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West Neighborhoods
The lessons of Beaver's Log House

Wednesday, June 25, 2003

By Trudy Gray

If it hadn't been for Charles Copeland's keenness of observation, the Log House in Beaver might not be here today.

Third graders from Brighton Township Elementary School arrive for a visit to the log house built by the Beaver Area Historical Museum from salvaged 200-year-old hand-hewn logs. Click photo for larger image. (Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette)

In 1996, Copeland, a Beaver resident, was driving past the corner of Buffalo Street and Georgetown Lane when he noticed some workers busy dismantling an old house. But what intrigued him was the sight of an antique newel post turned upside down, stuck in the mud, as if somebody had thrown it out of a window.

Copeland, a construction manager who likes to salvage and reuse things, said to himself, "I'd better stop and see what else they might be disposing of." He spoke to the workers, who complained that they had a problem because the logs of the house would not come apart. They assumed that the logs were made out of railroad ties. But Copeland realized right away that this was not the case because the structure seemed to be from a much earlier era.

It occurred to him that the house might be an authentic log house, and that the Beaver Area Heritage Foundation, of which he is a member, might be interested in preserving the logs.

The home's owner, the late John Scocich, said he was not interested in preserving anything -- he wanted to disassemble the house to make room for a new apartment building. But he was willing to donate the logs, and provided a truck and trailer to take them to a garage by the borough's Water Works.

Marks from hand tools are still visible in 200-year-old logs used to build Log House by the Beaver Area Historical Museum next to its museum in the former P&LE freight station in Beaver. Guide Dolores Dowin welcomes third-graders from Brighton Township Elementary School for a visit earlier this month. (Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette)

First, though, Copeland got a crew of volunteers to dismantle and catalogue the hand-hewn logs. The largest ones were 14 inches high, 8 inches thick and 24 feet long. While the logs were in storage, volunteers removed thousands of nails, after which the logs were power-washed and left to dry thoroughly.

After consulting with the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, the foundation learned that the demolished log house dated to 1790 and had been built in two stages. A second floor was added in either 1865 or 1870.

The logs remained in storage until 2000, when the foundation decided to build a new log house, which would serve as an educational extension to the nearby Beaver Area Historical Museum. The museum used to be a freight station owned by P & LE Railroad before it was converted into a museum in 1998.

The new log house would be smaller than the original one because some of the logs were in poor condition. The project cost about $50,000, a large part of which was financed by the P.M. Moore Foundation. The rest came from donations. On Sept. 22, 2002, the log house was officially opened.

"We want this to be a living history classroom, so that we can bring in school groups and demonstrate the various activities that would have gone on in a place like this in 1800-1802, such as cooking, food preparation, weaving and sewing," said Bob Smith, chairman of the Beaver Area Historical Museum.

The interior features a stone fireplace and chimney made from stones from the Beaver County jail, which was torn down in 2002.

Brighton Township Elementary School third-graders Nick Ranght, center, and Logan Lencar, right, get a lesson in writing with a quill from log house guide Helen Janicki. (Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette)

A 150-year-old smokebox header, found on a local farm, demonstrates the art of frontier-style cooking.

The wooden benches came from the mess hall of the jail. "They had to be scrubbed and scrubbed and re-scrubbed," said Copeland, laughing. The locks on the doors came from the jail cells, as well.

New Wilmington Amish craftsmen played a major role in the construction. Besides building the fireplace and chimney, they cut the hemlock floor boards and ceiling, although the beams on the ceiling are originals. The craftsmen also made the windows and did the chinking of the logs to close the cracks. The windows are made of "float glass," which can be adjusted to fit irregular openings.

In the meantime, William C. Witkouski of Beaver, a member of the board of directors and living history re-enactor, has been searching for antiques or replicas to furnish the log house. He and Jack McCandless, also re-enactor from Beaver, dress as frontiersmen to explain the exhibits to visitors.

Guide Dolores Dowlin uses Morgan Anderson as a model to show different articles of pioneer clothing to third graders from Brighton Township Elementary School on their visit to the log house. (Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette)

"We educate kids about frontier life," Witkouski said. He has found items such as grease lamps, brass and copper ware, dutch ovens, pickling jars, 1789 cutlery, an assortment of hunting accoutrements, even a reproduction of a 1772 hutch.

The attic and basement are mostly used for storage. The basement floor contains heated coils to regulate humidity levels.

Other contemporary features include electricity, hot and cold running water, a restroom and a wheelchair ramp, as required by law.

Copeland said that he derived much personal satisfaction from the project. "I love construction and I especially love history. It's a combination of the two," he said. "We feel confident that these logs may have come from Fort McIntosh because of the dimensions they are."

Fort McIntosh was decommissioned and demolished in 1788. According to a booklet published by the foundation, when the fort was abandoned, downstream settlers as well as locals felt free to strip it of all building materials so they could build homes in Beaver or their own log cabins downstream.

Trudy Gray is a free-lance writer.

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