a Log Cabin
first house a man might build, at least in East and Central Texas,
was a log cabin. Log cabins, by the way, looked nothing like the log
houses usually called 'log cabins' today. The most common size was
12" x 14", usually the logs were not dressed-that is, the bark was
left on-and most commonly a log cabin had no fireplace and only a
dirt floor. The logs were saddle-notched like the ones in the old
Lincoln Log sets, and that was a recipe for ultimate disaster. Water
collected in those saddle notches, and water rots wood. A log cabin
almost invariably started deteriorating at the corners.
The dirt floor-and the ground the mud sills or bottom logs sat on-was
usually level, and the corners were perfectly square. The ground was
leveled by building a dam or dike of mud around where the house would
be built and pouring water inside the dam. Water would collect in
the low spots and the high spots would be exposed. Then, with hoes
and shovels, the builders would scrape down the high spots and use
the dirt to fill in the low spots, resulting in a level area.
To square the corners, the builders would use a surveying instrument
that probably was used to square the corners of the pyramids of Giza.
It was a piece of rope. A knot was tied in one end. Three equal measures-the
length of a man's forearm (a 'cubit'), usually-were measured off on
the rope, and a second knot was tied. Then 4 of the same measures
were measured off from the second knot, and a third knot was tied.
After that 5 measures were measured off and a fourth knot was tied.
The first and fourth knot were pegged together, and when the triangle
was stretched, the angle between the first and the third knots, with
the second knot as the apex of the triangle, was exactly 90°. This
is the famous 3-4-5 right triangle that formed the basis for the Pythagorean
Theorem, with which we became familiar in plane geometry in high school.
Most of the builders of log cabins and log houses had never heard
of the Pythagorean Theorem, but nearly everybody knew how to make
a right angle with a piece of rope.
The door on a log cabin would usually be made of splits-boards roughly
riven from logs with a froe or splitting wedge--and they would be
pinned together with pegs, the holes drilled with hand-augers. Hinges
would usually be leather, and as a rule the door-there was usually
only one-would swing inward rather than out. That was so it could
be securely locked, usually with a huge wooden bar. If there were
windows, and there usually weren't in a log cabin, they weren't glass.
Normally they would be glazed with thin-scraped, oiled rawhide, which
was translucent but not transparent. If there was a saloon nearby
it was possible to collect clear whiskey bottles, break the necks
off them, and build a frame around them. The frame could then be set
into the wall and pegged in place. This sort of 'glass window' admitted
a lot more light than rawhide, but it was awfully hard to see anything
distinctly through one.
a Log House
soon as possible a family built a log house, which was entirely different
from a log cabin. For a log house the logs were 'dressed'-squared
with a broadaxe-and had V-notches in them, the V facing down for drainage.
Normally a log house was set on some sort of footing rather than on
the ground, and in cedar country heavy cedar posts were usually used
to lift the framework of the floor off the ground. If large flat rocks
were available they were often stacked to make the piers for the house.
Huge logs, usually 2 feet in diameter, were used for the 4 main beams
of the house, and they were usually fastened together with pegs rather
than notched. Over these would be laid a 'puncheon' floor. Puncheons
were splits from logs, sometimes as much as 4 inches thick. The floor
would be rough, but it beat dirt.
Normally such a house was built as a 'dogtrot' or 'saddlebags' house,
known outside Texas as a 'Texas house.' There would be 2 rooms with
what today would be called a 'breezeway' between them. In early Texas
that was known as a 'dogtrot.' Doors from both rooms would open onto
One room was the kitchen, and in early Texas there was a fireplace
for both cooking and heat in the kitchen. It was also, when the weather
was cold, the 'family room,' which explains why Texans tend to gather
in a house's kitchen. It's in our genetic makeup to do that. The other
room was the bedroom, which was occupied by the man and his wife,
with-usually-the youngest child sleeping in a trundle bed under the
Usually the house had a ceiling even over the dogtrot, and above it
a loft. The entrance to the loft was usually a trap door in the dogtrot,
with a ladder for access. The rest of the family-and families were
large in those days-slept in the loft. The girls slept at one end,
the boys at the other, separated by a blanket or a hide hung from
a pole across the loft. The ladder was removable, and as a general
rule once the family went to bed the ladder was taken down and stored
under the house, to prevent any unauthorized entry to the loft-or
any unauthorized exit.
Even the dressed logs had gaps between them, so the gaps were 'chinked.'
The filling might be mud, but more often it was a mixture of clay
and a stuff books call 'bitumen,' which was natural tar, found around
'oil springs'-natural oil seeps.
The roof would nearly always be shingled, the shingles made from hickory
if possible, split from short pieces of well-seasoned hickory with
a froe and a mallet. They might be pegged to stringers laid across
the rafters, or they might be weighted down with rocks.
On the front and back of the house there were usually wide, veranda-like
porches. As the family grew and prospered, the porches might be closed
in to make a parlor and a dining room on the front and perhaps extra
bedrooms on the back. This, of course, would close in the dogtrot,
which became yet another room. Behind the walls of many an historic
home in Texas you can still find the dressed logs of a dogtrot house,
long since closed in and, in many cases, forgotten until new owners
decide to remodel the interior of the place.
© C. F.
"Charley Eckhardt's Texas"
August 2, 2006 column
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