September 2, 2014

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Log cabins: firm foundation of pioneer life and beyond

By Jim Langham

The logs were silent but the memories they ignited were alive and filled with love when I recently had the opportunity to spend time with a family as they saw the original hewn structure around which their farm home had been built.

Their home place, an old country homestead, was being torn down; beneath the current structure was a log house, still in good shape, that had served as the original family homestead on which other walls were later built. They had heard about the cabin, but to see it standing before their eyes in person was gripping. Family legend had it that the log structure was constructed prior to the Civil War.

As they embraced a precious family heritage, their memories opened the doors to the shelter in my heart where I kept my own log cabin memories – from two homes.

I will never forget that day in 1978 when dear friend Meredith Sprunger and I visited the old home place where I had been raised after it had been torn down. We had been aware that, like the home visited last week, it, too, was a log house, rumored to have been built around 1850.

Occasionally we would get glimpses of the log structure, like the day that my mom and aunt wallpapered the living room. When they removed the previous paper, some plaster fell, giving us all a glance of the logs and chinking that made up the original structure. During some remodeling, I recall the amazement of family members at the site of the sturdy structure that had been constructed from trees felled not far from the Wabash River.

On the day we revisited the property, the structure itself laid in one big heap, but the memories that came back created an emotional reminiscing flashback that took me into the heart of my childhood. There were pieces of the wallpaper that I remembered from the day referred to earlier in this column. There was the sidewalk that had led from our back door to the garage, to the barn and to the driveway where my first basketball goal had stood.

Right behind the fallen house, there was still a small worn portion in the yard indicating the spot where we had gathered by home plate to play baseball as the neighborhood gang. And there, much closer than what it had seemed back then, stood the cherry tree that had served as the home run “fence” where I hit my first homer from a pitch served up by Meredith.

For me, it was like having a magical moment for time travel to go back to the very foundation of the old home place, the log structure where I had been raised.

But that wasn’t the only log structure that was part of our family tree. Four miles to the east, on the property of a farm once owned by my great-grandpa, stood a tool shed; the north and west sides of the shed were clearly log with chinking. It was the original log cabin where my grandmother had been born.

Nearly 30 years ago, I had the unique opportunity to take my grandma’s brother, Manes Hirschy, age 101, but still clear mentally, to that very spot. As he carefully stepped into the structure with his walker, he said, “Here is where the wash basin stood; there was the living room, there was the kitchen, there was the mom and dad’s bedroom and there was where the ladder was that your grandma climbed to her loft.”

In one of the most treasured moments of my life, I actually received a “tour” of the log cabin my great-grandfather Hirschy had built when he and my great-grandmother came to America from Switzerland.

In fact, family legend has it that my Grandma Lena sat on the front porch of that cabin and read the German Bible at 11 p.m. by the light of surrounding fires that were burning off the brush and trees when farmland was being cleared to establish the Swiss heritage farms in the area.

And following her Bible reading, she would pray for her family and all of those generations that would live after her.

It’s no wonder that those who have the heritage of log houses in their family backgrounds still experience the sturdiness of a family tree filled with love ... the hard work that built the log houses was an indication of the care our ancestors had for freedom, faith and an opportunity to establish a new beginning for hope that our families experience today.