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Virginia Handy.

In the 1970s, Virginia Handy came upon Chilson D. Aldrich's "The Real Log Cabin" in a used bookstore, thus inspiring her interest in this form of folk architecture. By 1981, her own log home--built from tulip poplar trees from the Fred Russ Forest Park near Dowagiac--was under construction. And by 1986, she was leading efforts to commemorate Michigan's log structures in preparation for the state's sesquicentennial.

Today, Handy is the editor, secretary, and treasurer for the Log Cabin Society of Michigan and the author of her own book about the subject: "From the Little Log Cabin in the Lane." This past August, she spoke with Michigan History Assistant Editor Izzi Bendall about her love of log buildings.

MH: How did you first get interested in advocating for the preservation of log structures?

VH: It started with my own experience of building a log home in Sodus. I faced some challenges during the construction process, and when I needed help, I couldn't find it. There was hardly anything written on log cabins in libraries. I learned bits and pieces from acquaintances, but the thing with folk architecture is that when you talk to one person, they'll suggest one thing, and if you talk to another person, they'll suggest something else.

For instance, the man who built my cabin, Joe Biek, told me about paraffin wax, which is brushed on logs as a sealant, helping to keep out powder post beetles and give the logs a golden glow. It looks beautiful, but when it wears off, it starts to look splotchy. So I wrote to a forestry professor and asked him, "What do you do when the finish has worn off your logs?" He suggested just using old-fashioned varnish.

MH: Would you say it was this experience that inspired you to co-found the Log Cabin Society of Michigan?

VH: Yes. When the late Ruth Lenehan Willett of the Bad Axe Historical Society and I organized the society in 1988, it was to act as a referral service for people building or repairing log buildings. Today, our purpose is to discover, preserve, and promote Michigan's surviving log structures. As far as I know, we're the only statewide, historically oriented log cabin society in the country.

MH: And one of the ways you promote these structures is through events like Log Cabin Day?

VH: Yes, although Log Cabin Day came before the society was established. The Berrien County Sesquicentennial Executive Committee helped me organize Log Cabin Day in 1987 for the state sesquicentennial. Former State Representative Lad Stacey was so thrilled by the idea, he wanted to hold it every year--and it just evolved from there. Now, Log Cabin Day is an annual event that occurs the last Sunday of June.

On this date, we encourage communities around the state to recognize the log structures in their midst. On Log Cabin Day in 2012, I had a very inspiring experience when I attended a fundraising event to restore a log home in Detroit's Palmer Park. This Adirondack-style structure--built for U.S. Senator Thomas Palmer as a summer retreat--has been around since 1885. It's the last log building in the city and needs a new roof and other repairs. Now, thousands of people know about it through the publicity for this event.

MH: How many log structures still exist in Michigan?

VH: I did a survey back in 1986 and found that there were about 100 of them in Berrien County alone. There probably are thousands in the state. If you keep your eyes open, you'll see them all around you.

MH: In what areas of the state do you find some of the best examples of these structures?

VH: In my own county in southwest Michigan, you'll find the Murdock log house in Berrien Springs--an outstanding example of the two-story log buildings that were created in the 1830s.

And there's the Jakway log cabin in Benton Township. It's a very interesting building that features steeple, or inverted, V-type notching of its logs.

Another important grouping is the Bad Axe Pioneer Log Village, considered to be the most complete settlement of original log structures in the Lower Peninsula. And in the Upper Peninsula, there are two such places: Old Victoria near Rockland and the Iron County Museum sites at Caspian. Both have restored log cabins associated with the state's mining heritage: Old Victoria for copper mining and the Iron County Museum for iron ore.

MH: Why is it important to preserve the history of these buildings?

VH: Michigan's trees provided its first settlers with basic building material and later settlers with the means to build wealth. It's important to our history that we honor trees and their products.

MH: What about the preservation of log cabin construction techniques?

VH: Very few old log cabins are still in their original condition. If we want to show posterity what log cabins looked like, we should build exact replicas showing old styles of notching. The old log cabin builders are fast fading away, but their knowledge and skills can still be acquired. There are schools of log building, special classes, books, and magazines that show how it is done.

MH: Is the Log Cabin Society pursuing any new projects right now?

VH: We're trying to gain approval for a U.S. log cabin stamp, ideally picturing a nationally important structure such as the Palmer Park log home in Detroit. There hasn't been a postage stamp of a log cabin by itself since 1956, when a stamp was issued featuring the birthplace of Booker T. Washington. And it can take years for an application to work its way through the Post Office's approval process.

I also have an archive of Michigan log cabin brochures, history, and lore that I am determined to get it into print. Future historians should know that surveys have been done and that people had a great time at out Log Cabin Day celebrations.

Photos courtesy of Virginia Handy and iStockphoto.
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Title Annotation:CONVERSATIONS
Publication:Michigan History Magazine
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1U3MI
Date:Nov 1, 2012
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