House Raising

Remembering the tradition of shared labor.

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by Clell G. Ballard
The finished cabin has stood the test of time and the rigors of extreme winter weather for several decades.

In America’s formative years, it was a common activity for neighbors to gather at a person’s place at a given time and together they would build a building. That process came to be generally known as “barn raising,” but many kinds of buildings were constructed. It was a simpler time and construction methods varied with local practices and the resources of the owner of the project. That still happens today in some ethnic groups.

Modern affluence and amazing advances in construction techniques have dramatically changed how buildings of all kinds come together. The old-fashioned effort of amateur labor is no longer involved except in some isolated instances. In most places, governmental codes and regulations rule out a simple plan and honest effort. Those of us who participated in a house raising in the late 1970s look back on that experience with nostalgia. As can be expected, the finished project of our efforts was as good or better than what would result now. The outstanding social bonding was a fringe benefit.

Preparing for the first push

In sparsely populated rural areas, it is good to have a support group a person can call on for help. For a house raising in the distant mountain location that my brother contemplated, he had access to several family members as well as a few close friends.

Preliminary work had been done on a foundation, and when the crew arrived, the raising of the walls began. Since the cabin was to be made of logs, it was understood that heavy lifting was the order of the day. Modern mechanical equipment was not available because a mountain cloudburst years before had washed a huge ditch across the primitive access road.

About the only modern difference between what we were building with and what had been used in the 1800s was the condition of the logs. They had been sawed flat on two sides so they went together with little or no chinking necessary. A log would be chosen for a certain location and it would be cut to just the right length with a chain saw.

Since we were far from any electrical service, a small generating unit was utilized to power a large drill that made holes through each log as it was placed. Long spikes of about 1/2-inch in diameter were then pounded in with a sledgehammer, securing the log to the one below it.

One long, hot day of work

As the men worked, the women arrived with the noon meal for the crew. They and the children had to walk about 1/2 mile from where the vehicles had to be left. The kids thought the whole thing was a great adventure and were soon playing in a nearby creek.

Anyone who has worked down near the bottom of a valley in a mountain location can attest as to the heat that builds up since no wind can reach the location. Slowly but surely the walls went up, accompanied by a lot of sweat. By dinner time, the crew was more than ready for a rest.

All through the long, hot afternoon, the hard work continued. By late afternoon, the workers functioned with greater efficiency, having learned from being “on the job.” However, the height of the walls seemed to grow agonizingly slowly and it was obvious that a one-day house raising was not going to accomplish as much as had been hoped.

Reassembling a crew for another day might not be possible. As the shadows grew long, a halt was called. The ladies and kids were already gone. Our first experience at “house raising” had come to an end.

“Heavy lifting” takes on new meaning

For the next several weeks, when time allowed, only my brother and I worked. Eventually the walls were the prescribed height. We knew that putting in the ceiling supports and raising rafters for a roof would be a huge undertaking, especially because the cabin was so isolated. Since winter snows of 4 feet or more were common at that locale, the plans for the rafters called for logs of the same size as those used in the walls. Some mechanical method was needed to actually raise them up to the top of the walls.

Large earthmoving equipment and a lot of expense would be needed to repair the road. What to do? I have a small tractor made out of a Model A Ford (see Farm Collector, August 2012) that I had modified with a homemade boom that I had used to build on to my log house. It was driven on dirt roads the many miles from civilization up into the mountains. After doing a lot of shoveling, it was short enough that we managed to get it through the ditch.

With me running the tractor winch and my brother handling the pre-cut logs, we were able to install the ceiling joists. The rafters were a much bigger job because the logs had to be raised individually. The two of us had to fit them together at the peak, then manhandle them so they’d stand up. That took a long time. Eventually they were all in place and the ancient little tractor made it back through the wash-out for a return trip. From that point on, the finish work was done with only occasional help. By the time winter came, everything was boxed in.

Totally self-sufficient, thanks to community effort

Being up in the mountains meant that there was no access to the project during the deep winter snow months. The next spring, interior work began and over a summer, the cabin ended up comfortable and cozy just as planned. As finished, it has a living room with a fireplace, a small dining area, a bedroom downstairs and a whole open upstairs, where numerous people can bed down.

The kitchen has a coal- and wood-burning cook stove and a sink with cupboards. A small propane cook stove and propane refrigerator were installed. Propane was also piped in, so special lights were installed on the walls to provide nighttime illumination.

For the succeeding decades, the cabin has been used regularly in the summer. With the invention of snowmobiles, the isolation in winter is no longer a problem. We look back at our participation in the “house raising” and can testify that our efforts, like those of our frontier ancestors, paid great dividends. FC


A retired high school history teacher, Clell G. Ballard has worked on farms since he was in grade school, including 53 summers spent working on his uncle’s dryland hay and grain ranch. He also is a dealer of World War II era military vehicles and parts. Contact him at (208) 764-2313 (and bear in mind the time difference with Mountain Standard Time) or by email at cballard@northrim.net.

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