By: Bob Hunt
Sometimes we see something many times, but don’t really know or appreciate what we are looking at. With all of the modern improvements that surround and engulf us in daily life, the past seems so very far away, almost like it never happened. Today, we know that the National Road was once but a rudimentary, rutted and difficult passage in the 1830’s, decades before trains crossed the State. We also know that early settlers lived a very Spartan and challenging life along the road, with virtually none of the comforts we take for granted today. Those early times, and original homes (at least along the National Road), are long gone. Even the simplest small dwelling back then could require herculean effort and sacrifice to build for those first inhabitants who wrested a life and living from recent wilderness. We know about all of this of course because of the stories in books, and can even “Google” stories and pictures from the internet as we whiz along in air-conditioned comfort with our cruise control on. As the landscape flies by, we might notice that some of the buildings seem a bit older than others, but for the most part, the long past first few years of the roads existence have been efficiently and inevitably erased forever from our vision and consciousness.
Literally millions of cars had driven past the modest old frame farmhouse on the Southside of the Indiana National Road in Cumberland over the years without their passengers ever guessing the secret it held. So long, and so well had the past been buried, that even the current owner of the property was unaware. There was literally nothing about this old farmhouse to differentiate it from the thousands of others that dot the road from Ohio to Illinois, until that fateful day in 2001.
On that day, a fire ravaged the old farmhouse. The entire second story of the structure was lost to the blaze before it was extinguished, with only a portion of main floor remaining. Within the smoking remnants however, was the remarkably intact, and well hidden original 170 year old core of the home, a one-room log cabin.
Property owners Ron Sanders and his Wife Jennye could have easily taken a few pictures at that point, saved a log or two, and then gone ahead and finished what the fire had started. Certainly no one would have ever questioned or blamed them for that decision. Conventional wisdom and logic would say it’s a shame, but, the thought of reviving such a fragile fragment of the long distant past was far too difficult, expensive and complicated to contemplate. But where ordinary people saw only a hopeless and irretrievable wreck, Ron and his family found the opportunity of a lifetime. They decided to bring back a stunning piece of Indiana National Road history, so long in plain sight, but hidden from view.
Ron credits that through thru prayer he felt God had a plan for him to preserve the historic structure, and so work began. With the help of several family members including his sister Jeannette, and brother-in-law Wayne, the restoration and re-building took place. Ron’s step brother, Richard Harris completed the beautiful roof you see today. During re-building, the foundation was repaired, and chinking was completed. Authentic replacement period doors and windows were not simply found, but painstakingly hand fabricated in Ron’s restoration shop business (The Shambles) right on the grounds, just feet from the cabin. Ron had not only the will and desire to salvage and restore the long hidden cabin, he also possessed unique skills and experience from a lifetime of working to restore and build furniture which proved invaluable in the final stunning result you see today.
More recently, Ron has learned interesting facts and clues about the cabin’s construction and who might have built it from a log cabin expert, Steven Lalioff. Lalioff shared that the structure has what is referred to as “Steeple Notch” construction to the top notches of the logs. This method is usually associated with Germanic cultures, and its use had begun to fade by the mid-19th Century (1800’s). The lower notches of the logs are referred to as “Half-Dovetail” notches. This method was the most prominent notch method in used during the mid-19th Century to assemble log cabins. The Half-Dovetail method was also the one most commonly used by those of British background. Builders of this method generally came from the Carolinas and Kentucky. In researching the Eastes family and related families members who owned the land in 1831, Ron found they did indeed originate from the Carolinas.
Ron notes that most people today have romanticized notions about living in log cabins, possibly due to Hollywood nostalgia, or stories about Daniel Boone’s adventures in the wilderness.
In fact, many folks living in that era would not have been very proud about such a home. They would have strived to replace or update it with a more modern abode as soon as possible, another reason they are so scarce today. With this in mind, the builders would have logs hewed flat on the inside and outside, so the owner could place attractive siding on the outside and plaster on the inside as soon as funds became available. While demolishing the surrounding home around the cabin core, several different layers of siding materials leading to the logs were removed. It was suggested to Ron at one point that he might leave a section showing every layer as part of its history, however this was not practical.
As Ron and his family restored the cabin structure, they discovered numerous fascinating artifacts in the surrounding grounds, dirt floor of the basement and within its structure dating across the entire existence of the home. Coins were found at the front doorstep. An amber beer bottle from the Terre Haute Brewing Company was unearthed. Several “Bitters” (medicine) bottles were discovered hidden in various nooks and crannies in the attic and basement. Even papers from a local school dating to the 1920’s turned up.
The precise date of construction and original occupancy of the log structure has been lost to the mists of time, however it’s believed the cabin may have been an early provision stop for stagecoaches and their passengers around the time the Road first opened in Cumberland, in the 1820’s. Ron does know that in 1831 the property was owned by Jane Eastes and her husband, William Harvey. Jane’s brother John Eastes was mentioned in Hancock County history as operating a grocery store in Western Sugar Creek Township on the National Road. Although that tidbit of information isn’t precise in dating the structure, it’s a reasonable guess. John is also listed as a prominent early settler of the county and the first Trustee of Buckcreek Township of Hancock County.
Above is the earliest photo Ron has showing the structure after wood clapboard siding was applied to the log exterior, probably around 1900. He arrived at this calculation using the birthdates of the younger people in the picture. This is the Meyer family. Henry Meyer is an individual who did major construction to the structure, building it out in 1927 to what was then considered a modern home, and the general form it had just prior to the fire in 2001.
There is even a story that the famous evangelist and orator Henry Ward Beecher once stayed overnight in the cabin. Beecher was a preacher in Indianapolis, and later in Brooklyn, New York. He was an outspoken abolitionist and a brother to Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the famous Story, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Beecher was a colorful orator and historical figure of considerable influence in early America. John Brown, the radical Abolitionist upon receiving a shipment of Springfield rifles, reportedly called them “Beecher Bibles”, in reference to Beecher’s fiery sermons against slavery. A Beecher connection to the cabin is plausible, given that he would have been in the area when traveling to his family’s home in Cincinnati, and options for overnight housing would have been limited in those early days.
Today, thanks to the hard work and perseverance of Ron and his family, the circa 1820’s cabin on the National Road in Cumberland is no longer hidden in plain sight, but once again fully revealed to modern travelers. The stone fireplace is beautifully restored and fully functional, and the cabin even features a modern heating and cooling system. A comfortable shady porch complete with rocking chairs adorns the East, North, and South side, and an authentic cedar shake roof once again shelters the structure from weather. The best part is, you don’t have to “Google” a faded image from a computer of this wonderful piece of the past or read about it in a book to try and imagine early pioneer life on the Road, its right here in full life, for all to see, and experience.
If you drive by, the cabin is located just about a ½ mile East of the small town of Cumberland. on the Southside of the National Road. Ron and Jennye’s business, “The Shambles” furniture restoration is right next door, their home is also on the same lot.
Today, the cabin is available to be rented to small businesses as opposed to being used as a living quarters. Its unique appearance and charm make it an easy destination for customers and clients to spot. At the moment, it’s currently available, having been recently used as an office, photography studio, music store, and more.
If you would like to contact Ron for more information, he can be reached by cell phone at (317) 502-4050, or by email, at: firstname.lastname@example.org