The log cabin, one of the most vivid and enduring symbols of America's pioneer days, is staging a comeback.
Ronald and Nancy Reagan have one on the West Coast, a string of them at Camp David, and there are another one million standing all across the country today.
But the modern version of the rustic cabin usually is far from the rough, hand-cut model that our ancestors built for the price of tools and the sweat of their brows.
Now, log cabins or houses--about 75,000 new ones a year--are mechanically stamped out in "log-home centers" in Canada and the Pacific mountain states. Their owners are likely to be doctors, lawyers and other professionals who can afford the $70,000 starting ticket for the log shell and the other hidden costs that drive owning a log home well beyond the $100,000 price range.
More than 200 companies are now in the log home business. Some have huge computerized factories, nationwide dealerships and other corporate characteristics. There are also custom builders who will make whatever you are willing to pay for.
But for the purist, Northern Virginia has one of a mere handful of master craftsmen who build log homes and cabins in the traditional manner.
Charles McRaven, historian and teacher of the art to students from Canada to Missouri, restores and builds log homes and recently completed a three-part series of books on the craft. With his wiry frame, hollow cheeks and wire-rimed glasses, the bearded 46-year-old McRaven looks the part of the rough-cut pioneer he emulates. But he has a Ph.D. in journalism, and is a novelist and lecturer.
He lives on a farm north of Charlottsville and currently is restoring a 1740s inn near there.
On weekends, he and his wife Linda, a former editor of National Geographic, and their children hold open house for visitors wanting to hear McRaven lecture on the art and science of log building.
"What makes log homes so attractive to many people these days," he told some recent visitors from Washington, "is that they're beautiful to look at inside and out, they are extremely energy efficient, and if you own one you can have this almost perverse satisfaction in knowing that your home isn't a mass-produced piece of junk that's liable to require major repairs before the mortgage is fully paid."
Indeed, log buildings are second only to underground dwellings in terms of energy-efficiency, reports the National Bureau of Standards, and log structures can last an extraordinarily long time. The oldest log structure in Europe is a small church in Sussex, England, dating from the Seventh Century, while Japan boasts a log temple dating back to the Fourth Century.
"The home I'm building," McRaven explains, "will probably take me another two years to finish, but when completed it should last 400 years, at least. I imagine by then nearby Charlottesville will have gobbled up all the county, and my two-story home will be right downtown. But there is no doubt that with care this building will pass through many generations."
The Americanization of log cabins wasn't exactly what our forebearers had in mind when they landed. The first British settlers to the New World in the early 1600s were mostly town dwellers whose first desire was to reduce the forests to whipsawn boards to build homes like the ones they had back in England. Housed temporarily in huts of sailcloth, branches and thatch, they endured miserable weather and Indian attacks as they struggled to transplant England to American shores.
It was only in 1638 that the real American log cabin made its appearance with the arrival of Swedish settlers on the Delaware River near what today is Wilmington. The canny Swedes and the Finns, Germans and other Nordic types who came from well-forested parts of Europe, quickly realized the enormous potential of the unlimited woodland here and built what is widely acknowledged to be the first log cabins in the United States.
As it happened, two distinct building techniques developed as settlers pushed inland from the Atlantic shore. One was to quickly fell trees and slap together the rounded logs to provide immediate temporary shelter as the frontier family struggled to settle in the virgin land. These "round" log cabins were cold, damp and drafty, but gave the settlers enough time to construct a hewn home later on when things got easier.
The hewn home, it seems, could withstand the weather and climate better than the round logs and, in fact, most round log cabins disappeared long ago. Today, practically the only surviving cabins of the frontier days are hewn-log buildings.
"Hewing logs is definitely hard work," McRaven told one group of Sunday visitors touring a restoration job of his. "But the hewn-log house survived the seasons and wear of generations because it was best. Best for the needs of the people, in best harmony with the land."
"Log-home building is nothing but hard work, and can be dangerous if you don't know what you're doing," McRaven said. "Yet in the end, our pioneers made it, and when a building was done, it was a festive occasion with friends and neighbors showing up to help finish the work and feast and celebrate. If you really care about this authentic American art form, maybe you can do it too."
McRaven's house is open, free, to a limited number of visitors on fair weather weekends only. The farm is about an hour's drive from Washington. For directions, phone ahead at (804) 973-4859.