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Log cabin simplicity: recrafting pioneer tiny homes in Iowa

In 2007, Paul Cutting was finishing college and a bit lost: “nowhere closer to figuring out the purpose of my life, I stumbled onto something big”, he writes on his blog.

He was finishing up 4 years in Iowa City – 2 and a half hours south of his hometown of Decorah- when, home on winter break he read a classified ad in the local paper placed by someone with an old log house they wanted to give away for free. “Take it down or it’ll be burned”, mentioned the friend who tipped him to the ad.

Beyond Lincoln logs

Cutting knew very little about log homes at the time, besides “Abe’s unpresuming upbringing” in one. The morning after reading the ad, he went to visit the farmer, who had discovered the abandoned house on his property was built of logs only after beginning to claw it apart with an excavator.

Cutting bought it on the spot- for $600- and with no background in construction, he began to meticulously take it apart, documenting where each piece was placed so some day he could put it back together in an authentic fashion.

He put thousands of hours into the home’s demolition while simultaneously driving the countryside in search of more of these log homes. “I drove something like 5,000 miles that spring and located a hundred houses”.

Abandoned Norwegian-American heritage

These were homes that were built between 1850 and 1870 by the first white settlers to the region, mostly Norwegian Americans who took advantage of the abundant local forests to build their homes entirely of logs. Most of the logs are hidden behind siding so their status is a bit of a secret. “To my surprise there had never even been an inventory of them.  Never.”

Cutting has identified 160 log homes just within a 40 mile radius of Decorah, but these houses are slowly disappearing. “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.”

Where corn is replacing cabins

“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.”

Recreating hand-crafted homes

With a basement full of disassembled logs, Cutting slowly began to rebuild two of the homes on his parents’ farm. Not intimidated by his lack of construction experience, he used his meticulous labeling system to guide the reconstruction process. The result are log homes that would fit right in to mid-nineteenth century Norwegian-American Iowa. To reconstruct details, he hired a local Amish carpenter to create period pieces like four-light double-hung sash windows.

“I think a lot of preservations kind of scoff at the idea of taking buildings apart and moving them and reconstructing them as not some legitimate thing,” he explained to us. “You can’t be a purist in this world, especially when you look around the landscape here in Iowa and just realize the scale of how things are changing so quickly. What I’ve been doing is kind of a last ditch effort. Often I’m right in front of the bulldozer trying to find these things and take them apart before they’re burned or bulldozed in.”

How to get a (nearly) free home

In the past 6 years, Cutting has taken down 10 log homes (the 1st cost $600, another $300 and the rest were free) and he’s rebuilt 4 of them. He lives in one and at just 16 feet by 17 feet, it’s small and quirky, but it cost him just $20,000 to build (not including 2 years of his labor) and he loves the quality of his salvaged home.

“I just love old materials. By all accounts our economy had industrialized by 150 years ago, but I think the products that were made back then even though they were mass-produced were incredibly beautiful and put together well.”

Living like it’s 1851

Cutting has rebuilt one home and a barn for clients, but he doesn’t think he wants- or can- make a business out of this work. Instead, he hopes to carve out a living on his family farm. He’s trying to go from hobby farming to expanding his father’s herd of grass-fed cows into something more productive.

He also wants to explore cabinet and furniture-making and finally, he’s turning one of the cabins on his family farm into an overnight rental (for info, see Trout River Log Cabin). “My brother calls it the trifecta- CCC- cabinets, cabins and cows.”

Credits: music by Michael Mosley; photos by Paul Cutting; video by Paul Cutting, Kendra Cutting & Nathan Thompson

Special thanks to Paul Cutting of Trout River Log Houses (and Cabin) for your months of video documentation. Your persistence turned a simple video into a documentary.