Volunteers turning 19th century cabin into an Indiana rental

The footsteps of Ron Gillin and Marty Hendricks crunched in the snowy ground on a chilly morning.

Posted: Mar 1, 2021 1:21 PM
Updated: Mar 1, 2021 1:35 PM

TERRE HAUTE, Ind. (AP) — The footsteps of Ron Gillin and Marty Hendricks crunched in the snowy ground on a chilly morning.

The sound blended with the honks of geese swirling around Ruble Lake. Ice and snow created a white border on that 26-acre body of water, sprawling through the heart of Fowler Park.

It’s an idyllic setting. The view from the soon-to-be porch of the early-19th-century cabin Gillin and Hendricks are reconstructing overlooks the lake and its wildlife.

By May, their work will be complete, and Fowler visitors will be able to rent this cabin for overnight stays during the camping season, a first for the park.

“I think the kids will be like, ‘That’ll be so cool, Mom,’” Gillin said. “They’ll get to spend the night in a cabin built in the 1800s. I think it’ll be a good experience for people to try.”

The one-story, one-room structure will include no lights, no running water and no air-conditioning. A single, 120-volt electrical outlet and a wheelchair ramp will be the lone elements of modern living. Four windows and two doors will let in guests and the breeze.

Overnight renters may likely use the outlet to charge cellphones. Adam Grossman, the Vigo County Parks Department superintendent, recommends they don’t.

“Our suggestion would be that you don’t (connect to the digital world), that you would unplug and live like a pioneer,” Grossman said.

That’s the spirit shown by Gillin and Hendricks, a hardy pair of parks volunteers, as they rebuild the cabin. They’ve been working since autumn, when Gillin picked up the logs from the donors. They finished the foundation by Thanksgiving, started setting them into place with parks department hoists a few days later, and kept adding segments of the rough-cut poplar floor, roof, windows, doors and porch through the cold of December, January and most of February.

“Working outside your whole life, it didn’t really bother us,” said Hendricks. The 61-year-old runs Vigo Landscaping. Gillin, 64, retired three years ago as a maintenance supervisor at Sony DADC, but also has volunteered for nearly 30 years with his wife, Diana, and family on projects at Fowler Park’s popular Pioneer Village. Last year, Gillin and his wife helped revive the gristmill at Pioneer Village. A few years earlier, they helped rebuild a nearly 200-year-old cabin in the village to replace another that was destroyed by fire in 2017.

“I enjoy doing it,” Gillin said of the work. “I like challenges.”

Their efforts to reconstruct the latest cabin this winter commemorate the tenacity and mettle of Indiana’s settlers.

The cabin originally stood as a two-story dwelling in southern Indiana, likely dating back to the 1820s or ’30s. It had been reconfigured once before in its nearly two-century lifetime, probably in the 1860s. Its most recent owners, a Knox County family, disassembled it, with plans to rebuild it. They reconsidered and wound up donating the cabin to the Vigo County Parks Department, which oversees Fowler Park, which includes Pioneer Village north of Ruble Lake.

That rustic village already contains 20 cabins, a log barn, gristmill and a covered bridge open for tours and annual events such as Pioneer Days and the Christmas Walk. The newly acquired cabin’s style allowed the county parks crew to fulfill a new amenity, an overnight rental cabin. Thus, instead of being placed inside Pioneer Village, this latest cabin is located inside the park’s campground, where its rental fee will likely be around $50.

“The structure of the cabin was almost perfect” for the department’s needs, Grossman said.

Its lack of a fireplace was ideal. Though originally heated, most likely, by pot-bellied stove, the cabin’s new role as a warm-weather rental won’t require a fireplace or furnace. That makes it less of a fire risk. “We don’t want accidents to happen,” Grossman said.

Also, its original two-story format provided extra logs to replace any first-story logs that had deteriorated. The donors helpfully tagged each log, to indicate its specific place in the reassembly process. Originally cut with handsaws and axes, the logs look massive, weighing nearly 300 pounds.

“The reassembly went perfect,” Grossman said.

Age-old construction techniques, like a “bird’s mouth” joint cut, securely bind the hefty beams. “That is what holds the cabin together,” Gillin said, pointing to the angled log cuts.

“For doing it all with a saw and an ax, those guys were pretty doggone smart,” Gillin said.

Pioneers hewed the logs from primarily poplar and oak trees near the site of the cabin, their new intended homeplace. “They didn’t want to drag a log three miles if they didn’t have to,” Gillin explained, between bursts of an air-powered nail gun. (”Pioneers would’ve used these if they had them,” he quipped.)

Two more slight 21st-century twists will help preserve the 14.6-by-20.6-foot cabin and make it safer and more comfortable for overnight guests. Instead of mortar to fill the gaps between the logs, they’re using a rubberized chinking material that expands and contracts with the weather. Also, they’ll use a metal version of shake shingles, rather than the wooden ones on the park’s other cabins.

Still, the logs themselves — the stars of the project — pack plenty of authenticity. The huge pieces of lumber were cut two centuries ago from trees that were likely centuries old. Hendricks pointed to the hundreds of rings within the grain of one log that had been sliced to fit better.

“It’s got to go back to the 1600s,” Hendricks said.

He and Gillin will continue sealing up the building and adding finishing touches through early spring. They’ve rested on a few days when snow and ice inhibited progress. Otherwise, they’re out there, dressed for winter, recreating a home first occupied when Indiana was a brand new state.

Shared wisecracks accompany them. They revise and improvise, occasionally. “Sometimes it’s trial and error,” Hendricks said.

The work has kept them busy through the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, though, in a safe outdoors setting.

“We can come down here, and social distance, and still have some fun and fresh air,” Gillin said.

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