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105 Years of Cabin Memories

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Photo by Mike Gearlds Photo by Mike Gearlds

When my wife and I bought our house and acreage between East Hope and Clark Fork last year, it came with an intriguing no-cost extra: an old two-story cedar log cabin in one corner of the property.

Just how old I learned this summer, when a man from Washington state came knocking at our door. Turns out, he grew up in the cabin in the 1930s and ‘40s, and visits every year to tend family graves, see friends and hang out for a while at the old place.

    John Rose, 72, is the grandson of Robert Rose, a German immigrant who built our cabin in 1896 on 60 acres. Robert Rose died in his prime nine years later, on Christmas Day, 1905 — felled by an aneurysm at age 50. His white tombstone in the Hope Cemetery looks like it was chiseled yesterday.

    John Rose returned to visit us a month later, and this time he brought along his old family photos, showing the cabin from around 1900 to the early 1950s, when he left home for a career in the Navy. He had lots of stories about the cabin, and took me around the property, pointing out places where outbuildings once stood or gardens were tended.

    For 104 years, the cabin was continuously occupied by several owners, serving as family home, guest house, granny shack and caretaker’s residence. Over the years, several additions were tacked on, like a kitchen/bathroom annex on the back, then a sun porch in front.

    The exterior is covered with cedar shakes, but the interior walls reveal the real structure — hand-hewn cedar logs, shaped with an adz and a foot thick. Everything has settled to an odd angle; nothing is square. The cabin has the stylishly askew tilt of one of those “Mystery Spots” you see on vacation.

    No one lives there now, unless you count the occasional mouse treading the cold floors at night, in rooms with a soft sachet of old cedar and wood smoke.

    It’s not a small place. There’s a large kitchen, a bathroom and an open living room/dining area on the first floor, and two bedrooms upstairs. A big, spooky-looking trapdoor in the kitchen floor leads to a root cellar. The multicolored rainbow carpeting on the ground floor screams, “Haight-Ashbury, 1968.”

    Unlike so many other old homes in the Panhandle, the cabin escaped destruction by fire. The old photographs show the property was largely cleared and planted up to the 1950s. That probably provided a survivable space during some big fires that scorched the Hope area in the past.

    Today, most of the land is forest again, but a generous lawn with fruit trees surrounds both the main house and the cabin.

    But there were some close calls with combustion. This summer, I tore off the old shake roof — site of numerous leaks, sags and a century of homesteading Yellowjackets — and replaced it with a less charming and historically correct, but infinitely more watertight and fireproof metal roof.

    Under the shakes, I found evidence of no less than five past fires in the attics over the kitchen and bedrooms: All apparently were chimney fires, leaving parts of the roof structure a charred remnant in need of replacement.

    Those blackened boards conjured up vivid visions of family members on dark winter nights a generation or more ago, furiously throwing snow into a red-hot metal chimney, desperate to save their little home.

    It is surprising how much of the original structure survives to this day, even pieces mercilessly exposed to the elements, decade after decade.

    The porch steps are clearly the same ones shown in a 1930s photo of John Rose’s mother and some friends enjoying a summer afternoon. The front door, a real Dutch-pattern example with separate top and bottom portions, also is original. It must have swung open and closed a million times.

    Even the wooden water barrel outside the kitchen dates from more than 70 years ago. John Rose showed me a hole in its side, where water diverted from the nearby creek fed a “cold box” for food storage in the summer.

    The weather-beaten door from the old outhouse now serves as a rustic interior divider between the bathroom sink and toilet. All the windows are handmade, with wavy glass set in off-kilter frames with putty. A chronological look at the old photos shows that more and more windows were added over the years.

    Next up on my cabin-improvement program is more insulation and weatherproofing. By “more,” I mean “more than none,” which is how much insulation the kitchen addition currently has. I shudder to think how much heat must have escaped through the cracks of the pine board ceiling during 104 winters.

    A large wood stove in the kitchen will be refinished, and I’ll make a new hearth for it, replacing the loose pile of bricks it stands on. The new chimney will be a straight-shot, double-wall pipe, not the old arrangement of two 90-degree angles before it exits the ceiling.

    New drain pipes will carry rainwater away from the cabin to the creek, and I’ll close up an unused exterior door, using leftover shakes from the old roof to match the silver patina of the rest of the outside walls.

    I’ve been leaving some “time capsules” inside the new construction, putting messages under the new roofing and in the walls to surprise some future family handyman — telling them who I was and when the work was done.

    At least I hope it will be a handyman, and not a demolition company that finds my words. With luck, the cabin could be around for another century or two.

Writer Mike Gearlds works from his home in eastern Bonner County.


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Mike Gearlds

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