Living the Good Life in a Mortgage-Free Cabin

The Wagners worked for several summers to complete their log house, which they now live in. They spend a lot of time on the property with family pressing apples for cider, hunting mushrooms, and tapping maple trees for syrup.

Log cabin construction

As they mostly worked during summer, Geraldine Wagner, the author, and her husband spent several years cutting and preparing the timber for their home.

Photo by Geraldine Wagner

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For some time, we looked for land that we could afford, and that had the natural resources (tall, straight pines) to build our log house. We finally settled on a place that was farther from work and shopping centers but was beautiful and inexpensive. We paid $11,000 for 27 1/2 acres in 1978. So we did pay the owners about $71 per month.

We spent several years cutting the pine timber, limbing it, barking it and stacking it to dry, as well as scraping and washing the logs. At the time, we had little to no money, so we used a $40 attachment for our chainsaw, called a “Lumber Maker,” and ran it down the length of the logs to flatten them on both sides. When we had some money, we bought oakum and huge spikes to put the logs together.

We paid a young man from the neighborhood and one of our daughters to help us one summer with mixing cement and using a wheelbarrow to move the cement to the foundation forms. Friends and family came by often, and when they were there, we were usually working on the house (while living in an old rehabilitated house that was on the property; we spent the first summer making that livable), so they would usually pitch in to help. The house really isn't "done" today, some 35 years later. A few little things here and there were left to do when we moved into the house, as we moved in a little earlier than anticipated.

While we were building the log house, our little rehabilitated house next door caught fire in a big storm and burned down. My husband had just gone back to work that day. We typically had summers off and would save up enough money to live on over the summer. When he went back to work, we had $3 between us! He had to come home very quickly, though, when he received a call from a neighbor that our house was on fire.

After the fire, neighbors let us live in their house down the road. Their father had recently passed away and they were getting ready to move back into the house after some refurbishment. There were dishes, pots and pans, towels, and firewood that we could avail ourselves of, and then there was a concerted effort to finish up the log house so we could move into it. We were up there every day after our two older kids got on the bus to school. An insurance settlement gave us the money to purchase a furnace and appliances. We moved into the cabin in 1983 and had a big party for everyone who had helped us.

We had two more children by the time we moved into the house. We moved just after our youngest child's third birthday. The other children were 9 and 4. Often, our parents would take the kids overnight, especially in summer when we did the bulk of the work on our house, so we would have full days to work.

It cost us very little, but we did not keep a running account. Neither of us had a head for money, so we just paid our bills, bought food, and bought what we needed for the house with what we had left over. We bought a lot of used things, such as all the windows and doors from an old camp on a lake nearby. We paid about $300 for them. Eventually, however, we had to replace most of the windows because they were single-pane and made the house cold. Two of the biggest windows are still in use (about 9 feet across) and we struggle every winter to keep them from letting cold air in. The other windows are double-pane, but we bought them several years after we moved in. We bought a chimney that had been taken out of an old school at an auction for $5, along with more chimney flue than we could ever use, and used them for our fireplace. The fireplace stone came from the farmer's field. He would pile it up for us when he was plowing and we would go down and load up the stone on our old wagon, which we pulled with an old Allis-Chalmers tractor that we paid $200 for. We paid what we could and when summer was over and we were broke, we worked on the tasks that didn't cost us anything. We had had many of the logs milled into floor boards by a local mill, and we traded some standing timber from our woods for the milling. We did a lot of bartering and making do.

The house is now about 2,000 square feet. It has three porches, one of them screened in, where we practically live in summer. We have a large yard with an in-ground pool that we installed in 1988. We had moved to London, England, for several months that year, and had a ball in that big, wonderful city with so much to do every day! It was really hard to move back to our house, where there was little but cornfields and a creek around us. So the pool was a way to make us feel like we wanted to be there. It was an extravagance and there are ecological issues, but we use the pool nearly every day in good weather. We even use it when it’s cooler because we have a wood-burning sauna next to it and can heat ourselves up and then jump into the cold water and feel luxurious instead of freezing! Now that I am of retirement age, I use the pool for much-needed exercise after back surgery and a hip replacement. It keeps me limber and in shape, and watching my seven grandchildren bobbing around in the water isn't too hard to take, either! I think it's earned its keep.

We did all of the labor ourselves, except when we hired in summer one year, and when folks came out to help us. To get our wiring done in the house cost us about four cases of beer! The man who was refurbishing the house we had lived in after the fire must have felt sorry for us. He would come up every day when he was finished with his paying job and help us with getting a furnace in and many other jobs. He found someone to bring a backhoe up and dig down so we could get a well in. People from all over came to "witch" the well for us and we had a good well for many years. It has since been replaced, but we have fond memories of people crossing paths holding apple sticks, bent wires, chains, and their own favorite method of water divining to help us locate a good spot for the well.

There was little inspection out where we lived in the hinterlands. We did get a test done on the soil and it passed with flying colors. Our soil is sandy, the remnant of an old lake bed from thousands of years ago. The lake is now about 5 miles away.

Would I do it again? For an aging body, that’s a loaded question. Today I don't feel I would have the stamina. I was in great shape in those days, though, and I never had to use a gym or join a jogging team. One thing I don't like, as Helen and Scott Nearing didn't, is the dustiness of a log house. Our inside walls are not finished off — they’re knotted and uneven. So dust collects like a magnet and the walls have to be washed often with pine soap. But the admiration we have felt for ourselves, and the pride our children have in the fact that we built our house from the ground up, makes me feel like I would want to do something similar, if not a log house. I look at "cookie cutter" houses that people buy from other people, and I wonder what makes them feel a connection to a place that they didn't really lay a hand on, except maybe to paint, or to do some minor remodeling.

There is definitely a feel to this house that I love and it would be very hard to leave it. So in our older years, we are looking at some options to be able to make the house livable when we are not as mobile as we still are. In the living room we have a cathedral ceiling and there is little insulation in the roof. It has made the house hard to heat. Because we cut our own firewood in our woods, we want to maximize the heat we get from every cord. So I am opting for boxing in the living room and leaving the rest of the cathedral ceiling upstairs, which includes three unused bedrooms and a bathroom. Then we would have much less to heat, and we could insulate above the new dropped ceiling to make it even warmer. My husband is a tinkerer, and he loves his three-bay garage that we built (which cost $10,000) some years after we lived here. He would go crazy if he couldn't spread out and lose his tools (yes, he's not very organized in the tool department) and lay on the floor and try to fix the brake lines on the old wood truck/plow.

I love our yard and my pool and walks in the woods on the old logging trails. We have adopted a boxer-mix dog that thinks it's a bad day when he doesn’t' get to run all over in those woods, picking up sticks for us to throw. And in fall, our woods are full of mushrooms that I harvest for cream of mushroom soup and to freeze to add to dishes. In spring, the grandkids love to come and help my husband tap the maple trees and boil down the sap in his homemade evaporator, made from a stainless steel salad bar from a restaurant. Yes, we still salvage around and make things that we want to use. And in fall, our family helps us gather the apples and grind and press them into cider for the freezer. Each year, family and friends come for our Wagner Wood Day. They help get the rest of the firewood in for winter and I treat them to a turkey dinner with all the trimmings.

If you have the dream, do it! I don't know how many people have come to this house and loved it, but said they could "never do something like this." Sure you can! We didn't know a thing — we bought a book called Five Acres and Independence and some books about building log houses and we just started. We made a lot of mistakes, but they are our mistakes. If we don't point them out, no one else notices them. Our kids and grandkids love this house. Even my nieces and nephews, whose parents have moved away to live in condos, or to travel in RVs, want this house to stay right where it is, because it is what they now feel is the closest they have to "home." They have all spent so much time here that they love it as much as we do. And it is even more special to them now that the homes they grew up in are owned by other people. I can't imagine anyone else living in this house after we are gone. We think our son, who specializes in house restoration and remodeling in North Carolina would take it over. He has a lot of ideas for it. In fact, he will be coming this spring to install a new pine floor in the living room for us. I have had imaginings of turning it into a bed-and-breakfast, or a coffee house with local music every week, or even a retreat house. But for now, we enjoy our day-to-day living among the pines and the maple trees, and we'll keep on keeping on as long as we are able!

Anyone with questions is welcome to write to me at geriwagner@yahoo.com, or to visit us in Blossvale, N.Y. Most anyone in the area would know where we live, near the banks of Fish Creek!

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