When we think about the American frontier, images of isolation, privation and strenuous labor can come to mind.  Life on the frontier certainly was difficult and dangerous. A homesteader’s first year was often a frantic race to establish his family before the winter’s first snow began to fall. The first job was to cut timber to clear land for planting crops and provide logs for building a house. The homesteader’s wife and children might stay with a neighbor or even remain back east while their new house was being built and crops and garden planted. Conditions in their new log home were primitive as most had only dirt floors, little furniture and only a small, cast iron stove for heat and cooking.  However, once established in their new home pioneer families were eager to improve their home with siding, wooden floors, paint and plaster. Even on the frontier people did their best to follow the latest fashions and keep up with the Joneses.

German immigrants Wilhelm and Sophia Ney homesteaded along the Minnesota River just east of Henderson, MN in the 1850s.  Wilhelm built a large 22’x 32’ cabin from maple and basswood logs in 1855 which served as the family’s home until he built a larger house out of the local, cream colored Chaska brick. The old home was cocooned in board and batten siding and then converted into a horse barn after the family moved to their new home. However, despite being used to stable horses for many decades, remnants of the original daubing, lath and lime plaster have survived on a rear wall.

Exterior of the Ney log home showing half dovetail notching and board and batten siding.
The Interior of the Ney log home.

19th century plaster was made from lime, sand and animal hair and applied in up to three coats over wooden lath.  The plaster was mixed on site (the lime often coming from local deposits of limestone) and lath split or riven from trees felled in the area.  Wilhelm Ney split his lath from small branches of willow trees which were abundant along the nearby Minnesota River. The lath was nailed directly to the log walls with a straw backing which allowed the lime plaster to adhere more easily. 
Plaster remnants, willow lath and wooden pegs used to hold tack for the Neys’ horses.
Close-up of the lath, plaster and straw.

Once the newly plastered walls had cured they could be white washed, painted with brightly tinted oil or kalsomine paint or even covered with fashionable wallpaper bought at the local dry goods store. Indeed, some plaster, paint, siding and a new frame-and-panel door could make a log cabin look as refined as a frame house built in town. Only its thick, log walls might betray its humble beginnings.

The Ney log home was dismantled not long after these photos were taken and the logs used to build a new shelter house. The Ney Nature Center located just a few miles east of Henderson, MN along State Highway 19. 


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