The Log Cabins of Missisquoi County ‘Against All Odds’

Special to the Montreal Gazette by Robert J. Galbraith, August 2013

In August 2012, Nadja Maria Daveluy and her husband, Francois Vincent began peeling the siding off of their recently-purchased farmhouse near Stanbridge East, in Quebec’s Eastern Townships. It had taken the married couple 5 years to find the perfect property – one that would fulfill their dream of owning their own small farm. But after removing just a few feet of covering, they stepped back in stunned amazement. Massive wood logs stacked one on top of the other began to appear beneath the siding. It took them a moment to grasp the reality of the situation, but they soon realized that the exposed wall was part of a long forgotten log cabin, one that dates to the early 18-hundreds.

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“We began stripping off a few sections of the siding to get an idea of how much renovation work was needed on the outside,” explained Vincent. “Nadja and I were stunned to come up against a wall of huge logs, some over 18-inches wide. We really didn’t know what we were looking at right off but then it clicked and we soon realized that hidden under the layers of siding was a our real house, an old log cabin. We had absolutely no idea, but we were ecstatic,” said the special events organizer. “We were later told by local historian, John Rhicard that it is around 200 years old.”

Another buyer might have considered the discovery a major roadblock to their plans, but for Daveluy, uncovering the old home was an unbelievable dream come true. “If I would have unknowingly torn the home down or damaged it, I would have thrown myself off a bridge,” explained Daveluy, a former fashion designer turned real estate broker. “I was so ecstatic that it was a log house. I kept saying to myself; Oh my God, Oh my god, Oh my God! Francois and I realized this would be the project of our lives. It was so serendipitous; it was a perfect storm of events that led us to where we are now.”

So what is the status of the ancient homesteaders’ log cabins of Missisquoi County, (the western section of the Eastern Townships)? How remain forgotten beneath countless layers of siding and is there a danger of losing the most important of these earliest structures?

Log cabins built with round or planked logs (hand-hewed on at least one side) were the first homes the settlers would build when they arrived on their new lands, using it as a temporary shelter until they built something more permanent.

Only one round log cabin is known to exist; that being in Stanbridge East. There are a handful of planked cabins dating from the late 18th-century to early 19th-century, but the round log cabin on Jean Rhicard’s farm, in Stanbridge East could be the last of the last.

After 1810 water-powered sawmills started sprouting up along the riverfronts and log cabins became log houses, built largely of sawn wood. There are dozens of examples of these later hybrids of sawn and planked wood.

Your basic log cabin was a 1-1/2 storey, 18X16 foot, hand-hewn log structure. After the trees were felled, one or more sides of the logs were hewn flat with a broad axe, then were then corner-notched and laid down on top of each other. The walls were normally 7 or 8 logs high to the cross beams, with a couple more logs added above this to provide space for a loft in that area. Early log cabins were not meant to last forever and were soon replaced by the larger, more classic examples as the settlers prospered and started purchasing other building materials, such as milled wood, stone and brick.
Some time after they were built, most of the cabins were either covered in a layer of stucco or wood planks, to seal any cracks and keep out vermin. Covering your home in stucco was a symbol of social status and advancement at the time, much as home upgrades are now.

Many of the old cabins were converted into out buildings such as chicken coops and storage sheds. Occasionally, they are accidentally discovered during renovation work or in the process of a building being demolished.

It is against all odds that any early cabins remain standing, especially considering that they were made almost entirely of wood and heated by wood in a stove or fireplace, while surrounded by endless forests, with seasonal flooding along rivers and lakes. Log homes are still built today made of milled wood using modern tools and materials.

The world’s largest log cabin, the 211-room Chateau Montebello, was built in 1930 at Montebello, Quebec and can be best described as a log castle or chateau.

The Ottawa Valley of Ontario boasts the largest concentration of 19th century log cabins in the world. Tony Jenkins of Elginburg, Ontario, operates a business that buys sells dismantles and moves old log cabins. “In the last forty years, I along with other sellers have taken out over a thousand early log buildings from the Valley region. God knows how many more have been lost to fire, storms and abandonment,” said the builder.

He says that the Valley area was settled in the very late 18th century and many of these settlers worked felling and floating trees for the infant lumber trade that was starting to blossom in the region. “I am not surprised there are so few cabins in Quebec,” says Jenkins. “There were probably better building materials available closer at hand. So I believe that there weren’t many cabins being built in Quebec in the first place and very few have survived, so I don’t think people should believe they were built all over the place in great numbers, like here in Ontario.”

There may be earlier French-regime era log cabins in the Quebec City area and along the St Lawrence River east of Montreal, but this article deals with Missisquoi County and it settlement by the English-speaking Loyalists.

At present, there are 8 known early log cabins still standing in the county, being built between 1784 and 1810-20. However, there are undoubtedly other examples of this time frame out there; but no one knows for sure.

At its inception in the late 17-hundreds, Philipsburg-St-Armand had two brickyards and access to board planks for building homes, which were ferried in from the town of St-Jean-Sur-Richelieu, a long days journey by boat. So it is possible many homesteaders skipped building log cabins and instead started right into building brick or plank homes because of easy availability of building material.

According to historians, the earliest and perhaps finest example of an early log cabin in the Townships stands in the small village of Philipsburg, on the shores of Missisquoi Bay of Lake Champlain, the first settlement established in the Eastern Townships, in the late 1770’s – 1790’s.

The Simon Lyster cabin dates to 1784, built by United Empire Loyalist, Simon Lyster, a blacksmith. The United Empire Loyalists were exiled from their lands in the 13 Colonies during the American Revolution (1775-1783), because they supported the British Crown, which was at war with the American revolutionaries. The Patriots were fighting for independence from the British.

Many of the loyalists fled north and sought refuge in the British-controlled territory of Lower Canada, as Quebec was known then. The majority, (30,000) settled in the Maritimes and Ontario. Of the approximately 10,000 Loyalists that settled in Quebec, Lyster was from a group of about 350 Loyalists from New York’s upper Hudson and Mohawk Valley that settled Philipsburg.

According to historians, the Lyster homestead is the earliest example of a Quebec Loyalist structure in the province, but it may be the oldest-known example of, if not one of the oldest, log pioneer homes still standing in the Quebec.

But the Lyster cabin nearly became history, when it was on the verge of being torn down in the summer of 1977 – a victim of mistaken identity.

The home sat on a piece of land that then owner, Gordon Craig wished to sell. The old clapboard-covered shack and its two small extensions had become an eyesore, so Craig decided to have his son Daniel tear them down, making the property more attractive to prospective buyers.

“We were pulling off the siding when we noticed the logs buried underneath. Initially, we had no idea what was there but these old shacks. What we found was a long-forgotten log cabin that had disappeared under layers of siding and tar paper, perhaps over a century earlier. No one in the village was aware of what lay beneath. The cabin had been lost from memory,” stated Craig,

The young man immediately contacted his father who told him to stop the demolition. “There was no way we were going to tear it down. We knew it was something special.”

Property owner, Gordon Craig had saved this fabulous homestead from the same fate that numerous other log cabins failed to escape from. Presently, the Simon Lyster cabin is in the very good hands of owners Yves and Louise Prefontaine.

Another early and very historically valuable cabin is the Deline family log cabin in nearby St-Armand. Walking into this cabin is like stepping into a time machine. From its white-washed ceiling to its peeling wallpaper and gnarled floor planks, this cabin exudes raw, breathing history. To the admirer of the past, it will take your breath away as soon as you step across its threshold. It is also the family heirloom that all the Delines adore and are deeply attached to. It is the touchstone to the families past.

This cabin (16X18 ft) is built entirely of hewn Eastern hemlock logs stacked one on top the other, with mortar and chinking sealing the spaces between the logs. The ends of the logs are dovetail notched, giving the structure great strength.

In the summer of 2012, Doris Deline had a visit to her property from her insurance broker. “As he left, he took a photo of our log cabin from his open car window. Later that day I received a call from the insurance company office asking me to tear down the cabin,” explained Deline. “I told her she was ‘whistling in the wind’ if she thought I would tear down Granny’s old cabin. It’s a cabin that my father bought for his mother to live in (when he was 19-years-old), moved here from a location a few miles away, over 112-years ago!” The insurers were concerned the structure might collapse on someone or burn down and spread.

Later that week, Deline got a follow-up call from the insurance broker’s office, telling her that there was no need to demolish the cabin. They had reconsidered.

The cabin would live another day but the reality is that the structure is in dire need of attention. Its stone foundation is collapsing in on itself and water has filled the small root cellar underneath the ancient floor planks. This has resulted in it dramatically tilting to one side.

Doris Deline agrees her beloved cabin, (which she refers to as Granny’s Cabin, in memory of the last person to live in it over 90 years ago), desperately needs to be stabilized and the stone foundation reset, but she is a women of simple means. The clock is ticking on whether the Deline cabin will continue to stand much as it has been for close to two centuries, or will we lose this important link to the past?

Stanbridge East resident, John Rhicard is a well-known local historian and is very knowledgeable concerning log cabin history and the settlers of Missisquoi County. His Loyalist ancestors were some of the first settlers in the region.

Rhicard owns two early log cabins that he incorporated together to form his home. The smaller) is the only example of a ‘round log, saddle-notched’ style of homestead building that exists in the region; the other younger cabin was constructed in the classic style of rectangular-hewn, dovetail notched logs, dating to around 1840. It is unknown when the small cabin was built or by whom, but it is extremely unique and intriguing.

“The large main log house was moved from 10 miles away in Stanbury, near St. Ignace,” explained Rhicard. “I bought it in 1966 for $100 and moved it here log by log. At the time, it was covered by vertical boards and the inside walls were plastered. It is built of ash and hemlock logs.”

John and Dianne Rhicard had been living in the little round log cabin since 1958, but with a young family they needed a larger living space. “When my dad bought this land in 1939, it held the only round log cabin I knew of – and it still is. Before that, the former owner used it for storing potatoes. He had cut a hole in the floor and dumped them in.”

Rhicard has little info on the history of the cabin before his father bought the property, but it has never been moved and sits on its original foundations. “It was very crudely built and possibly put up in late fall or early winter, judging by its hasty construction and materials. It is built of hemlock, poplar, ash and cherry logs, of very different sizes and forms of straightness.”

Known as a farmer, home renovator and jack-off-all-trades, Rhicard explained that at one time there were more cabins dotting the area, but many were abandoned and neglected, eventually falling from recent memory. “You can see the stone-lined cellars of some of them in the area, long after the logs have collapsed and rotted away.”

He recalled that a few years ago, an elderly lady in her eighties stopped in front of his cabin home. “She told me that 5 of her children were born in the small cabin, at a time before my father owned it.” It may never be revealed just how many children were born and raised in this rudimentary structure but over the decades it could have witnessed the birth of dozens of babies.

Many of the Loyalists who settled Missisquoi Bay were English-speaking descendants of German and Dutch ancestry. They were artisans, masons, carpenters, farmers and innkeepers, some of the trades necessary to build a community. By the late 19th the once overwhelming population of English-speaking inhabitants in the Eastern Townships began dropping and is now at just 8% of the population. That English heritage is reflected in the building styles and traditions of the region.

Many of them had seen military duty in some of the worst frontier battles of the Revolutionary War, when they fought against the American Patriots. The first settlers were largely made up of these former fighters and their officers, settling in Philipsburg.

Most lost everything they owned while escaping the war-torn colonies. For their service and support to the Crown, each UEL family was granted a 200-acre parcel of land in either Upper or Lower Canada.

As the years pass by, more of these old pioneer log structures will inevitably disappear, as well as the secrets they hold. But it is important to preserve these few remaining examples for as long as humanly possible, to safeguard these small windows that allow us to look back into our past, and into ourselves.

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