feature most common in East Texas. The environmental influence was apparent in other, diverse ways. For example, availability or absence of native stone or firing clay could help determine the building material used for foundations and chimneys. Insects, also a feature of the natural setting, influenced the choice of wood type and the style of foundation. Termite infestation meant taller foundations for log houses. In all these ways and more, the physical environment helped shape the details of log folk architecture.

Still another variable in log construction was the level of craftsmanship. Some log buildings were erected by amateur laborers at communal "log rollings" and "house raisings." As a rule, such structures display very crude craftsmanship, and in fact relatively few dwellings of this type survive. Others, including the majority of log houses, were constructed by professional or semiprofessional carpenters working for hire. Not many of their names have passed down to us, but we can find mention of such as Sebe Barnes of Callahan County, Thomas J. Shaw of Parker, S. D. Brown and Alexander Boutwell of Cooke, J. H. Chrisman of Coryell, James Wilson of Panola, and William Richey of Hunt. "Such men will be readily procured," wrote Edward Smith in 1849 concerning northeastern Texas, where the price of a log house ranged from $20 to $75. The cheapest was "a plain log hut, eighteen feet square, with a rough wooden floor," built by two men in two days, while the $75 version was a house of hewn pine logs, containing two rooms "separated by an interval of twelve to fifteen feet," requiring three men three days to finish. If wood other than pine was desired, the price of the deluxe version was raised slightly. Not infrequently these craftsmen were black slaves, as were many antebellum southern artisans of all kinds. For example, the previously mentioned James Wilson, log carpenter from Tennessee, owned a black man named Simpson who was his equal as a craftsman. Together they went from place to place in Panola County building log houses. Some slaveowners rented their black artisans to neighbors for the duration of a house or barn raising.

Even though many log structures were built by professional craftsmen, these buildings are none the less a reflection of folk architecture. These carpenter-craftsmen belonged to the traditional culture and cannot be separated from it. They were unschooled men perpetuating traditional techniques, migrating with the mainstream of Middle Atlantic people, following the flows and eddies of westward movement. In ancestry and culture, they were like the people for whom they built.

It is the log products of these craftsmen that particularly delight the student of folk architecture, and it is the professionally built log structures that will command most of our attention in this book. As a general rule, technologies and items of material culture in traditional societies decline in quality of craftsmanship with increasing distance from the source region, or hearth. In log construction, Texas is colonial to the Delaware Valley and lies on an outer periphery of log building in the United States. As a consequence, the craftsmanship displayed in Texas log architecture is not nearly so high as in Pennsylvania, Virginia, or even Tennessee. I am as chauvinistically Texan as any, but my field observations in the eastern states and in Europe have revealed the Texas structures to be comparatively primitive, on the average. Exceptions can be found-enough to make a study of the Texas log buildings both rewarding and pleasurable. The best Texan ego-builder I have seen is the incredibly well-crafted Zimmerscheidt-Leyendecker log house in the post oak belt north of Columbus in Colorado County, a dwelling attributed to an immigrant German cabinetmaker.

Economic status was another variable to be considered in evaluating folk architecture, particularly the house. Then, as now, a man's wealth or lack of it was reflected in the appearance of his dwelling, even in the early years when virtually everyone lived in log houses. The rich man's log home was larger, taller, and better made than his poorer cultural kinsman's, and more likely to be covered with siding (Fig. r-ro). Because rural wealth and poverty tended to be regionalized within nineteenth-century Texas, an additional regional dimension to log housing resulted.

The architectural variety resulting from differing cultural heritages, physical environments, and levels of prosperity and craftsmanship was pronounced. In a state as culturally, economically, and physically diverse as Texas, considerable regionalization of log architecture was inevitable. Each region boasted its own particular style. This regionalization will be a recurring theme throughout the book.

Perhaps the best way to begin our study is to seek the hearth areas of log construction, to learn how these techniques reached Texas, and to identify the bearers of this architectural tradition. Our quest will take us far into the past, to areas distant from Texas, to alien environments and exotic cultures.

 

By Terry G. Jordan

The late Terry G. Jordan held the Walter Prescott Webb Chair in History and Ideas in the geography department at The University of Texas at Austin.

"So well written that it will appeal not only to folklorists and architectural historians but also to anyone who has ever stopped the car on a Sunday afternoon and walked across a pasture to look at an old house."

—Dallas Morning News

"What is undoubtedly one of the most important books in recent years on Old West architecture . . . will cause many a reader to dream of owning his or her own log cabin far from the bustle of civilization."

—Frontier Times

". . . will bring a new awareness of a vanishing type of architecture and a fresh appreciation of the surviving log structures."

—Houston Post

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