Winter is the perfect time to explore the natural stone shelters where native Arkansans once lived
There’s no way to know, of course, how a time-traveling 19th-century Arkansas homesteader would react if he turned the corner at Second and Cumberland and came upon the Historic Arkansas Museum’s latest restoration project.
But here’s my guess: He’d laugh and laugh and laugh.
Then he’d catch his breath and ask somebody how much it all cost, and he’d pass out from the shock.
First, the laughter part. It’s hard to imagine any frontier farmer actually preferring to stick with ax and hammer if power saw and nail gun had been available. Or sending off to Massachusetts for hand-cut old-timey nails and trucking logs up to Mountain Home to be hand-hewn by the last person for who knows how many hundreds of miles who knows how to do such a thing when both regular nails and sawmill-regular lumber sat unused a few blocks away at Fuller and Son on Main Street.
Or insisting that professional construction crews forget what they know about quick and easy and learn the old, slow, hard way of doing things. He’d probably think they must not be all that smart if it’s taken them five months so far to finish what a small house-raising crew on the frontier could have knocked out in a couple of days.
Then there’s the cost.
The Historic Arkansas Museum is spending close to half a million dollars on the project, which involved moving several 19th-century log structures from their original locations elsewhere in the state to the museum’s backyard at Second and Cumberland. When it’s finished, it will be a fair approximation of a 19th-century farmstead, with a main cabin, slaves’ quarters, smokehouse, privy, barn and two kinds of split-log fencing.
Translate that amount into 1850 dollars — museum officials date the buildings to the pre-Civil War years — and it tops $20,000. More than enough to send a subsistence farmer into near-fatal sticker shock.
To be fair, the museum’s farmstead includes some amenities that wouldn’t have been included 150 years ago. The buildings have concrete foundations, for one thing. The split-wood shingles are treated to be fire-retardant, and the new logs crafted to replace rotted ones from the original structures were treated with a special aging agent to make them blend in. Electric wiring has been hidden in each structure for use in the museum’s educational programs. Baldwin and Shell, general contractor for the project, stuck a Dumpster-sized air-conditioned hut in the middle of the dirt yard for the duration of construction. And the main cabin — the one that’s been at the museum for years — was fitted with a ramp and gravel paths to make it wheelchair-accessible.
But what’s really driven the cost up is the word “hand.” If something in this project could be hand-made, it almost always was — including nails and door hinges. Shingles alone for all four new buildings — a special run produced by a company in British Columbia — cost $35,000. In 1850, hand-making everything would have kept costs down. Today, it’s just the opposite.
“What’s happened in the last 150 years is a 180-degree flip in values,” said Tommy Jameson, the Little Rock architect who planned the restoration. “Then, manufactured goods were very expensive and manpower was cheap. Now goods are cheap, and labor kills you.”
Just finding that labor wasn’t easy on this project, said Bill Worthen, the museum’s executive director.
“Baldwin and Shell had a learning curve, and they had problems finding subcontractors,” he said. “There are some wonderful stories about taking an ax, going out in the woods, doing everything with the ax and ending up with log cabins” — but construction hasn’t been that simple an undertaking in more than a century.
“Part of the task is getting the contractor to think back to the basics,” Jameson said. “Everybody wants to use a power drill. You’ve also got to find a contractor who’s willing to do that. It’s not rocket science, but it’s a different way of thinking.”
For instance, the standard for the museum project wasn’t quality construction — it was perfect historical authenticity.
“Every decision we make has to have a footnote — documentation from photo or a drawing of fence that existed in Arkansas,” Jameson said.
And the log buildings moved from elsewhere and rebuilt on the museum’s grounds had to be reconstructed exactly — exactly — as they had been in their original locations.
“The biggest challenge was getting the barn up,” said Rick Ward, on-site supervisor for Baldwin and Shell. “It’s 9 inches out of square. The architect said it had to be exactly like it was. We had everything laid out exactly square, and had to go back and redo it.”