How did the pioneers build? (PART 1 of Pioneer Series)

Houses and barns were built much differently during pioneer days. I actually grew up in a house built in the 1820’s. You can ask anyone who has ever remodeled one of these beauties, not one angle is square, nor does one wall measure the same distance, but as many of the same people will tell you, these houses will stand hundreds of years more.

Houses were built from logs cut from a building site. Pioneers typically kept their homes small, one room buildings. First, they would have needed to clear the land. This included cutting down trees and removing stumps. These trees would be used in the family log cabin. Straight logs were selected and cut to 12’-16’~ to create cabins from 12’x12’-16’-16’.

For the foundation, a pioneer would have picked an area already somewhat flat. Flat rocks(possibly found in riverbeds or from the building site) would have been used at the corners of the building to provide a foundation. Grass and other weeds would have been removed to clear the area.

Pioneers did not use screws or bolts, as commonly used in modern-day log cabins, but instead cut notches into the ends of the logs, then stacked them together. Men often built cabins on their own, but usually achieved around 6’ tall, alone. With help, a cabin could be lofted, reaching up to 12’ tall. Once the walls were built, mud or clay would have been used to seal the cracks in between.

The floors would have been left dirt, but some pioneers opted for cut logs for flooring. They would have cut a few windows for ventilation and light, but would have covered these windows with quilts or whatever they had to keep the heat in, and cold out. One man would have finished a cabin in around 2 weeks, but the clearing and cutting would have taken additional time.

Here’s a video of cabin notching!

With families of, often seven+, a loft would have been a welcome addition of space! This small space would have included a stone fireplace, or a cast iron stove/heater. This would have provided cooking and heat for the family during the winter.

These old logs would have grown harder than the commercially grown lumber we have, today. Pine trees would not have been such a “soft” wood and oak would have been significantly harder than the fresh-cut oak we farm, today.

I had the privilege as a teenager of cutting a tree from our farm to use for a barn. We selected a large white oak, then had the lumber rough-cut. Not only did this one tree provide all the framing for our 24x24 pole barn, but we had lumber left over. Once the wood was dry, it required pre-drilled homes to nail up, and is virtually rot-free to this day. These are the types of resilient trees the pioneers would have selected to build with!

When we built our run-in for our horses, on our own farm, I could not believe how soft the store-bought wood is. We used six 4x4 posts, and ended up purchasing a seventh after one of the posts busted simply from being dropped on the ground. Lumber grown today is harvested at a younger age, therefore yielding softer, less resilient wood.

Another method of building for pioneers would have been using cut lumber. Log cabins provided more insulation, but for a pioneer with a friend, lumber could have been used. To cut this lumber, a log would have been laid over, and a double-handed saw would have been used to cut the log into rough boards. This would have been a chore!

Here’s a video of logs being milled by hand!

Barns were built from one of two methods. Either as a log cabin, as houses often were, or with milled lumber over a log frame. According to The Crooked Lake Review, 28’x33’ or 28’x40’ were common dimensions for pioneer built barns. This would have been large enough to pull wagons into and pitch hay, but not so large hay should be carried over a long distance to the wagon.

During this time animals were often just turned out with the elements, with little need for a barn. With this, animals grazed and fed themselves from the land. This reduced the need for hay storage.

When homesteads grew into farms and a need for several barns arose, these extra barns would have been built far away from one another. If a fire were to start, this would help prevent all barns being engulfed.

Pioneers worked hard, and often alone, to build houses, not only when they reached their destination, but they built their homesteads in the land they left. A pioneer could have easily built homes or barns using these methods at least twice in their lives. Young men often helped fathers or neighbors build cabins, then would build their own cabins once an engagement or marriage was imminent. After traveling, they would undergo this again, to build their own cabins and help neighbors(if they had any) build their homestead barns and homes.

Their methods were much different than modern-day technology. Their houses were smaller, but they were built with limited tools, like hammers and saws. No cordless drills, or even corded ones for that matter. Just their own, two hands!

That’s it for part one of my twelve-part pioneer series! Tune in on Wednesdays and Fridays to find out more about the pioneers!


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