A Settler’s Dream

Editorial, Graphics and Photography By: Dr. Christopher Cooper

Years ago, we had an excursion to Eastern Ontario with back-to-back workshops being held in Brighton and Kingston.  There was method to-our-madness, we had been down to Perth, Ontario earlier in the summer and fell head-over-heels in love with the area because of the vast stock of heritage buildings, from early settlement to the end of the reign of Queen Victoria.

No trip to Eastern Ontario would be complete without a side trip to our nation’s capital, Ottawa!  We found Ottawa very busy on the day of our visit and opted for a drive west of the city.  Following the road less travelled we found ourselves in a small blip on the road map called Mansfield.  On a stone rural road I found a little log house, abandoned and looking quite forlorn.

original kitchen door
Mortised partition wall

Thanks to a metal roof the structure itself was in very good condition with a modicum of rot under windowsills and some on the principal sill logs.  The main part of the house is 24′-6″ across the front facade by 22′-4″ in depth and one-and-a-half storeys high, the cornering is very good, fashioned in the water shedding dovetail style (see image below left).  The rear summer kitchen (18′-0″ x 13′-0″) was recycled from another building, but the distinct and rare mortised partition walls have been cut flush to disguise its former use (see Image above).  On the west side of the house there is the ghost of an original kitchen door which has been framed-in rather crudely with logs, presumably when the recycled kitchen tail was added (see arrows on image above).

The date of this little log house is in question and would have to go through an investigation of dendrochronology (dating timber through reading growth rings) before a conclusion can be made.  Many of these little log buildings in the Perth area are deceiving, as many of the early traditions of working logs went well into the twentieth century.  After closely examining some of the early construction techniques, I felt the house most likely dates to the first quarter of the 19th century.  The first level walls are made of solid board wainscotting which are placed in a small centre channelled wooden curb on the floor and inserted into a similar curb with an open rabbet to allow the board to be inserted and nailed into position (see image above right).

A floor to ceiling wainscotting is a very early technique (prior to the 19th century) as is the cupboard stair which was once wainscotted to the ceiling with a small ledged door at the bottom.  The door and part of the wainscotting had been removed at some point, most likely to get a mattress or bulky furniture up to the (presumably newly) finished second level.  Many early homes rarely used the second half levels, especially in the winter months, this being very evident in this house as the lath and plaster date much later than the lower levels.

The most wonderful interior feature has to be the beaded floor joists and beaded pine floorboards, again a very early architectural feature which shows the quality of the craftsmanship of a simple crude log house.  The underside of the flooring and the beaded floor joists have a handsome denim blue milk paint still in lovely original condition (see image above).

Chimney cupboard
Gable Curb

The second floor has three neat little rooms, with two of the rooms having chimney cupboards (see image above).  The house was obviously heated by wood stoves as most houses in Canada were during the early 19th century.  The typical curb at window height on the second floor can be found in most early log houses.  This curb is formed at the union of the upper most closing log and the framed gable end, rarely did logs follow-up the entire gable end of log homes (see image above). 

The exterior of the house shows signs of being stuccoed with lime mortar as the checked log ends have lime mortar still in place and some lime is evident on the projecting architraves around the windows.  During the Regency period in Canada, it was quite fashionable to have an ashlar cut stone house, and the stucco on this house would have been scored to resemble cut stone.  The house was never lathed so through time, freezes and thaws, the direct method of applying lime plaster on the exterior log walls has long since washed away. 

Wedge Chinking

Most log homes were covered soon after their construction, due in part to our unforgiving climate.  The chinking between the logs would have been worked on every season after being built, because of the constant expansion and contraction of the structure.  Covering the logs were both as a fashion statement, a way to stop draft and inevitably having to concern oneself with re-chinking every spring.  Most early chinking was daub in the form of clay and short straw.  The next evolution was to use lime which allowed some flexibility, but not much.  One of the most rare and fascinating styles of chinking is to set wedges of wood in the space between the logs and plaster (daub or lime) over them.  This little log house has a very good example of wedge chinking and is the only example I have ever seen (see image above).

One of the most charming features of this little house is that the front door is only 5′-0″ high, a small fanlight had been added to provide natural light (proper architectural terminology – fanlight prior to the 20th century even when rectangular as above).  The windows are sadly in most part removed as are many of the frames.  The house has become nothing more than a safe dry home for families of raccoons and to store tin roofing and irrigation pipe.  The building can easily be resurrected due in part to the tin roof which now needs some attention.  It would be a shame to see this stunning little piece of early Canadian settlement sacrificed to the burn pile.

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