Thursday, March 27, 2008

Rustic Living

I've been reading about the history of rustic living in the United States and have come away with some impressions that I find interesting. I could use the books as reference, but I think just using my own words may be not only refreshing because they are not canned but also less like a sociology report done for a freshman introduction to the Science of Society.

I didn't know that the log cabin wasn't introduced into the United States with the Pilgrims. Funny in that I thought they came to our shores to live in tight well built cabins. The reports that I read said that they lived in whatever they could manage to put together; which were more like hovels. The log cabin did not evolve until half a century had passed. Can you imagine our forefathers living in conditions not unlike the shacks we find in the outskirts of third world cities? It sounds like this is what it was like.

The reason stated was that the ax as we came to know it did not exist, so chopping down trees was just too much work! The tool came into its prime when we found that hickory made a handle that didn't break and soon the pioneers found themselves with two survival necessities: the ax and a rifle. If it weren't for the hickory handle on the ax and the rifle, the country would not have been settled as fast as it was.


As the country was explored and families moved further inland from the east coast, the log cabin was the home of choice. There were plenty of trees and a man could build a one-room cabin in about 1 1/2 weeks. I imagine that after the first two days, a man got pretty good at what techniques worked well for him. These men developed all kinds of notches to hold the logs in place. I always thought all log cabins had those neat little square notches like our Lincoln Logs. There were those along with V shaped and assorted others. I wonder if the pioneer man could recognize a cabin as being built by a certain someone by the notch style used?

Windows were a big problem. They broke easily so couldn't be transported across the land. I imagine also that panes of glass were not considered crucial to life, so wouldn't take up valuable space in a wagon. The builders would use paper and apply grease to the paper to make it more weather proof. It was also appreciated because it let light show through. I can't imagine that most folk even had paper. The daily newspaper wasn't delivered like it is today! Another choice was animal skins. I imagine that this was used more often, so homes were dark and dreary unless it was warm weather! Of course shutters were used to close off the windows when it was necessary. Doors were very heavy. They were more likely slabs of wood or planks. That is the reason for those very heavy hinges that we value for antiques today. Roofs were often layers of sod that continued to grow their original covering and were inhabited by their original living bugs. I wonder what happened when our pioneer guy slept with his mouth opened snoring? Dirt, bugs and whatever probably was a continual problem falling from the roof.

Needless to say, it wasn't a romantic life filled with adventure and warm fuzzy beds and a warm house to return to. There is a story of a man who found his log cabin wet and soggy. The family was miserable, so he set a small fire in a hole under the cabin to dry it out. His family burned to death. You can imagine the brutal reality of living in these very "rustic" homes. They were dark, dreary, damp and invested with insects and vermin of all sorts. We gasp at one mouse. Imagine families of mice!!


this is actually an Alaskan log cabin built in the early 1900's

As the nation grew and the railroads criss crossed the open land, advertising blossomed. The railroads needed customers. They found that if they made this whole pioneer life look much better than it really was, more families would either move or visit the "wild romantic west".

In the east, where there were crowded bustling cities, men felt the need to get back to nature. It was a place of solitude where a man could refresh his mind. He could find a peaceful place to replenish his soul. In the Adirondack Mountains of New York, families built summer homes to escape to. These cabins made with local materials by local people who knew how to create a log cabin, make furniture from what was available and use the styles they knew. It was during the Victorian Era. There was money for extra homes and time to travel. The country saw a romance with the wild outdoors; which made the rustic retreat fascinating and so very American. They wanted to rough it, but they brought along their crystal, silver and servants. The rich made rustic palaces and the average man built more basic log cabins. It gave everyone a dream of the good life. By 1890, there was no longer a wilderness in the United States, where no man lived.

America fell in love with Western novels, the pioneer life, Wild Bill Cody and everything rustic. National Parks came to be. Of course, true to our American way, the railroads drove this movement purely to make money. The Grand Canyon Lodge was built with railroad money and made money from the day it was built. I wonder would we be so enchanted with rustic life if some one didn't see it as an opportunity to make money? Should we celebrate the railroad moguls for giving us something we didn't know we wanted? I personally am happy that we developed a taste for everything rustic. John Muir was right. He said, "Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life." Park visitors grew from 69,000 in 1908 to 335,000 in 1915. That is truly amazing!

The Adironacks came to be the place to go. Harvard University's professors liked the "simple life" to have a place to think. Many of our famous people were privileged to have this summer experience. These simple cabins became camps as buildings had to be built to make room for the many people who wanted to experience this with their family and friends.

The log cabin experience did not slow down. Of course, everyone wanted to have a retreat. The capitalists to the cowpokes all wanted the pioneer lifestyle. The rich brought all the comforts of home with them. Mission and Stickley furniture was the rage, so it became ingrained in our concept of rustic furniture along with the down-home hickory, wicker and furniture incorporating on-hand materials made by local craftsmen. The wealthy not only brought their furniture, silver and crystal, but brought along the chalet style from Europe. They were also influenced by their travels and brought along a love of the alpine version of the cabin from Germany, France and Switzerland.

Retreat owners brought along their compulsive need for more with Japanese elements. The Vanderbilts dressed their servants in Japanese kimonos! We all know the Victorians loved clutter, so everything was brought into play. Rustic became a gathering of all sorts. Lace and bark were mixed layer upon layer with all sorts of collections being popular. We still see some rustic decorating books showing this tradition.

But rustic does not have to mean more is better! It can be the simple life of the cowpoke. He had what was necessary and many retreats today reflect a more pared down version of rustic. We have learned to appreciate the primeval beauty of rock without piles of clutter. Rustic can be whatever pleases our need for peaceful place to be.

I will continue to chatter about rustic as I continue my journey into creating Winchuck River Store into the place to find what you need to complete your individual rustic look. Visit us often to see what else we have found to offer.

Some good reading; which is a study made by students, about these first log homes is: LOG HOME

1 comment:

Shellmo said...

Very interesting to read especially as I am building a log cabin. Nice blog!
Shelley

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We moved to our current home on the Wild River Coast of Southern Oregon from San Jose, CA. Our family consist of Jim and Karen, two dogs and two cats. Karen's passion is gardening. Jim's obsession is building electric powered fishing kayaks and fishing.