Many arms (and legs) were required at a house raising

log construction
A rarely seen form of early log construction involved the mortising and tenoning of the log ends into massive corner posts. The logs were then permanently secured by use of a wooden peg. (Paul Locher photo)

After many weeks of grueling labor to prepare all the materials needed for the construction of a permanent shelter for both man and beast on the frontier of the Ohio Country, the time for the actual raising was at hand. It was an event that, at least outwardly, seemed the true embodiment of the old axiom “Many hands make light work.” And while that phrase trips lightly off the tongue, there was, in fact, nothing light about the work of raising a log structure. It was a difficult job at best; deadly at worst.

The first task was to set a date for the event and put the word out to the neighbors in the surrounding area that the raising was to take place. Since a number of parts had to be set in motion to help ensure the success of the event, it was usually announced a couple of weeks ahead of time. Word was often put out through an announcement at church or by posting notice at the local general store. More often, however, it got around the community just as quickly through word of mouth.

Gathering tools

rope spool
Rope spools like this one originally used in the area of Walnut Creek, Holmes County, Ohio, were transported by wagon to the sites of barn and house raisings. Strong ropes were needed to lift beams into position, but not everyone owned large pieces of rope. Spools like this were generally communally owned and used by whoever needed it. (Collection of the Buckeye Agricultural Museum & Education Center, Wooster, Ohio. Paul Locher photo)

Various tools had to be procured. One of these was the rope spool which had to be transported to the site ahead of time. In many developing communities there was often a large spool of heavy rope mounted in a sturdily constructed frame that was utilized wherever it was needed. The rope would be used in conjunction with various pulleys to hoist the huge logs up and into proper position in the structure. That hoisting would be done by both men and animals, so it was necessary to arrange for several strong teams of horses, mules and oxen to be present to both lift the logs and drag others around the site to the locations where they would be needed.

Also needed would be a number of long wooden pike poles. These poles — usually about 15 feet in length — were made from sturdy saplings which had the bark shaved off and were mounted with a heavy wrought iron spike set into the end. The pike poles were used to help control the long heavy logs and to guide them into position as the structure rose.

Constructing corners

Steeple-notched dovetailing was the predominant form of log construction across the Ohio Country, the technique having been introduced by the Germans. Interlocking the logs in such manner enabled a structure to be built without the use of nails, which were scarce on the frontier. (Paul Locher photo)

Another important part of the raising was scheduling the services of the local “corner man.” The corner man was somebody in the community who possessed the mathematical acumen needed to figure the geometry of the interlocking corners of the main structural box or “crib.” The corner man would guide the notching of the corners of the logs so that they interlocked, while at the same time keeping the structure level as it was built upward. In this way the entire crib could be assembled without the use of a single nail, since nails were rare at the time.

In the early Ohio Country three types of corner dovetailing were used, the style on any given dwelling often being determined by the ethnicity of the owner or the group performing the work, or just by local tradition. Those styles were steeple-notched dovetailing, dovetailing or half-dovetailing. The overwhelmingly most popular style across the Ohio Country was the steeple-notched dovetailing because of the predominance of the German population which brought the technique from their homeland. The style derived its name from the fact that the tops of the dovetails were sharply peaked, appearing to some like a church steeple.

A fourth style of construction — seen far less often — involved setting large sturdy hewn posts vertically at each of the corners, into which were cut mortise holes. In this technique the logs that comprised the walls were tenoned on each end, mounted into the mortise holes and permanently secured in place by a tree nail (wooden peg) or “trunnel,” as it was usually pronounced.

Once the dovetailing style was determined, the corner man marked out the proper angles and scribed the lines to which the corners needed to be cut for proper fit. Then the other workmen would use their axes, hatchets, chisels and drawknives to pare down the ends of the logs to the proscribed tolerances.

A typical log crib for a structure like the one in question would be about 24 feet wide and 30 to 40 feet deep. It would be 12 logs high on the front and back sides with a series of joists across the middle to support the second floor. Usually, those joists would be mortised or notched into the seventh course of logs. If one allowed for the creation of a cantilevered overhang on one end of the structure to provide protection for a wagon and other materials, the overall construction — not counting the roof poles — would have encompassed about 75 individual logs.

Other supplies

table legs
This is a set of legs used for creating a temporary table. They are beautifully crafted of black walnut with mortise, tenon and wood-pinned construction. The screw clamps could be attached to the corners of any board to quickly create a makeshift table. (Locher collection)

Other things that needed to be in place for the raising social were a good supply of whiskey to be provided to the volunteers by the owner, as well as a number of sets of legs. Legs?

Because of the large number of people that needed to be accommodated and the accompanying necessity of table space both for the food being brought in as well as a place for the workers to eat, table legs were part of everyday life. These were regular table legs, but instead of being permanently fastened to a tabletop, they were crafted with wooden screws on the ends. Thus, they could easily be attached to a plank of any size, instantly converting it into a table. The term “groaning board” derives from a table laden with food, served atop a long board supported by these temporary legs. These legs also found plenty of use for family reunions, neighborhood picnics, church gatherings, various bees and socials and more. Today most of these artifacts have been lost or their purpose is generally unrecognized. When found, they are usually mistaken for some type of wood clamp or viewed as legs saved from a table that had met an untimely fate.


Other makeshift dining tables could easily be assembled in a similar manner. A number of sets of legs were required for the large meal which was the true highlight of the occasion Around the tables neighbors could get to know one another, exchange news of the day and women could showcase their best pies, cakes, seasonal fruits and vegetable dishes to reap the compliments and acclaim of the diners. Participants brought their own table service and benches. Sometimes the day was capped off with a square dance in the newly built structure that allowed young men and women in the community a chance to get to know one another better.

Dining was typically done in two seatings with the men eating first so that they could return to the job at hand. Women ate second so that they could visit more leisurely before clearing the tables.

Work, which commenced early in the morning, continued after the lunch with ropes being attached to pulleys and the teams of animals pulling the logs up into position to interlock the previously cut dovetails. It was all hot, dirty and downright dangerous work, but by the end of the day the basic crib was usually constructed with the roof poles and sheeting boards in place. The chinking, shingling, clapboarding and other work needed to more fully enclose the structure was typically left for another day.

By the time everyone departed for home, the pioneer family had the beginnings of a shelter that would serve their needs until such time as a more permanent, fashionable house in line with their economic means could be constructed. In the meantime, however, an incredible amount of work still needed to be done not only to make the new residence livable, but to create the prosperous farmstead the family envisioned.

But much of the initial step had now been accomplished. For the first time in months the members of the family could take a fleeting moment to catch their breath.

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