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On Wisconsin: Log cabin turning heads in Watertown

On Wisconsin: Log cabin turning heads in Watertown

From the On Wisconsin: Read special coverage of state's culture, people series
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WATERTOWN — Historic structures are prolific in this city straddling the border between Jefferson and Dodge counties.

There are the grand homes on Washington and Clyman streets, the brick buildings on the east and west sides of the Rock River that make up the downtown, the Catholic and Lutheran churches and, of course, the Octagon House and the nation’s first kindergarten, both perched atop a hill on Charles Street.

But a small home a block from Silver Creek on the city’s north side is getting its turn in the historical spotlight.

Since about the 1880s, wood siding and in later years a few small additions allowed the home to blend into the neighborhood as homes around it were built.

That is until this spring, when owner Jim Roberts began dismantling the structure on the northeast corner of Spaulding and North Water streets.

Now, neighbors stop and ask questions and motorists slow and turn their heads to take in the log home that has been revealed more than 150 years after it was constructed.

Roberts, who grew up a few doors down the street, bought the house in 1979. A contractor, he knew at the time it was constructed of log timbers.

“I bought it as an investment,” said Roberts, 64. “It’s a nice house. It’s kind of neat. I’d like to see it saved.”

So would others.

Roberts has offered to donate the house, its 1880 carriage house and land to the Watertown Historical Society. He also supports moving the structure, constructed in the late 1850s of ash and maple, to the Octagon House grounds operated by the Historical Society.

The society’s board of directors will discuss its options over the winter, but money is not the only concern, board president Melissa Lampe said.

If the cabin remains on the site, it would mean a second location at which to shovel snow, mow the lawn and maintain historic buildings. The site is also in a residential neighborhood that, aside from ice skaters in the winter, was never intended for tourist traffic.

Lampe said moving the cabin to the Octagon House grounds would be feasible and a welcome addition. But where to squeeze it onto the property would have to be carefully considered, she said.

“There would be a lot of factors to consider before we took ownership of it,” Lampe said. “There are lots of possibilities. We’re not saying yes or no to anything yet, but we really do want to talk about it.”

According to research by local historian Ken Riedl, the 25-foot by 16-foot cabin was built by Carl Greve, likely in 1858 or 1859, for the simplest of reasons and one that’s easy to understand, even today.

The widower from nearby Lebanon married widow Ernestine Krahn in 1858, and it would become their new home. The structure included a loft, was near a water source and had ample land to grow crops and raise livestock.

But for most of its history, the cabin was owned by Albert Krahn, a German immigrant who came to the U.S. in 1878. The carpenter purchased the property in 1880, and Roberts purchased the cabin from Meta Krahn, one of Albert’s six children.

Albert Krahn, however, made one mistake. At some point, likely in the late 1800s, a wooden trunk was stored in the loft above the main living quarters. When Krahn moved the stairs to the loft, the new opening to the loft was made smaller. The trunk remains in the loft because it doesn’t fit through the opening. It’s in pristine condition.

Volunteers have been working since May dismantling the cabin’s additions and removing plaster and other “modern” improvements from the original structure. What remains is pretty much a shell and the way it would have looked more than 100 years ago.

“Little by little we’re making progress and things are being unveiled,” Riedl said. “I think we can (now) better appreciate the cabin.”

Whitewashed logs on the interior are now exposed along with a narrow line of bricks between the roof and walls. It’s clear to see where the original staircase was located. Shredded cloth and scraps of a German newspaper (likely the work of a mouse or squirrel) remain wedged between the roof and the top of an interior wall.

Eventually the cabin, whether it stays on its site or is moved, will be dismantled and put back together. That will allow the structure to be reinforced and its corner joints tightened. That job will likely go to Lyle Lidholm, a historic preservationist and Watertown resident for the past 37 years.

From 1976 to 1981, Lidholm, now 81, traveled the state with a crew taking apart old buildings, moving them to Old World Wisconsin near Eagle and putting them back together again. Lidholm, an avid hiker who once trekked the entire Ice Age Trail in the winter, said the cabin is in better condition than many of the buildings that were moved to Old World Wisconsin.

“It doesn’t look like much, but it’s a gem,” Lidholm said.

The cabin, according to Lidholm, was made with a broad ax, which squared the round logs. But Greve used stack-notch construction instead of joining the corners with more stable dovetail joints.

He estimates it probably took Greve a month to build the cabin and that he also likely used mud from the nearby Rock River and clay and straw to fill in the

gaps. Those original materials remain.

“It really gladdens my heart to see something in the state of preservation that this building is in,” Lidholm said. “It’s a good example of early pioneer construction.”

“It doesn’t look like much,
but it’s a gem.” — Lyle Lidholm, historic preservationist

Barry Adams covers regional news for the Wisconsin State Journal. Send him ideas for On Wisconsin at 608-252-6148 or by email at


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