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Log Cabins on the Frontier

Peter Graham Fulkerson (born 1840) wrote about early settlers in Tennessee, including the following about their frontier log cabins:

The pioneers wasted little time building their dwellings. They had neither time, tools nor materials to build fine looking homes. They selected a site near a good spring, cut straight young trees into proper lengths, and with Buck and Benny, the ususal names for their oxen, snaked them to where they wished to build.

They then selected a straight grained tree by looking at the bark on the tree, and rived it into clapboards three feet long to cover the house, and split straight logs in equal halves to rest on sleepers with the split sides up, to make a puncheon floor.

It is astonishing what a fine solid floor could be make of these slabs, especially by a handy man with a straight edge and foot adz. It looked as if it had been planed and jointed.

No nails were used on the house. The doors were on wooden hinges; the latch was wooden with a string attached a passed through a hole above the latch, and hanging on the outside.

The clapboards rested on logs running from one end of the building to the other, and poles were laid on at proper intervals to hold them down.

The lower part of the chimney was of stone and the upper part of sticks and mud.

The next thing to build was an ash hopper; that was a necessity. It was built in the shape of a V, the boards of both sides coming together at the bottom in a trough. When filled with good ashes, preferably from hickory wood, water was poured over it until it began to start lye to running. Why was the ash hopper so important? It was the wife’s only means of getting soap. From it she made hard cakes for hand soap and soft soap for the clothes. She could also take a peck of shelled corn and boil it in lye until the husks would come off the grain to make lye hominy. To remove the lye she would empty the corn into a split basket go out on a log over the clear running water and souse it up and down until the taste of the lye was removed.

If you never eaten a mess of good lye hominy with red gravy poured over it, or a good piece of “fatty bread” after hog killing with cold sweet milk and butter just from the spring house to accompany it, you have missed one of the greatest joys of life.

When everything that was necessary had been prepared, the neighbors came for miles to the house raising, and the work was soon accomplished.

About five feet from the floor, they sawed a log in two at about the middle of the house, leaving a space of two or three inches between the two ends. There, the two log ends were shaped like a wooden glut or wedge. When a man on the inside placed his gun against the beveled edge of the log on his right, the end of the gun on the outside lay against the log to his left. In this position he could not only shoot an Indian in front of him, but he could take him down at the very corner of the house. Sometimes these houses had a second story larger than the lower one and projecting about three feet beyond the lower, thus enabling a frontiersman to shoot an Indian even if he reached the house and without the danger to the occupants. They next built a heavy stockade around the house, thus placing two obstacles in the way of the enemy.

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