Keeping it simple - Rugged men build up the past with log cabin

Sunday, March 16, 2003

AMAZONIA, Mo. -- For some people, the American Dream is a house in the suburbs with a two-car garage. For others, it's a little simpler.

Verlin Jones of rural Amazonia is one who prefers the simple life, choosing to live in the woods in a log cabin that he built with his own hands.

"People are trying to get their feet back on the ground," Jones said, explaining why log cabins are still a popular dwelling. "People are so hypertensive -- they have to go at it like heck to make a living, always running 90 mph -- they just need to stop and smell the roses, take their shoes off and stick 'em in the creek."

For Jones, this translates into living off the land in an archaic 20-by-20-foot log cabin with a loft bed. He's lived in his cabin 10 years, and it only took him three months and about $400 to build.

"Living in a log cabin is low on the food chain," he said. "But log cabins are easy to heat and no one's goin' to steal it."

Jones attained his building skills watching his grandmother's boyfriend in the early 1960s while he was a teenager growing up in southern Missouri, just two miles from the Arkansas border.

Since those days, he has built dozens of cabins in Texas, Oklahoma, Illinois, Kansas and all the way up toward Missouri.

Uninterested in big homes

The Rev. Tim Wilson of Gilman City also has made quite a few cabins. He has built 14 cabins around Missouri for friends and family as a way to earn a little supplemental income.

From hunter's cabins, doghouses and storage cabins to a couple of summer getaways, they are all rustic in construction and generally don't have any plumbing or electricity.

"I've never built a big log home, I would never build a big log home," he said in a baritone preacher's pitch. "If you want to make me jealous, show me a 10-by-12 cabin in the woods -- you couldn't show me a big house that I would ooh and ahh over. I'm just not interested, I'm interested in simple."

In other words, these men don't make glossy elaborate cabins reassembled from mail-order kits. They make the original thing -- a lot like the ones early European settlers lived in -- with logs that are notched, not nailed, and hand-hewn, not milled.

And although Jones lives tucked away from the concrete circus of city life and makes a living building log cabins, hand-posting split-rail fences and restoring historical structures, his mentality isn't frozen in another time.

He's just a guy, a lot like Wilson, who enjoys the simple pleasures and rustic innocence of nature, yet is clearly tuned to a modern frequency.

"I love technology, I like doing things the easy way," Jones said. "But I also like to keep history alive with the old-time stuff -- so you can look at where we are and where we're going."

'Hard, dirty work'

But there isn't anything remotely easy or new about building a log cabin with your bare hands.

"It's hard, dirty work is what it is," Jones said. "You sweat, you're dirty all the time, when you come home from work you don't even have the energy to eat supper or shave -- it's a lot of physical work."

Hard work is something Wilson craves, he says, after years of making a lot of money through a successful road-boring business, living in an elaborate five-bedroom log home and driving expensive cars.

He came to a realization that even with all the riches in the world, he wasn't happy because there was no meaning in his life.

So he traded it all in and moved into a humble parsonage in rural Gilman City with his wife and five children, to be the pastor at First Baptist Church.

At 28, Wilson stopped dreaming, picked up an ax and got to work. He's never read a book or studied log-cabin making, his skills are rough but developed through practice and ingenuity. He also possesses an artistic, open-minded spirit evident in his log furniture -- tables, coat racks, bar stools and anything that inspires him.

"Vision is the key in this," he said. "When I see a timber I see a log cabin or a table -- I don't see it like other people do."

But hard work isn't the only thing that you have to worry about when you make a log cabin. Jones says that it's not the safest sport in the world, either.

He's been maimed by falling trees, rolled over by log trucks and squashed by giant logs now and then. And there's always the imminent danger involved with hand-hewing a log using a broadax with a 14-inch head sharp enough to split hairs.

"If you miscued with it, it'd take your leg off with one swing," Jones said behind a devilish smirk. "That's why it's good to stand on the opposite side of the log when you do it."

And although the men share a similar spirit for recreating the old because it evokes a simpler even purer way of living, their building styles have one difference -- the way the logs are hewn.

"The best kind of cabin is a hand-hewn oak cabin with dove-tail notches," Jones said.

And although Wilson might agree, he uses logs in the round, whereas Jones squares his cabin logs, removing the outer layer of soft wood so that all that is left is hard wood.

"Round logs absorb water and eventually rot," Jones said. "The rain won't effect a squared log, it might cost a little bit more, though."

Wilson says that while this may be true, moisture on logs is prevented not by squaring a log, but by building an overhang roof and wrap-around porch in true Swiss-chalet tradition.

In addition, he uses oak wood posts as the foundation for his cabins instead of concrete, which he says draws in moisture.

"Anyone that says they don't need an overhang is kidding themselves," Wilson said.

Despite their differences, the men would agree that dreams come with a price.

"Dreams come true for those who work," Wilson said.

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