The search for Finnish cabins

  • —Monadnock Ledger-Transcript

  • Ralph Somero of New Ipswich sits in a lumber sauna discovered by Frank Eld during a recent trip to New Ipswich to look for original Finnish log contruction.  —Courtesy photo

  • Frank Eld works on restoring a Finnish cabin in Idaho. Courtesy photo

  • Frank Eld checks the spacing between logs while reconstructing a traditional Finnish log cabin.  —Courtesy photo

  • A Finnish sauna in Vermont is an example of the kind of dovetail corners typical of Finnish log contruction. —Courtesy photo

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Wednesday, August 02, 2017 10:58PM

Frank Eld has traveled more than 8,000 miles on a quest to find the last remaining remnants of a once-prominent piece of the American landscape – the log cabin.

But not just any kind of log cabin, but those left behind by Finnish settlers. The difference, said Eld, is clear, once you know what to look for.

Eld, who has traveled to New England from his home in Boise, Idaho, became fascinated with the Finn’s particular brand of log construction during his work on restoring Finnish log buildings as part of a heritage center at the Long Valley Museum. Log cabins are common in Idaho, said Eld, and as he was working to make replacement logs for some of the restoration work he was doing, it became clear that the Finnish construction was of a different ilk. 

Finnish log construction is done with square logs, not round, which helps with water proofing, because the soft wood where water can penetrate has been removed, leaving only the hard heart wood. Each log is cut to fit tightly to the one below it, and has a distinctive dovetailed or double notching on the corners. Unlike most traditional log construction, it doesn’t require any chinking or caulking between the logs. 

“That really peaked my interest,” explained Eld.

But when Eld tried to do research on this very particular part of Finnish culture, there wasn’t really any to find, he said. 

“Probably because the Finns, they don’t talk about themselves,” he said. “Whenever I asked my mother why a Finn did something a particular way, she would always just say, ‘We did what we had to.’ They’re very self-deprecating.”

But this kind of construction is important to the fabric of American culture, said Eld. Nordic people – Finns and Swedes in particular – were among the first settlers to build log cabins in the United States. 

According to Eld’s research, the first Finns and Swedes arrived in America in 1638, establishing New Sweden in the area of what is now New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Deleware. (Finland was under the rule of Sweden at the time.) The colony was originally under Swedish rule until 1655, when it was seized first by the Dutch, and eventually by the English. But in those twenty years, Finns and Swedes emigrated by the hundreds to the new colony, and brought with them the Nordic log construction technique. 

Not satisfied at the lack of information, Eld literally wrote the book on it – Finnish Log Construction – The Art. 

He saw that same kind of construction on a trip to Finland in 1997, confirming his belief that Finnish immigrants had brought this particular style to their new homes in America, and he made himself a promise – when he retired, he would seek out what remained of Finnish settler’s construction across the country, and see if what he had found in Idaho held true.

Now, he’s fulfilling that promise to himself. And everywhere he goes, he’s managed to find examples of this kind of unique construction. He plans to compile the research he’s gathered on this trip into a second book, focusing on where Finns settled and why, and what remains of those early immigrants. 

Last week, that journey took him to New Hampshire, and to New Ipswich.

Eld met with several local Finnish families to see if they knew of any lingering homes or log saunas from early settlers. One recalled an old abandoned sauna, but didn’t know whether or not it fit the log cabin bill. Eld and a cadre of locals set out to find it. 

But as it turned out, Eld was out of luck – the sauna, much dilapidated from disuse, was an early example, but not quite early enough – it was made from cut lumber, not logs. It’s something Eld has seen a lot of in his search.

“Most are gone,” said Eld. “Only the very first immigrants were log builders. By the first generation, there was lumber, and they didn’t need to build with logs.”

Eld has found six log saunas still standing in his New England travels – some, remarkably, still in working condition – three in Vermont and three in Maine.

“Everyone in Maine thought they had the last one in the state,” said Eld. “Turns out there were three ‘last ones’.”

Another possible lead also turned out to be a dead end of the same type, said Eld, who planned to move on to Massachusetts to look for the same type of construction there. But he still holds out hope for New Hampshire. His trip has been a lot of backtracking, he said, as he leaves one area and people mention his search.

“I’m at a dead end, but I’d come back here in a split second if I have a lead,” said Eld. 

If you have any information about traditional Finnish construction remaining in New Hampshire, contact Eld at fweld@citlink.net.


Ashley Saari can be reached at 924-7172 ext. 244 or asaari@ledgertranscript.com. She’s on Twitter @AshleySaariMLT.