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Cabin cure

n Cargill engineers work with professionals to return the Armistead cabin to glory

November 8, 2012

The Armistead cabin at the Fort Museum certainly isn't a marvel of modern engineering.

However, the last remaining building from the original Fort Dodge military post is getting some TLC from a few modern-day engineers and professional restorers.

Earlier this year, a group of Cargill engineers volunteered to do a major restoration of the cabin. This week - led by representatives from a Minnesota-based company - the volunteers are wrapping up the current phase of a restoration project, estimated to cost $24,000.

Article Photos

-Messenger photos by Barbara Wallace Hughes
Mark D. Johnson, above right, owner of Artisan Restoration, explains some finer points of applying acrylic caulking to Aaron Becker, a Cargill engineer who is among a group of company volunteers working to restore the Armistead cabin at the Fort Museum and Frontier Village. The Armistead cabin is the last remaining building from the original military post that became Fort Dodge. At the time, the post was known as Fort Clarke, but the name was later changed to avoid confusion with Fort Clarke, Wis., top photo.

Mark D. Johnson, owner of Artisan Restoration, speculated that, based on some of the construction techniques, the cabin builders likely weren't skilled artisans.

"They probably didn't have a lot of time to spend, " Johnson said.

One clue the builders may have been novices is that the chinking - the material used to fill in between the horizontal logs - is much wider than would have been optimal.

But, he said, once the squared logs were hewn flat with adzes and broad axes, the builders "had all this material lying around on the ground, and they packed it in here, and smeared chinking or daubing over it."

He joked that "according to engineers, this building shouldn't even be standing."

Cargill 's Aaron Becker didn't disagree.

"This," he said, straight-faced, "is what we try to avoid."

However, Becker, a woodworking hobbyist, said, "it's kind of neat to see old joints and appreciate, though, that the people were not here to do it perfectly at that time."

Their goal, he said, was to have shelter and get through the winter.

The Cargill employees' goal is to complete their work on the cabin by Frontier Days in June.

Johnson, who admitted that history was one of his favorite subjects in school, has been doing vintage building restoration for at least 15 years. He said he not only finds the work more challenging than remodeling and new construction, but also more rewarding.

"And, I think I find my customers are probably a lot more appreciative," he said.

Although Johnson is from Kasota, Minn., near Mankato, he isn't a stranger to the area. Last year, Artisan Restoration was hired by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources to restore a cabin at Ambrose A. Call State Park near Algona.

Before Johnson got to work at the Armistead cabin, he said Cargill engineers had already removed the old chinking, which also revealed any damaged logs that needed to be repaired or replaced. The majority of the repair work was on lower portions of the building where the most moisture damage had occurred, he said.

Even though at least one of the replacement logs was the same age as the cabin, its appearance had to be aged with a gray stain to help it blend in, he said.

"This log," Johnson said, "was from a building that had siding over it. It is the same age, but it had a sheltered life - literally."

Of course, the cabin didn't originally have foam waterproofing, but it's being applied to give the new acrylic caulking - which serves as chinking - something to bond to. The modern chinking contains ground gypsum to give it a texture that resembles mortar, Johnson said.

The cabin logs have been treated with an environmentally friendly preservative, and Johnson expects they will also be waterproofed before the project is completed.

Johnson said he expected to finish his part of the Armistead cabin today. It's likely the work could have been finished sooner, except for a major distraction a week ago.

"Last week, we had to go home early because Mr. Biden came to that building over there," he said, pointing to the Opera House, which hosted a vice presidential visit Nov. 1. "We had the Secret Service in my job trailer looking for bombs."



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