Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Building A Cabin

It's a cold windy day today. Even though there are snow flurries in the air, the wind seems to be breaking up the clouds. Maybe the sun will shine. It would be a great improvement from the gray day we had yesterday.

The wind and the flurries brought to mind another fall in 1946. Dr. Katie Burns had finished her World War II service in the Navy at Great Lakes Naval Station. She along with her mother, sister, and brother-in-law were going to spend the fall and part of the winter building a cabin on Katie's property on Gunflint Lake. Much of the process was recorded in a series of letters that Katie's mother wrote to the youngest daughter who was in college at the time. Katie also wrote an essay on the project.

In the beginning of August, the family moved to the shores of Gunflint Lake. They camped in two tents on platforms until the house had a roof on it. A third tent on a platform served as their kitchen/living room. A fourth tent held supplies. Their luxury was a hand pump by the kitchen sink. It took them ten days to hand dig the well with a crow bar and trench spade.

Although there was a road down the south shore of Gunflint, it was 600 feet from the house site. That meant that every part of the house had to be portaged from the road. The other alternative was to bring supplies in by boat. Katie said they brought the first load of lumber down by boat and it took a day and a half to do it.

Construction went slowly because there was no electricity. Also no one had any real building experience. They had only read books about building a cabin. After seven weeks the cabin was enclosed with four walls and a roof. By then the weather had gotten to the point where camping was not much fun. The bears were also getting very brazen and had found their way into camp several times.

Although they continued to sleep in the tents for a bit, they were able to put the hand water pump into the kitchen of the house. Between that and the stove, cooking and eating were a little easier. With just the outside shell, the house was not too warm. Mrs. Burns writes that the inside temperature was "under 60."

The next most important project was to build the fireplace. You have to understand that none of them had ever done this before. All fall they gathered rocks. It took five weeks of work to build the fireplace. The really low blow was learning that the completed fireplace had to sit for two weeks before they could use it. You can imagine how wonderful that first fire felt!

The last step that winter was insulating and finishing the interior. Walls were erected. Stairs were built to the second floor. Flooring went in and was hand sanded before filling, staining and waxing. It was on-the-job training for all of these "carpenters" and they were very proud of the results.

Today it is hard to appreciate the difficulties that Katie and her family encountered building the cabin. Construction supplies were hard to get. Even grocery shopping was a major project. You called in a grocery order from the only phone at Gunflint Lodge and it was delivered by the mail truck which only came three days a week. They baked their own bread. Meat was in short supply. It was hard to find time to fish for food with all the demands of construction. At one point Mrs. Burns wrote, "My present problem is to conjure up a dinner out of 5 wieners -- our only visible meat supply." No electricity meant no freezer or refrigerator.

It was sixty years ago this fall that Katie and her family built the cabin. On cold fall days like today, I wonder if I would have been able to do it. Katie is now around 90 years old. She still summers on Gunflint Lake and is as sharp as a tack. Her stories of those early years have entertained and amazed me. Hopefully someone will say the same about me when I reach that age.

No comments: