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Restoration of historic City Park cabins nears completion in Iowa City

Clemons company finishes long cleaning, replacement process for log cabins

Individual logs in two historic cabins are marked for disassembly Aug. 4, 207, in City Park in Iowa City. The cabins, which were built in 1889 and 1913 to teach visitors about the area’s original settlers, were taken down piece by piece and sent to be restored before they are rebuilt. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Individual logs in two historic cabins are marked for disassembly Aug. 4, 207, in City Park in Iowa City. The cabins, which were built in 1889 and 1913 to teach visitors about the area’s original settlers, were taken down piece by piece and sent to be restored before they are rebuilt. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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BACKGROUND

Iowa City embarked on mission last year to give new life to a pair of historic cabins in City Park.

The structures were built as demonstration cabins in 1889 and 1913 by the Old Settlers’ Association of Johnson County to teach visitors what life was like for settlers in Iowa before the 1880s.

About a decade ago, the cabins fell into disrepair and haven’t been used for education programming since.

The older cabin was built as an exhibit for Johnson County’s semicentennial at the Johnson County Fair Grounds. It was later moved City Park in 1918.

The newer cabin, with hand-hewn logs, was constructed as a replica of Iowa City’s John Gilbert Trading Post, according to a city event announcement. The post “laid the way for settlement of Johnson County” and the founding of the town of Napoleon, which later became Iowa City, according to the Johnson County Historical Society’s online records.

The cabins were placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2013.

Last year, the city awarded a roughly $250,000 contract to North Construction of Muscatine for the restoration work, with the hopes that the cabins could be used again to teach history to people in youth groups or at summer camps. Subcontractor Heritage Woodworks, of Clemons, dismantled the cabins and cataloged each piece before taking them all to its warehouse to be dried out and restored.

WHAT’S HAPPENED SINCE

Since the start of the project, Heritage Woodworks staff spent the winter cleaning each log and window frame and treating them for bugs.

During this time, staff members started the long process of finding replacement wood so they could put the cabins back together.

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Tracy Grossmann, business manager, said the company had to replace about half the logs for the hand-hewn cabin.

For this cabin, Grossman said it was easier to find replacement logs because they could use mixed types of wood.

The second cabin, with regular round logs, was in a bit better shape but much harder to find replacement logs for, Grossman said.

“It took me like four months to hunt down even where we could get them,” Grossman said, adding that she had to find 20 straight logs that are 21 feet long and 12 inches at the bottom. “Nobody commercially wants to cut them. They’re too skinny to cut.”

Grossman said when the company hands the cabins back over to the city, it’ll be just the outer walls, roof and floors. In the hand-hewn cabin, Grossmann said they found hand-hewn original floors under the plank floor there when they took it apart.

“They were skilled enough craftsman that they could do it flat enough to make it a floor — unbelievable,” Grossmann said. “We thought we should do something similar ... to be more accurate to what they would’ve had when they were first built.”

The next step for contractor is to poor a concrete footings to support the new cabins. Once they’re cured, Heritage Woodworks is ready to reassemble the cabins in City Park, which Grossmann hopes will happen later this summer.

“We’re really excited to put them back up. It’s just neat to see them all getting put back together. They really are beautiful cabins,” Grossmann said.

l Comments: (319) 339-3172; maddy.arnold@thegazette.com

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