When William and Margaret moved to a farm near Fork Lick Creek, they likely constructed a one-room log house.
Kentucky’s earliest log cabins had walls of unhewn logs, stacked and notched. The logs’ round shape was exposed inside and out.
Their cabins were built of logs, clapboard roofs, slab doors hung on deer skin thongs and earthen or puncheon floors. The latter made by splitting logs in two and laying the rounded sides down, flat sides up. The windows if any, were usually of deer skin soaked in bear grease and stretched until fairly thin and transparent. The chimneys were made of sticks and clay mixed with deer or pig hair.The Settlement of Pendleton County – Mildred Bowen Belew
By 1800, more sophisticated construction practices were adopted. Hewn, or squared, logs were used. This made the structure stronger and easier to expand or modify.
The Kentucky builders who cut the trees, squared andKentucky Folk Architecture – William Lynwood Montell and Michael L. Morse
notched the logs, sawed and mortised the timbers, and
split the roof boards possessed an amazing amount of
folklore about their tools and materials.
In the first decades after 1800, the builder had increasing access to glass panes for windows, door hinges and handles, and machine-made nails.
A one-pen cabin
The typical Kentucky log house was “one-pen”. The “one pen” is a square or rectangular structure with one open room, perhaps 16×16 feet or up to 16×20 feet.
The one-pen cabin usually had a loft built into the roof framing. The loft served as a sleeping area.
The upstairs (generally a loft) is ordinarily reached by a narrow, steep, boxed-in stairway located by the fireplace; but a ladder positionedKentucky Folk Architecture – William Lynwood Montell and Michael L. Morse
vertically against the interior wall sometimes served the same function in early days.
Two-pen and two-story
A bigger house could be built – a “two-pen”. This was accomplished by adding a second “pen” to a “one-pen” cabin. This could be added later, as needed for a growing family.
Pioneer house builders found it rather easy to accommodate growing families by using the concept of double-breasting or stacking the original
pen. Some stacked the pens and obtained two-story houses as a result.
Double-pen houses were much in vogue among the common folk of Kentucky through the years.Kentucky Folk Architecture – William Lynwood Montell and Michael L. Morse
A house could be two-story. These were not as numerous because they were more complicated than adding additional ground-level “pens”. A prosperous farmer or professional person might have a two-story house.
Timber was plentiful, so Kentucky settlers found their primary building materials all around them. As they cleared a spot for a cabin, they stacked the logs they had just cut.
Limestone or sandstone rocks, both hewn and unshaped, are the most popular means of supporting the foundation sills and girders in house and barn construction. These stones are usually stacked without mortar.Kentucky Folk Architecture – William Lynwood Montell and Michael L. Morse
The walls serve as both the structural support and the weather enclosure. The concept is simple. Stack the wall logs horizontally, while notching the ends to join the perpendicular walls.
The spaces between the logs was filled, earlier with mud and hair, and later with mortar. The filler wasn’t structural, so it was just for weatherproofing.
The notch was the secret to strength and stability. There were various notch designs. The typical design for Pendleton County was V-notching.
Roof and eaves
The logs were mortared together and the clapboards and rafters were held fast with wooden pegs cut by hand from black walnut or hickory.The Settlement of Pendleton County – Mildred Bowen Belew
A mud and stone fireplace dominated one wall of the cabin, providing illumination and heat to warm its inhabitants and a place to cook their food.Kentucky’s Story – KET Education
The average farmer didn’t have the skills to build a working fireplace or make a window or frame a staircase. So carpenters and stonemasons were in demand.
James and Harvey Jarvis were both stonemasons. They were probably kept busy building fireplaces.
The earliest cabins had dirt floors. By early 1800s, most had puncheon floors, made by splitting logs in two and laying the floor with round sides down and flat sides up.
Windows and doors
By the time William and Margaret built their cabin around 1805, they probably could acquire glass for windows, and hinges and handles for the doors.
The windows had wooden shutters, which would be closed for weather and protection.
The log houses are often miserable looking places, full of great chinks; if with windows, a hat, or a petticoat, is often stuck through the broken panes; All this is no indication of poverty, but an almost certain one that you will be received with hospitality!
…it is a custom, originating in the difficulty of procuring glass.Journal of Travels in the United States – 1818 – John Palmer
The nails in use before 1800 were wrought nails, individually handmade by a blacksmith. Wrought nails are square in cross section and taper on all four sides to a point. The head of the nail was hand-forged with hammer blows, and wrought nails are often called rose-head nails because of the floral quality of the heads.
Cut nails, formed mechanically from sheet iron, were invented in the 1790’s, but their use is not common until about 1810. Cut nails also have square shanks, but these are wedge shaped, tapering on two opposite sides. Cut nails have square heads.
The modern wire nail, or round-shank nail was invented in the middle of the nineteenth century, and its use became common after the Civil War.The Pioneer Log House in Kentucky – William J. Macintire
Furnishings generally were sparse and crude-a few chairs or split log benches, perhaps a couple of tables made from logs, a bedstead or two, a cradle, maybe a cup-board or chest for storing bedding and clothing, a spinning wheel, and a loom.Kentucky’s Story – KET Education
Log cabin vs. log house
Thaddeus Harris, a travel writer, noted in 1803 that “the temporary buildings of the first settlers are called cabins.” He explainedThe Pioneer Log House in Kentucky – William J. Macintire
that cabins “are built with unhewn logs, the interstices between which
are stopped with rails, calked with moss or straw, and daubed with
mud.” This is something like the cabin with no fireplace William
Sudduth described. In contrast, according to Harris, “if the logs be
hewed; if the interstices be stopped with stone, and neatly plastered;
and the roof composed of shingles nicely laid on, it is called a log
They’re all set
William and Margaret were settled on their rented farm by 1805 and had built a log house.
In 1805, William was 45, Margaret 43. They had been in Kentucky about 13 years.
Their family numbered 11. That’s a crowd for a one-room house. But it was theirs. Their children were growing up.
- Sarah b. 1785 Maryland Age 20
- Elizabeth b. 1790 Maryland Age 15
- Parker b. 1792 Age 13
- James William b. 1794 Age 11
- Malinda b. 1796 Age 9
- Gilbert b. 1798 Age 7
- Margaret b. 1800 Age 5
- Susannah b. 1802 Age 3
- Harvey (4G) b. 1803 Age 2
Nibbles Extra Credit
I am William Jarvis
During one of my trips to Kentucky, I had the treasured experience of staying in an 1800s log cabin.
Judy Mullins’ family was in Pendleton County at the same time as the Jarvises. She still has family land along Scaffold Lick Creek, a few miles south of Fork Lick Creek.
A few years ago, she rescued an 1810-era log cabin that was slated for demolition. She moved it to her family’s legacy land with the intention of using it for her art studio, and renting it out as a B&B.
So for a few wonderful days, I stayed in the cabin. After a day of genealogy research and exploring, I would retire to the cabin for an evening of quiet and introspection.
The cabin had no electricity or water. No heat or cooling. No cell phone reception. An outdoor cold-water tank for a shower. An outhouse. A stream out back.
It was a classic one-room cabin, probably just like the Jarvises. The main room had a stone fireplace hearth on one wall. The loft was the bedroom, accessible by steep steps like a ship’s ladder.
Dinner hour was my favorite. There were plenty of candles. And a great porch. My Subway sandwich and bottle of wine were never better.
When it got dark, it was time to go to bed.
I was, for a few days, William Jarvis.
Judy Mullins has since wired the cabin for electricity and piped water to the outside. She reasoned, “It’s too hot in summer to rent, and it’s too cold in winter.” Luckily, I was there in May, and the weather was perfect.
- Quotation about Kentucky house builders – Kentucky Folk Architecture – William Lynwood Montell and Michael L. Morse – 1976 – University Press of Kentucky- https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/232564142.pdf
- Image – Clearing trees – Clearing the Town Plot at Stanley, October 1834 – W.P. Kay, – NA, C-40780 – https://history.earthsci.carleton.ca/company/history/images/Clearing_Stanley_lg.jpg
- Image – Exterior view of pioneer cabin – ElectricCanadian – https://www.electriccanadian.com/history/ontario/zorra/chapter1.htm
- Image – Pioneer cabin – Gutenberg.org – https://www.gutenberg.org/files/45662/45662-rst/images/img-106.jpg
- Quotations – The Pioneer Log House in Kentucky – William J. Macintire – Kentucky Heritage Council – https://heritage.ky.gov/Documents/PioneerLogHouse.pdf
- Quotations – Journal of Travels in the United States of North America and Lower Canada Performed in the Year 1817 – John Palmer – 1818 – https://www.google.com/books/edition/Journal_of_Travels_in_the_United_States/X60TAAAAYAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1
- Quotations – The Settlement of Pendleton County – Mildred Bowen Belew – The First Two Hundred Years of Pendleton County
- Quotations – Kentucky’s Story – KET Education – https://education.ket.org/resources/kentuckys-story/#historical-background-life-on-the-kentucky-frontier-17501820
- Mullins Log Cabin – Judy Mullins – Berry, Kentucky – Mullins Log Cabin Facebook – Mullins Log Cabin Airbnb
- Photos of Mullins log cabin – Mark Jarvis – May 2017
- Photos of log cabin construction details – Mark Jarvis – 2015 and 2017