On a small patch of prairie, history is giving Jim Davis one chance to build Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House.
It’s on the same land and along the same creek where Pa Ingalls chopped down trees for the original cabin 149 years ago.
Davis is using the logs of Osage orange trees, also known as hedge logs. It’s a hard and heavy wood, known for resisting rot and strong enough that the old-timers used to say it was “horse-high, bull-strong and pig-tight.”
But he is also using a few 21st-century techniques.
It has to last a very long time.
The original cabin where the Ingalls family settled in 1869 near Independence disappeared long ago into the Kansas elements.
A re-created cabin was built on the home site in 1977, at the height of the popularity of the TV series “Little House on the Prairie,” starring Michael Landon and Melissa Gilbert.
“When we opened the site in 1972, people would drive by and see all these wide, open spaces, sunshine and clouds and say, ‘Is that all there is?’ We had a little sign over in the barnyard,” said Jean Schodorf, a former state senator from Wichita and co-owner of the site. In the ’70s, the farm was owned by her parents, Brig. Gen. William Kurtis and his wife, Wilma.
As people became more interested, her family and others in the area decided to build a cabin. Eighty trees were cut down on the Kurtis farm, and the Independence Jaycees helped build the cabin.
Schodorf told The Wichita Eagle that building the cabin in 1977 to the specifications in Wilder’s book was daunting.
When the Ingalls family built their cabin, they had three people, a horse and a wagon.
It took the Kurtis family three months, 150 volunteers, chain saws and pickups.
But that cabin wasn’t built to last, either, and Schodorf, president of the Little House on the Prairie site board, announced last summer that it would be rebuilt.
“It was unsafe, the logs on one side were totally rotted and listing severely,” said Davis, who, along with two other men, tore the old cabin down last month, saving what they could to re-use in the new cabin. “It wasn’t safe to walk in there, plus they said there was a snake in there.”
The 2018 version of the cabin took more than 100 trees. Three men used chain saws and drills.
In the process, Davis has developed a profound respect for Pa Ingalls.
“When you consider the amount of wood he had to have, the size of wood and the number of people available to put up these structures, I can’t fathom it,” Davis said. “I read the book three or four times to get the nuances. He skidded the logs a mile from over there, down there and over there. He had only two horses and it took him two months to get the wood here. That’s a lot of work.”
Pa Ingalls chopped down the trees with an ax and band saw. He used a hand auger and put the cabin together with pegs. He did most of the work himself. Ma Ingalls, who was pregnant, helped some, and a neighbor helped toward the end of the construction.
The cabin is 13 by 17 feet, with 6-foot-high walls and the peak at 9 feet.
Davis, who considers himself “a log home freak,” said he has built 32 log homes and worked on 500 cabins.
Recently, Davis and two other men — M.D. Rahaman (Schodorf’s son-in-law) and Samuel Mauk from Sedan — began the task of placing the new Osage orange logs in a modified Swedish Cope style, meaning the logs have been rounded out on the inside with a half-moon-shaped groove that’s designed for the log to sit flat.
Davis estimates that some of the heaviest logs weigh as much as 300 pounds. A concrete pad was laid as the cabin’s foundation, and threaded steel rods link the logs.
“We are trying to keep the authenticity of what was here, but we’ve added some modern touches so that they won’t be facing some of the same issues in 30 years or so,” Davis said. “But holy cow, this Osage orange is hard. It cuts hard. It drills even harder.”
More than 20,000 people from around the world visit the cabin site each year to see one of the sites Laura Ingalls Wilder featured in a series of books based on her pioneer experiences.
Families will drive to the site, Schodorf said, and children will climb out of cars dressed like Laura, Mary and Carrie. Mothers will put down blankets, and the families will picnic.
This spring, as work on the cabin has taken place, the tourists keep coming.
“Now that the new cabin is going up, it is easier to imagine,” Davis said. “When the (1970s) cabin was completely gone, there were some disappointed people. They’d ask ‘Why did you tear down the old one?’ Now, they can see how the new one was built. A couple of days ago a woman came and she told me what page the building of the cabin was in the book. We are going to try and honor that. We are amazed at the number of people who know this and show up here.”
For now, the cabin has four walls but no roof. Davis has been called to another job site. He plans to return in mid-May to finish the roof. The work will be done in time for the site’s Prairie Days on June 9.
The Ingalls family lived on the Kansas prairie for less than two years. During that time, they built a house and stables and survived a visit by wolves, clouds of mosquitoes, a prairie fire and occasional visits by Osage Indians, on whose reservation the family settled.
While Laura Ingalls was growing up, the Ingalls family moved several times, each time to a new frontier: Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Indian Territory and Dakota Territory.
It was tough times for families like the Ingallses, who tried to make a start on the prairie.
“So they all went away from the little log house. The shutters were over the windows, so the little house could not see them go. It stayed there inside the log fence, behind the two big oak trees that in the summertime had made green roofs for Mary and Laura to play under. And that was the last of the little house.”— Laura Ingalls Wilder, “Little House on the Prairie”
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