Crew preserves historic cabin at cow-camp site

Friday, Sept. 16, 2011 9:52 PM
Photo Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford
A large trench is required to drain the property and keep the sill logs from rotting.
Crew leader Chris George, left, and assistant crew leader Harris Abernathy have made a great team as they taught Historicorps volunteers how to rehabilitate the Harris cabin just west of Lift 8 at Durango Mountain Resort.
Photo Courtesy of Ann Bond, San Juan National Forest
The Harris Cabin was originally built in 1880, then disassembled and rebuilt along the East Fork of Hermosa Creek in 1934. The excavated trench improves drainage. The cowboy porch faces Hermosa Creek and a meadow that was summer grazing for Harris Ranch cows.
Photo Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford
The detail of cabin logs and the saddle notch design comes from the southwest corner of the building. Restoring log cabins requires learning secrets from the original builders, especially about structures that have been taken apart and moved. The Harris cabin once was a toll station on the Rockwood-to-Rico wagon road.
Photo Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford
The Historicorps logo connects the modern Historicorps, created last year by Colorado Preservation Inc., and similar images from the 1930s Civilian Conservation Corps. Both groups specialized in vernacular architectural structures in national forests and national parks.
Photo Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford
The cabin’s sparse furnishings included a wrought-iron bedstead, a chuck wagon-style drop-down table, and an original Monarch stove, above, that could burn either coal or wood.

HERMOSA PARK — Log cabins built by cowboys represent an American icon and a part of Western heritage. There aren’t many cow-camp cabins left, but an excellent example of one just got stabilized this summer by volunteers with Historicorps.

At 9,300 feet along the East Fork of Hermosa Creek, just northwest of Durango Mountain Resort below Lift 8, the Harris cabin stands as a vital part of La Plata County ranching history.

Originally an 1880 stage stop or toll station between Rockwood and Rico, the cabin had been disassembled and moved when it and 480 acres were purchased in 1934 by John E. Harris & Sons. Much of their homesteaded pasture came back to the San Juan National Forest in a 1991 land swap that included 320 acres, the building, a small barn and pole corral.

Throughout July and August, crews from Historicorps, an offshoot of Colorado Preservation Inc., sought to give the structures new life through stabilization methods using hand tools. While they worked on the cabin, crew members slept in tents. Practicing their preservation ethic, the volunteers also learned a work ethic trying to get the job done in between cold rains and at least one hailstorm that left us all shivering under the cook-tent canopy.

Julie Coleman, San Juan National Forest Heritage Team leader, explains that the idea behind Historicorps “is to capitalize on the 1930s Civilian Conservation Corps programs and train young people in historic preservation.” During the Great Depression, a season’s supplies for the cow camp cost $18 and included a box of .22 shells, a box of .30-30 shells, uncured bacon, coffee, lard, sugar, beans, salt and pepper.

This year’s volunteers fared better. All meals were prepared by the gourmet cooks of Elevated Fine Foods from Silverton. I know because I had a delicious Thai lunch right before hail covered my plate.

The same self-reliance that characterized the Harris family as it managed the high-country ranch was also evident in the volunteers, who started by digging a 24-inch-deep, 3-foot-wide trench around the cabin to rebuild the stone foundation.

“We’ve dug it out, then we’ll fill it full of gravel so it can drain better,” said local crew boss Chris George, 72, from Durango.

Almost always, cabin sill logs rot at ground level. Unless they are replaced and better drainage established, historic structures topple.

Plenty of archaeological artifacts surfaced during the foundation “dig”: rusty hinges, horseshoes, nails, “church keys,” paintbrushes and a brass nose ring for a bull.

The rebuilt foundation raised the cabin 9 inches, and new spruce logs, from standing dead trees cut by a San Juan National Forest fire crew, replaced old ones. Stabilization methods required saddle notches for logs and matching green paint on windows and doors.

The project’s scope of work featured stabilizing the cabin and tack room, repairing damaged logs and chinking the outside walls with mud and organic material that came from Hermosa Creek. George and his crew also rebuilt the pole corral to Abe Lincoln’s standards because, according to George, Abe “built fences horse high, hog tight and bull strong.” Workers wired horizontal aspen poles to upright piñon posts “exactly the way the cowboys did it.”

When the Harris family ran 300 head of cattle on the summer range, the cook and two hired cowboys earned about $30 a month and board. With Historicorps, the volunteers worked for free and paid their own travel expenses.

As many as 14 volunteers, mainly college students and postgraduates, came each week.

Ernie Havran from Indiana told me that working on the cabin was “an opportunity to learn something that’s part of our heritage.”

Said Fitzie Heimdahl from Minnesota: “I’m just really interested in historic preservation.”

Assistant crew leader Harris Abernathy, 22, from Tennessee, said, “This is a wonderful experience to learn how to stabilize a log cabin in the mountains.”

If you’ve ever played with Lincoln Logs as a kid, that’s the general idea, but the reality of rebuilding a log cabin warped by a century of San Juan winters is something else again.

“It’s not as cut and dry as it may appear,” Abernathy said. “There are correct angles to cut replacement logs and you need to find clues to learn how the cabin was built.”

Part of it is aesthetics, and part of it requires understanding a pioneer mentality.

“We’ve tried to learn the lifestyle of the cowboys who lived here,” Abernathy said. “If it’s broken, you fix it with the materials available. You’re miles away from the nearest hardware store.”

Vernacular or homemade touches inside the cabin include a built-in chuck-wagon box, now secured with metal straps, that features a fold-down table to save space. Miniature cattle brands adorn a bedroom wall, and newspapers glued to logs reduce cold drafts. Metal can lids patch holes in the scarred wooden floor. Pencil notes on wooden window frames date from the 1940s. An original Malleable Monarch Iron & Steel Stove No. 226 uses coal or wood. The logs themselves had been reused and one wall plate had been a roof beam notched for rafters.

Sprung logs represented a real challenge.

“All four corners of the building were off by about four inches, so we’ve put straps down and cinched it up,” said George, who studies techniques from the original carpenters.

Stabilized with financial support from the State Historical Fund and a U.S. Forest Service match, the Harris cabin now is good for another century.

“It’s great that another important structure on the San Juan National Forest is going to be saved,” said Coleman, the Heritage Team leader. “I love it because it’s a classic cow camp.”

The forest service currently is considering future uses for the refurbished cabin, outbuildings and corral. Highest on the list of appropriate ways to share this historical resource with the public would be some sort of partnership with a local educational institution. In the meantime, it’s been a learning opportunity for Historicorps volunteers.

I wonder what the old cowhands would think? I’ll bet they would take quiet pride in the work that was done — just as the volunteers did.

Andrew Gulliford is a professor of Southwest Studies and history at Fort Lewis College. He can be reached at