Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Oregon's Oldest Building?


We venture out of our customary urban jungle today to celebrate reconstruction of what might be Oregon’s oldest building.  It is known as the Molalla Log House, but perhaps a more fitting moniker might be Oregon’s House of Mystery.

 What’s mysterious?  Try these:  Who built it?  When? Where?  “I don’t think we’ll ever know for sure,” says Pamela Hayden, a former Clackamas County preservation officer who first learned about the hand-hewn structure located south of Molalla in 1984.

 What distinguishes this log structure is the careful execution of dovetail joints at each corner that allowed the structure to be erected without any need for bolts or nails.  The intricate interlocking joints allowed the hewn logs to lie flat without any need for chinking of clay or daub and wottle so common to most early American log buildings.

 Whoever built it wanted it to last.  The angles on the dovetails at the base of the building are more acute than on the timbers above, perhaps as a means to making the base even more secure.

 “It’s a very 'un-pioneerish' building,” says Gregg Olson, a preservation scholar and master woodworker who has been involved in numerous restoration projects since 1972.  He said most log buildings in Oregon’s pioneer era never were meant to last more than a few years.  Along with Hayden, he has been studying and working on the Molalla house for many years.


Gregg Olson checks the installation of a new timber

The house was in poor condition when it was carefully removed from its second site in 2007. While in storage at differing locations out of the weather, Olson determined which logs needed to be replaced and carefully cut new Douglas fir timbers to fit.  Meanwhile, Hayden continued her research and lobbied to find an appropriate new home where the building could be reconstructed.

It took many years to find a site that was appropriate for this unusual building, and where the building made some intellectual sense with its setting.  The solution finally arrived when the Hopkins Demonstration Forest, a 140-acre privately-owned site northeast of Mulino, agreed to accept log house.  The forest is run by the non-profit Forests Forever,  Inc.

Hayden likes the new site because it may closely represent the kind of environment where the house was first built.  The house was moved to its second site in 1892, but no one knows where it was first erected.  The demonstration forest liked the idea of showing how wood was used historically as a vital building resource -- just as it remains as a vital resource for housing today. 

 Which brings us to the controversies of when and why.  Under the best conditions, dendrochronology, a technique analyzing comparative growth rings of trees, can establish dates to a specific year.  But the task is complicated by not knowing precisely where the old logs were harvested.  Olson said one analysis puts the date of the Molalla logs at 1883, while another interpretation makes that date as early as 1795.  Looking at the slow pace of log-end erosion, Olson believes the fraction of an inch deterioration in the Molalla logs suggest the earlier date. 

 If the building is in fact older than the Lewis & Clark Expedition, who built it?  The dovetail construction method has roots both in Scandinavian and Eastern European vernacular building traditions.  Possible builders likely were trappers and hunters who could have had French-Canadian or Russian connections.  Russia had established a presence in Northern California early in the 1800s.


Pamela Hayden helps position the next timber. The lighter-colored wood is new.  

However, historians also believe that if  the Molalla house had been built before the Lewis & Clark era, SOMEONE would have known about it and somehow made a lasting note of it.  So far, no such evidence has been found. While the questions about who and when remain unanswered, volunteers hope to complete reconstruction of the house by this fall.  After a gable roof is installed, the structure will be used for special events and history lessons at the demonstration forest.

During reconstruction, Olson and Hayden decided to reinstall timbers the old-fashioned way.  A backhoe set the timbers on racks near ground level, and volunteers using straps carefully hoisted them into place.  "Of course they would have used ropes in the old days," Hayden said.  

The third site for the home will be more stable than the first two.  While it appears to be sitting on several boulders, there are tons of concrete hidden below the surface and the house has been firmly attached.  “It all has been engineered,” Olson said. 

 The same goes for steel rods placed in holes drilled down through the walls.  “We really didn’t want to do that, but if people were going to be inside, we had to,” Hayden said.  Regardless of its venerable age, this is how the Molalla Log House is welcomed into the 21st Century.

Preservation and restoration of the Molalla Log House has been supported by grants from the Kinsman Foundation, a Milwaukie, Oregon foundation that supports architectural preservation projects in Oregon and Southern Washington state.  

Given what appears to be a secure and lasting location for the Molalla Log House, one wonders if technology and historic serendipity will eventually provide some answers to the building's mysteries. 



  1. Great article Fred! You captured the building, the mystery, the woodcraft and the preservation work! As to SOMEONE knowing about and writing down its history and origins...unfortunately, much of what occurred in the past has gone unchronicled - leading us only to a controlled speculation about its possible mysterious origins.

    We do have one interesting journal entry which documents an early era in Molalla history. John Bagby, son of Molalla pioneers, came to Oregon in c.1852 when he was a young child. He reminisces in his 1905 journal “The Hunter of the Old West” in Gail McCormick’s Our Proud Past, that in the mid 1850s his family and neighboring pioneer farmers feared – “that the “Indians were on the war path….the whites all forted up at Wilhoit’s fourt about a week”. Many other clues lead us to believe that the Molalla Log House may have been Wilhoit’s fourt’, as the original location is believed to be within that area. The Molalla Log House resembles late 18th and early 19th century fort houses in the colonies and Canada, thus the term ‘fourt’ was applied descriptively by immigrant pioneers. The log building probably stood on the property prior to Wilhoit’s occupation and was functional as a fortified structure. We know the building had no windows originally and the tightly stacked design of the logs would not allow the penetration of arrows or perhaps even musket balls. This is the only documentation we may ever find that might relate to the log building.

    If the Molalla Log House is as old as a dendrochronology study has hinted, its origins may be from the Canadian fur trade in the 1790s, with the first exploring parties migrating from Alberta over the Rocky Mountains and into the Columbia River watershed. Scouring records of the first fur traders and journals from Canadian fur traders have yielded no specific information about occupation in the Willamette Valley in the late 18th century. We understand their motivation to come to the Willamette Valley, a fertile fur resource area. If a group of hunters, trappers and traders with tools and building skills, came to Oregon prior to Lewis and Clark and the Pacific Fur Company, they left no definitive evidence, other than perhaps this log building, crafted like many fur trade, military and mission buildings of that era. Future archeological surveys and studies may be where “technology and historic serendipity collide”! It would be of great interest to solve the mystery of this rare and highly crafted log house. We are happy to have rehabilitated and preserved it at Hopkins Demonstration Forest for others to enjoy, learn from and conduct further research to discover its possible origins. Thank you for your words to chronicle this special log building Fred.

  2. Thanks, Fred, for your great overview, and Pam for the addendum. I had not heard of the possibility of Wilhoit's "fourt" and found that quite interesting.

  3. This house was built in 1853 by Levi Davis and his wife’s brothers, John and Peter Cline. They were paid by Archibald Henderson Bell to build the house as a wedding gift for J. W. McCaslin and Mr. Bell’s daughter Mary Francis Bell.
    Regrettably, J.W. and Mary Francis divorced in 1857 and sold their home to John Wilhoit (yep, this was Wilhoit’s fort). Wilhoit then lost the house in an 1860 legal battle.
    It eventually made its way back into the hands of Levi Davis and family who lived there until 1890.
    Levi was an elder in the Upper Rock Creek Church of Christ.
    By 1892, when David Fox moved to the area and joined the Church, Levi and his wife had already moved to a new home on a land claim they had made in 1888 a few miles to the east.
    Having a home they did not need, they gifted the house to their fellow Church of Christ members. It was then disassembled and moved to the Fox property (without its original wrap-around porch) where it remained for the next 100 years.