Mixing a historic cabin’s past with its present.
By Kevin Horrocks
A cabin property may consist of a rustic cabin, a quaint cottage, a contemporary retreat or a sprawling camp; it may be surrounded by a lawn or a meadow, trees or cactus; and it may have a lake, mountain or forest view. More importantly, a cabin’s heart consists of the recollections of the events that made the place and being there something special, particularly when bound to the physical structures and surroundings that serve as reminders of who has been there and what has transpired.
Kevin and Susan Horrocks in front of their cabin today.
Elon, son of the original cabin builder and a buddy. Clearly, the cabin is much larger today than it was originally.
This photo shows a wraparound porch that was added at one point. The porch, complete with a fish-cleaning station, was removed with some difficulty when the Horrocks remodeled the cabin in recent years.
Cabin owners, without exception, quickly begin building their own memories of these special places. It’s this common trait that can add an unexpected layer of interest and history you never imagined. Your sanctuary brings with it a hidden treasure of memories you can tap into that can enhance those you are creating of your own. And historical treasures can be uncovered whether you bought your place from someone or built it from scratch.
If you bought an existing cabin, you may be able to discover historical treasures through the previous owners. What is now your cabin was at least as special and important to the previous owners’ lives as it is now, to yours. And, given the chance, they may be a wealth of knowledge and memories that can be blended with your own. It is well worth the bit of work to talk to the former owners.
Kevin and Susan inside their cabin today.
Upon closing on the purchase of our cabin in northern Wisconsin, my wife, Susan, and I contacted the sellers by phone. In turn, they happened to have the name and address of a man named Elon – the son of the woman who built the cabin in 1908. Elon leapt at the opportunity to share with us. Early on, he lent us photographs that we copied, framing several to put on our walls. The mediocre quality and condition of these old snapshots added to their charm. We talked a few times on the phone, but mostly we relied on the old art of writing letters back and forth. We’ve kept his letters in a cabin scrapbook with the copied photos.
The woman who built the original cabin.
This photo includes a man named Elon, the son of the cabin builder. Elon would eventually be a penpal of Kevin and Susan’s.
He shared stories and history of his family at the cabin. Through Elon, we made contact with his nephew whose family had also adventured at the cabin. So, we wrote back and forth with him, too. Our contacts with Elon and his nephew and their stories have enriched our own view of our cabin in ways usually requiring firsthand experience. We learned it was a garage burning down that killed a ring of oaks that we had to cut down years later. The dead oaks stood among a patch of wild raspberries that were growing where the garage once stood. We use a public landing for our boat, while the previous owners asked a group of Native American men they’d befriended to help drag their boat up and down the steep embankment by ropes. We kayak on the lake, while on a dare, Elon’s sister swam over a mile across the lake, followed by Elon in the rowboat. We learned that an entire family was inducted into the local Native American tribe and given individual names in gratitude for assistance they’d provided to the tribe. We are not unique in discovering and sharing someone else’s memories of a cabin. Cabin neighbors and friends of ours learned why one entire wall of their cabin living room was an overhead garage door, still operational. The previous owners would raise the “wall” and fit a screen during hot weather. In upstate New York, my cousin has a twisted length of edge-blackened tree trunk mounted to the wall of his cabin. The cabin’s previous owner saved the charred remnant when a tree on the cabin property was blown to pieces and burned by lightning. The entire event described and dated on the back of the wood mounting.
Cabin dècor with a story: Research showed that this stone spearhead was carried to northwestern Wisconsin by a distant Native American tribe.
Great stories and adventures of your own cabin’s past may be waiting for you to find them. You may only uncover small, odd things like the garage door story, but they can become part of your cabin’s lore.
And if you built your place…
Buying an existing cabin may provide a more direct line of communication to a previous owner. But, even if you are the first to build, don’t think there is not a past that can enrich your own feelings and memories. Rusted iron rings and chains hang as decorations at a friend’s lakeshore cabin. They were found in their lake, remnants from the lumberjack era a century ago when enormous rafts of logs were chained together for holding in their bay before being floated away. While digging a hole to plant a shrub, some other friends of ours dug up a near-perfect, knapped, stone spearhead. An expert at the Wisconsin Historical Society determined the spearhead did not come from the area but had been a trade from a distant tribe with access to the particular type of stone. These mystery memories can give a very different perspective of one’s place from a different time.
Neighboring cabin owners near Hayward, Wis., created a collection of memories of their entire lake, Tales of Lac Courte Oreilles.
Fun cabin community project
The enjoyment and interest in history and the stories of a cabin’s area can be so rewarding. On our lake, a group of cabin owners worked for a couple years to create a book, Tales of Lac Courte Oreilles, of contributed stories and histories of many of the cabins around and near the lake, complete with old photographs. In a wonderful convergence, friends of ours recently bought an older cabin on our lake. We joined them to poke around and speculate on how they could adapt it for their lifestyle, admiring the character and antiquity of it. My wife, Susan, dug up our copy of Tales and low and behold, the cabin our friends had just bought was featured with photos and a multi-generational history. Suddenly, there is a whole new line of discovery awaiting our friends! Whether its stories that help give you a deeper sense of place and time or photos that give you an actual view into the past, you can enlighten your own memories and add to the collective knowledge of what makes your cabin so special, unique, and something to share with previous and future kindred souls. Kevin Horrocks’ family members have been cabin owners since 1950 on the shore of Lake Ontario, now with scattered retreats in Wisconsin, West Virginia and Colorado.