ABCs of American Architecture (Frontier Years)
THE FRONTIER YEARS, 1742-1800
Life in the eighteenth century was generally simple but arduous. In outlying farms and villages, nearly everyone lived in one-room log cabins where they cooked, ate, worked and slept. The men were the providers and protectors; they sought food for their families from the land, the forest and the streams. The women cooked and preserved the food, frequently over open fires. They spun and wove the cloth for their clothing on handmade looms.
Most buildings in the towns were built of logs, but brick and wood siding was occasionally used, especially for public buildings. According to H. Chandler Forman, author of Maryland Architecture: A Short History from 1634 through the Civil War, the log structures were built of round or square horizontal logs, which were joined by a method first introduced in America by the Swedes in the Delaware Valley in 1638. An adze and an axe were the only tools needed: hammer and nails were not used. "The logs were attached by notches in the corners and the cracks were mud caulking. These small log houses might have had two rooms downstairs, a loft upstairs, a fireplace, and casement windows with small leaded glass panes." There are still a few log structures remaining in the county, although most have been covered with some sort of siding. It would be an interesting project to uncover these.
Two outstanding examples of frontier architecture exist in Allegany County, both well-preserved and documented. One is located in Oldtown, the site of an early Shawanese Indian village. Colonel Thomas Cresap established a trading post and inn there in 1742 to serve early settlers and travelers, including a young George Washington, who recorded in his diary his stop there in 1748 when he was surveyor for Lord Fairfax of Virginia. The home of Cresap’s son, Michael, built in 1764, still stands and has been well-preserved. It is built of fieldstone, two-and-one-half stories high, with a huge stone chimney and many fireplaces. A spring in the cellar provided water and a cool storage area for food.
The other notable survivor of the frontier period is George Washington’s headquarters, built around the time of the establishment of Fort Cumberland in 1750. Following a series of moves, the log cabin is now located in Riverside Park in downtown Cumberland. It is a basic structure, its form descended from medieval times, and it has been accurately restored. According to Allegany County: A History, it was one of the better residences in the frontier town and was occupied at various times by some of the "first families" of Cumberland, such as David Lynn and George Bruce.
The early settlers built their homes with the materials at hand. Because this area has a wealth of lumber, limestone for mortar and sandstone for bricks, those were the materials that were used. The settlers brought with them from Europe their traditions, tastes and skills. Therefore, although the log houses may have been the first and the fastest to erect, their origin was Scandinavian, so the English, the Scots, the Irish and the Germans who settled this county quickly established homes like those that they had left, those which were built with the skills they knew. To quote Mary Mix Foley, in her introduction to her book, The American House, the story of America’s early architecture was a "medieval echo".
Cumberland Historic Preservation Commission
City of Cumberland
Illustration; Notched corners
22 x 29 cm.
Helene L. Baldwin, Joy W. Douglas, Gary Bartik and John Eiser
Historic buildings, Maryland, Allegany County; Historic buildings, Maryland, Cumberland.
Cumberland (Md,); 1742-1980