Canonsburg's Log Cabin Preservation Project

Adapted from an article in Jefferson College Times, December 2004, by James T. Herron Jr.

 

John McMillan’s Log School is possibly the oldest school building west of the Allegheny Mountains. McMillan, a native of Chester County, Pennsylvania and a 1772 graduate of the College of New Jersey (Princeton) was sent to the frontier as a newly licensed minister of the Presbyterian Church. He accepted a call from families in what is now Washington County, on the western edge of Pennsylvania.

The young minister had been instructed to find candidates for the Presbyterian ministry. However, the Presbyterian Church required an educated ministry, and men on the frontier who knew mathematics and could read Latin and Greek were very rare. So, about 1780 John McMillan began a school to fill the need, a log cabin academy. Other ministers also taught prospective ministers in the 1780s, but it was difficult for them to both serve their congregations and run schools.

In 1787 Pittsburgh Academy and Washington Academy were chartered by the state legislature. John McMillan was on the board of both, but both failed. At about this time, though, the log building that McMillan used for his school burned down. For a while, probably while Washington Academy was active, it made no difference as he had no students. When he built a replacement building is not known, but it would have been in the late 1780s. It was in operation in 1791 when Canonsburg Academy opened, as McMillan wrote that he sent his students there.

The building was a small one-story log cabin, square, 14 feet on a side, located close to his house. It was a humble structure that was not intended to last long, but since it was near the house, it found use as a farm building. John McMillan died in 1833, and his descendants lived on his farm and used the log cabin as a workshop. Jefferson College students would walk the two miles or so into North Strabane Township to visit the structure that was a predecessor to their college.

By 1894 the log structure had come to the end of its usefulness. Jefferson College had merged with Washington College and moved to Washington, Pa., and an academy, Jefferson Academy, had use of the campus. John McMillan's descendants offered the old building to the trustees of the academy, and they readily accepted. The logs were marked, the cabin dismantled, and several wagon-loads of logs were hauled to Canonsburg. The following year the building was reassembled behind the large brick college building later known as the Chapel Gym.

Public high schools caused a severe depletion of students for Jefferson Academy, and it closed in 1910. By that time, the two fraternities that had been founded at Jefferson College, Phi Gamma Delta and Phi Kappa Psi, had taken responsibility for the maintenance of the venerable structure. Over the years the log cabin has been moved several times and in the early 1900s put on a stone foundation. In 1931 the school district needed the site for an auditorium and the building was again moved, this time to stand in front of the 1833 college building that was Canonsburg High School's Chapel Gym. There is no information that indicates the building was disassembled after it came to Canonsburg.

Force C. Dunlevy, 1893

Force C. Dunlevy, 1897

Frank Mirisciotti, c1960

The McMillan log school is shown in three locations. There were one, possibly two, others behind the academy/high school buildings. At left, it is deteriorating on its original site. The middle photograph shows it two years after being moved, located behind the academy buildings. At right it is in its present location, though the old college building was demolished in 1965.

Phi Gamma Delta was the principal caretaker of the cabin, and it became known in 1940 that the fraternity wanted to move it to the W&J campus. The cabin was described as being in bad shape and deteriorating rapidly, but the people of Canonsburg were willing to fight to keep what they considered their log cabin. They called it the "Log College," and many thought it had always been in Canonsburg, misinformation that has persisted. The Daily Notes called it "Canonsburg's Shrine."

In a letter, Phi Gamma Delta said the town could have the responsibility for the relic. The "Log Cabin Association" was formed, and a campaign begun to raise money to replace deteriorated logs and to encase the structure in glass. At least one log was replaced, but World War 2 saved the structure from being placed in a greenhouse. Little was done until 1979, when the Jefferson College Historical Society contracted to replace logs and put on a roof of fireproof shakes.

The fraternities had remained firmly attached to the log school and the cost of the reconstruction was divided equally among Phi Gamma Delta, Phi Kappa Psi, and the Jefferson College Historical Society. The money spent by the historical society was from the bank account that contained the remainder of the money collected in 1940.

A termite infestation was discovered in 1991 and successfully treated, but as the 2002 Bicentennial of the incorporation of the college and the borough approached, a log on the east side (where the termites had been) was seen to be disintegrating. Consultations with log cabin experts were held, but nothing was done until after the Bicentennial.

The Log Cabin Preservation Project Committee was formed as a result of action taken at the March 28, 2004 Jefferson College Historical Society meeting, and the organization meeting was held in the Municipal Building the following Wednesday. Michael Roman was elected president; Joseph Salandra, vice-president; Linda Kacvinsky, secretary; and Joseph Solobay, treasurer. Joseph Gowern was selected to head the rehabilitation committee, charged with selecting a contractor and overseeing the work.

Photographs by J T Herron

John McMillan's Log School, on the Canonsburg Middle School Campus, had logs replaced on two occasions since being placed on the present foundation in 1931. A termite infestation on the east wall had been successfully treated in 1991, but by 2001, damage to at least one log was evident. The center photo shows representatives of the Canon-McMillan School District, Canonsburg Borough, and the Jefferson College Historical Society meeting with log construction specialists to decide what must be done. Right, a February 2004 photograph provides a closer view of the damage to the east wall.

On June 2, Joe Gowern, Ron Cianelli, John Herron, and Jim Herron inspected the interior of the cabin and found it dry. There was no evidence of insect activity. A week later, the same group, with brooms and a heavy-duty shop vacuum, cleaned the interior. A pile of the old large cedar shingles and a few old boards were moved to the Cianelli Family’s Liberty Lumber Company for storage. Members of the committee inspected the log school on July 20.

On August 10, Joe Gowern reported three bids. One was much higher than the others and was rejected. A second bid was for jacking up the various parts of the cabin and replacing the defective logs. It was rejected due to a lack of insurance.

The third bid, by Donna Stickovich, owner of Fitly Joined, was for complete disassembly of the structure and replacement of defective logs with appropriate white oak logs they would furnish. The base price for dismantling the structure, rebuilding,and chinking was $8,200, and the project was not expected to exceed $10,000. The proposal was accepted.

Early in its existence, the Log School Preservation Project Committee had a banner made to publicise the project.

Removing the shutter from the doorway, June 2, 2004. The cabin door is behind this protective oak shutter. From left, Joe Gowern, John Herron, and Ron Cianelli lower the shutter for the initial inspection.

John Herron and Joe Gowern examine the interior of the structure. John’s hand is on a bolt that holds the Phi Gamma Delta plaque. Joe is looking into the loft, seen in the photo below.

The cabin had to be cleaned in preparation for a visit by the entire committee. Above, John Herron removing the wood from the middle of the floor and handing it to Ron Cianelli.

Joe Gowern assists John Herron in descending into the underfloor space, where he found broken floor joists. The boards and shakes on the floor remain from previous restorations.

The cabin loft originally was somewhat larger, as early photographs show that the top log was removed many years ago. The rafters are saplings that meet in a type of mortise joint called a tongue and fork.

John Herron scrapes and sweeps the loft. The floorboards of the loft are not attached to the joists below. The roof was tight and the loft was dry.

Joe Gowern vacuuming the cabin on a very hot August day. The markings painted on the ends of the logs indicate the compass direction and the log number. They may date from the cabin's original move, in 1894. It was re-erected the on the academy campus ollowing year.

Members of the committee wait their turns to ascend the ladder into the cabin with Joe Salandra’s Dodge Bros. truck in the background, as seen from the cabin doorway.

J T Herron photographs

On August 31, Jerrod Stickovich brought a number of squared oak logs that had come from other old buildings and began marking the logs with red tags. In his marking system, the bottom log was marked “sill” and the one above it, 1. The sides were marked “front,” “back,” right” (east), and “left” (west). Most were marked on the inside. The logs had to be marked because the building was going to be completely disassembled, down to the stone foundation. The tags allowed accurate reassembly, and it allowed identification of the source of the logs too badly damaged to use.

There also were markings in brown paint inside the building near the corners. They consisted of a number and a letter (N, S, E, or W). It was apparent that these markings had been used to reassemble the cabin on a previous occasion.

The logs that made up the back wall were marked “W2,” “W3,” etc. on their eastern ends and the western ends were marked “2S,” “S3,” etc. The adjacent logs of the west wall also were marked with “S” and a numeral. The scheme does not make much sense, but no photograph of the building on the campus shows the cabin with its back or left side toward the south. Apparently, the markings were painted on the logs in 1894 when the cabin was removed from its original site.

It is reasonable to assume that any log with the painted marking is an original log. The joists were logs, too, but they are not marked so it is unknown whether they are original. No attempt had been made to make the ceiling joists level, so they certainly were modern.

Preparations for disassembly began September 2, when Jerrod Stickovich began installing 2x4 braces along the roof rafters. The rafters are round saplings which are joined at the peak with a kind of mortise and tenon joint called a bridle joint. The roof is in good condition, but it was not made to be lifted with a crane.

Web straps were wrapped around rafters and braces and the roof lifted off on Friday, September 10. The operation went smoothly with no damage to the roof or gable ends. The roof was placed on the grass near the World War 2 Veterans’ Memorial.

J T Herron

John M. Herron

John M. Herron

John M Herron

Before the building could be disassembled, the roof had to be removed. The cabin's roof was not designed to be lifted into the air with a crane. So, Jerrod screwed 2 x 4 braces to the rafters. Shake shingles were removed from four areas to attach the straps to the bracing. The canvas straps by which the structure was lifted were wrapped around the cribbing. At right, Donna Stickovich watches for problems as her son, Jerrod, begins to lift the roof.

As the roof was lifted, it slowly began to spin. Frank Panepinto, of Fitly Joined, stabilized it as Ron Cianelli and a reporter from the Observer-Reporter photographed the flying roof. The load was moved a short distance down the sidewalk and placed on blocks without mishap. The photograph on the right was taken from atop the loft. The top of the stairway and a log in bad condition can be seen. Photographs by John M. Herron

Jerrod Stickovich leans out the doorway to loosen the front top log and begin the disassembly process. In the second photograph, the stairway is lifted out. Frank Panepinto stabilized the rear top log (notched for rafters). The log is swung away in the fourth photo.

Photo on left by Ron Cianelli; others by J T Herron

With the roof off, the logs could quickly be removed, one by one. Only the sill logs and floor joists were in place on Monday, September 13. They were removed and the chinking was cleaned up. Some of the early chinking (seen under the Phi Gamma Delta plaque) was concrete, though most was mortar. The door, floor boards, and plaques were taken to Liberty Lumber for safekeeping.

As the logs were exposed, it became evident that there were more hollow logs than the five that had been identified. Some had hollow areas that could be filled with foam, but sixteen wall logs were unusable, though some were short logs along the door or window. The joists all were in poor condition.

The stone foundation has ventilation ports on the east and west sides, which had steel bars to keep out animals. The bars had not been enough to keep school students from pushing a variety of trash into the old log school’s basement. Several 55-gallon drums of material were laboriously removed. None was very old, so the area had been cleaned when the cabin was last repaired, a quarter of a century ago.

J T Herron

J T Herron

John M. Herron

Ron Cianelli

Jerrod's assistant was absent the day the tearing down was being completed and rebuilding started. Above, John Herron of the preservation committee, fills in.

This view from the east shows the split in the second joist in and the debris beneath the cabin that had been poked through the ventilation openings.

The sill log is on the ground by the foundation, bad logs are on stacked the right, and the logs that will be reused are on the other side of the sidewalk.

For the first time, there was no log cabin alongside the stairway to the middle school. It had always been there because the school was built around it.

Jerrod lays out the corner of the sill logs. None the old sills could be reused.

Jerrod straddles a log to cut the steeple in its end. Frank is bracing the short log.

Jerrod and Frank set a short log in place on the front of the cabin next to the doorway.

The roof was replaced the same way it came off. Donna is keeping it from twisting.

Photographs by J T Herron

By September 24, the walls were finished. The canvas straps were again attached to the roof and it was lifted into place.. Though the replacement logs are old, the cut ends are noticeable compared to the darkened ends of the old logs. Sixteen logs were replacements, but some were short ones along the back window and door. All the joists were replacements. The floor joists were old logs from other buildings, but Fitly Joined had no logs the size of the ceiling joists, which were much smaller than the other logs. So, Jerrod went into the woods on his farm and cut down saplings to use. The old door was rehung and the logs were gently power washed. Jerrod Stickovich nailed metal lath in place between the logs, and he carefully applied tinted chinking. A borate solution was sprayed on all inside surfaces before the interior was chinked.

On October 7, pieces of log from the front wall that had been decorated with names and dates were placed inside. The plaques were replaced and the Fitly Joined part of the project was complete. All that remained was to stain the newly cut ends, adjust the placement of a plaque, and rehang the shutter over the door. New clapboards on the gable ends were donated by the Cianelli Family's Liberty Lumber Company. Joe Gowern and Mont Miller provided their carpentry skills, gratis, to replace the gables.

Jerrod nailed wire lath between the logs and applied a tinted mortar as chinking.

A meeting of the committee during the final stages of the project. Jean Popp and Jim Sulkowski are discussing a photograph. Joe Solobay is at left on the enlarged view. The others are Mayor Colaizzo, Joe Gowern, and Mike Roman.

Ron Cianelli makes a point during the October 12 meeting in the Chamber of Commerce office. From left are Linda Kacvinsky, John Herron, Ron Cianelli, and (on the enlarged image) Tom Shinshasky.

Bob Karas marks the logs for identification while Michael Wudkwych saws them into pieces that can be easily handled.

 

Photos by J T Herron

Again, Phi Gamma Delta, Phi Kappa Psi, and the historical society's Log Cabin Fund shared the cost of the project. Checks were received from the fraternities within days of Fitly Joined handing in the invoice. A grant for state funds has been applied for through Rep. Tim Solobay. The grant and donations will replenish the Log Cabin Fund for use by a future preservation committee.

The photographs, below, are testimony to the faithfulness of the Fitly Joined restoration.

 

John McMillan’s Log School, before and after. The photograph on the left was taken in August 2004, shortly after the project was begun. The photograph on the right was taken January 2005. The plaques have been attached and the cut ends of logs are stained. Staining the gables will require warmer weather.