OLD NORWEGIAN GRIT: NE IOWA 19TH CENTURY LOG HOMES
Meet Paul and Nathan! These guys got the special honor of being my first guest interview on my blog. I've known Paul for many years having gone to high school with him and met his partner Nathan just recently. Paul and Nathan have an interesting approach to exploring the Norwegian heritage that is so deeply rooted in NE Iowa. They have worked together to restore old Norwegian log homes turning them into new spaces to enjoy themselves or rent to others. If you are interested in renting, check out their website here.
So one of the first questions that came to mind when interviewing Paul was whether he had any Norwegian heritage in his family and oddly enough he said "no"! I was so surprised to learn this given he grew up in Decorah, Iowa which has a lot of Norwegian influence throughout the city and because of his focus on Norwegian log homes. This led me to my second most obvious question of the day, "How did you get started in restoring old log homes?" HIs response was simple "I kind of just stumbled into it". To back up a bit, Paul is an Industrial Tech teacher in an nearby town by day so he already has the skills and interest to build and work with his hands. Nathan's day job is inclusive of environmental and city planning adding another specialty to the duo's toolbox. Together their skills compliment each other therefore the only missing element is a project to apply the skills to. Lucky for them, NE Iowa holds many abandoned treasures in the rolling valleys just waiting for a new life.
The space pictured here started out as a log home built between 1952 and 1954 but then was later abandoned. The space is now a garage with a loft workshop for Paul and Nathan to build their creations. The duo made some alterations in this space building a new roof with a 10:12 pitch versus the existing roof pitch of 8:12. This allows for more headspace and more room for large materials for other projects.
This picture showcases the mix of old and new. The roof, floor, and windows are new, but much of the walls are still the original pieces of the home. You can also see the division between two rooms lending a little storage space in the back.
I took a close up view of the joints in the old framing. I asked Paul how he disassembles the old homes so that he knows how to put it back together. He said that the design is simple enough that you really just separate the long and short boards, grouping them with like sizes to build the space back together. The design of the old homes are so simple that often the logs are only in a few sizes anyway.
Here is a close up of the window work. Paul framed in the windows himself, but he had a craftsman from the local Amish community make the windows. Hiring Amish is fairly common in NE Iowa and SE Minnesota given their hard-working ethics and skills passed down for generations. Their quality is difficult to match and it's a wonderful way of bringing two very different cultures together to enjoy something beautiful made together.
The downstairs garage area has some interesting custom built elements intentionally included to make the space functional for Paul and Nathan's needs. The first element is the back stair. The stair was originally set in the front of the garage, but if left there it would have been impossible to park in the garage. The stair in its current location is very narrow. This allows space for a parked car, but also for large boards to be brought up the stairway to the workshop. The downstairs originally had two rooms like the upstairs, but the space was cut open to fit the car. I keep talking about parking a car, but for now the reality is that the downstairs is used for lumber storage. Someday though that car will fit in the garage!
Here is the current status of the garage. The side door still needs some finishing, but overall the structure is beautiful. What I love about this design is that it is simple, functional, and has history both old and new. It also showcases how different generations and cultures can come together to create something for people to enjoy for years to come. Old materials can certainly be brought into the modern age allowing for their story to continue to be told.
This is a quick detour from log homes, but I felt it was worth pointing out. Here Nathan and Paul used old foundation stone from a barn to build this little retaining wall for a tulip garden. I could recognize where the stone came from immediately because I grew up on a farm and have seen many barns be repainted over the years with drips of red paint lingering on the foundation walls. What a simple way to incorporate materials that had lost their purpose, but still have life left in them.
Ahh... everyone loves a dog picture right? This is Mabel. She didn't want her picture taken because she was much more excited about the chickens and their eggs nearby. Priorities.
Okay, moving onto the next property. This is Paul's favorite project. It was obvious as we toured the space because he radiated so much joy out as he talked through the details. The space is the biggest he has worked on measuring in at 20x28 feet and made of oak. He said typically most log homes were about two-thirds the size of just the living room in this house.
Paul found this house near Rushford, MN in 2010 and has been working on it little by little ever since. The property dates back to 1856. The door was one of my favorite parts about this home. I loved the color and the wear. The windows were also painted in the same color giving the house a pop that still fits into the landscape amongst the open blue sky. The door windows, although hard to see in this photo because of the protective wrap, are darling with the arch at the top. Once this project is done, Paul and Nathan plan to rent it out as well. I have multiple places to crash in Decorah for free considering most of my family lives there, but I think I am going to have to rent this place when it is done.
Oh and I love the doorknobs. The house I grew up in has cool, detailed knobs too so it reminded me of home. Yes, my parents' house still has some doors that use a skeleton key!
The best way to talk about this photo and the next is to draw attention to the grit and hard labor that went into framing this place the first time around. I mean seriously look at the ceiling! There are full tree trunks up there! In talking with Paul I also asked him what he loved about doing this kind of work. Paul responded with "the old wood". Very solid answer Paul, but tell me more... "The ingenuity and grit that went into building a home back in the 19th century." The Norwegians left their home, traveled across America to the upper Midwest in search of opportunity with little to nothing to their name, but filled with determination to make a better life.
Looking around the space it is moving to think about how much time went into this work. Before the Norwegians could get to farming or creating a livelihood, they needed a place to live. I am not a historian so perhaps some immigrants had family they could stay with or support from their community when they arrived, but Paul hit the nail on the head when he said that "we should respect the time and skill that went into these properties." These log homes offer a glimpse into a "short window to our history" and offer a great example of the "challenges people encountered during their time". As an example, we can go to Home Depot and buy wood in the exact length we need. These guys had to cut down the trees! The other amazing thing to think about regarding this roof in particular is that the skills that went into building this structure would have been the same skills used back in the homeland of Norway passed down for generations. For those of you not familiar, Norwegian homes from the same era often had sod roofs. These logs were needed to support grass, dirt, and even goats (they did the mowing). Although they might not have done a sod roof here in the US, they likely drew upon the same knowledge they would have used in Norway.
It is probably safe to say that most homes that are in similar shape to how Paul and Nathan found these often get burned down because it is the path of least resistance to get them out of the way. Many of the places are abandoned completely and my guess is its due to the amount of work that would go into restoring the properties. Take the photo above as an example. The wire sheathing between the logs is used to help keep mortar in place with less work than filling in the full gap to the exterior of the house. Paul also used Great Stuff to add some insulation in the gaps.
When I asked Paul what he had learned though the process of restoring these old homes his response was "to fake it till you make it". He remarked that he finds the process so interesting because it's fun to build stuff himself and think through the challenges each property presents. Balancing and distributing the weight load poses an opportunity to problem solve in a big way. Some of these properties had the second floor collapsing in on itself and Paul was able to figure out how to rebuild the space. He also stated that he has noticed his confidence rise as he conquers each problem. He also loves learning the history of each property even going as far as to engage a local woman who helps date the buildings by dating the trees used to build it!
This house is my favorite house of the visit. I wasn't able to go inside and check it out since it was rented for the weekend, but this house holds a special connection to may family and me. The connection is simple, it used to belong to our neighbors. I grew up walking through the bean field over to this place and taking a peep inside. The man that had lived here had passed many years before and nobody had gone in to clean out the property. I remember as a kid climbing through one of the front windows and checking things out inside. It was quite sad in reality because the man's clothes were still hanging up to dry and his pots sat unwashed for years. Trees had grown through the windows and animals had claimed it as their own home. I always felt so bad about it that I didn't dare visit the place too often.
Knowing the backstory to this log home however, it shouldn't scare you away. Paul has done a wonderful job restoring this property with added charm. This property is currently available to rent through the link I shared above. Come and enjoy the space in a setting with a spectacular rolling farm view. The night offers the chance to see the stars and hear the crickets chirp too. Sit on the porch, enjoy a glass of wine and take in everything that NE rural Iowa has to offer. It is much more than what you may think!