Learning to Look: How to Build a Fur Trader's Cabin

Cabin with wide square logs and a stone chimney in a museum hall

MSU Museum Heritage Hall

Ever wonder how to build a cabin? How about the Fur Trader's Cabin exhibit at the MSU Museum? It's a real cabin that was built around 1830 on Grand Island, Michigan. Abraham Williams came to the island with his family in 1840 to operate the fur trading post. Anna Marie Williams (later Powell), his  daughter, remembered that summer day:

"I'll never forget how the Island looked the first time I saw it. I was twelve. Quite a big girl. I'd learned to knit double and twisted… We came to the Island in the schooner Mary Elizabeth. It took us two weeks from the Sault… We landed on the mainland July 30, 1840. They had told father at the Sault that the buildings at the trading post were habitable. There were four log-houses. The biggest one had been used as a store. It had counters and shelves."*

Drawing of Hotel Williams and 5 log buildings on Murray Bay, Munising, Alger County, Michigan

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, HABS Reproduction number: HABS MICH,2-GRAIL,1--1

Cabin with wide square logs and two entry doors on either side of a center window in a museum hall

MSU Museum Heritage Hall

When the fur trade declined in the area, the cabins were used for other purposes. New buildings were added to the site, including the big Hotel Williams. (The Museum's cabin in second from the left along the shoreline in this old drawing.) In 1965, the property owner, the Cleveland Cliffs Mining Company, decided to remove the cabins. One cabin was donated to the MSU Museum. The building was taken apart and each piece carefully numbered, so it could be put back together the right way at the Museum. All the pieces were loaded onto a big truck, driven to East Lansing, and reassembled (with a few changes) inside Heritage Hall. Some parts, like the chimney and roof, are not original.

What pieces do you need to build a cabin?

The main parts - starting at the bottom and building up!

Sill log - The first, bottom (foundation) log of a cabin wall. This log supports all the others. Because these logs sit right on the ground, they often rot away from moisture damage.

Exploded line drawing of a cabin showing different parts of building

Parts of a log building - MSU Museum

Logs - Logs are stacked on top of each other to form the walls. The bark may be peeled off or left on.

Notch - A special cut made on the end of a log. There are different kinds of notches, but they all work to lock the logs of a cabin together.

Chink area - Space between the logs. This space is filled with a material to keep out the weather. In the past, people used a plaster-like mud called daub, which became hard when it dried.

Rafter - Wooden beam that holds up the roof of a building. The rafters are usually covered with pieces of wood to which the shingles are nailed.

Shingles - Pieces of wood or other material that are used to cover a roof. They are nailed to the wood covering the rafters. Shingles help to keep out rain and snow.

Other Parts

Door - To get in and out of the cabin

Window - To let in light. In the past, many cabins would not have had glass windows, since glass was very expensive and hard to transport without breaking.

Chimney - A structure attached to a fireplace and used to vent smoke out of a building. Usually made of stone or brick.

Cabin Activities

Test Yourself!: Missing Labels! Using the word bank, fill in the missing labels for each part of the cabin (rafter, window, shingle, notch, chink area, logs, door, sill log, chimney)

Word Search Activity: Find all the words related to cabins

Build your own cabin model: You can build a mini-cabin using many different kinds of materials. Try using actual sticks you find on the ground outside, straws, pretzel rods, plastic building bricks, strips of cardboard - whatever! Don't forget to make a roof. Or make it easier and draw the logs and other parts onto a cardboard box. Have fun with your design!

Learn More

National Park Service Preservation Brief 26: The Preservation and Repair of Historic Log Buildings


*Beatrice Hanscom Castle, The Grand Island Story (Marquette, MI: John M. Longyear Research Library, 1974) 31-32.

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