This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for May 13, 2021, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.
About 75 or 80 years ago, when I was a kid, it was not uncommon to see buildings made of logs, especially barns and storage buildings, but even a few houses. And you saw quite a few split-rail or log fences (also called “zig-zag” fences), made by splitting logs lengthwise. My mother’s grandparents had a couple of out-buildings, like their smokehouse, made of logs, and her uncle had a splendid split-rail fence that I remember and still have a photo of. The oldest section of my grandfather’s barn was of log cabin construction.
Most of those log constructions back then have since rotted or were eaten up by insects, but some lasted for an amazingly long time. Most folks made the structures themselves in the late 1800’s, and the logs were untreated (in those days, you couldn’t run down to Ace Hardware and buy anti-rot and anti-insects treatment chemicals). Split-rail fences used a lot of logs because of the zig-zag design, and so it isn’t surprising they were used for firewood during the American Civil War (not in Texas, however, as we were remote from the battlegrounds).
The fact that there were so many log structures still around during my childhood no doubt is at least one reason my brother and I attempted to build log cabins in the woods behind our house. Another reason, of course, is that we heated our home with a wood heater that was always hungry for logs, and my mother cooked on a wood stove in the kitchen, which had to be stoked up pretty good to bake bread. Daddy would cut down trees in the woods and leave the uncut logs to lie on the ground until “ripe” enough for stove wood. We knew our log cabins were temporary, with their logs eventually fueling our heater.
The one heater, located in the dining room, kept the living room and dining room warm since they were separated by an open archway, but our bedrooms were as cold as the inside of the local ice house, lol.
The heating system for each of the classrooms in the rural school my brother and I attended was more advanced than what we had at home, as each classroom had its own large wood heater. The stacks of perfectly cut logs behind our elementary school building were a beautiful sight I still remember with sweet nostalgia. By the time I was in the third grade, the boys were able to talk the kind old janitor who cut the wood into allowing us to build a log fort we could play in during recess. Our fun ended when the girls demanded a playhouse built of logs, a fort having no appeal to them. The log stacks were declared off limits to all of us.
There were so many trees in our little rural town in those days that no one could ever imagine running out of logs for structures, fences, and firewood. But, by the time I was a teenager, most folks had replaced their wood stoves and heaters with kerosene or butane kitchen stoves and heaters, and some even got fancy with their electric stoves. The kerosene stoves and heaters were very unpopular, because many of us, used to the smell of kerosene tamps, gagged over the odor of so much kerosene burning. Mama soon threw that kerosene kitchen stove out! Although we moved to a larger town where we had a natural gas kitchen stove, Mama spent the rest of her life bemoaning the loss of her old wood cook stove, and that the art of cooking had been much undermined by new-fangled devices!
The topography of our town in the 1930’s and 1940’s included cedar brakes and mesquite brakes. Cedar logs were valued for their use as fence posts, slow to rot and almost insect-proof, and cedar trees were the only Christmas trees I knew until I was grown. Mesquite wood was in popular use for barbecuing; I don’t know if you can call the limbs of mesquite trees “logs” or not, — the ones growing so profusely on my grandfather’s farm were pretty scrawny, though you could make some good table tops out of the trunks. Mesquite trees were a mixed blessing.
It’s not surprising, growing up with logs as I did, that I’m especially fond of log furniture, although it’s always had to be relegated to the patio (my mother-in-law would have been horrified if it had shown up in our living room). When my wife was pregnant with our first child, I bought three pieces of delightful log furniture, – two log side tables and one log child’s chair. I just knew that the little log chair would be much loved by our little girl after she was born. She never really took to it, but it’s been used as a perch by every cat we’ve ever had ever since. Our current cat, however, prefers to sit on one of the log tables now in front of my studio. It’s amazing how well our log furniture has held up over the years, we’re still using it!
I know I can’t return to the years when logs were everything, but I cherish every log I own, decorative or useful!
Ray Spitzenberger is a retired WCJC teacher, a retired LCMS Pastor, and author of two books, It Must Be the Noodles and Open Prairies.