Everyone said I had to move away. “Get a good job,” they’d tell me, whatever that meant. Have a family, make something of yourself, and never look back. Decorah, they said, would always be there. There for retirement, or maybe even there to someday raise kids, but never a place to craft a life. I took the advice and tried my luck elsewhere. I split and enrolled at University of Iowa. All throughout college, my time in Iowa City felt directionless. I majored in geography, a schizophrenic field of study. Economics, political science, sociology, cultural geography, physical geography, GIS, geology and urban planning all wrapped into one untidy package, geography wasn’t really a field of study, I’d soon discover, but instead a catch-all those of us who couldn’t bring ourselves to commit to one single thing. And regardless, I was more interested in socializing and happy hour than my studies.
All said, I look back at my time in Iowa City with fondness. But my time there was totally stressful. I was lost. When I get that feeling of being boxed in, I exercise. Running and long walks are the immediate cure-all for anxiety, so I took up exploring Iowa City’s old neighborhoods. Groping my way through the side streets, I located every last settlement-era house there ever was. One story houses built of that miserable, flaky sandstone (the characteristic house of Iowa City’s first ten years; you know what I speak of if you’ve ever been), houses of brick, and a seemingly inconspicuous house on Cedar Avenue sheathed in clapboard, only that the walls were a foot thick and the core of it log. A log house in Iowa City, really?
Half way through my senior year and blowing through the last classes needed to call myself an official college grad, and still nowhere closer to figuring out the purpose of my life, I stumbled onto something big. Something that would change my course, something I could finally feel good about and sink my teeth into. It sucked me in, and I didn’t fight it. It was like those clichéd stories you hear, usually involving alcohol and god. Someone wakes up one morning and puts down a bottle and finds their salvation.
Mine involved old wood, Norwegians, and abandoned houses. Out for a beer with a friend on winter break, someone came up and asked whether I had seen the classified ad in the local paper. “No,” I responded sheepishly, “Why?” “Someone’s got an old log house they’re wanting gone. Take it down or it’ll be burned.” Really? I remembered that one time (in one of those classes used to fill the aforementioned geography requirements) when the professor made some mention of Abe’s unpresuming upbringing in a log cabin coupled with a canoe and some Tyler character. But he said those buildings were long since gone.
I think I slept about two hours that night, all the while rehearsing what I was going to tell the guy on the phone the next morning. I went and looked at it; a hulk of a beauty, naked and half clawed away by an excavator. Apparently they discovered it was built of logs when the excavator was crunching the house to pieces. A fortress, if you will, or at least unassumingly stronger than your average 2×4 house. I bought it on the spot and immediately proceed to rip into it. I didn’t have a background in construction, mind you, so it was all very much a learning experience. Despite not really knowing what I was doing and really not aware of how something should be “properly taken apart”, I was hooked.
A semester away from being done at Iowa, I lumped all my course load into three days: Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, giving myself four full days to make the two and a half hour trek north to work on my project. In addition to the demo project, it was during this time I became obsessed with driving the countryside in search of more houses. I drove something like 5,000 miles that spring and located a hundred houses. Some were abandoned recently so, others abandoned sometime after that initial 1850-70 settlement period and by some stroke of luck still stand thanks to a sympathetic farmer or a metal roof, and some were still lived in and upgraded over time, appearing like any non-assuming farmhouse. I learned every back road of Winneshiek County. My strategy was not deliberate or thoughtfully executed. I followed my nose. I’d pull into a farmstead, realize there was no old log house to be found, throw the truck into reverse and speed off to the next place down the road. I concentrated on the areas that felt good being in, mostly those hilly areas of northeastern Winneshiek and the western half of adjacent Allamakee County. I learned to love that landscape. It sucked me in, and I was smitten.
Ask anyone who’s never been to Iowa and they’ll likely spout off three things: the caucus, flat cornfields, and old conservative people sitting in wayside gas stations along I-80 drinking watery coffee. And honestly, to me, most of Iowa feels that way. Stodgy, conservative, and old. Except Decorah, that is. Sure, Decorah has some of these characteristics, but at the same time it feels foreign; more Vermont than Midwest. As part of the Driftless Region, an area of Northeast Iowa, Southeast Minnesota, Southwest Wisconsin, and a sliver of Northwestern Illinois that happened to escape the last glacier and its steamrolling effect, the Driftless landscape with its rolling hills, forests and trout streams is unquestionably the most satisfying and comforting I’ve ever experienced. And Decorah is a wonderful town to boot. With a thriving downtown, a liberal arts college, a food coop rivaling any natural foods store in the largest city, plenty of young people doing innovative things, and a strong progressive bent, Decorah feels like home.
The landscape of the Driftless is changing, and with it a collective loss of community and its history. Back in 2007 I located something like a hundred log houses. Since then that number’s grown to about 250. To my surprise there had never even been an inventory of them. Never. SHPO does not know they exist. Darrell Henning, longtime curator of Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah (the foremost museum on Norwegian-American anything and everything), and a personal mentor to me, has documented several. Other than Darrell’s work, and perhaps the efforts of a few individuals who’ve deconstructed and rebuild a house here and a house there, there hasn’t been any meaningful academic endeavor to identify and document the resource. Couple this sad fact with our ever-industrialized landscape, and things are being lost very quickly while few watch. With land prices tripling over the last decade, cash rental rates for tillable land doubling in nearly as many, and about a twenty percent reduction in enrolled lands in conservation set-aside programs over the last ten, our landscape is being disfigured at breakneck speed.
With the forest so goes the farmstead. Landowners go to irrationally great lengths to clear land for crop production. Once, I was given the option to disassemble a log house that would have otherwise been burned. The house sat on a two-acre farmstead next to an old barn, a garage, a few storage sheds, a huge windbreak of hundred-year-old Norway spruce, apple trees and sugar maples. The entire farmstead—buildings, trees and all—wiped clean at an expense of over $5,000. Now it’s a cornfield.
Graciously, my parents allowed me to rebuild the log house on their farm. And thankfully, the farm also had a number of outbuildings. A barn, granary, machine shed, chicken coop, hay shed, all of which I filled with materials from houses I’ve disassembled over the last six years. I joke that I’m working right in front of the bulldozer. In fact, nearly all of the houses I’ve taken down would have otherwise been bulldozed or burned.
Many professionally trained preservationists outwardly dismiss the disassembly and relocation of historic buildings. They say context and material fabric are lost, and rightfully so, because they are. But outwardly dismissing such an activity as somehow not legitimate as a preservation exercise is neither helpful nor on point. In a landscape being manipulated as fast as ours, with the grubber literally gnawing at earshot length, moving a building out of harms way is often the last and only option. And for this reason, I wholeheartedly believe what I’ve done is both legitimate and worthwhile.
I’ve had the opportunity to disassemble about ten 19th century log houses. I’ve rebuilt four and am very proud of them all. The other six are stashed away awaiting someone to pay me to rebuild them. I was very deliberate with how I pieced them back together and believe in the stories those thoughtful decisions tell. They border on museum pieces; I think you’ll agree. I’ve also had the opportunity to rehabilitate several US Forest Service-owned log buildings in Colorado. This summer I restored a log barn outside Decorah. This fall I restored a log pumphouse in Wisconsin. I maintain a photo blog of the abandoned houses I locate, along with a picture portfolio of my building projects. You can find it at www.troutriverloghouse.com.
The last six years have taught me a lot about myself. I thrive on meaningful work. I’m passionate about old wood, wood that’s been worked by callous hands and an industrious mind. And that the Driftless is my home, and it feels good to be here.
cuttingp at gmail.com
five six three four one nine five six three four
2336 Trout River Rd
Decorah, IA 52101