Log Construction
In the Folk Building Tradition Of the New World

by Ron Diener - April, 1996

Log construction of folk design and folk tradition in the inland portions of America were of three general types, depending a great deal on the origins of the builders.

Throughout the Old Northwest (Ohio, Indiana, Michigan), the Northwest (add Wisconsin and Illinois), the Trans-Mississippi west, the Rocky Mountain west, and the New Northwest (Washington, Oregon, Idaho), as well as in the bordering provinces of Canada, all of these styles stood in strange and wonderful juxtaposition. In the oldest cities (i.e., New Orleans, Kaskaskia, Cahokia, St. Louis, St. Charles, Ste. Genevieve), they even stood side by side.

A major change took place in the immigrations into these lands of the New World after 1848. Large numbers of university educated men came from those areas where the revolutions of that year failed - Germany, Italy, France, as well as other central and east European capitals.

They applied scientific principles to building and construction. They thought of their physical pied-a-terre as a place of experimentation, not as bothered by tradition or continuity as their contemporaries.

They did, of course, take on important professional and civic responsibilities in the New World (one of their number, Carl Schurtz, was a member of Lincoln's cabinet). But large numbers of them were intimidated because of their poor or highly accented English, and preferred not to confront or compete with the Yankees. They turned to farming, shopkeeping, merchandising and manufacturing, usually in their own ethnic communities with their own ethnic foods, dress and language.

They tended to influence domestic architecture profoundly wherever they went. And that influence stemmed chiefly from their examples, rather than through an imposition of ideas or concepts. They build round or octagonal barns, turreted dormers (long before Victorian styles), hillside solar-assisted homes, and many creative and innovative styles and designs.

But before them, others had come, in waves, as unrest after unrest swept Europe.

In 1736 the Moravians from Bohemia (via Saxony), as followers of Ludwig Graf von Zinzendorf, came to the New World to help fill Penn's Woods with dissidents. This, the largest of several groups from central and eastern Europe, also led the way for many others: Mennonites, Brethren, chiliastic communities, communistic settlements.

In 1745 unrest in Ireland helped to feed the shores of the New World with new stock.

The hunger and over-population of Frankish Germany in the 1740s and 1750s pushed its lesser inhabitants both east and west to the Volga River regions of Czarina Ekaterina (Katherine "the Great''), as well as to upstate New York, the marshes of New Jersey, coastal Delaware and deep into Penn's Woods.

Unrest in the Pyranees led lesser nobility of both southern France and northern Spain to come to the New World after 1763, together with their entourages who quickly abandoned their masters after their arrival on the Western shores.

More unrest in Ireland brought more refugees in the 1770s and 1780s.

Ambitious adventurers of the Low Countries from the lowly stow-away peasants to the rather wealthy younger sons of nobility and even royalty left their homelands to find their fortunes in south Asia, the Orient and America between 1785 and 1810.

The French Revolution and its sequela to the fall of Napoleon pushed out wave after wave of persecuted, tormented and threatened Frenchmen to help settle both the United States and British America (Canada), men of means and of talent and of education.

All of them, each and every group, had its special imprint on domestic architecture, folk architecture, the design and the style that are not really a "design'' or a "style'' at all, but rather the simple repetition of the known and familiar. But the repetition of the known and familiar often had to take shape in unknown or new materials. Thus domestic folk architecture developed in spite of itself.

This article was written by Ronald E. Diener historian and story-teller.
More of Ron's stories - here and there

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