Building and Furnishing the Log Cabin | TOTA (2023)

Note: This article has been excerpted from a larger work in the public domain and shared here due to its historical value. It may contain outdated ideas and language that do not reflect TOTA’s opinions and beliefs.

From Pioneer Life among the Loyalists in Upper Canada by Walter Herrington, 1915.

When the first Loyalists landed at the different points along the shores, the lots had not yet, in most cases, been marked out by the surveyors; and they were obliged to wait several weeks before the "drawings" could take place. They had brought with them a number of military tents, which had seen service during the Revolutionary War. Camping out in tents, as a recreation for a few weeks during the summer, is still looked upon as a rather pleasing pastime. It was, however, very annoying to the Loyalists. They had left their homes across the border several months before, to enable them to be ready to take possession of their new homes in the early spring, and every day lost meant one day less for them to prepare for the coming winter.

They had no alternative but to pitch their tents near where they had landed, and wait until the surveyors had completed their work. Several weeks were thus passed in idleness, and the first summer was far spent before the "drawings" took place. This was a simple process. Small pieces of paper, upon which were written the numbers of the lots to be apportioned, were placed in a hat, and the surveyor, with a map spread out before him, superintended the operation. The officers came first, and drew their lots in the first concession, fronting upon the water. As each drew forth a piece of paper from the hat, the surveyor entered his name upon the corresponding number upon the map. After the officers had been served, the other members of the company went through the same ceremony. During the few weeks that they had been waiting, some had made short trips through the forest, and had observed favourable locations, and after the "drawings" were completed, there was more or less trafficking in lots, and exchanging locations for a consideration; but for the most part each accepted the lot drawn, and hurried away to his future home.

The white village upon the shore was soon a scene of great confusion. Each family secured a few days' rations from the government supplies, packed up the tent and their other belongings, and set out through the lonely forest. Unless one has visited a section of Canada from which none of the timber has yet been removed, it is difficult to form a proper conception of the condition of the older settled portions one hundred and thirty years ago. The debris of the forest lay rotting as it had fallen, the swamps were undrained, the rivers and creeks were unbridged, and the only roads were the blazed trails left by the surveying parties. The clearing up and draining of the farms has brought about a great change in the low lands. Large impassable creeks have been reduced to small streams that can be crossed with ease, and the swamps, which threatened to mire any who ventured over them a century ago, furnish now a safe and firm foothold.

It was with difficulty that the lots could be located, as there was nothing to indicate the boundary lines but the "markers" placed by the surveyors. When the little family group arrived at their destination, they pitched their tent again, and the house-wife busied herself in preparing their first meal in their new home, while the husband surveyed his domain, noting the character of the soil, the presence of creeks, mounds, and other conditions favourable for the first clearing and the erection of a house. That the selection was in most cases wisely made, is attested to-day by the excellent natural surroundings of the old homesteads.

As they partook of their first meal in their wilderness home they contrasted their primitive surroundings with the comforts and luxuries they had left behind them; but, with no regret for the sacrifices they had made, they laid their plans for the future. On the morrow the father, and the sons if there were any, and not infrequently the mother, too, set out to do battle with the forest. The short-handled ship axe, not much heavier than the modern hatchet, was their principal weapon. They laboured with a will and cleared a space large enough for the cabin.

There was no cellar nor foundation, as for our buildings of to-day. A small excavation, to be reached through a trap-door in the floor by means of a short ladder, served the purpose of the former, and a boulder placed under the ends of the base-logs at each corner of the building was ample support for the walls. It was slow work felling the huge pines, cutting them into proper lengths, hewing them into shape, and laying them into position; but slowly the building rose until it attained the height of nine feet. Then the rafters were set in position. Then, too, the chimney was commenced. A stone foundation was carefully built up to the level of the floor and crowned with flat stones, to serve as the hearth. The huge fire-place was then built of stones, and above it was erected a chimney in a manner similar to the house, but instead of using logs, small sticks, two or three inches in diameter, were laid tier upon tier in the form of a hollow rectangle. It was carried a foot or two above the peak and plastered over with clay, inside and out. In many of the early dwellings there were no chimneys, and the smoke was allowed to escape through a hole in the roof as best it could.

In some of the first cabins the floor was of earth. If made of wood, large timbers were used, squared on the sides and hewed smooth on the upper surface. Paint was very scarce, and a painted floor was a luxury which very few could afford. A clean floor was the pride of the mistress of the house. Coarse, clean sand and hot water were the materials used to obtain it. Once a week, or oftener, the former would be applied with a heavy splint broom, and the latter with a mop. The hotter the water the quicker it would dry. While the perspiring mother was scrubbing amid clouds of steam, the tub of boiling water was a constant source of danger to her young children.

The roof was composed of thick slabs, hollowed out in the form of shallow troughs, and these were laid alternately with the hollow sides up, the convex form of one over-lapping the edges of the concave forms of those on either side. There was an opening for a door, but no lumber was to be had at any price, unless it was sawed out by the tedious process of the whip-saw, so doors there were none; but a quilt hung over the opening served the purpose. Two small windows, one on either side of the door, admitted light to the dwelling. These windows would hold four or six 7"x9" panes of glass, but many a settler had to content himself with oiled paper instead. The sash he whittled out with his pocket-knife. Sometimes there was no attempt at transparency; and the window was opened and closed by sliding a small piece of board, set in grooves, backwards and forwards across the aperture. The interstices between the logs were filled with sticks and moss, plastered over with clay. Thus the pioneer's house was complete, and not a nail or screw was used in its construction.

When lumber became available, a plank or thick board door took the place of the quilt in the doorway. This was fastened by a strong wooden latch on the inside. The latch was lifted from without by means of a leather string attached to it and passed through a hole a few inches above, and when the inmates of the house retired for the night, or did not wish to be molested, the string was pulled inside. The old saying, "the latch-string is out", was a figurative method of expressing a welcome, or saying "the door is not barred against you". The pioneers had big hearts, and to their credit it can be said the latch-string was rarely pulled in when a stranger sought a meal or a night's lodging.

If the family were large the attic was converted into a second room by carrying the walls up a log or two higher. Poles, flattened on both sides, were laid from side to side to serve as a ceiling to the room below and as a floor for the one above. A hole left in one corner gave admittance by means of a ladder, and one small window in the gable completed the upper room.

For the same reason that there was no door, there was precious little furniture. Some of the Loyalists brought with them from their former homes a few pieces a grandfather's chair, a chest of drawers, or a favourite bedstead; but, as a rule, there was no furniture but such as was hewed out with the axe and whittled into shape and ornamented with a pocket-knife. A pocket-knife and a pen-knife were not the same. The former was a strong knife made to serve many useful purposes, while the latter was a small knife carried mainly for the purpose of shaping quill pens.

For a bedstead, there was a platform of poles across one end of the room, about two feet above the floor, supported by inserting the ends between the logs in the wall. Rough benches with four legs served as seats, and a table was similarly constructed on a larger scale. Later on, when lumber was obtainable, these articles of furniture were re- placed by more serviceable ones. The deal table, the board bench, and the old-fashioned chair with the elm bark bottom and back, woven as in a basket, were one step in advance. It not infrequently happened that in large families there were not enough seats to accommodate all, and the younger members stood up at the table during meal-time or contented themselves with a seat upon the floor.

If a bedstead could be afforded it was sure to be a four-poster with tester and side curtains. "What was a tester'?" do I hear someone enquire ? It was a cloth canopy supported by the four tall bed-posts. Bunks were built against the walls, which served as seats in the daytime; but when opened out, served as beds at night. Mattresses were made of boughs, corn husks, straw, or feathers, and rested upon wooden slats, or more frequently cords laced from side to side and end to end of the framework of the bedstead. A trundle bed for the children was stowed away under the bedstead during the daytime and hauled out at night. This was like a large bureau drawer, with rollers or small wooden wheels on the bottom and handles in front. The handles consisted of short pieces of rope, the ends of which ran through two holes and were knotted on the inner side.

As soon as the iron could be procured, a crane was swung over the fire-place, and from it were suspended the iron tea-kettle and the griddle. The latter was a large disc upon which the pancakes were made. It was supported by an iron bale, and was large enough to hold eight or ten fair-sized cakes. The frying-pans were similar to those in use to-day, but were furnished with handles three feet long, so that they could be used over the hot coals of the fire-place. The bake-kettle was an indispensable article in every household. It was about eighteen inches in diameter, stood upon short legs, and would hold four or five two-pound loaves, or their equivalent. The coals were raked out on the hearth, the kettle set over them and more coals heaped upon the iron lid. These were replenished, above and below, from time to time, until the bread was thoroughly baked. The bake-kettle was superseded by the reflector, which was an oblong box of bright tin, enclosed on all sides but one. It was placed on the hearth with the open side next a bed of glowing coals. In it were placed the tins of dough raised a few inches from the bottom, so that the heat could circulate freely about the loaves. The upper part of the reflector was removable, to enable the house- wife to inspect the contents.

The reflector in time gave way to the bake-oven, which was built in the wall next the fire-place, so that one chimney would serve for both, or the oven was built outdoors under the same roof as the smoke-house. The latter was a comparatively air-tight brick or stone chamber used for smoking beef, and the hams and shoulders of the pigs. Before the advent of the smoke-house, strips of beef required for summer use were dried by suspending them from pegs in the chimney.

The reflector was sometimes used for roasting meat, but where the family could afford it, a roaster was kept for that purpose. The roaster was smaller than the reflector, but constructed in a similar manner and, running from end to end through the centre, was a small iron bar, one end of which terminated in a small handle or crank. This bar, called a spit, was run through the piece of meat, and by turning the handle from time to time the meat was revolved and every portion of the surface was in turn brought next the fire. The drippings from the meat were caught in a dripping-pan placed underneath for the purpose. These drippings were used for basting the roasting meat, and this was done with a long-handled basting spoon through an opening in the back, which could be easily closed at will.

As there were no matches in the early days, the fire was kept constantly burning, and when not required the coals were covered over with ashes, where they would remain alive for hours. Occasionally the coals would die out and then one of the younger members was sent away to a neighbour to obtain a pan of live ones. Most families were skilled in making a fire by striking sparks from a flint upon a dry combustible substance, or by rapidly revolving one dry piece of pine against another, as the Indians used to do; but these practices were slow and were not resorted to except in extreme cases.

The blazing logs in the fire-place furnished ample light during the winter evenings. The inventive genius of man has since produced the kerosene lamp, gas, acetylene, electricity, and other illuminants, but none of these can furnish the bright welcome of the pine knots blazing about the old-fashioned back-log. If any other artificial light was required, the tallow dip was the only alternative. This dip was a tallow candle, in use before moulds were introduced. A kettle was placed over the coals with five or six inches of water in the bottom. When the water was brought to the boiling point there was added the melted tallow. This remained on the surface of the water. The only service the water was intended to render was to support the tallow by raising it so many inches above the bottom of the kettle, where it could be used much more easily than it could if it remained at the bottom. The candle wicks were twisted with a loop at one end, which was slipped over a small stick. Five or six wicks would be thus suspended from the stick and slowly dipped into the liquid tallow, by which process the wicks became saturated. As soon as the tallow congealed they were dipped in again, and the operation repeated until the wick was surrounded by a thick coating of tallow very similar to the ordinary wax or tallow candle of to-day, but not so smooth or uniform in size as those made at a later period in the moulds.

Dishes were as scarce as cooking utensils. A few earthenware plates, bowls, and a platter were displayed upon a shelf; and they were all the house could boast of. Others were whittled out of the fine-grained wood of the poplar and served the purpose fairly well until the Yankee peddler arrived with the more desirable pewter ware.

A corner cupboard, from whose mysterious depths, even in our time, our grandmothers used to produce such stores of cookies, doughnuts, tarts, and pies, completed the equipment of the first house of the pioneer.

Herrington, Walter S. Pioneer Life among the Loyalists in Upper Canada. The MacMillan Company of Canada, 1915.

Walter Herrington

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