Architecture styles tend to come and go, but there are a handful of classic home structures that continue to stand the tests of time.
The log cabin is most definitely one of those. Although the large log-style homes that can be seen on Summit’s ridges don’t much resemble the historic one-room affairs that pioneers and settlers huddled in throughout the 1800s, the structures do share certain characteristics that link them together. Summit County, with an abundance of both types of log buildings, is a perfect place to observe the structure’s evolution over more than 150 years in the mountains.
WHO ARE THE ‘LOG CABIN’ PEOPLE?
Summit’s realtors know that people come to the county from all kinds of backgrounds, looking for a home. And often, they have a specific idea in mind for their mountain abode.
Most of the people in the market for a log home are second-home owners, looking for a retreat that matches the area around it.
“They’re in very contemporary homes where they come from, so they want something that feels like it belongs in the mountains, their cabin in the woods,” said Amy Smits, of Century 21 Gold LLC. “People don’t want to feel at all metropolitan — they want to feel like they’re away, and sometimes that can happen in a home even though it’s just a block off Main Street in Breckenridge.”
Brian and Karen Wray, of Mountain Log Homes and Interiors in Frisco, know this dream particularly well. In fact, their entire business — specializing in building log homes — is based off of people’s continuous desire to have this particular style of house in the mountains.
“Most of our clients build the home to be a second home for the first five to 10 years, and plan to retire in it,” said Karen Wray.
The natural feel of a log home is also an important aspect to these homeowners.
“People who want log homes don’t tend to be super tech-y people who want media rooms and whole-house automation,” she said. “These are people who want the indoors out, and they want the organic nature. They want to feel the logs, and they want real stone, not cultured stone. They want decks and patios, so when they open all their windows and doors, the outside and inside are cohesive.”
Of course, the prevalence of log cabins in Summit’s early days rested more on the fact that they were cheap and easy to build, with plenty of nearby material.
The first known log structure in Summit County, according to local historian Mary Ellen Gilliland, was a fort-like structure, with residences inside called Fort Mary B. Though the exact origin of the name is unclear, Gilliland said that it was likely named after Mary Bigelow, the only woman currently living there at the time.
“There was a group of very hearty and idealistic miners (who) came up in the first summer when gold was discovered in 1869,” she said, “and a group of them decided to winter over.”
This was not a decision taken lightly, as the area was still mostly wilderness, and Colorado hadn’t yet reached statehood. Nevertheless, the miners built themselves a log structure, and the rest is history.
HOW TIMES CHANGE
According to Gilliland, historic log cabins tended to be a single room, about 12 feet by 12 feet.
“Any materials that they used had to be either found locally, like trees to be chopped down, or brought in over the high passes,” she said.
Therefore, it’s not surprising that timber was used for almost everything back then.
“You have to consider that the first prospectors that came over the pass saw a forest primeval, with huge, huge old-growth trees, and they began cutting them down,” Gilliland said.
“Everything was made of wood — all the implements in a woman’s kitchen were made of wood, and every product they had, they used in their home and their work was made of wood. Or if it was a metal piece, it had a wood handle.”
What then seemed an inexhaustible resource proved not to be so, and, nowadays, the log homes that were so cheap and quick to build cost more than a non-log structure.
“I think the log cabin, if you will, has gone away and has been replaced with a log mansion. The cost of construction with log is higher, so … because land is so pricey in Summit and Eagle counties, you can’t afford to build a small log home anymore. It’s got to be at a size that makes economic sense,” said Kevin Smits.
“It used to be, you went out, and you cleared your lot and used the trees that were on your lot. Now, the true big logs are coming from British Columbia, from Washington state. … They clear-cut the big trees that were there (in Summit) and the lodgepoles were what grew up.
“The lodgepole doesn’t make for a great log home; it makes for a great telephone pole,” he added with a chuckle.
Karen Wray understands well the draw of the log cabin, and that’s not just because she sells them for a living. She also lives in one.
“I would say the biggest advantage is really a lifestyle one,” she said. She loves the big open floor plans that encourage common gathering areas. She also likes the fact that she doesn’t feel the need to remodel every few years.
“The timelessness, the durability and just the lifestyle … Every house is like a piece of art,” she said.
Others have felt the appeal of her home as well. She said it’s not unusual for people intending to stay for a short while extending their visits, enjoying the cozy feel of the home.
Whether it’s a group of guests, or just herself at home alone, Wray understands the feeling.
“Something about a log home sucks you in and you really don’t want to leave,” she said. “There’s nothing like sitting by my fire in my log house, looking out the window and watching it snow.”