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Cabin restorers work to preserve a peek into the past

Building History

Posted: Sunday, April 08, 2007

 

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  Gary Titus, historian and cabin restorer for the Kasilof Regional Historical Society, points to one of seven inscriptions on the back wall of the cabin, several from Andrew Berg, and at least one from Emil Berg, Andrew's brother. Some of the inscriptions date back to 1914.

A historic cabin recently moved to the Kasilof Regional Historical Society's McLane Center Museum property is believed to have been a trapping cabin for Victor Holm, a Finnish immigrant who came to the Kasilof area around 1890.

When Gary Titus, historian and cabin restorer for the Kasilof Regional Historical Society, first laid eyes on the dilapidated cabin, he initially didn’t have much hope or interest in attempting to save it from crumbling back to the earth.

 

One look is all it takes to determine that the top logs are different than the rest of the cabin's logs. "The top logs are the giveaway that there was a prior builder. I don't think Holm built the cabin, but maybe that he found it and finished it," Titus said.

A tree had fallen onto the old cabin at some point, destroying much of the roof and allowing the elements to increase the deterioration of the roof rafters and top support log. The remaining roof, with shingles made from old salmon canning tins, was a deep shade of orange from years of rust eating away at the metal. The three lower logs of all four walls had sunk into the ground and almost completely rotted away. Inside the cabin, the plank floor was nearly gone and what was left was not salvageable.

“It was in bad shape,” he said.

 

Numbered notes helped Titus inventory the logs. He marked each and every one so if the cabin did come apart during transport, it could be reassembled and restored to its original condition to preserve the architectural value of the cabin.

Titus thought the turn of the last century domicile was too far gone, just like an old dog house near the cabin built in the same period, he said. Complicating matters, Tutus and the dozen or so folks that make up his volunteer cabin restoration crew were worn out from having spent all last winter moving the Erickson Riverside Silver Fox Ranch to the historical society’s McLane Center Museum property in Kasilof, so the prospect of starting a new project, much less one that would require as much work as this cabin would take, wasn’t too enticing.

Fate intervened.

 

Gary Titus, historian and cabin restorer for the Kasilof Regional Historical Society, points to one of seven inscriptions on the back wall of the cabin, several from Andrew Berg, and at least one from Emil Berg, Andrew's brother. Some of the inscriptions date back to 1914.

While inspecting the inside of the old structure, Titus had one foot punch through what was left of the rotten floorboards. As he attempted to free himself, he leaned onto the back wall for support. In doing so his eyes fell upon a faint pencil inscription on one of the logs. All that was written was “April 6, 1914 Rained like hell,” but somehow the writing seemed familiar to him.

Titus took a closer look and saw another scribbling. This one read “April 7, 1917 Came acrost country from Hugos A.B.” As Titus read it, he knew immediately why it looked familiar. He deduced from the handwriting, and initials A.B., that this “graffiti” was left by Andrew Berg, the Finnish immigrant who’s journal Titus had spent countless hours transcribing for the book on Berg, called “Alaska’s No. 1 Guide” that he co-authored with fellow historical society board member Catherine Cassidy.

“When I saw that, the writing on the back wall, I knew we had to save this cabin,” he said.

 

Bob Nilles, a cabin restoration crew volunteer, saws a log using a method similar to that used by Victor Holm. Roughly a dozen volunteers took part in the cabin restoration process.

There were seven inscriptions in the cabin, several from Andrew Berg and at least one from Emil Berg, Andrew’s brother. Titus said he was thankful Reubin Payne, the Kasilof resident whose property the cabin resided on, had asked him to check it out, and that he, along with Grant Fritz of Kasilof, had agreed to donate the structure to the historical society.

“(Reubin Payne) had bought the property and wanted to build a house. This old cabin was in the way, but he recognized the historical significance of it,” Titus said.

In summer of 2006, the process began to move the cabin from Payne’s property on the north side of the Kasilof River roughly 1.5 miles upriver from the Sterling Highway Bridge, over the waterway to the historical society’s McLane Center Museum property where it could be restored.

“It was a tough decision whether to take it all apart or leave it together to move it,” Cassidy said.

 

Erik Huebsch screws a support cross-board into new logs that replaced the old, rotten ones that were closest to the ground. Many supports were attached to the cabin to shore it up before moving it.

Completely disassembling the cabin and then reassembling it is the safest way to go, but it’s also a lot of work. Leaving the cabin in one piece is less time consuming, but there is no guarantee that the structure may not collapse in the process.

In the end, Cassidy said the decision was made to do a little bit of both.

“We took the porch off, and then shored up the roof sticking off with cross boards to support it. Then we just jacked it up high enough to get (Grant Fritz’s) hay trailer under it and hauled it out,” she said.

Titus also photographically documented the cabin and took and inventory of the logs -- marking each and every one -- so if it did come apart during transport it could be reassembled and restored to its original condition to preserve the architectural value of the cabin, he said.

Cassidy said watching the cabin moving on the trailer down the rural path off the property was the most unnerving part of the process.

“It was so rough with so many dips, you could see the cabin rocking. At times I wondered if we made the right decision,” she said.

But the cabin made it to its new home at the McLane Center no worse for the wear. Once there, historians began learning what a precious historical item the cabin really was.

In addition to the “graffiti” on the back wall -- which Titus said predates Berg’s own journal by six to seven years -- several scraps of newspaper, used as chinking, were found. Some of these scraps came from as far away as San Francisco and were dated as far back as July 3, 1910.

“We found the scraps between door frames and logs. They used to stuff newspaper in there as insulation,” Titus said.

The scraps have since been moved to the McLane Center Museum for preservation and storage, he added.

Titus and Cassidy went back through Berg’s diary and were able to find references to the cabin. They interviewed Kasilof sourdough George Pollard for any old stories about the cabin. Between these two research methods they determined who they believe lived there.

“George Pollard remembers it always being called the Victor Holm cabin. He remembered playing in it as a boy, and he even found an unusual trap next to the creek near the cabin,” Titus said.

Victor Holm is another well-known historical figure. A Finnish immigrant, he came to the Kasilof area around 1890 to help build and work at a cannery at the mouth of the Kasilof River. Holm had a homestead in another area of Kasilof with a larger cabin that was added to the National Register of Historic Places in a collaborative effort between the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and the Kachemak Heritage Land Trust and underwent major restoration in 2004.

It is believed that this smaller cabin was possibly a trapping cabin used by Holm.

Berg’s journal, in three separate entries, seemed to support that Holm resided at the cabin for at least some period of time. In the most revealing entry, dated Oct. 21, 1927, Berg wrote “Went late foornoon to Abbs mixed som oil started up river about three o’clock got to Victors Cabinn in one hour eight minutes.”

This travel times from a known location greatly helped Titus and Cassidy determine the cabin Berg was headed toward was, indeed, the same one now at the McLane Center Museum property.

Log structure inventory and the restoration process in general revealed subtle clues that Holm had not only lived in the cabin, but may have finished building it.

“The top logs are the giveaway that there was a prior builder. I don’t think Holm built the cabin, but maybe that he found it and finished it. Or, he was a big guy, so maybe he found it and made it taller,” Titus said.

One look is all it takes to determine that the top logs are different than the rest of the cabin’s logs.

“The lower logs still have the bark on them, are round and put together with a sloppy saddle notch in the corner joints. But the top logs, they’re squared logs, hewn on two sides and put together with a square notch, just like Victor Holm’s other cabins,” he said.

As to who initially started the cabin, though, Cassidy said there is no way to say for certain.

“The style just isn’t distinctive enough to say conclusively,” she said.

Titus said wood core samples have been taken and saved for historic dating. These samples could be tested to determine when the trees used for the log walls were cut, which could give an indication when the cabin was built and when it was finished.

This technique for dating logs has been used on Holm’s homestead cabin, and revealed ?— based on lower logs being younger than upper logs -- that at some point the cabin was jacked up and had four more logs inserted underneath it.

Funding is sought to date the wood core samples for the Holm trapping cabin.

In the meantime, restoration work has wrapped up, according to Titus

“We’re hoping to have it museum ready -- finished and open to the public -- by this summer,” he said.

In preparation for the opening, Titus said the historical society is seeking photographs of the cabin in its original location and donations for items to include in the cabin to make it more interpretive about the pioneering lifestyle.

“We still have the original door knobs, a table and an old bed that will go back in, but we’re looking for other items -- an old wood stove with piping, cast iron pots and pans, granite wear dishes, kerosene lanterns, old axes and saws, basically anything that would fit into a 1930s trapping cabin,” he said.

Titus said asking the public for donations is appropriate because they are the ones who will benefit from it.

“These old cabins represent an era that’s gone. It’s important to save these cabins to show how the people that settled this area lived. A time when the living room, dining room and recreation room were all one in the same,” he said.

Cassidy said the cabin restoration is part of meeting the historical society’s goals as an institution. Their objectives include collecting any materials that pertain to the history of the area, providing for the preservation and accessibility of such material and disseminating this historical information about the area.

“This is a special place, and through these cabins we have an opportunity to appreciate and understand the past. It’s valuable to understand what people went through to enjoy this part of the world, at a time when it was hard to get here and even harder to live here,” she said.

Titus said another reason for preserving the cabin for future generations should be the most obvious.

“As time goes on, cabins like these, they’ll only get rarer,” he said.

Joseph Robertia can be reached at joseph.robertia@peninsulaclarion.com.



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