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Batt, James R. (ed.) / Wisconsin Academy review
Volume 20, Number 2 [3] (Summer 1974)

Perrin, Richard W. E.
Wisconsin's stovewood architecture,   pp. 2-8


Page 3


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.
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