I just love things old. Houses, furniture, things with history, beauty, character and that patina that comes with the bestowal of nature’s slow grace. It was this love that led me, long ago, to a simple cottage in the woods that seemed to have the potential for something beautiful to be created. A clear stream meandering through the underbrush had me immediately visualizing the pond that it might sustain. The cottage definitely need something, though having once been a country getaway for a Toronto Symphony violinist it already had a bit of soul. I had in mind some ideas to renovate the place with more traditional lines, add a fireplace, some beamwork perhaps, but it was such a small place, certainly not fit or large enough for year-round living. and I knew I wanted to live in the country. I never did feel at home in the big stink. What to do? I opted to ‘trade city soot for sylvan charm’ as advertised in one of my favorite movies, “Mr. Blandings builds his Dream House”
The cottage was about the size of a summer kitchen wing often found sprouting off the back of a typical mid-19th-century farmhouse, the abandoned kind I’d been sketching and poking around in for years. If I could just find one of those early log houses I’ve always admired to add on to this thing, that could do it. The character. Dimension. The drama.
Fact was, the more I thought about it, it was the perfect place to house all those early Canadian antiques that looked ok in our rented suburban bungalow but was poor context for them, to say the least. The narrow hardwood floors, tiny cramped rooms, the lack of a working fireplace, so many things shouted…get out! So, after wild goose chasing to the far corners of Ontario looking for such a building I eventually came across a pile of disassembled logs one blizzardy day coincidentally, very close to the cottage property. was fortune smiling or what? A neighbor had saved them from a crazy farmer who was loading them up into a pile for burning. seems he was ridding himself of this 150-year-old heap to make room for his dream home- a brick bungalow like the one we couldn’t wait to vacate. What a riot!
So I paid the neighbor, got the logs to the site, puzzled over the scratch of paper that tried to make sense of the order of log wall building and, after some confusion began to erect these mammoth logs carved from Ontario’s virgin forest. Or rather, ‘Tiny’, the six- foot-six, two-hundred-and-fifty-pound crane operator erected them with some direction from the novice owner. Things clicked into place pretty well thanks to the brave and talented craftsmen who had hewn the logs with their tight-fitting dovetails so may years ago. If it didn’t fit tight and plumb it was our best clue that we were hoisting the wrong log. The granite cornerstones for the chimney were retrieved from nearby barn foundations and laid by a local stonemason. the fireplace with its bake oven and hearth I copied from the early 18th century ‘Indian House’ in Deerfield Mass.
Soon we had roof decking, a set of period-style windows in place and a second floor loft. a few mistakes were made, of course. I chose hand-split cedar shakes for the roof and ened up shoveling them off a couple of years later, replacing them with sawn shingles. It was nice to keep the weather out. And when I contracted for the chinking between the logs I came home from work one day to find the interior of the logs partially covered with cement mortar. Not what I had in mind! Fortunately, I caught it in time before it set up rock hard. A few days later we had scraped and cleaned back to the wonderful texture and color of wood.
In trying to find some history of the house one piece of information seemed to ring true, though to this day is unsubstantiated. Evidently, the survey crews delegated by General Brock to map the counties would erect a survey station every so many miles apart. The surveyors were also very skilled at building with the trees available. This particular house used immense timbers the likes of which I had never seen till then and seldom since. It didn’t appear to be something thrown up quickly by a farmer impatient for shelter.
So here we were with this great room 22 ft. by 30 ft. to furnish. It cried out for the good stuff. It seems our early stuff was the right stuff. The furnishings seemed to feel right at home at last. We did too. Many trips to those period villages both in Canada and the U.S. gave inspiration and ideas, not to mention, they were buying trips too.
We had to furnish the antique shop. Yes, the one we built at the end of the lawn. Not that you could call it lawn. We were, after all, chopping our place out of the woods like pioneers. The shop was for the spillage, those items we couldn’t find room for in the house. and it was fun to restore pieces and meet others who appreciated them as much as we did. actually, we were sort of rebels in the game in that we very soon realized the mistake of stripping furniture and attempted to persuade clients to take the items home in their beautiful early colors. Nowadays, those pieces go for a Prime Minister’s ransom. Well, maybe more that that. So how come I have so few of them?
Friends and visitors seemed to love the log house as much as we did. Next thing I knew I was persuaded to build something similar for a friend and his wife. They too, wanted a more appropriate place for their antique collection. Well, one led to the next and it soon became another vocation with me and a couple of enthusiastic workmates travelling around Ontario salvaging, restoring and re-erecting period log homes on wonderful country sites.
It was a challenge sometimes, sourcing these pioneer homes. Often, after we had hunted them down, those that were abandoned and available, they’d turn out to be beyond help. They had served their owners well during the settlement era and then some. Once evacuated however, and left to nature’s elements without care they went the way of all things. But there were a few worth saving. sometimes we found them complete with doors, beautiful hand-wrought ceiling beams, and floors of wide tongue-and-groove pine. and occasionally, the early fireplace mantle still stood on the gable end wall with the cooking crane hanging ready for the next kettle. If the roof survived to keep the logs dry, the buildings stood as firm as the day they were built. We were often amazed at the skill and endurance that obviously went into most of these structures with broadaxe, chisel, horsepower and lots of human sweat as they rose in the most remote areas. I remember once we found one so far back behind a lake we had to skid the logs out a few at a time over the snow with horse, a lesson taken from the past.
Ontario’s white pine was preferred for its malleability and its insulative ability but we did find buildings occasionally of elm or ash and could only imagine the extra effort that building them might have taken. And today, after so many years, my respect for our forefather’s strength and character never diminishes but only grows. I continue to build in the tradition that gave us the log home and always delight in finding the next one to pass on to those of like mind who have the desire for preservation, heritage and beauty.
After many happy years and fond memories of living in the log house, my first real home, I did move on, designing and building in their early forms. But that’s another story. I cannot say however, that I’ve felt more comfortable or at home in them than there in the woods by the stream in that house of log.