The Settlement Cabin
by Tal Galton
These mountains are undeniably beautiful. For many, it’s this beauty that lures us and keeps us here. The rolling hills appear gentle, the forests lush and welcoming. But for all the wildness of mountain vistas, this land is settled. Most state and county roads are smooth, and even the steepest driveway is climbed with ease in a 4WD truck. This is not the same land that the first European settlers encountered when they trickled into these mountains 200 years ago. Certainly, they saw beauty in this land, but these mountains were also menacing. The hills were steep and rocky, exceedingly difficult to traverse by foot, horse, or by rickety wagon. The forests were dark -- they contained a few known dangers, and even more frightful unknowns.
When settler families arrived on their deeded plots in the Toe River Valley in the years between 1790 and 1830, they found an unbroken forest. We have a few clues as to what that forest was like. The Cherokee people had lived in and cultivated the forest for hundreds of years, but in the century preceding the settlers’ arrival their population was decimated by European military expeditions and accompanying waves of smallpox epidemics. By the 1790s, as European settlers encroached on the mountainous territory, the Cherokee’s weakened society was pushed to the furthest corner of the state -- 40 years before their forced eviction via the Trail of Tears.
The Cherokee and their predecessors had tended the mountain forests for centuries. They used fire to keep the understory open, and they farmed corn and other crops in the river valleys, alongside the canebrakes that were managed as raw material for tools, baskets, and thatching. By the time the settlers arrived, regal chestnut trees dominated the landscape, producing windfalls of nutritious nuts each year that supported rich populations of game. Preying on the game animals were great wild carnivores -- cougars, red wolves, and bears.
For the first season or two in their cove, a settler family might camp under a rock shelter while setting to work hewing the forest into something that resembled a homestead. Lacking the knowledge for how to live with the forest as the native peoples had, the settlers cleared it as quickly as they could, girdling, felling, and burning trees to bring in light for crops and to make pasture for livestock. After food production, the next priority for the family was to get a roof over their heads before the arrival of next winter’s winds. For many families, the settlement cabin was the answer. The stout log cabin’s dimensions were dictated by the length of the largest logs one man could move and stack himself. Kept small, it could be built quickly over the course of a few weeks or months. It would serve as a solid home that kept the family warm and dry -- and protected them from the unfamiliar and terrifying mysteries of the surrounding forest.
Dylan Wilson’s ancestors were among those early Toe River Valley settlers. Watching Dylan work, you’d think Dylan himself had labored alongside them. Somehow, his great(x5) grandfathers’ knowledge and skills have seeped into Dylan’s hands. He makes it look easy now, but these skills have been honed through years of practice and hard work. Dylan has always had a passion for the old ways of building things -- “people used to laugh at me for doing stuff like this,” he says, gesturing at the log he’s hewing and notching. Now he’s the one laughing, with a dream job managing a 19th century farm and constructing historically accurate structures for the Center for Pioneer Life. In the pioneer times, before the feed and seed stores, the lumber stores, even before the blacksmiths and coopers had moved in -- there was no one to make or mend your tools and barrels. If you couldn’t do it yourself, you did without. Like his ancestors, Dylan’s a true jack-of-all-trades. Dylan doesn’t carry a cellphone, but he can build a house with just a half dozen well-honed hand tools. He can manage a team of horses to plow a field or skid a log out the woods; cut and rake hay into haystacks, and forge raw iron into tools.
The orderly assemblage of logs that constitutes a well-built settlement cabin is a work of art. The logs are perfectly leveled, without the use of a level. The notches are clean and matching, cut only with hand tools and simple measuring sticks. The joints are snug and secure, the hand-shaved locust pegs securing the door and window frames are round and tight. 200 years ago, the bottom row of logs would have been rot-resistant chestnut. In the absence of chestnut -- lost to blight 100 years ago -- Dylan built a modest stone foundation to keep the tulip poplar logs out of the dirt. Poplar grows straight, the wood is easy to work and far lighter -- and thus easier to handle -- than oak. The roof of the cabin is of hand-split oak shakes -- yet another heritage craft that Dylan is reviving. When all is said and done, this will be a 50-year roof. The original settlement cabin would have been roofed quickly with slabs of wood or bark. A shingle roof like Dylan’s was a dream roof, only attained in the first year of settlement if the settler had ample resources. But from the beginning, the cabin was built to last. Many of these cabins, their small size dictated by the length of the logs that the farmer could maneuver out of the woods, became the cornerstone of the future homestead. The classic Appalachian form of a dogtrot connecting two log cabins (like on the Josiah and Francis Ray Young cabin) was a way to employ the original settlement cabin as part of a larger home for a growing family.
Today, mountain cabins are the stuff of Pinterest and coffee table books. The contemporary fetish for cabins is partly architectural, and largely lifestyle fantasy. And now, in this moment of pandemic and economic uncertainty, businesses that cater to off-the-grid lifestyles are some of the few markets on the upswing. Yet few people know what it takes to fell a tree with an axe, haul it to the site with an ox, hew it, notch it, and hoist it into place. Sure, you can learn from books and websites, but the best way to learn these skills is from another set of experienced hands, and to practice them yourself. Dylan worked for Jack Hensley, the Burnsville builder, for years, and learned some of the old-timey trades from Rex and Sam, Jack’s dad and uncle. Most of the old guys who knew these skills are long gone, and Dylan has a thousand questions he wishes he could go back and ask them. When you see the new settlement cabin at the Center for Pioneer Life, you will see that he’s doing just fine with the knowledge he has and the skills he’s practiced. The cabin Dylan has shaped is a reminder that self-reliance and mutual aid have always been an important part of how people have eked out a living in these mountains. Now it’s the next generation’s turn to learn from the work being done at the Center.
Tal Galton is a lifelong educator with a degree in History. He runs Snakeroot Ecotours, a Yancey-based nature guide service for exploring the Blue Ridge's finest forests and plant communities.