‘It was holding on for dear life’
Hard work and perserverance saves 150-year-old cabin
By Anna Jauhola
Visitors to the Kittson County Museum can finally enter the Norland pioneer cabin.
Thanks to hard work by a restoration company, staffed by enthusiastic learners and passionate supervisors, the county’s oldest surviving log cabin has been restored.
A few years ago, Museum Director Cindy Adams noticed the cabin was in serious disrepair and not long afterward, the door would no longer open. The exhibit was closed, to Adams’s and the public’s dismay. So began a campaign to save the historic structure. The cabin was built by Erick Norland, the earliest Swedish settler in the county. Though he had no children of his own, his brother’s descendants are determined to keep his legacy alive.
Fred Wilebski, whose mother was a Norland, led the way in raising money from Norland descendants. This put a new roof on the cabin in 2021 and allowed the museum board to hire Northern Bedrock Historic Preservation Corps in 2022 to replace the rotting logs.
The project did not come without its challenges.
While Northern Bedrock was onsite in early August, the entire structure nearly collapsed. The hitch consisted of four volunteers plus Marshall Boone, logistics coordinator for Northern Bedrock, and Helaman Haynie, the technical instructor.
“Once we started lifting things and moving things around, it almost completely fell apart on us a couple of times,” Boone said. “So the front wall has one new log going across the doorway. In the long run it would be good to replace more logs, but that was the key to getting the front wall structurally sound.”
Once that log was in, the structure moved as one instead of pieces slipping and moving separately. In the moment, the group was just trying to stabilize the structure as fast as they could, Boone said. They locked it in place with screws and 2-by-4s, and then stepped back to re-evaluate.
“We were pretty determined to get this done,” Boone said, noting the group never thought of giving up. “And Helaman, he had done this before. So he gave us the confidence that we were going to keep going and get this into a better state.”
Haynie has been restoring log cabins for 15 years, having first worked with Joe Gallagher, who would have worked on this project too, but recently retired. Gallagher suggested Haynie for the job and he’s glad he took it.
“Anything having to do with cabins, I’m a hundred percent on board,” Haynie said. “This project was made challenging because the roof was in good shape. I’ve worked on cabins that have been on the same level of disarray, if you will, but others have been easier to manage because I have been able to disassemble the entire cabin.”
With the Norland Cabin roof in good repair, Haynie said the level of technicality regarding preservation and restoration increased. The difficulty was compounded when they couldn’t disassemble the cabin – so they had to rethink their strategy and move the structure a little at a time.
So when the crew was slowly raising the structure to begin replacing logs, did it almost collapse?
“Yes, and no,” Haynie said. “Was it shady for a minute? Yeah. Was anybody really in any danger? Probably not, except the building itself. It was holding on for dear life, for sure.”
Although the building’s integrity was sketchy, Haynie said the cabin was never in such disarray that it should have just been kindling for a huge bonfire. Not only its structural integrity, but its historical significance completely made it worth saving.
The hitch of workers learned how to strip and notch logs for cabin construction, using an ax, sometimes a chainsaw. Then they learned how to chink and daub, which is used to seal the spaces between the logs. The crew also learned patience and how to figure out lifting an entire structure using jacks.
“That’s a huge experience,” Boone said. “Some of them are looking into the trades and this will always be a good experience to see how to work on a team through a stressful situation, like when you have a building falling apart.”
This work has given the cabin at least another 25-plus years of life, but there’s more work that could be done. Haynie and Boone said several more logs could be replaced to create better structure, but that requires more time and another hitch of workers.
More than just the satisfaction of completing this project, Boone and Haynie said they were impressed with Lake Bronson and surrounding communities. They felt welcome here as everyone who stopped by either offered to help in some way, lent equipment, brought food, or just had a friendly visit.
“The Norland Family is extremely pleased. They think the Northern Bedrock crew did one hell of a job salvaging the oldest known standing structure of the county,” Wilebski said. “As we went into this, we knew it might be a crap shoot whether to save it. We knew it had really big issues. But, we took the chance and turned out incredibly well.”
This was actually phase two of the project, and Wilebski said the dream for phase three is to fully enclose the cabin to protect it from the elements. He said the Norland family has already made verbal commitments to assist in some of that project and they’re not backing away.
“We need to do that so we’re not doing this (restoration) another 30 to 40 years from now,” he said.