|The Pioneer Log Cabin:
Productive Resources in Arkansas
By: Melody Key
Gene George Elementary School
Students will learn that Arkansas pioneer settlers produced simple log cabins using their limited productive resources: natural resources, human resources and capital goods. Small groups of students will work cooperatively designing and building log cabin models to scale.
Adventurous people came to the New World for a variety of reasons and settled the Americas. They built houses that reflected the strong cultural influences of their different European environments, modifying them to meet the sometimes harsh climatic conditions of the New World and the limited availability of adequate building materials. Over one hundred years later, a recognizable American icon took shape across the western frontier. A specialized kind of dwelling made its appearance – the American log cabin.
Where natural resources of trees in the forests were plentiful, the log cabin became a typical pioneer dwelling. It was simple and practical and could be built with few tools, minimal skills and little money. A snug, reasonably tight log cabin could be built without nails, and if necessary, with only one tool or capital good – an axe. No pioneer family could survive without an axe to fell trees and notch the logs for the cabin. It also served to clear the land for cornfields and pastures. It was used to cut through the roots that held the tree stumps in the earth, to cut wood to size for the fireplace and to split the rails and posts needed in fence building.
The axe is one of man’s most ancient tools, with a history dating back to the Stone Age. The American axe, designed around 1740, was produced specifically for felling trees and building log cabins. The forged iron head weighed approximately seven pounds. The long hickory handle of the American axe was smooth and designed to fit the grasp of a man’s hands.
Most settlers moved to Arkansas to establish farms because of the rich soil and more than adequate rainfall. Much of Arkansas was covered with forests when the settlers arrived, allowing builders their choice of sites for log cabins. Some chose to have their cabins facing east, benefiting from the warmth of the morning sun at their front door. Many placed theirs in a sheltered nook at the bottom of a hill, escaping the cold winds and winter snowdrifts. Others located their cabins with regard to the close proximity of creeks, rivers or land trails.
In constructing a log cabin, settlers first selected trees with straight smooth trunks of approximately the same diameters. The trees were felled, cut into logs of the desired length, and pulled by horse or dragged by hand to the site of the cabin where the notching was done.
One builder in Missouri erected his cabin under the high bluffs along the Missouri River. With this strategic location, he could cut his firewood on the bluff and roll it down to his front door. When the wood gave out, rather than haul it from a distance, he deserted his cabin and built another at the foot of the next wooded bluff.
Occasionally, an unfortunate choice was made for a site. A pioneer in Brownsville, Pennsylvania, built his cabin over a den of rattlesnakes. When the snakes came out during the first summer, the owner and his wife were forced to abandon their cabin and build another.
Around 1829, in what is now known as Norfork, Arkansas, Major Jacob Wolf built a log house overlooking the fertile river valleys and the hills of the Ozark Mountains. It is thought to be the oldest log house in Arkansas. Pioneers at this time exercised preemption rights, the right to purchase vacant government land on which they had settled while waiting for the government surveyors. These surveyors moved along the wilderness river courses measuring government land preparing it to be sold. Major Wolf’s deed to his land shows that he exercised his preemption rights in November of 1824.
Geographic locations in Arkansas dictated the types of trees used in cabin construction. In the Ozark Mountains, hardwoods were plentiful while other areas of the state produced soft woods. Major Wolf’s two-story dog-trot was built of virgin yellow pine logs.
The front door usually opened outward to allow more room inside the cabin. It was typically made of heavy wooden slabs fastened with wooden pegs and swung on wooden hinges or strips of animal skin. A wooden latch and crossbar on the inside were used for securing the door. In earlier days, a latchstring of buckskin was connected to the latch and threaded through a hole in the door. Pulling from the outside enabled the settler to lift the latch from its bracket and open the door. The latchstring hanging outside the door became a symbol of pioneer hospitality--an open invitation for the friendly stranger to enter and share the family’s table and the warmth of their fireside. Later, iron hinges were used for doors and shutters. Since Major Jacob Wolf was an excellent blacksmith, he produced the wrought iron hinges for his log house. Even today, the lower north room of the house still has some of those hinges dating from the original construction.
The first settler in a new area had to build his cabin alone, helped only by his wife and children. As settlements grew, the log cabin became a product of community cooperation. A group of choppers felled the trees, cutting them to their proper lengths, and then a man with a team of horses hauled the logs to the building site.
When everything was ready, the walls were raised with all hands assisting in the heavy work. Additional straight limbs were ribbed into place to form the skeleton of the roof, covering it with tree limbs or thinner slabs of wood. Common roof coverings were shingles or shakes. Since most builders did not have the tools or skill to produce shakes, they covered their roofs with pieces of bark.
The spaces, between the logs forming the walls, were filled with smaller pieces of wood or tightly wedged stones, and then caulked with moss or wet clay sometimes mixed with animal hair or straw. This process was called chinking. Animal skins were sometimes hung on the inside walls to insulate the house in the winter.
Structural differences varied by area. Many of the earliest American cabins were built without windows, and those having window openings used animal skins or sliding boards as coverings. Later, paper greased with animal fat to make it waterproof as well as translucent, was used as a substitute for glass. Glass was not widely manufactured in America until the 1800’s.
Often a loft was built in the cabin for the children’s sleeping quarters. It was reached by a crude ladder made of tree limbs or by pegs placed in the log walls. The loft was also used for the drying and storage of peppers, strips of apples, pumpkins, seed corn still on the cob, and medicinal herbs. However, not all one-room log cabins had lofts.
The floors in many primitive cabins were dirt, pounded hard by the feet of the members of the family. Some had floorings of logs that had been split lengthwise and laid close together with their flat sides up on the log joists. The floors in the Wolf House were hand sawed, hand planed, random-width boards from yellow pine.
The most familiar type of pioneer cabin had an outside chimney attached to one of the end walls. In the low lands of Arkansas, where the land is closer to sea level, chimneys were made by coating a structure of logs with mud, a poor man’s chimney. In Arkansas’ uplands, rising high above sea level, chimneys were made of stone or handmade bricks. Major Wolfe’s house had two chimneys that were two-stories tall and four fireplaces made of thousands of handmade bricks. Much time, labor and effort were put into digging the clay, molding the bricks and applying the required heat to produce the bricks. Mussel shells from the rivers were burned into lime to produce the mortar used in the cementing of bricks and foundation stones, as well as, filling the spaces between the log walls.
The building of a log cabin required very little time in comparison with today’s residential construction. In a matter of a week or two, a solitary builder could construct a small cabin alone, but could only lift six or eight tiers of short logs. When assisted by a second man or strong boys, he could cut longer logs and raise the walls higher by using skids consisting of two logs placed at an angle against the wall to serve as an inclined plane, plus forked sticks or ropes to guide the logs into place. The Wolf House, with its two stories, porch, and second-floor gallery, was bigger and grander than most early Arkansas log cabins.
Depending on the season of the year, the members of a family might have slept in a lean-to of boughs, their wagon or a makeshift tent while their cabin was being built. Sometimes in areas where other families had arrived first and had completed their cabins, the newcomers shared a neighbor’s dwelling until their own was raised.
Content Standard 1: Students will understand that productive resources are limited. Therefore, people cannot have all the goods and services they want; as a result, they must choose some things and give up others.
In the beginning, the cabin was only one room or pen. As the family grew, the settler would build another pen beside the first but fifteen feet away. The space between the two pens was then covered making a porch, a dog-trot, where the dogs and other animals trotted across.
The pioneer cabin containing a single room was never intended as a permanent shelter. It was to be a temporary refuge in which the family planned to live safely in reasonable comfort until a sawmill was built. Then lumber could be obtained to build a larger home with wooden sides, oak floors and windows. For countless families this dream never came true. Since numerous hands were necessary to perform the hard, never-ending labor of working the land, families were large. Therefore, the men struggled even more to support their growing families. When crops flourished and livestock multiplied, some log cabin families enjoyed prosperity. At this time, frame or stone additions were built using the original log room as the kitchen.
Grade Levels: 5 – 8
Number of Class Periods: one week
Voluntary National Content Standards in Economics:
Grade 4 –
Benchmark 9: Productive resources are the natural resources, human resources, and capital goods available to make goods and services.
Benchmark 10: Natural resources, such as land, are gifts of nature; they are present without human intervention.
Benchmark 11: Human resources are the quantity and quality of human effort directed toward producing goods and services.
Benchmark 12: Capital goods are goods produced and used to make other goods and services.
Arkansas History Frameworks:
Strand 3: Cultural Perspectives
Content Standard: Students will demonstrate an understanding of the commonalities
and diversities among individuals, groups and institutions in Arkansas.
Student Learning Expectations Grades K-3:
3.1.3. Explain and illustrate where Arkansas people live and how they meet
their basic needs affects their culture.
Strand 4: Scarcity and Choice
Content Standard: Students will demonstrate an understanding of how Arkansas
resources necessitate decision making.
Student Learning Expectations Grades K-3:
Demonstrate a knowledge and understanding of Arkansas’ natural resources.
Student Learning Expectations Grades 4-6:
Illustrate and explain how water, soil and forests influenced the
development of Arkansas.
Building a Miniature Log Cabin lesson from the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program
Newspapers (several stacks per group)
Optional supplies: poster board, tempera paint, paint brushes, masking tape
Handout 1: Regions of Arkansas
Handout 2: Natural Resources of Arkansas
Handout 3: Pioneer Log Cabin
Handout 4: Pioneer Log Cabin Scoring Guide
1. Request a copy of the Building a Miniature Log Cabin lesson.
Arkansas Historic Preservation Program
1500 Tower Building
Little Rock, Arkansas 72201
Phone (501) 324-9880 Fax (501) 324-9184
2. Make a model of the miniature log cabin for display purposes
3. Duplicate Handouts 1-4 for each student.
Have students share any prior knowledge of pioneer homes from the early 1800’s. Ask them to describe historical homes they have seen during family vacation trips or in pictures from books. Ask questions such as: These houses were made from what materials? Can you name some of the types of houses that were built in Arkansas? What productive resources were probably used to produce pioneer homes? (Emphasize this is only a brainstorming session; there are no right or wrong answers.)
1. Share the general information about pioneer homes from the Background Information.
2. Explain that natural resources, human resources, and capital goods are called productive
Productive resources are all natural resources, human resources and human-made resources (capital) used in the production of goods and services.
Natural resources (land) are gifts of nature. They are present without human intervention.
Human resources (labor) represent the quantity and quality of human effort directed toward producing goods and services.
Capital goods are goods made by people and used to produce other goods and services.
3. On the chalkboard, write the heading Productive Resources with the subheadings:
Natural Resources, Human Resources and Capital Goods. As you share more detailed information on the building of a pioneer log cabin, record the productive resources used under the appropriate headings.
Natural Resources (Land) Human Resources (Labor) Capital Goods
trees men axe
Detailed Information on Building Log Cabins:
Smaller cabins were usually twelve by fifteen feet sometimes sixteen by eighteen feet. Axe handles were used as a measuring stick. Improvising as the cabin took shape, the builder had no formal plans or blueprints. He used whatever trees or natural resources were nearest to his cabin site: hickory, oak, pine, walnut, chestnut and others. Once he had made his choice he preferred to use logs from the same variety of tree for all four cabin walls. There were two styles of log cabins that Arkansas pioneers built: a single pen or a dog-trot. A single pen cabin had only one room, while the dog-trot had two rooms separated by an open passage. One unit usually served as a kitchen and living room and the other as a bedroom. As the family prospered, the dog-trot came about when another room was built fifteen feet away with a covered porch to connect the two rooms. The covered passage formed an area for household activities in the summer. It was not uncommon for the family’s dogs to trot or run through the open passage.
To begin construction of a cabin the first four logs were laid in place flat on the earth. If the builder intended to install flooring, he placed the four foundation logs on a base of fieldstones or sections of logs set vertically in the earth at each of the four corners. Logs were laid across these members to serve as joists each notched into place. Sidewalls were made by laying logs to a height of seven or eight feet. Each log was held in place by its own weight, reinforced by the weight of the log above and supported by the log below. While shingles, or shakes, were the preferred roof covering, builders covered their roofs with pieces of bark or thatch because of the limited tools and expertise that many builders did not possess. Spaces, between the logs that formed the walls, were filled with smaller pieces of wood or stones wedged tightly then caulked with moss or wet clay sometimes mixed with animal hair or straw. This process was known as chinking. Animal skins were sometimes hung on the inside walls to insulate the house in the winter.
4. Divide the class into small groups having them analyze Regions of Arkansas and Natural
Resources of Arkansas (Handouts 1-2).
Uplands of Arkansas (rise high above sea level)
The Ozark Plateau has high and low places due to erosion by the Buffalo River in the Boston Mountains.
The Arkansas River Valley has low, rolling hills with a few mountains around the region. The valley land is used to raise rice, soybeans and wheat.
The Ouachita Mountains are south of the Arkansas River having several mineral resources and thermal springs with hot water bubbling up from underground.
`Lowlands of Arkansas (closer to sea level)
The Mississippi Alluvial Plain has rich farmland bordered by the Mississippi River. Crops grown there are soybeans, cotton and rice.
Crowley’s Ridge was formed by clay deposited by rivers. It is covered by windblown soil and varies from one to twelve miles wide.
The West Gulf Coastal Plain has a series of gentle hills. It provides the natural resource of petroleum taken out as oil and natural gas used as fuel.
5. After discussing the six regions of Arkansas, give the students this scenario:
You are a pioneer family who has just moved west into the expanding frontier territory of Arkansas. Your first objective is to locate the perfect place to build your new home.
Working together, brainstorm for answers to the following questions. Be prepared to orally report in which region you have chosen to build your log cabin and why. List all of the productive resources needed to build your cabin.
Describe the region of Arkansas where you would prefer to build.
Describe the productive resources you have available when building your pioneer home.
What capital goods did you bring with you on your journey to use as tools when building your home?
Who are the human resources that will provide the labor?
What are the natural resources available in the region where you have chosen to build?
6. Give students instructions on how to build a miniature log cabin and show them the
model you prepared in advance of this lesson.
7. Provide students with a mini-lesson on using rulers to draw scale models. A scale of
one foot should equal one half inch. For example, a 16 x 16 foot cabin would be 8 x 8 inches. Therefore, the students would cut eight-inch logs to be used in building the walls of the cabin.
8. Give the student groups one or two class periods to build their miniature log cabins.
Team members should describe the geographical location of their building site and how it affected their decision to build there.
Share the productive resources needed to build their log cabin.
Explain the actual size their model cabin would be.
Provide each student with a copy of Pioneer Log Cabin (Handout 3) and the Scoring Rubric (Handout 4). Review the directions and the scoring rubric with the students.
Language Arts: Write a letter to family or friends left behind when you traveled westward to Arkansas, describing your new homeland.
Math: Draw a cabin to scale using graph paper. Include the appropriate scale when showing your measurements.
Writing: Write a description of a newly invented tool (capital good) used in the preparation of the building site for a new home. In your description include information on the productive resources necessary to produce the tool and draw a picture of it. Be sure to describe how this tool will make the building of your home easier?
Field Trip: Tour a log cabin built during the 1800’s. Look at the construction of the cabin; discuss the natural resources that were used to build it and whether it is a single pen or dog-trot. If it is neither one, have the students research what style of log cabin it represents.
An Arkansas History For Young People, T. Harri Baker and Jane Browning, The University of Arkansas Press, Fayetteville, AR, 1991
Arkansas: The World Around Us, by Tom Greer and Lavell Cole, Macmillan/McGraw-Hill School Publishing Company, New York, NY 1991
Building a Miniature Log Cabin, Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, Little Rock, Arkansas
The Log Cabin, by Alex W. Bealer and John O. Ellis, Barre Publishing, Barre, Massachusetts, 1978
The Log Cabin in America From Pioneer Days to the Present, by C.A. Weslager, Rutgers University Press, News Brunswick, New Jersey, 1969
Ozark Vernacular Houses, by Jean Sizemore, The University of Arkansas Press, Fayetteville, AR, 1994
We the People Explore Arkansas, by Sarah Bednarz, Catherine Clinton, Michael Hartoonian, Arthur Hernandez, Patricia L. Marshall, Pat Nickell, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, MA, 1997
Web sites contain information and pictures of the two-story dog-trot home of Major Jacob Wolf in Norfork, Arkansas:
Natural Resources of Arkansas-Handout 2
Pioneer Log Cabin—Handout 3
Directions: Imagine an ideal place anywhere in the world you would like to live. After deciding on the geographical location, determine what productive resources are available when building your home. Brainstorm and record your ideas below. Your final response should be a descriptive paragraph of the home and its location with a detailed sketch of the house labeling the productive resources. When you have completed this assignment, staple and turn in your brainstorming ideas, descriptive paragraph and sketch. Please refer to the Scoring Guide for evaluation purposes.
DESCRIPTION OF GEOGRAPHICAL LOCATION
NATURAL RESOURCES HUMAN RESOURCES CAPITAL GOODS
Pioneer Log Cabin Scoring Guide—Handout 4
Building site with detailed geographical description included on the brainstorming worksheet
Productive resources included:
four or more capital goods
four or more natural resources
three or more human resources
Well-planned descriptive paragraph of the home including a detailed description of the building site chosen
Drawing or sketch of the home, labeling the productive resources
Building site with general geographical description included on the brainstorming worksheet
Productive resources included:
three natural resources
two human resources
Descriptive paragraph of the home including a general description of the building site chosen
Drawing or sketch of the home, labeling the productive resources
Building site with vague geographical description included on the brainstorming worksheet
Productive resources included:
two capital goods
two natural resources
one human resource
Descriptive paragraph of the home including a vague description of the building site chosen
Drawing or sketch of the home, labeling incomplete
1 Below Basic
Building site with little or no description included on the brainstorming worksheet
Productive resources included:
Poorly constructed paragraph of the home with little or no description of the building site chosen
Sketch of the home
© Bessie Moore Center for Economic Education bmcee.uark.edu