- Associated Press - Sunday, April 13, 2014

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) - More than a century’s worth of history, dating back to the first settlers of Johnson County, can be found in the weathered oak logs of two Iowa City cabins.

More than 100 years after they were built using oak logs and old-fashioned labor, the City Park cabins are nearing renovations to not only restore their integrity, but also bring them back to their original mission as educational tools to open the window into early Johnson County history.

“People drive by there all the time and they see the cabins. They just pass on by; there’s nothing there to get their direction to look over and appreciate what they are. For a long time nobody knew why they were there and what they represented,” said Marlin Ingalls, architectural historian and archaeologist at the Office of the State Archaeologist. “They were the literal connection between modern Johnson County and the original settlers who started the whole thing, literally carved it out of the wilderness.”

The Iowa City Press-Citizen reports (https://icp-c.com/1hDBMk8 ) that with the cabins added to the National Register of Historic Places last year, Iowa City staff recently applied for a $50,000 Resource Enhancement and Protection grant to begin restoration of the two cabins nestled among the trees just east of City Park’s swimming pool.

The REAP grant will be reviewed by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources in September, and if approved, the city could receive funding to begin working on the cabins yet this year.

Iowa City Mayor Matt Hayek, who remembers attending educational offerings at the cabins in the 1970s, said the opportunity to once again use the cabins as educational tools was too great to pass up.

Iowa City is a constantly changing community, which is great, but where we have opportunities to remember our heritage, we should take advantage of that,” Hayek said. “Iowa City’s history is pretty well documented, but much of that history is on paper or outside of the public view. … The cabins are viewable, tangible links to the past.”

The younger of the two cabins, and the first one added to City Park in 1913, is a double log cabin consisting of two rooms connected by a dogtrot. Fashioned with hewn oak logs donated by the county’s Old Settler’s Association, a stone fireplace and a chinked roof, the cabin was designed as a replica of Gilbert’s Trading Post, which once sat nearby.

The single-room cabin was one of two built by members of the Old Settler’s Association in 1889 at the Johnson County Fairgrounds on Morningside Drive - where City High now is located - and by 1912, the cabins were reported in poor condition.

The cabin was constructed as a semi-centennial exhibition to commemorate the creation of Johnson County in 1839.

“It was designed to look like the cabins that they had built when they got here in the 1830s and ‘40s and ‘50s,” Ingalls said.

The single-room cabin was moved to City Park to sit next to the double log cabin in 1918.

Both cabins were home to annual Old Settler’s Association of Johnson County meetings and picnics until 1939. The structures continued to serve as home to camping programs, history education and commemorative events through the 1990s.

Marlys Svendsen, historic preservation consultant with Svendsen Tyler Inc. in Wisconsin, helped develop the cabins’ National Register of Historic Places application and noted the significance of the two structures.

“Together they form a spot that had a story to tell for all of those people who came there initially, those people who came together and celebrate Johnson County history,” Svendsen said. “It was built as sort of a commemorative monument that looked a lot like an early piece of architecture in the county.”

The Old Settler’s Association was informally created in 1840 and formally established in 1866 and was likely the oldest pioneer group of its kind in the state, according to the cabins’ National Register of Historic Places registration form.

Neither cabin was built to operate as a permanent residence but rather as a celebration of the Old Settler’s Association’s pioneer past. Both were constructed using practices and materials similar to cabins built in the area by some of the first local residents before Iowa was even a state.

Although her memory is a little foggy, lifelong Iowa City resident Florence Stockman can still recall spending the night out at the Old Settler’s cabins in the late 1940s, when she was a Girl Scout with Horace Mann Elementary School’s Troop 39.

Stockman said she remembers smelling the smoky air from the cabin’s fireplace, cooking homemade foods, singing songs and playing games.

“I just remember a lot of running around,” said Stockman, 74. “You made up whatever game you were going to play. Certainly the kids today wouldn’t think that was very exciting, but to be away from home and staying overnight somewhere, that was pretty different for me anyway.”

Stockman said she is pleased the city plans to return the cabins of her childhood to their original quality.

“I think it would be great,” Stockman said. “I would see the log cabins as having a place for some kids (to) have a chance to experience that; it was wonderful to think back.”

Iowa City Parks and Recreation Director Mike Moran said the cabins served as an educational outlet until the late 1990s, when their age and dilapidated nature caused the city to close their doors.

“We used to run programs in those cabins all the time and then we ran a cooperative program with the Johnson County Historical Society as well that ran programs, so we’re looking forward to bringing some activities back into the park and utilize those cabins for educational opportunities for the kids,” Moran said.

Ingalls said he estimates the work to fully restore both cabins to cost about $250,000, split into three phases, with the first step being updates to the cabins’ roofs. The grant money would be added to the $11,000 already raised by the Parks and Recreation Foundation through private donations.

Svendsen said that when restored, the cabins will once again serve countless generations by reminding them of who their ancestors were, the lives they lived and the structures they built.

“Buildings like this, that stand alone, isolated, don’t tell the story by just looking at them,” Svendsen said. “Some parts of the story can be told but the rest of it needs some interpretation and that’s the education element.”

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Information from: Iowa City Press-Citizen, https://www.press-citizen.com/


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