Researchers Use Tree-Ring Science To Study Area Log Cabins

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*Information courtesy of ASU News Bureau*

Saskia van de Gevel looks closely at the ends of logs used to construct two cabins located in the Bear Paw State Natural Area in Watauga County.

The logs’ coloration and wood anatomy indicates which ones are original to the structure and which ones were replaced because of damage. The closeness of the tree rings visible along the edge of the logs also is an indication of age.

Van de Gevel is an assistant professor in the Department of Geography and Planning at Appalachian State University who specializes in tree ring and biogeographical research.

Van de Gevel, along with Professor Henri Grissino-Mayer from the University of Tennessee, Ph.D. student Maegen Rochner, also from the University of Tennessee, Neva Specht, an associate dean in Appalachian’s College of Arts and Sciences, and Mark Spond, Appalachian’s liason to the Blue Ridge Parkway, are the lead researchers on a project to determine the age of logs used to construct the cabins that were moved to their current site from another location in Watauga County.

“We know the larger cabin was relocated here in the early 20th century,” said Grissino-Mayer. But the cabins are much older than that. In addition to the logs’ color and tree rings, nails used in their construction indicate when they were constructed.

“Square cut nails were used between 1800 to about 1860. The round nails that we are used to today came into use about 1860s or 1870s,” Grissino-Mayer. “Whenever you see these square nails, that’s a dead clue that the log is original to the building.”

The cabins being studied have both types of nails.

The researchers and their students took core samples from the top and bottom of the logs in July to more accurately determine the construction dates of the cabins.

“The project will advise the state park system on how to proceed with the preservation of the cabins. The intent of the state park system is to utilize the larger cabin as an educational center that focuses on interpreting Southern Appalachian culture and history,” said Tracy Minton, park superintendent of Elk Knob State Park. Bear Paw is a satellite park of Elk Knob State Park.

Their work also will be used to evaluate whether the cabins are eligible for National Register of Historic Places designation.

“Hopefully, we will be able to determine if the cabins were built pre- or post-Civil War,” van de Gevel said. “That will help with plans to include the cabins on the National Register.”

Matthew Bray, who graduated in May with a master’s degree in public history, researched and wrote a history of the site. According to oral history, the largest cabin on the site was relocated and reassembled in the early 1900s, most likely from a farm located near Clark’s Creek Baptist Church. It was used in the 1960s to the 1980s as rental property, according to Bray’s report. It is unknown when the smaller cabin was relocated, but it was originally an agricultural outbuilding located in the valley in the Clark’s Creek area, according to interviews conducted in 2014 by the director of the university’s Center for Appalachian Studies with relatives of the original owners.

Undergraduates in van de Gevel’s summer class titled “Global Change of the Biosphere” assisted with fieldwork related to the project.

Funding for the field work was provided by Appalachian’s College of Arts and Sciences.

Saskia van de Gevel is part of a research team determining the age of logs used to construct cabins located at the Bear Paw State Natural Area in Watauga County. Van de Gevel is an assistant professor in the Department of Geography and Planning at Appalachian State University. (Photo by Marie Freeman)
Saskia van de Gevel is part of a research team determining the age of logs used to construct cabins located at the Bear Paw State Natural Area in Watauga County. Van de Gevel is an assistant professor in the Department of Geography and Planning at Appalachian State University. (Photo by Marie Freeman)
Appalachian State University junior Matthew Hayes works with Henri Grissino-Mayer from the University of Tennessee to collect a core sample from a log cabin. The tree rings visible in the core will be used to date the age of the log. (Photo by Marie Freeman)
Appalachian State University junior Matthew Hayes works with Henri Grissino-Mayer from the University of Tennessee to collect a core sample from a log cabin. The tree rings visible in the core will be used to date the age of the log. (Photo by Marie Freeman)
Information from core samples taken from two log cabins at the Bear Paw State Natural Area will be used to determine the age of the logs and when the cabins were constructed. (Photo by Marie Freeman)
Information from core samples taken from two log cabins at the Bear Paw State Natural Area will be used to determine the age of the logs and when the cabins were constructed. (Photo by Marie Freeman)
Undergraduates in Saskia van de Gevel’s summer class titled “Global Change of the Biosphere” assisted with fieldwork related to the project. (Photo by Marie Freeman)
Undergraduates in Saskia van de Gevel’s summer class titled “Global Change of the Biosphere” assisted with fieldwork related to the project. (Photo by Marie Freeman)
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