Renaissance man restores log cabins with old-fashioned tools

By Sarah Cooke, Loveland Daily Reporter-Herald
Saturday December 15, 2001

BERTHOUD, Colo. — Bent over a 14-foot-long ponderosa pine log, Peter Haney gripped a 19th-century broad ax and meticulously shaved small slices of wood from its right side. 

Haney’s green cloth chaps became sprinkled with sawdust from the knee down as he worked; his calloused palms were already dotted with layers of dried pine sap. 

“This is backbreaking work,” the Fort Collins man said. “It’s about one of the most physically demanding tasks that I can think of in logging work.” 

An expert in traditional building crafts such as logging, Haney spent several weeks building a new western wall for a 130-year-old log cabin that sits near the Little Thompson River southwest of Berthoud in north-central Colorado. 

Crews with the Berthoud Historical Society uncovered the cabin in May after they bulldozed three clapboard additions previous owners had built around it. 

The society wants to renovate the homestead structure and possibly turn it into a small museum. 

For now, though, the cabin simply needed a western wall to protect it from the area’s wintry weather, and that’s where Haney stepped in. 

A timber-framing teacher at Colorado State University’s Pingree Park campus west of Fort Collins, Haney is drawing from his experience in traditional building crafts to build the cabin’s remaining wall using tools and techniques from the 19th century. 

Hefting one of eight logs that will make up the wall onto a pair of homemade sawhorses, Haney talked about how Colorado’s pioneers made their log homes more than 100 years ago. 

Many times, Haney said crews of men and boys — women weren’t allowed to perform such work — would cut and hew logs in the forest using axes and hand saws so they were easier to pull back to the homesite. 

Thanks to modern technology, Haney got his logs from a sawmill and used a chain saw to shave large chunks from the sides of the 300-pound logs. 

After those initial cuts, Haney reverted to the old-fashioned methods and used a felling ax to make little chops in the logs that break up the wood fibers for the more delicate hewing process. 

Walking the perimeter of the cabin, Haney pointed to similar marks in the original 130-year-old logs. 

Because he’s been building cabins since 1980, Haney can identify which marks were made with an ax and which cuts resulted from hand saws or other tools simply by looking at them. 

“The ax came in from that direction,” he said, staring at a handful of chop marks, “so I can tell this guy was right-handed.” 

According to Haney, most of Larimer County’s log cabins — including this one — were crudely built because pioneers needed shelter quickly once they reached their destinations. 

Still, Haney said the cabin built by Prussian immigrant Charles Meining southwest of Berthoud is in pretty good shape, and might be the last one like it in the Little Thompson Valley. 

“It’s in good condition,” he said. “It’s not leaning too much. 

“I couldn’t believe when I first walked in and saw this pioneer cabin entombed in a stick frame house.” 

Continuing work on the new western wall, Haney begins the tricky process of fitting the new logs into existing north and south walls, which are no longer symmetrical. 

Haney said the project had turned into an ongoing process of testing different notches and fits. 

“I’m having to custom cut everything,” he said. 

After Haney finishes the wall, the Historical Society will try to find funding to fully restore the cabin. 

Member Mark French said the society still wants to apply for grants to help pay for renovation efforts and likely will hold a fund-raiser for the project next year. 

Haney speculated it might be easy to get funding for the cabin if it is one of the only log structures left in the area, as he believes. 

“On the plains there are very few left. ... It’s a very rare connection to the early days,” Haney said.