Batt, James R. (ed.) / Wisconsin Academy review
Volume 20, Number 2  (Summer 1974)
Perrin, Richard W. E.
Wisconsin's stovewood architecture, pp. 2-8
reflects a deep and affectionate understanding of the material, both as to form and appearance, and, in a broader sense, an appre- ciation of the environment by seeking and finding methods that do not violate the surroundings nor squander any part of the material. Nearly all log and solid timber buildings in their original Euro- pean domain were built in rural areas and, notwithstanding the essentially perishable nature of wood, were expected to last for many generations-and so they did. With minimal maintenance a large number of them have al- ready attained an age of several hundred years. Unfortunately, much of contemporary thought and technology is crucially trans- forming the hitherto harmonious relationship between man and his environment even in relatively underdeveloped countries such as Romania, which until very recent- ly was literally a treasure-trove of genuinely organic timber build- ings, ranging from houses, barns, and dependencies to churches and windmills. The best specimens are being saved wherever and when- ever possible but unfortunately far too few will survive. If it were not for outdoor museums such as the Muzeul Satului in Bucharest, an even greater number of prime specimens would be forever lost. European log and solid timber construction was brought to Amer- ica by colonists and settlers, be- ginning with seventeenth century Swedes in Delaware-or, quite pos- sibly, in Pennsylvania by German Schwenkfelders from Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia-and termi- nating in the Midwest, especially in Wisconsin, with the work of the immigrant Norwegians, Germans, Finns, Poles, Lithuanians, Bohe- mians, and even native Americans on the move during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Americans moving westward read- ily adopted the log cabin based on European prototypes since solid log construction was no longer part of the cultural equipment of the Anglo-Saxon milieu. However, American work differed from that of continental European prove- nance in one very important re- spect. American buildings were usually not regarded as being p e r m a n e nt and were therefore often put together in the most expedient way. There were several reasons for this point of view. First, the Amer- icans arriving from the eastern sections of the country had often come from comfortable, well-built houses located in convenient, well- ordered communities. Secondly, if they decided to stop in Wisconsin, for example, it was by no means a foregone conclusion that they would not pull up stakes again and move still further west in a comparatively short while. How- ever, if they did decide to stay in Wisconsin-and particularly if they prospered-a fine new house after the latest fashion ranked highest priority and the log cabin, impermanently regarded, became hogpen, chickencoop or toolshed. Some westward bound Americans, especially in the more southerly latitudes, did not move on but stayed in the hills of West Vir- ginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, and southern Indiana, where some American-type l og houses-but usually of better than average construction-and homesteads for several generations can still be seen and studied to good advan- tage. In any event, it seems safe to say that no significant method of timber construction used before the early nineteenth century was developed in the United States. Techniques were modified to fit local conditions, but their Euro- The Williams House, built in 1848, was first described by Rev. Paul Jenkins in 1923. All that remains is this specimen of the wall. pean a n c e s t r y is certain. Ap- proaching American timber con- struction and its antecedents as a geographer and anthropologist, Fred Kniffen of Louisiana State University, has painstakingly re- searched and traced the routes of diffusion from their source areas and in so doing was led into fur- ther investigative work with the assistance of Henry Glassie, at the time a doctoral candidate in folklore at the University of Penn- sylvania. In one of their joint publications they assert that in assessing wood construction from a time-place perspective there must be a strong emphasis on folk prac- tices because they are, compara- tively, the simplest and most direct expression of fundamental needs and urges. Significantly, the au- thors share the concern common to all students of vernacular build- ing that folk practices with respect to material things have been badly neglected in comparison with story telling, traditional music, dancing, and folklore. Simple folk methods and forms of construction have been largely disregarded with the net result being the accelerated destruction of unchronicled folk structures and practices to a point where their record is beyond recovery. As already indicated, the great mobility of the American people was the primary, fundamental ele- ment in the diffusion of building types, moving westward both from earlier eastern American sources or d i rectly from Europe itself. While log and solid timber work did, of course, extend west of the Mississippi, the treeless plains and prairies were not conducive to such construction and the still heavily forested Midwest was the last stronghold of traditional log construction to any significant degree. The very presence of these forests, coupled with highly fertile soil, constituted one of the greatest attractions for immigrants from northern and central Europe, par- ticularly. In coming to Wisconsin they brought with them three gen- eral methods of building in wood: timber framing, walls of closely set vertical timbers, and walls of horizontal timbers. Thus we have half-timbering; clapboarding over heavy open frame; vertical log, paling, and plank construction; and w a lls of horizontal logs, planks, and timbers with various corner joinings. 3
Copyright 1974 by the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters.| For information on re-use, see http://digital.library.wisc.edu/1711.dl/Copyright