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Crew restores historic hunters' cabin
A crew of volunteers and U.S. Forest Service workers plan how best to get a replacement log into a wall of an historic Horse Prairie cabin May 18 near Jackson.

JACKSON — Lynn Bott carves a U-shaped section out of a lodgepole pine log with a chain saw. After the basic form is taken out, Bott uses the chain saw like a carving tool, sawing away small pieces of wood with the tip. He's trying to make a good match for a log that has been on the historic Horse Prairie cabin near here for more than 70 years before rotting away.

"It's much more involved than you would think, a lot of detailed measurement and careful work with the chain saw to make the logs fit," Bott, a range technician for the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, said as sweat beaded on his forehead. "It makes you appreciate the craftsmanship of the early builders."

Mimicking the skills that workers had with hand tools is exactly what two historic preservation specialists with the U.S. Forest Service from Missoula, a crew of forest employees and volunteers did recently on the cabin. The lodgepole pine cabin that is popular with hunters in the fall sits on a sagebrush plain near the base of the mountains in the West Big Hole Valley, near Lemhi Pass.

The cabin is a basic, cookie-cutter design that the Forest Service built hundreds of in the 1930s and 1940s, when Civilian Conservation Corps labor was available. They're basic but incredibly well-made, with heavy logs fitted together and a main beam running atop the peak to support the roof.

"This is stout enough that you could probably run a Caterpillar over it," said Kirby Matthew, with the Forest Service's Region 1 historic preservation team. "I've seen these with 20 feet of snow on them."

Each has its quirks

Matthew and co-worker Cathy Bickenheuser travel throughout Montana, northern Idaho and the Dakotas to restore historic buildings. Despite the fact that most of the Forest Service cabins are of a standard design, each restoration project has its quirks, Bickenheuser said.

"Every one's different, everyone notches a little different, how they've weathered, how they've been used," she said. "Every one has its own unique problems." But that's what also makes restoration work interesting and challenging, Matthew said.

Despite their solid construction, most of the old cabins have weathered away. The elements have taken a toll and the majority of the CCC-era cabins are gone, Matthew said.

One of the biggest factors leading to their decay has been alterations made by the Forest Service. Many cabins, including Horse Prairie, had masonry placed around the lower outside sections of the walls, which trapped moisture and caused the logs to rot sooner.

The crew had broken up the stonework and busted up the outer part of the concrete foundation under it, to ensure that the new logs don't rot as quickly.

They also scraped old varnish off the floors. But the main restoration work was to the logs themselves.

Some of the logs are entirely rotted and have to be replaced. Others are only partially deteriorated.

They save the good sections of logs by sawing away the rotted material and replacing it with a section of log that is custom cut to fit. The ends of the adjoining logs have to be sawed out to remove the old pieces.

'Release the pressure'

"All you have to do is release the pressure to get the log out," Matthew said. "The good trick is keeping everything stable so you don't have to worry about the building collapsing." The crew uses jacks in some cases, or thin metal straps that can be slipped through the gaps in the logs and can support incredible weight to keep the structure sturdy while a log is removed.

Once a log or section is gone, they create as close of a replica as possible from a fresh log. Precise measurements are taken and Matthew traces, using an improvised protractor, the U-shaped notch to be cut out.

Then they go to work sawing out the notch and making it just right so the log will fit. The crew works the log into the notches.

It can take the whole crew to push a log in, but that's the kind of tight fit they're after.

The new logs are lighter than the old, weathered ones. But Matthew said it's better to let the new logs weather naturally, rather than trying to match the color with varnish.

"If you stain it to match, it will match for a few years and then be off color," he said. "If you let it weather naturally, it will take six of seven years to match, but then it will match forever." Matthew's experience in historic preservation makes it fun to work on restoration projects, said Loren Ross, a volunteer from Lake Isabella, Calif.

"I just always learn a little more," he said. "That's why I like working with Kirby, because he's done so much of this." There are hundreds of historic Forest Service buildings throughout the region that need work, Matthew said. One of the major goals of his team is to get more people within the agency trained in the techniques so they can take on projects and preserve buildings.

Matthew has even trained some private contractors who came out to the job site, something he said is needed because the backlog of work is so immense that the agency can't get to all of them.

"We'll train anybody who shows up on the job," he said. "I wouldn't be doing that if I were in private industry because I'd be giving away my trade secrets."

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