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Traditional carpentry breathing new life into pioneer village

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Replica cabins demand regular maintenance

By DON STEEN

Staff Writer

reporter@spencercountyjournal.com

 

ROCKPORT – The fall months have seen a race against time at the Lincoln Pioneer Village as skilled carpenters work to restore and rebuild the reproduction cabins there and prepare them for winter.

Work at the village had focused mostly on rebuilding the Crawford Cabin with the help of volunteers from the Friends of Lincoln Pioneer Village group, but more recently the entire village has seen considerable attention. Major construction has wrapped up for the season and the cabins have been shuttered against the winter winds, much as the early white settlers of the area would have prepared for winter 200 years ago.

The village revitalization is being headed by Dennis Frakes of Gentryville and his fellow carpenters Beau Pike and his son Dregan Pike. The three specialize using reclaimed wood from old barns, cabins and other sources and giving it new life. Most of their work centers crafting unique tables and other furniture, which is sold across the country. These items have become particularly popular in the Tennessee area among members of the country music community.

Here in Rockport, however, the trio has been putting their skills to use rebuilding or revamping reproduction pioneer cabins. Originally built by workers with the Depression-era Works Progress Administration, these replicas have become historical artifacts in and of themselves. However, many of the wooden structures have begun to fail as time takes its toll, and the intricacies of their historic architecture are not well known among most contractors today. This led Nancy Kaiser of the Friends of Lincoln Pioneer Village to seek out Frakes.

“He’s not a regular carpenter that just does modern houses,” said Kaiser. “It takes a lot of skill to do this, what he’s doing out here.”

Indeed, each of the 14 cabins at the village presents its own unique challenges, which has required Frakes and his fellow carpenters to apply their unique experiences from working with older wood. Chief among these complications is the simple fact that nothing lasts forever, meaning that some cabins required more significant reconstruction than others.

The Gentry Mansion, for example, was in need of a new porch but was otherwise intact. This presented the problem of how to replace the porch while preserving the overall aesthetic of the reproduction cabin. Part of the solution came from finding a source of wood that could pass for an antebellum cabin on its own. This was accomplished by locating a source of reclaimed wood from a 150-year-old barn in the Mariah Hill area. With some chemical treatment to preserve the wood and give it a hue that would match the rest of the Gentry Mansion, the material could then be used as an almost perfect replacement for the old porch.

“That’s the whole point of what we do,” said Frakes. “We had to try to make it look like it hadn’t been done yesterday.”

Other buildings have required a great deal more work, however. The Crawford Cabin was rebuilt over the last two years with the help of the friends group as the original was deemed unsalvageable. Frakes’ crew has come to realize that other cabins were in the same boat, turning their renovations into a full-fledged cabin raising in the case of the Jones Store.

Apart from two sections of wall, most of the structure had begun to lean perilously 20 degrees to the east, leaving gaps between its logs and threatening to collapse. This made the structure unsafe to enter and required the area to be roped off during the Pioneer Village’s operating season.

Fortunately, reclaimed wood from a barn in New Holland was available and the carpenters had sufficient material to completely rebuild the cabin. The complete product looks much the same as its predecessor, right down to the workmanship. While the carpenters make use of some modern equipment, most wood was hewed solely with hand tools, much as the early pioneers did and the Civilian Conservation Corps a century later.

Frakes noted that the original Jones Store in Gentryville had a wooden floor, but working with vintage wood is expensive and village funds are finite. As a result, work has focused mostly on getting the store’s base structure up and secured against the elements, with further improvements to come later. Still, he expects the new walls and roof to last a good long while before another work crew has to restore them again.

“This building is going to be around for a long, long time,” said Frakes. “It’s kind of ironic that someone from Gentryville got to rebuild the Gentry porch and totally rebuild the Jones Store, which was in Gentryville.”

Another major project will have to begin in the spring, assuming funds are available. The Grigsby House had to be taken down completely as its logs had been hollowed out by an infestation of carpenter ants. This has left the stone foundation laid bare with only its chimney marking the former site of the home. Frakes said that carpenter ants and other pests are a major concern when working with older wood homes.

“They’ll just eat out the center and you’ll never know they’re there,” he said. “There could be two million of them and you’d never see them until you cut into it.”

The last point of business at the village was to batten down the hatches at the cabins to ensure they last the winter intact. Frakes has also donated a fair amount of his own collection of antiques to outfit the cabins and give them an air of authenticity. He said this was an expression of his own love for the pioneer village, which is a major reason he decided to take charge of restoration efforts.

“Maintenance has been good, but it’s a lot of work to keep up this many homes,” said Frakes. “To me this is a treasure Spencer County needs to protect.”

The village will open its doors for a special winter event “Christmas by the Fireplace” from 3 to 6 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 2 in the Crawford Cabin. Kaiser hopes area residents pay a visit to appreciate all the improvements that have been made to the longtime historical attraction.

Kaiser added that visitation at the village has been steadily increasing year by year, and expects that it will continue to draw more visitors to the area as time goes on. Those interested in supporting the Lincoln Pioneer Village can mail donations to 928 Fairground Drive, Rockport, IN 47635.

“It truly is becoming a tourist attraction,” said Kaiser. “We just need to get a little help.”