Volunteers work to restore historic Victor Holm cabin

Posted: Sunday, May 30, 2004

In 1944, after spending half a century on the Kenai Peninsula, a Finnish immigrant named Victor Holm left his well-stocked Kasilof cabin and headed out of town. He would never return.

Now, 60 years after he wandered off, a group of historic-minded individuals has undertaken the task of restoring Holm's turn-of-the-century cabin to its original condition.

The Kachemak Heritage Land Trust, a Homer-based nonprofit preservation society, recently conducted an extensive preservation workshop at the cabin site. According to KHLT Executive Director Barbara Seaman, the idea of holding a hands-on workshop at the site fit perfectly with her group's goal of saving local history for future generations.

"Our mission is to preserve historic buildings, and this definitely fits," Seaman said while watching 20 workshop students busily going about the business of restoring a cabin Holm built by hand in the late 1800s.

Why Holm left and never came back is a mystery that has puzzled many over the years. According to Seaman, it's believed he went to live with family in San Francisco. However, based on the fact that he left so many belongings behind, it's unclear whether he intended to return.

But while the circumstances surrounding his departure from the peninsula are murky, Holm's life and times are still here for anyone to see. That's because when he left, all his belongings from newspaper clippings to cooking gear and everything in between were left in his rustic log cabin overlooking the Kasilof River.

What's known about Holm is somewhat thin and based mainly on accounts of other early settlers. It's believed he lived alone and, along with fellow pioneers like the well-known hunting guide Andrew Berg, worked as a guide when the area was a popular big game hunting area.

The contents of the building were preserved by the Lewis family, which bought Holm's property shortly after he left. The Lewises later donated the simple, one-room cabin along with another, larger one Holm built later to the land trust, which is working with the Kasilof Historical Society to preserve the property and belongings.

 

Instructor Gary Titus, right, and Andy Johnsgaard of Bear Creek, Yukon, talk about log notching techniques at one of the workshop's stations.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

The historic items were saved and preserved by the historical society, but the cabin itself which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places had begun to rot and sink into the ground. Its lower logs were crumbling, and unless someone stepped in, Seaman said the peninsula was in danger of losing what is believed to be its second-oldest building.

Although her organization is generally more familiar with securing conservation land easements than rebuilding cabins, Seaman said she'd be willing to give it a try.

"I didn't think we were going to become a historic preservation organization,"she said.

However, Seaman said she decided the site was too important to forget, so she began to look into finding a way to make the restoration effort happen.

Her first stop was the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, which every year spends hundreds of hours restoring historic cabins located throughout the refuge's 1.92 million acres.

Refuge manager Gary Titus said when Seaman asked for his help, he was more than willing to lend a hand to the effort. Although the cabin is not in the refuge, he said part of the refuge staff's job is to help the surrounding community however it can and the cabin project definitely fit that description.

"The refuge is here to help and support the community," Titus said.

Additionally, he said the cabin project was a good way to get his cabin restoration crew ready for a long summer of work. The refuge has a crew of three or four workers who spend the majority of their time on old cabins, and Titus said helping out with the workshop seemed like a perfect way to get them in shape.

 

Ed Berg of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge teaches workshop participants how to use core samples to date wood.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

"It sharpens their techniques," he said. "I look at this as training for my crew."

With the refuge crew on board, Seaman said she decided the best way to proceed would be to advertise the project as a workshop and see who showed up. That way, she could take a project that normally would mean a lot of thankless work for a few individuals, and instead get a number of people working on the project as a learning experience.

"It seemed to me the best solution was to do the Tom Sawyer thing," she said, laughing.

Seaman began advertising the project on the Internet and in magazines, and in no time, she said she had an international group of 15 participants who each ponied up $400 for a week of hard labor.

Workshop participants came to the project work site earlier this month from a variety of backgrounds. There was a museum director from Kodiak, concerned citizens from Anvik working on a project of their own back home, archaeologists from Anchorage, a Canadian cabin preservationists and even a wildlife refuge maintenance worker who came all the way from Georgia.

Seaman said the idea behind the workshop was to show people the correct way to preserve historic cabins something that involves a lot more than just replacing a few rotten logs.

"We're doing this very much by the book, and that's important," she said. "We're not just ripping and tearing here."

Besides replacing old logs with new ones, workers were required to keep track of every last splinter they removed from the cabin. In addition, photos had to be taken and everything documented.

 

Participants use muscle power and teamwork to move a section of a small building that needed to be relocated. The structure's purpose is not known, but the most popular theory was that it was a food cache.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

It was a complicated task, but something the workers said was well-worth their time, money and effort.

Stacey Becklund is the museum director for the Baranoff Museum in Kodiak. She said she attended the workshop as a way to learn a new skill and to pick up on terminology used by people who restore similar buildings something that's important in Kodiak, home to the oldest Russian buildings in North America.

"Now I kind of know what to look at," Becklund said, taking a break from replacing logs on the Holm cabin.

"It's extremely important for my job to have the right language to communicate with people who come (to Kodiak) to do specific work," she said.

And getting to get in and get dirty is the best part of the job, she said.

"Hands-on learning is so much more effective as a learning tool as opposed to sitting in a classroom," she said.

The Holm workshop itself was split up into several smaller units. While one group of students worked to replace logs on the main structure, another was busy preparing the logs to be put in. Meanwhile, on another part of the property, another group was getting lessons on wood coring for historic dating while still another small group worked to uncover the mystery behind a small wooden cache on a deserted corner of the property.

To keep things interesting, the groups would switch stations every couple of hours as a way to break up the work. Seaman said the idea was to keep the participants interested while at the same time giving them a wide range of cabin preservation skills.

 

Andy Johnsgaard photographs unique notching found on a small structure participants disassembled and moved.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

"All these people are going to go home knowing how to do it and knowing how to teach other people to do it," she said.

Everette Sikes knew a little about historic cabins before he came to Alaska, but not enough to do any kind of historic preservation work.

Sikes said he spends the majority of his time doing maintenance in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in Georgia. However, when two cabins in the park were recently named to the National Register of Historical places, he said his boss decided to send him north in order to learn how to care for the cabins.

 

Labels detail pieces of a small building that had to be moved. Instructor Gary Titus advised students on how to proceed with the project. "Three words before you begin: Document. Document. Document," he said.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

"There's state and federal guidelines you have to go by that I didn't know much about," he said while using an adze to scrape bark from a spruce timber.

He admitted he was lucky to get a trip all the way to Alaska in order to learn the specialized work of cabin restoration.

"They don't send many maintenance people this far on workshops," he said, in between swings with the long, sharp tool.

While Sikes was busy with the manual labor, his workshop supervisor, Kenai refuge worker Temperance Taylor, looked on. Taylor, who spends all summer doing grunt cabin restoration work, seemed to enjoy the role of taskmaster.

"There's more than enough work here for everybody," she said.

Taylor said she and her colleagues benefit from the experience of showing others how to do the work, although she's found that being on the other side of the job isn't as easy as it appears.

"Teaching is hard work," she said.

 

Participants enjoy a view of the Kasilof River during a break.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

The payoff of all the hard work, of course, is the restoration of the Holm cabin. By lunchtime of the workshop's fourth day, that goal seemed to be in sight.

A number of lower logs on the cabin had been replaced, and participants obviously had found their rhythm, working quickly and efficiently as if they were old veterans of hundreds of restorations.

When the crew broke for lunch, much of the work was done, and it appeared as if the work would be completed when the workshop wrapped up the next day.

For Barb Seaman, that's exactly how things were supposed to work out. She said she's pleased with the progress the group has made and excited about the possibility that the cabin Victor Holm built with his bare hands in 1897 would remain standing for another century.

"This means a great deal to have gotten this much work done," she said.

Although there is still a lot of work left to do, Seaman said she's happy with the effort the workshop participants put in throughout the week.

"This is a wonderful bit of progress," she said.

The next step in the process, she said, will be to determine what work needs to be done to finalize the project. Eventually, she said, she'd like to see the cabin fully restored to the condition it was in when Holm walked away in the 1940s.

"We're going to have to see what kind of a timeframe we're looking at and where our funding is," she said. "It would be great to have some kind of museum planned."

Perhaps the most valuable aspect of the restoration of Holm's cabin, is the fact that it enables both workshop participants and future visitors to the site to get a feel for how pioneer Alaskans lived before the advent of running water, television or even roads on the peninsula, workshop participant Stacey Becklund said,

"It takes you back in time."



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