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Logging hours of restoration

Greene County is reconstructing its log courthouse built in 1796 by cleaning each of its 96,500-pound logs and reassembling them

Sunday, December 10, 2000

By Antoinette Fitch

If the aged dark oak logs of the first Greene County courthouse could speak, they would weave many tales of the growth of a small town and rural county.

Now stripped of clapboard and mud plaster, the logs lay disassembled, stacked in a barn at the Greene County Fairgrounds.

County maintenance workers, under the direction of a restoration expert from Wayne, are cleaning and restoring the wood. It is one leg in a six-year journey to restore and preserve the structure that dates to 1796.

"We hope to have it last another 200 years," said Terry Cole, 59, who is coordinating the preservation work on the landmark structure from Waynesburg.

The project is a labor of love for Cole, who has restored dozens of log structures. A former Central Greene physical education teacher, he and his wife Jane operate Cole's Log Cabin Bed and Breakfast on 450 acres near Pine Bank.

Since 1994, Cole and David Lesako of Springhill have worked with community members to try to save the rustic courthouse. Lesako was the president of the Greene County Historical Society when the organization purchased the courthouse with plans to restore it in time for the county's bicentennial celebration in 1996.

"The effort just ran out of steam," said Lesako, who has done similar restoration work at his home near New Freeport. He had done much of the early work to stabilize the building with a handful of society volunteers. "If the historical society hadn't purchased the building, it would have been razed for a parking lot."

The project, however, was too much for the society. They were unable to raise enough money to pay for the building and begin the restoration. For the next six years, little was accomplished on the endeavor.

This year, the project got a much-needed boost when the Greene County commissioners authorized the purchase of the building from the historical society and designated $150,000 to the project.

"The money was running out, and the county stepped in just in time. I am happy to see the restoration finally move ahead," Lesako said.

Greene County was created Feb. 9, 1796, by an act of the state Legislature. The log building was constructed to serve as a courtroom for visiting judges. But the simple log building didn't serve judiciary purposes long. In 1800, a one-story brick building was built on High Street in Waynesburg, the site of the present courthouse. The log building then became a private residence and later was occupied by a series of businesses, including a furniture repair company and a tailor shop.

Cole said early log buildings are common in Greene County.

"Most are a story and a half or two story structures," he explained. "The logs are hewn flat on the inside and outside surfaces and finished with clapboard on the outside and plastered on the inside."

Early builders used several joinery methods for the logs. The Greene County courthouse is steeple-notched, a procedure in which each log is cut into a "V" to interlock with the one below.

Cole said that although the courthouse is in fairly good condition, the bottom window sills and several logs are rotted beyond repair. He is searching for period wood salvaged from old structures for the replacements.

Last month, the red tin roof was peeled from the 24-by-30-foot courthouse and the underlying hand-hewn rafters dismantled and saved. Then, one by one, each of 96 logs making up the courthouse was gently lifted by crane, loaded onto a flatbed truck and moved several miles to the fairgrounds in Franklin.

Cole estimates each log weighs about 500 pounds.

The process was documented with digital photography to authenticate the placement of each log.

In a barn at the fairgrounds, the logs are washed with a chlorine solution, and decayed areas are purged and filled with an epoxy-sawdust mixture.

A new stone foundation will be prepared 15 feet behind the original, and sometime after the first of the year, the building will be resurrected.

Cole said the first floor of the restored courthouse will be open to the public as a museum and research room housing materials on local history and traveling exhibits from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.

A 26-by-60-foot frame addition will be built on the back of the building to serve as a library and offices for the Cornerstone Genealogical Society.

Completion of the restoration project is expected by the end of 2001, but weather and availability of volunteers will dictate how the work proceeds.

Although preservation experts discourage moving landmarks, there was little choice, Cole said.

"The street had encroached on the courthouse over the years," he said. "We needed room to rebuild the front porch that originally existed on the structure. It had to be moved back from the street."

The restoration is painstaking and physically demanding work that Cole said consumes much of his time.

Bruce Bomberger, a Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission curator at the Landis Valley Museum in Lancaster, Lancaster County, has included the Greene County Courthouse in his studies of log architecture. He has authored restoration guidelines for historic log buildings for the National Park Service.

"Although log construction is romanticized, it is very common," he said.

According to Bomberger, the structures weren't the first shelters built by colonists, and log construction wasn't created in America. The technique was brought here by early northern and central European colonists. Swiss and Germans coming to America later in the 17th and 18th centuries added their knowledge to the technology. Log construction spread along the east throughout the Appalachian valleys, then westward. The method went out of vogue in populated areas in the mid-19th century.

The Greene County log courthouse was altered with each owner. Additions were built, and windows and doors were enlarged and replaced. The biggest problem, according to Cole, is filling the spaces where logs were cut to enlarge the front windows when it was a business.

Amateur and professional archeologists exploring the lot around the courthouse have uncovered numerous artifacts. A search by a University of Illinois affiliated archeologist found where the privy had stood. A dig was conducted there.

"They found more in that little space than anywhere else," said Cole. The archeologist's report will be published and sold to help raise funds for the project.

Cole said coins and broken pottery were among the artifacts found.

"Broken pottery was often disposed of in privies," he said. A variety of clay works ranging from fine English export porcelain to stoneware crockery and jugs were found there. "If the husband drank bitters, he hid it from his wife in the privy," Cole said.

The artifacts found at the site and photos of the dismantling process are on display at First Federal Savings and Loan Bank, 25 E. High St., through Friday.

Lesako said local lore abounds on the courthouse.

"Most importantly, it documents a community from generation to generation," he said. "It was only a courthouse for a short time. After that people lived and worked in it."

Volunteers are needed to help with another dig planned for next year and with the reconstruction. Contact Terry Cole at 724-451-8521.

Antoinette Fitch is a free-lance writer.

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