Monthly Archives: February 2011

Meddrag

Meddrag is the Norwegian word used to describe the practice of scribing logs.  Scribing means to gauge out the bottom part of each log so that instead of curving downward in the shape of a “U”, the bottom of the log instead curves upward in the shape of an “n”.  Unlike their chinked and daubed North American counterparts, houses of Norway were constructed in the meddrag method.  This eliminated the need for mortar and wood chinking.

Many historians claim the reason meddrag didn’t catch hold amongst Scandinavian-born immigrants (Fins, Swedes, and Norwegians all used the scribed technique) was that they didn’t have the carpentry skills to execute such a detail.  Yes, that’s likely true, but I’d add a further twist.  Norwegians had softwoods to work with, while their northeastern Iowa counterparts dealt almost exclusively with hardwoods.  Unlike pine, oak is really difficult to shape.  In Minnesota and Wisconsin (roughly corresponding with the geographic distribution of softwood forests) there exist numerous examples of scribed log construction.  In Northeast Iowa, there are hardly any.

This is the only example of meddrag I’ve personally discovered.  There exists a one-story scribed log house at Vesterheim (located inside the old stone mill) that was found in Glenwood Township, Winneshiek County.  And apparently there existed a scribed granary in Washington Prairie, Springfield Township, Winneshiek County (now long gone).  But beyond those two, this is the only other example I know of.

This particular building sits in Dover Township, Fayette County, Iowa, about thirty miles south of Decorah.  The original one story log house was hopelessly added onto, altered, and chopped apart.  What’s left are parts of three walls and not much more.

From what I’ve gathered through poking around and opening up walls, the original house was one story in height and measured something like 15′ x 17′.  The species of tree used was eastern white pine.  Unlike true Norwegian scribed construction where the corner notches hang past the walls- commonly referred to as the double notch- this house has square notching.  I suspect the house was originally double notched, too, but the part of the notch that extends past the wall plane was likely lopped off when the building was sided.

Unfortunately, there isn’t much left to save.  The roof has completely failed, the entire forth wall was cut off, and numerous doors and windows were cut out of the other three.  This is such an incredibly rare and special house, and what it needs most is thorough documentation.  This house was definitely built by a professional carpenter, and it would be really interesting to scour the area to see if any other examples still exist.

 

Thanks flickr: Norwegian meddrag or scribed log construction. Notice how the bottom sides were scooped out so they fit the natural curvature of the logs above.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Framed addition abuts east side of original log house

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Original log house

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

meddrag!!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A solid log wall surface: no need for mortar and wood chinking

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The logs were planed completely smooth. The faint horizontal lines distinguish logs

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The corners are square notched. The original protruding double notches were most likely hacked off to make a flat wall surface when the house was sided.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The logs stop at floor level of the second story. On top of that the walls are framed in dimensional lumber.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

meddrag

 

 

Middle Calmar House, Winneshiek County, IA

Here’s another example of the forstue/stue two-room house plan.  This largely unaltered house sits in Springfield Township at the intersection of old Lincoln Highway and Middle Calmar Road.  Like I wrote about in the Haugen Hill House post, few examples of Norwegian log construction remain in the Washington Prairie community.  This house is quite special.

The original two-room house measures something like 16′ x 24′.  The western 2/3 (the main room, or stue) of the dwelling is of log construction and the eastern 1/3 (entry room, or forstue) is framed construction.  Like the Haugen Hill House, the 1/3 framed part was likely built by extending the upper plate logs the whole length of the house (24′) and supporting them at the end corners with upright heavy timber posts.

What makes this place unique is how intact it remains.  The exterior is clad in wood clapboard and all of the original 2/2 hung windows remain intact.  2/2 sash windows were common from roughly 1860-1880, but depending on the age of the house, these may have replaced earlier 6/6 windows.  But I’d bet these are the originals.

The adjacent barn is massive.  It was constructed in 1885 of huge hand hewn timbers and measures 36′ x 80′.

 

House bottom right, 36' x 80' barn center

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Framed addition left, original log house far right

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Original log house

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Original log house: stue (log part) left 2/3, forstue (framed part) right 1/3

 

 

Guttebo House, Springfield Township, Winneshiek County, IA

The Guttebo House was located in the Washington Prairie community in Springfield Township, Winneshiek County, IA.  In 2010 the house was disassembled and rebuilt in Glenwood Township, about eight miles northeast of its original location.

The Guttebo House is really unique.  It’s of the midtkammer plan, a building form that developed in 17th century Norway amongst wealthy farmers.  In form, the midtkammer is essentially the same as the American I-house:  The primary entrance is centered on the longitudinal side and opens into a central passage.  The stairway to the second floor is located within this space.  On each side of the central passage is a large room; the left a kitchen space and the right a formal living space.

The midtkammer plan was seldom executed in Norwegian-American communities.  This is the only one I’ve encountered, but apparently there also exists one east of the Mississippi in southwest Wisconsin.  The Guttebo House measures 17′ x 34′ making it the longest house I’ve ever encountered.  No log runs the whole 34′ span, and instead timbers were spliced together with lap joints.  The house was made of eastern white pine timbers and the corners are full dovetailed.  The southern wall of the central passageway is built of logs whilst the northern partition wall is built with dimensional lumber.

Its former owner Les Guttebo is a pretty cool guy.  Les grew up in the house and wanted to find it a new home.  He tried and tried and tried to find someone to take it, allthewhile remaining steadfast against torching it.  After a few years of searching he found someone who wanted it, and now it sits rebuilt and utilized.

 

Guttebo House: west-south elevations, log house measures 17' x 34'

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Circular stairway in central passage

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

View from framed addition on second floor: notice the lap joints and the butts of the partition wall logs

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Looking into and through the central passageway

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

West elevation: the back of the house

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Makee House, Allamakee County, IA

This two-story log house sits in Makee Township, Allamakee County, about four miles northeast of Waukon.  When I found it three years ago it was a trashed-out dump.  Angry renters threw rocks through all the windows and trashed the inside.  Its owners- agri-industry oligarchs- didn’t bother to board the thing up for about a year.  Rain washed in, but fortunately the inside was spared from further vandalism.  Its owners eventually got around to pulling the rotten carpet and replaced the windows.  And fortunately for the house, it’s being rented again.

The house is quite sweet!  Admittedly, I know little about it, but Beacon (the assessor’s GIS service) says it was constructed in 1854.  It measures 18′ 6″ x 26′ and is a full two stories in height.  Houses this large are quite rare.  Overland and Bigler Houses (of previous posts) parallel the size of this.

The original log house was two rooms in plan.  Logs in the garage were exposed, and what I saw was all oak.  The primary entrance to the log house was located on the south wall of the larger room.  That entrance was eliminated by the creation of the framed addition.

Makee house east elevation: framed addition left, log house center, garage right

West-south elevations

East-north elevations: notice the smashed windows

Exposed oak logs in garage area: notice the minimal spacing between logs...well built!

Glenwood House, Winneshiek County, IA

Sometimes I feel like I’m the gatekeeper of this stuff.  This post is about a beautiful house right across the valley from where I live in Glenwood Township.  I discovered it going on four years ago, and since that time this house has held a special place in my mind.  Its owner doesn’t like me.  I’m not quite sure why- maybe it’s my overzealous personality, or the fact I trespassed onto his property to find it- but when I first talked to him about the house he threatened to burn it.  This house is pretty cool, but nothing I’d regard as remarkable.  What is amazing, though, is its context.  This place sits smack-dab in the middle of an undeveloped one mile by two mile stretch of CRP fields and forests.  There’s nothing up there except for this farmstead.  It’s such an amazing reminder of what Glenwood Township and northeast Iowa must have been a hundred years ago.

I’ve taken so many of my friends to this place.  Whenever a new friend comes to town, this place is right up on my to-do list behind Seed Savers and Oneota Coop.  We visit it under the cover of darkness, of course, and without permission.  Being secretive is part of the appeal, but more than anything, it makes me feel important.  It makes me feel like I’m keeping guard and doing my part to make sure this thing stays put and is kept safe.

Glenwood Township in eastern Winneshiek County was settled in large numbers by Norwegians.  In many regards its settlement and history closely parallel its sister community to the southwest, Washington Prairie.  Yet unlike Washington Prairie, Glenwood’s Trout River watershed is much, much more rugged and forested.  As a result, a lot more of Glenwood’s history has survived (I think that’s a solid hypothesis).  I’ve located something like thirty log houses within Glenwood alone.  A few sit abandoned in disrepair like the one this post is about, while a vast, vast majority are still lived in.

This particular house sits abandoned about three quarters of a mile off the nearest road.  It is two rooms in plan and measures 17′ x 21′.  The species of tree is oak and the corners are full dovetailed.  The house is oriented so that the longitudinal elevation (21′) runs east-west.  The larger room occupies the eastern 2/3 of the structure and had (before a framed addition was added to the south) the house’s primary entrance on this room’s southern wall.  The other 1/3 of the house (occupying the western part of the structure) has a stairway to the second floor and a kitchen.  The partition wall that separates the two spaces is framed in dimensional lumber.  A framed addition was added against the south elevation of the original log house.

Excluding the extremely thick walls, it’s nearly impossible to tell the house was built with logs.  The interior was extensively remodeled at some point:  the walls were plastered, narrow-gauge tongue and groove oak flooring was added, a modern kitchen created, and asbestos cement board installed overtop the existing siding.  Still, a few of the original features remain intact, including a handful of the 2/2 sash windows and original paneled doors.

Most of the outbuildings have managed to survive, too, in varying states of decay.  These include a 1920s era barn, a chicken coop, a beautiful granary, a garage, and a summer kitchen.

 

 

Glenwood house: framed addition left, log part right, summer kitchen right of house

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

West-south elevations: framed addition closest, original log house behind

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

North-west elevations: original log house left, framed addition right

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

North elevation

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Inside framed addition

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Inside original log house, first floor

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Second floor: knee wall extends 4' 6"

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kendra approves

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Inside attic: logs run to eaves, gables and roof system framed in dimensional lumber

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kitchen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Main room, first floor

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Basement: notice the log joists and beautifully coursed stone

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Summer kitchen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Barn

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chicken coop

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Granary

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hesper House, Winneshiek County, Iowa

This place is amazing.  It sits on an absolutely gorgeous spot about 300 yards east of a north-south road in Hesper Township, Winneshiek County.  The farmstead is a rectangular area a full ten acres in size.  The north and west sides (many hundreds of yards) are buffered by rows of huge Norway spruce.  The whole farmstead gently slopes to the south, and the southern border is defined by a cold water stream and beyond a north-facing bluff covered with native eastern white pine.

The settlers used these pines to make their house.  The house itself is pretty bizarre.  The log part is located in the far north and is a  story and a half in height.  It measures something like 16′ x 26′.  The western facade has one 2/2 window centered on each floor.  The eastern facade has the same, except that the bottom window was converted into a door and a porch was added at some point.  The north 26′ wall has only one window.  The original entrance to the log house was on the side that butts against the framed additions.  The log house was three rooms in plan:  The primary entrance (on the south facade) led into a large room comprising the eastern part of the structure, and two smaller rooms with a staircase to the second floor were located in the western third.

The many additions make the structure more complex looking than it really is.  A two story addition was added abutting the south elevation of the original log core.  That addition incorporated dormer gables on the east and west sides in an attempt to get more light into the core of the second story.  From there, two small rectangular additions were added to the southern corners of the original framed addition.  The result was two, small, pantry-like storage rooms on both floors.

Everything about this house was first rate.  Notice the fish scale shingle treatment in the gables?  Or the interior with diagonally run bead board below the chair rail, and vertically run bead board above?

Like most of the houses I encounter, this one is totally shot.  The decision to build with eastern white pine had many advantages:  It was light, a joy to shape, grew really tall and straight, and was sourced less than 100 yards away along the farmstead’s southern perimeter.  But white pine doesn’t hold up to water damage at all.  Notice the photo of the second floor where the logs have literally rotted to nothing.  A house built of oak instead of white pine would have sustained that water intrusion and likely still be salvageable.

Hesper house: west-south elevations, the far back left corner is the original log core

Approach from the west. The house sits 300 yards east of a north-south gravel road in a beautiful setting

South-east elevations

East-north elevations: Log core approx. 16' x 26'

Notice diagonal bead board below chair rail, vertical above, and bead board on ceiling!!! I love this look!

2nd floor: looking northeast

Gaping hole in 2nd floor wall: eastern white pine and water aren't compatible

2nd floor

Big House, Allamakee County, IA

This colossal, solid oak house sits a township east of Highlandville.  Everything about this place is big- massing, the depth of the door and window wells, and the huge trees that were axe felled to make it.  The house measures 19′ x 30′ and was built in two stages- the original log house and a later addition.  Both were built of log.  The first phase house is a rectangular block measuring 15′ x 19′.  The corners are full dovetailed and the species of tree is all oak.  The original roofline ran lengthwise across the longitudinal side (the 19′ side), and the front entrance faced south.  The front door has a window to its right, and there exists a window centered on the west elevation.  The (likely) north elevation window was made into a door when the addition was added.

Sometime in the late 19th century an addition of massive oak logs was built abutting the north elevation.  Many of these logs measure greater than 20″ in diameter.  At that time, the original house’s roof was removed and a new one was constructed perpendicular to the original (running the new 30’ span).

I suspect the steep driveway cursed the farm.  The first lane to the farmstead was located to the east on a flat ridge top.  At some point the road that served the driveway was abandoned and a new driveway was cut off a different road to the west, directly up a super steep hillside.  Getting in or out in the winter would have been a nightmare!  Little remains of the farmstead, except a few wind battered eastern white pines, a fallen down windmill, the remains of a granary, and a half-collapsed garage.  The site is absolutely beautiful.

What makes this place cool is that it wasn’t updated and modernized extensively over time.  Except for the addition of electricity, there wasn’t an indoor bathroom, running water, or a modern kitchen.  The stairway to the second floor was found in the original house part, but unfortunately the log wall it sat against has nearly rotted away, causing it to completely collapse.

Sadly, the house is totally shot.  The photos from the second floor show extensive rot as a result of the failed roof, and much of it permeates down through the walls to the ground.  Documentation is what this house needs.

 

 

West-south elevations: original log house right half, newer log addition left half

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

East-north elevations

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

East-north elevations

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Facing west

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Corner of original log house left, addition right

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Inside addition

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Location of stairway: very southeast corner of structure in original house part

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Inside addition, facing southwest. Notice the nice hangers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2nd floor, inside original house, looking north into addition

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2nd floor, inside addition

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Inside addition, looking south into original house

 

 

Haugen Hill House, Winneshiek County, Iowa

The Haugen Hill House sits sandwiched in the big woods between Nordness and Haugen Hill Road, just south of Decorah.  This neighborhood was known as Washington Prairie, an area that was settled exclusively by Norwegians beginning in 1851.  Just about every farmstead in this area that was settled- say pre-1880 as a rule- had a log house.  But sadly only a handful survive today.  I think this is primarily due to historical land-use patterns (think agriculture).  Old buildings on the fertile prairie are more susceptible than those on hilly forested, marginal lands.

This house is really odd for a Norwegian built house.  Most of the Norwegian houses were expertly constructed, either by their soon-to-be occupants who had a solid notion of what a good house should look like, or by a team of professional carpenters.  This house isn’t either:  It’s extremely crude and hastily built.  Was it that its owners arrived in October and needed a shelter before winter?  Or maybe its owners thought, “Oh, what the hell, we’re going to upgrade soon, anyway.”  Maybe they couldn’t afford to hire a carpenter?  Who knows, but I rarely see anything as funky as this.

I say “Norwegian built” with confidence because this particular house exhibits a Norwegian plan and construction technique that date back more than a thousand years.  It’s a two room plan:  A main living room called the stue and a smaller entry room called the forstue. In antiquish Norwegian days, the forstue tended to be an unheated space- an entryway if you will- while the stue contained the major living space of the house.  Like the sval plan (see Bigler House post) the main staircase to the second floor was in the unheated forstue.

In the case of this house, the stue room is made of log walls roughly 16′ x 14′.  The top-most logs (the plates; running the 14′ length wall) extend outward 8′ past the ends of the stue room and are capped by upright 6″ x 6″ hewn posts, thus framing the outside dimensions of the 16′ x 8′ forstue. This particular method of construction with one room of log and the other of heavy timber was an extremely common choice for Norwegian settlers in Northeast Iowa.  I can think of probably a half a dozen other examples of this plan.

Since the house sits about a mile off the nearest road, it’s been saved from looters and vandals.  Look through the photos:  Isn’t the white cabinet great?  How about the wood cookstove that sunk into the basement?  Or the funky lime green trim?  The house is in pretty crappy shape, unfortunately.  Its roof was neglected too long, and now a huge torrent rains down the walls when it storms.

 

West elevation

 

South elevation

 

East Elevation

 

North elevation

 

 

 

 

Church Road House, New Albin, IA

This was my lesson in the value of documentation.  I found this sweet old house in October of 2007.  I snapped a few photos and told myself I had to come back. Well, I did the next spring and the house was a heaping pile of rubble.  They pushed it over and extracted the logs with an excavator as far as I could tell.  So, these are basically the photos I have.

The house was on Church Road in northeastern Allamakee, just about eight miles directly west of New Albin off Iowa River Road (the best drive in all of northeast Iowa, trust me).  The house measured something like 18′ x 24′, a story and 2/3 in height, and of oak logs.  The corners were notched in steeple or the inverted-V, a notch usually associated in NE Iowa with the Germans. Allamakee County- unlike it’s younger neighbor to the west, Winneshiek- was a melting pot for a more immigrant groups.

Out front near the road sat the squat stone building, most likely a spring house.  Behind it and a bit to the south was a granary that had been been made into a ramshackle-like  workshop.  It was leaning close to collapse, but I remember the timber framed shell made out of sawn pine.  A later improvement, no doubt.

The house itself was really amazing.  Notice the area above the front door where the logs are exposed- that’s where the front porch was.  The front entrance led into a room that was divided just left of the door.  Beyond that, to the right, was the second room.  The staircase to the second floor was butted up against the northeast exterior log wall and cut the second room a bit smaller than the main.  There was a piano from LaCrosse and a beautiful two-light brass fixture.  Except for the outside perimeter of both downstairs rooms, the floor had collapsed into the basement.  Also notice the curtains and the smallish windows.  They don’t get scarier than that.

The house had some amazing faux finishes.  The door with the swirls is really special.  Notice the door latch on the board door to the right.  I usually don’t steal things- hardware, furniture, or otherwise-but I will admit I carried out a hefty pile of green canning jars.  I just can’t resist.  There was also a mechanical prosthetic metal-levered half-an-arm buried under blankets upstairs.  Damn, I wish I snagged that one, too.

 

South elevation: exposed logs outline original porch

West Elevation

West-south elevation

Springhouse

 

 

faux door

 

 

Steeple or inverted v

 

Highland Township House, Winneshiek County, IA

I don’t know much about this place except that it’s really stellar.  The log part is in the center (one room or megaron plan) and measures something like 15′ x 17′.  Like the Bigler House, this one is largely intact and has seen little modification over time.  The interior walls are sheathed in narrow-gauge beadboard (circa post 1900).  The interior doors are much the same- made by sandwiching pieces of wainscot together- and all have their original hardware.

The future of this house is up in the air, unfortunately.  Its owners built a huge new house behind it and had the vision of making this into a little get-away house…but that was five years ago.  The house desperately needs a new roof.  So, we’ll see what happens.

South-east elevations

West elevation

Exposed oak logs under stairway

Second floor