Andy Mills got into the business of preserving hand-hewn log buildings when he lived in Texas, where he saw his first log cabin.
“It was half burned and falling down,” he said. But the cabin captured his imagination.
Undeterred by its dilapidated condition, Mills bought the cabin, dismantled it and hauled the logs many miles to his backyard in Fredericksburg, Texas. He cut down 20 oak trees and hand-hewed the logs to replace original ones that were burned or missing. He and his wife, Jamie, planned to make the cabin into a bed-and-breakfast.
“But a young couple came along, asked if they could buy it, and that was the start of the business,” he said, chuckling.
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That business is American Antique Cabin Co., today based in Springfield. In the past 29 years, Mills has dismantled, repaired and rebuilt more than 300 historical log cabins, barns and houses.
“We take a 200-year-old log cabin and give it another 200 years of life,” he said.
Mills is almost scholarly in his approach to restoration, and in the way he has studied antique log architecture and construction, say people who have hired him for projects.
“Well, I’ve had a 30-year education and still learning,” Mills said.
Betty Gorin, former president of the Hiestand House-Taylor County Museum in Campbellsville, said of Mills, “He does the technical work few people know how to do. He has a talent for old joinery like mortise-and-tenon joints and hardwood pegs. He knows in detail how to do it.”
One project Mills worked on for Gorin was an 1820s log dogtrot house rebuilt near the Hiestand House on the same property. The house is used as exhibit space.
“I value his opinion,” Gorin said. “He’s a gift to Kentucky. We’re lucky to have him.”
Tom Tucker in Bradfordsville hired Mills to build a house using logs from an old barn on his farm.
“Where logs come together, that fit is so tight you can’t put a knife blade between them,” Tucker said. “He’s a real artist.”
Mills was able to date Tucker’s barn to about 1800, based on a couple nails he found. “He could date the nails because of the unique way they were made,” Tucker said.
Mills has had so much experience with early architecture, “He’s comfortable with that era,” Gorin said. He knows what works and what doesn’t, and how to rebuild using old materials. “If something needs replacing, like a twisting staircase, he can do it, and do it right and do it fast,” she said.
In log construction, Mills also understands the importance of quality chinking, and installing it in a way to deflect water away from the logs. “If chinking isn’t done properly, it causes rot,” he said.
A current project is the historic Thomas Lincoln House in Elizabethtown, which burned and was rebuilt five years ago. “They used old logs, but they didn’t do the chinking right,” Mills said. “Squirrels chewed their way in through the chinking and chewed up the antique furniture.” He has been hired to remove and replace the chinking.
“I wish everybody who does work on antique log structures would do it properly,” he said. “There’s a process to all this, and a correct way to do it.”
Restoring a log building is laborious. Mills removes the siding, photographs the building, numbers the logs, then dismantles and transports the logs to his farm, where all the work is done.
“You can’t restore one of these without taking it down,” he said.
The logs are restacked according to the owner’s design, which might include cutting new openings for windows and doors. Defective logs are replaced with others that Mills shapes using a broadax and a smaller foot ax, just as in pioneer times. Holes are drilled for electrical wiring.
Then the entire cabin is power-washed to remove generations of dirt and grime.
“I try to put a cabin back as original as I can, but this is the 21st century. Changes have to be made for modern amenities,” he said.
Another project he’s working on is a two-story log house, circa 1840s or 1850s, that he bought near Horse Cave. He’s restoring it for a couple in West Virginia.
When the restoration is complete — it will take a month and a half — the cabin will be dismantled, the logs bundled for shipping, and transported to West Virginia, where Mills will restack them on a prepared foundation.
Total cost to the owner, including the purchase price and all of Mills’ labor, will be about $40,000. Mills said the most he has paid for a log building is $12,000; the least, $500. “This one’s about mid-range,” he said.
Mills has no employees and works alone.
“He’s a one-man cabin mover. It’s incredible to see him work,” said Eddie Rogers, county judge executive of Taylor County. Mills custom-built a house for Rogers using 1800-era logs and traditional early construction techniques.
“If you didn’t know, you’d think this house had been there 200 years,” Rogers said.
Rogers was impressed with the quality of Mills’ workmanship. “When he says he’s particular, he is particular,” Rogers said. “Whatever he does, it has to suit him before he will turn it over to you.”
Kentucky had a treasure trove of early log cabins because of the wealth of native hardwood trees, and the building skills of its early settlers, Mills said.
But even in Kentucky, it’s getting harder to find log buildings that meet his standards as worth restoring. “I’ve looked at 32 log buildings this year, and bought one,” he said. “There are few good ones left.”
At times, Mills sounds somewhat philosophical as he talks about saving early log buildings. “They’re not for everybody; I understand that,” he said. “You save these buildings for another lifetime.”
“Each of these cabins was built by hand using a couple of tools like these,” he said lifting up a broadax in one hand, a foot ax in another. “It’s hard for people today to imagine using these tools and building a house. Back then, time was all they had. They didn’t know any different. This was how you built a house.”
In his opinion, “There’s not a house built today that will be here in 100 years, maybe not 50 years. It’s a throw-away world,” he said.
He has never lost the sense of excitement of what he might find when he goes out to inspect a log cabin for the first time. Most are covered in clapboard.
“You really don’t know what you’re getting until you pull off the siding. It’s like a pig in a poke,” he said, laughing.
After 29 years, it’s still fun.
“The day I don’t enjoy driving up to an old structure and seeing what’s in there, I’m damn done,” he said.
Reach Beverly Fortune at email@example.com