Constructing, and Reconstructing, a Pioneer Home in the Wilderness of Yancey County
Sometime around 1840, perhaps earlier, Josiah Young decided to build a house. Nearly 200 years later, his descendants built it again.
Josiah was born in Yancey County, the son of Strawbridge Young, the first Methodist minister in the British colonies. Strawbridge was the son of Thomas Young, who had emigrated to North Carolina from Maryland, settling in the McDowell County foothills in the mid-1700s. When the western territories opened up after the Revolutionary War, Strawbridge became one of the first settlers to seek his fortune up the mountainside in what is now Yancey County. His sons and daughters would eventually fan out across western North Carolina, clearing land and creating farms.
One of those sons was Josiah Young, who married Frances Ray. Frances had inherited property on Bolens Creek, and it was there that they decided to build a home in which to raise their children.
In the early 19th century, raising four walls and a roof was no easy matter. Just clearing land for a home and farm was backbreaking work—chopping down huge trees with hand-held tools, hacking away centuries of wilderness growth, and pulling up enormous stumps. Without the benefit of modern tools, one stump could take days to remove. But such work was necessary for basic survival.
After plenty of sweat—and help from family and neighbors—raw logs rose into a home. The cabin had two wings, separated by a covered area known as a “dogtrot,” which provided cross ventilation and work space. The second story featured a sleeping loft. And, of course, a roomy front porch.
It was in this home that generations of Youngs lived and died and raised families in between. Over the years, the house evolved with the times—with descendants modifying it with contemporary construction, such as a clapboard exterior.
By the 1930s, the Young clan was holding regular reunions at the old Bolens Creek homestead. Among the attendees was a boy named Ralph Young of Buncombe County, who had gotten wind of a secret: the original log structure assembled by his pioneer ancestors hidden inside a seemingly simple clapboard house.
“As a kid, we would play in front of the house during those reunions,” said Ralph. “I didn’t see the cabin back then—the log portion was encapsulated within the regular-looking house. But I’d heard there was a cabin under there where my grandfather was born and my father had lived for a while.”
The reunions were put on hold during World War II. “They finally started the reunions back up about ten years after the war, and I remembered the story of the log cabin stuck inside that old house,” said Ralph. “I finally got a look at it, and thought I’d like to have those logs someday.”
By the mid-2000s, the home had been sold outside of the family with plans to replace it with a modern structure. Ralph struck a deal to buy the old log structure underneath.
“I had to tear it down and clean up the site,” said Ralph. “But I wanted those original logs. I thought I might use them to build a weekend retreat somewhere in the mountains.”
While searching for a suitable site for his retreat, Ralph marked the logs for future reassembly and stored them in a tractor-trailer, where they waited for more than a decade. That’s when cousin Gwen Young Stetzler asked if he would offer the logs up for reassembly on Shoal Creek, where she’d just inherited her father’s old homestead.
Cousin Earl Young, a co-founder of Young & McQueen grading and Mountain Air Country Club, put his development expertise to work to rebuild the cabin on the Shoal Creek site, where yet other branches of the Young family were raised.
“The biggest challenge was that we didn’t know how big the cabin was,” said Earl Young. “We had to put the logs up in order, and then build a foundation to match it, and hoist the cabin onto the foundation. And we weren’t sure how big the dogtrot was supposed to be.”
While the roof is new construction, Earl said 99 percent of the of remaining wood is original to the early cabin, as well as most of the rocks in the fireplaces and chimneys.
Many other family members donated time and money to rebuild the cabin, including Doris Tobias, who paid for a local mason to rebuild the chimneys. Fred Young also contributed funds, land, and expertise to the project. The cabin, with its notable frontier architectural style, is furnished with items dating from the 19th century meant to demonstrate the lifestyle of the families during that time. It is the oldest surviving structure in the family, and the only surviving home from that generation.
The reconstruction of the historic cabin became the genesis of the Center for Pioneer Life, which is dedicated to preserving the legacy of pioneer families who settled this region and sharing the experience of how they lived. The Center is a project of the non-profit Strawbridge and Martha Wilson Young Foundation.
So the memories of Josiah and Frances Ray Young—and possibly a few friendly ghosts—live on in a nearly 200-year old cabin. Today, it serves as a signpost in history where Yancey County natives, descendants, and others can trace their heritage and see how their forefathers carved a home and a life from the wilds of the North Carolina high country.