The author and his wife restored a log cabin in the Cumberland Mountains of Tennessee. Life on this old homestead is just grand!
James and Doris Baggett and their pet dog enjoy the front porch of their restored, 140-year-old log cabin.
Photo courtesy MOTHER EARTH NEWS editors
For many years, my wife, Doris, and I lived in a five-bedroom house in eastern Tennessee. I built the house, and that’s where we raised our five children, who have now all moved on and earned college degrees. When the last of our children left home, we decided to build the secluded cabin of our dreams. After all, why continue to struggle with the high cost of the mortgage, upkeep and utilities? We were ready for a smaller house and a slower lifestyle. To us, the hills and rocks of the upper Cumberlands — between Nashville and Knoxville — are the most beautiful part of Tennessee. When we began our search for the perfect property, we knew we did not want to go far, so we started looking right in this area.
After a long search, we saw an ad in a local paper for a log cabin with 50 acres about 15 miles away, near Monterey, Tenn. I had been a carpenter/contractor for years, and I was planning to build our new house, but when we found this old cabin beside a small pond at the end of a pleasant, shady lane, we just fell in love with it. Within a week, we had closed the deal. We purchased the property for about $25,000 in 1985 and have been here ever since.
Rebuilding the Cabin
Calling the cabin old doesn’t quite cover it. This hillside farm on the Cumberland Plateau was an abandoned homestead, and we traced the cabin back to 1865. It needed a lot of work, but it had a good foundation. It also had a metal roof that a previous owner had added in 1933 and that had protected the logs from moisture and decay.
We decided it was easiest to move into the cabin while we were rebuilding it, even though that involved a few inconveniences, including cooking and heating water on a camp stove. We moved in July with the goal of having a kitchen and indoor bath before cold weather struck. With a lot of hard work and determination, the house was livable by October. This was great!
But some major repairs still had to be done. All the chinking between the logs had fallen out, and the wooden floor joists were sagging in the middle. I rechinked all the logs with a cement mortar mix, and put in wood floors for the whole house except the kitchen, where we decided on a patio-brick floor.
The original cabin had three big fireplaces, which would have been necessary on the homestead, but were certainly more than we needed. We left a fireplace in our bedroom, but took out those in the living room and kitchen to make room for a few additional windows — old log cabins rarely have many, and we wanted the fresh air. We also rewired the house, and I put in a bathroom with running water to replace the privy outside. We left the privy standing, though — it’s still available.
A woodstove is our main heat source, but last year we put in a central heating unit, too. We don’t need air conditioning, though. With so many trees around the place, the house stays cool in the summer. We just open the windows and doors and let the breeze blow through.
I later built a breakfast room, with six windows and a little table. This is where we eat all our meals, looking out on the pond and the garden. Our completed house is about 1,700 square feet, and it is our pride and joy. Often, people will drive by and ask if the cabin is for sale, but we love our home, so we won’t even give them a price.
Apples and Other Necessities
When we bought the property, Doris was a nurse, and I taught high school wood shop, but several years ago we both retired. We had worried about our retirement for years because we had very little savings, but I’m happy to report that it’s going great!
We’re spending our days not traveling or golfing, but just enjoying our home. We do go into town twice a week for church, and occasionally we go to the store to buy staples, such as cleaning supplies, but we don’t do much grocery shopping because we raise just about everything we eat. Our half-acre garden produces a variety of fresh vegetables from early spring through late fall, and then we can, freeze and dry for winter. We also raise strawberries, black raspberries, blackberries and grapes, which we freeze or make into jams and jellies.
For meat, Mother Nature provides a bounty of deer, rabbit and squirrel, and we have a small pond for fish. Our trees keep us well supplied with nuts and fruit — we have black walnuts, hazelnuts and pecans, as well as apples, peaches, pears, plums and cherries.
Most of our household water comes from a deep well on the property, but a spring also is available if we need it. We use a log springhouse to store our apples, potatoes and other items for off-season use. We also freeze and dry the apples from the dozen apple trees in our orchard, and we use them to make cider.
A friend gave me an old cider press that he said had been in his barn for 40 years. Well, I repaired the press, and now I’ve used it for another 30. We pull it out every year when the apples are ripe.
Most of the cider you get at the market has been watered down, but real apple cider is delicious. When you make your own, the trick is to use a mix of apples. If you use a sweet apple, it’s too sweet, and if you use a sour apple, it’s too sour, so you need a combination of both.
To store our cider, we put several gallons into milk jugs and put them in the freezer. But if you let cider sit for a while at room temperature, it’ll be hard cider, and if you let it sit a little longer, it’ll be apple cider vinegar. We do that on occasion so we have vinegar for cooking.
Whittling and Woodcrafts
From early spring to late fall, we spend our time gardening and laying in a good supply of wood. In winter and during bad weather, Doris spends her time reading, sewing and tending to a small greenhouse full of flowers. She likes to sit at night and cross-stitch, and while I enjoy reading, it wasn’t enough to keep me occupied, so I took up woodcarving.
I’ve always whittled — just sitting down and making shavings off of a stick, but when I got more serious about it, I bought a book on woodcarving and a few knives. I’ve gotten better as I go along, and now I do all the frames for Doris’ cross-stitching, as well as some fun woodcarvings and quite a bit of rustic furniture.
The wood is easy to find because I’ve cut some trees from our land. Three or four walnut trees were too close to my garden, so I cut those down and store the wood in the top of the barn, which works just like a dry kiln. Friends give me cedar, pine, poplar and other types of wood. Another friend gave us an old log cabin, and we moved it onto the property so I could use it as a woodworking shop. I make most of the furniture with red cedar harvested from the farm. Our crafts are not sold, but we give them to family and friends, and some of the furniture goes to our church. I always give these things away because I’m retired, and if you sell them, you’re working.
We love the freedom and peacefulness of our life here. We’ve got a big front porch, so we do a lot of rocking. I’ve built four or five rockers for the porch, and we also have a swing. We spend a lot of time out there — I don’t see how people live without a front porch. Where do their dogs sleep?
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