By Joseph Robertia
Measure twice, cut once is a rule all carpenters know when working with boards. When working with logs, even more precision is required. This is particularly true when attempting to replicate not only the style of craftsmen who have been dead more than 100 years, but when trying to duplicate their unique notches for holding old cabins together.
“It seems like you’ll get it figured out, but then another problem comes up, but it’s fun to solve the problem,” said Bud Crawford, one of a handful of volunteers who have been spending their winter weekends restoring the historic Watchman’s Cabin, which now resides at the Kasilof Regional Historical Society’s McLane Center Museum.
In October 2009, the cabin — built between 1882 and the late 1890s — was moved from near the mouth of the Kasilof River’s northern side to the museum on Kalifornsky Beach Road in Kasilof, where roughly six other historic structures — in addition to numerous outbuildings and caches — already reside for preservation purposes.
“We’re getting there,” Crawford said. “We’re making progress, but it’s a challenge trying to match what the old-timers did.”
The Watchman’s Cabin, considering the period it was built in, was nothing short of a
mansion. With a later addition, the total structure is 33 feet wide by 35 feet long, has two stories and seven rooms, so there has been a lot of cabin to restore. In addition, the Watchman’s Cabin appears to have been built by one craftsman, and then later had an addition put on by someone who was still skilled at working with logs, but much less so than the original builder.
“The main cabin used a step-and-latch notch from Bohemia. It’s the only one I know of on the Kenai Peninsula. A dovetail — which is more of a Finnish-Swedish notch — is much more common in this area, and what we’ve got on the addition,” said Gary Titus, historian for the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, who, on his days off, oversees the cabin restoration work being done on the cabin.
The unique notch of the main cabin doesn’t look terribly complex from the outside, but once the logs are separated it becomes clear that the unique angles of the notch lock the logs in place much more firmly than a typical dovetail.
“Looking straight at it, it doesn’t look like much,” Crawford said. “But once you understand the angle and how it locks, it’s a better notch. It won’t allow the log to creep out.”
Still, understanding it and replicating it are two different things, and Crawford said re-making this Bohemian notch, particularly with traditional tools, was initially a bit of an undertaking.
“Compared to this, the dovetail and square notches were a piece of cake,” he said.
Despite the challenges, Titus said the Watchman’s Cabin restoration was proceeding more quickly than he anticipated.
“It’s coming along very well,” he said. “We’ve done a few of these now, so we get a little quicker with each one.”
So far, the cabin and the addition have had nearly all of the bottom three logs on each side replaced.
“The building was sitting on the ground, so the lower logs were basically gone, just rotten to the point of very little of them left,” Titus said.
The freshly hewn new logs, with their bright brown appearance, are a strong contrast to the original logs resting above them. Titus said that, before long, they’ll all look the same.
“The logs on the main building are already turning gray from weathering,” he said. “A year from now, you won’t be able to tell any difference.”
A subfloor has been put down inside the main building, and Titus said the plan is to
duplicate the tongue-and-groove floor that was originally there. A staircase to the second floor still needs to be constructed, at least one interior log wall needs to be rebuilt, doors need to be hung, the ceiling needs repairs and there’s still finishing work to complete.
“The main mission was to stabilize it, but some state grants gave us some extra money, so we also have some windows to put in,” said Catherine Cassidy, a KRHA board member. The windows are made of real glass and are six- or eight-pane replicas of the original windows.
Numerous large windows were uncommon during a time when it was difficult to heat buildings. Evidence indicates there was also wallpaper covering the interior of the main cabin — another extravagance for the era.
“We’d like to find wallpaper to match it,” Titus said.
Several other finishing items are still being sought to get the cabin “museum ready” by next year, since interpretive history is as much a goal of the KPHA as preserving the old structures.
“We’d like any old artifacts, photographs or information people have about this cabin,” Titus said. “It’s not just restoring these old cabins, it’s saving them to share our history, to show the skill, muscle and ingenuity the people of this era used to put these things together and how they lived in them.”
In addition to artifacts, Titus said volunteers are still needed to help complete the work ahead. People of all levels of building ability are welcome, and all necessary tools are provided.
“We could use some carpenters and skilled people like that,” he said. “But we could also use people who don’t have any experience with tools and just want to learn. We’ll take anyone, even if they can only come for an hour a week.”
High school or college students and classes, particularly those focusing on history, archaeology, anthropology, woodworking or engineering, are welcome to assist with the project.
Volunteers usually work from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. every Saturday. Work will continue through April. For more information on becoming a volunteer, contact Titus in the evening, by calling 260-5410.