Pioneer Log Building
Pioneer Log Building
In the earliest days there were no sawmills. Settlers
had to do without milled lumber. Instead they used logs for their houses.
Milled lumber became available around the time of the Civil War, but many
people couldn't afford lumber. They continued using logs from the forest
This is a single pen log house at Caney Mountain Conservation Area,
Ozark County, MO. It measures about 16' x 18'.
Log houses had several different ground plans, but
all are based on the "pen". The "pen," the basic
unit, was a 16' by 16'-to- 18' by 18' square box. A 16-to-18-foot
log is about what one man with a mule can bring in from the forest.
It's also about the largest that two men can lift as they build
up the walls.
First, a man would bring in and hew all the logs he needed. Next,
he would gather rocks to build supports and foundations to raise
the house above the ground. Then he would build the walls, log by
log, as high as he could. Finally, he'd have to call in neighbors
to finish building the walls. He could finish the roof, using split
wood shingles himself. He could also build the fireplace and chimney
alone. He had no plumbing or electricity to worry about!
Where were the women? If he had a wife, she might help him build
--- when not busy taking care of a bunch of kids. Living in a temporary
shelter, without plumbing or electricity, she probably didn't have
much time to help build the house!
house types added to the pen in one way or another, using the pen
as a module. This two-pen house, in Brixey, has a later rear addition,
but you can easily see that it is two pens wide and one pen deep.
If the family grew, they might put another pen right beside the
first one, and put a door in the wall between them. Connect the
roofs, add a porch, and you have a house 32' wide with two front
Or you could put another pen a few feet from the original one,
and connect them and the space between with the roof. This breezeway
is called a "dogtrot." You can also add another story
by taking off the roof and continuing to build up the walls. But
you had to add side-by-side, because of the way logs interlock.
What's common to all the early log houses is that they are one room,
one "pen," deep.
Hewing and Notching Logs
Ozark log houses were built to last. People moved
west into the Ozarks and brought woodworking skills with them. They
chose mostly oak, both because it grew right around them and because
They usually "planked" the logs, hewing
them on both sides. One flat side would go on the outside, the other
on the inside. After the logs were up, the builder would fill in
the spaces between them with mud, clay, or a mixture with lime mortar.
First, usually, pieces of wood shingle filled in between the larger
Half-Dovetail Notch, Wolf House, Norfork, AR
|Logs were notched to fit, as they were added, one by
one, row by row. The best kind of notch, was the Half-Dovetail. The
top of the notch, where the corner logs met, sloped to allowed rainwater
to drain away. It locked the logs together, which made the building
|Outbuildings --- barns, corn cribs, sheds --- were
simpler to build. They didn't need to keep out the cold, for instance.
They were often build of unhewn, round, logs, like this log outbuilding
in Brixey, MO.
Saddle Notch, Log outbuilding, Brixey, MO
|Simple Saddle Notches, cut into the bottom, allowed
one log to rest on the one below. Water might collect in a Saddle
Notch and rot it out.
Sources: Sizemore, Jean, Ozark Vernacular Houses,
43-73, University of Arkansas Press, Fayetteville, 1994.
Photos by Peter Callaway.