A 19th-Century Cabin Comes to Life on Wilson Mesa
The single-story cabin at 9,000 ft. on Wilson Mesa looks like an essential part of the landscape. It dates back to the mid-19th century, when the white oak logs that comprise most of this 2,800 sq. ft. structure were initially harvested from an old-growth forest in the eastern United States.
Two stands of this dense, strong and durable wood – it’s been used to build everything from ships to wagon wheels, and was a favored medium for makers of Mission Style furniture – were used to build the cabin’s first incarnation, as an Ohio “dogtrot” (also known as a breezeway, dog-run or possum-trot) farmhouse, built in 1860.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, most farmhouses in the southeastern U.S. were dogtrots, comprised of two rectangular cabins, one used for cooking, dining and entertaining, and the other mostly for sleeping. The two cabins were connected by a breezeway, roughly 10-14 ft. wide; the name dogtrot comes from the fact that the breezeway was where the family dogs slept by day (and family members by night), in the summer heat.
Roughly 150 years after the white oak was cut and stacked to build the original two-story farmhouse (most dogtrots were one-story high), it was carefully dismantled and packaged for sale, its pieces labeled and a map drawn for putting them back together.
Wilson Mesa homeowner Carolyn Doerle-Schumacher found the white oak at a reclaimed lumber supplier’s yard in Bozeman, Mont., while visiting the Pearson Design Group, headquartered there. Pearson Project Architect Josh Barr worked closely with Telluride/Ridgway builder Kenny Mihelich to build the Wilson Mesa cabin.
Doerle-Schumacher “saw the material and fell in love with it,” Barr recalls, “and said, ‘I’m buying that right now.’”
The inspiration for the cabin, with its perfectly framed view of 14,000 ft. Wilson Peak from the living room window, Barr says, was “settlers trying to make their place in this world, reminiscent of the older homesteads and of people who occupied them over the years,” with a nod to the mining era.
The reclaimed lumber, some pieces as long as 30 ft., arrived at its new homesite on two huge flatbed tractor-trailer trucks, says builder Mihelich, who worked closely with Barr on plans to create the 2,800 sq. ft. cabin from the reclaimed white oak.
Old met new, from the project’s start to finish.
“We had a modern building,” recalls Barr, “with standard 2 x 6 ft. framing,” and a truckload of ancient wood to cover it, inside and out. It was Mihelich’s job to ensure that “all the siding, inside and out, mimicked log construction,” so the home would have a 19th century combination of function and aesthetics, and be totally up to 21st century code.
To that end, Mihelich started by maximizing the wood supply, Barr recalls, “splitting the logs,” putting their exterior skins on the outside of the building, and their interior skins on the inside and creating the look of a true log structure. The core of the logs was resawn and used on the inside, mostly on the walls and floors. Some of the “skins” of the logs were saved for doors.
When the old-growth white oak ran low, Mihelich turned to American Antique Lumber’s Sandy East, in Colona, for the barnwood used in the cozy bunkroom, where the owner’s many grandchildren stay, and a wall-mounted flatscreen television looks right at home alongside the display of vintage leather chaps and spurs.
Mihelich, who has logged four decades as a cabinetmaker, carpenter, framer and builder in the Telluride region, “got the bug” for woodworking back in the 1970s, in a Telluride downvalley cabinet shop where he worked between gigs as bass player for the bluegrass band, Possum.
In 1979, “I ended up buying the shop,” he recalls, with his buddy Kate Lundahl (who died in 2009), the duo operating it until 1986, when it folded. Lundahl went to work for Thurston Kitchens and Mihelich went on to “lots of remodels” and then into his own home-building business.
Mihelich’s love of wood is evident throughout the almost medieval-looking cabin, as he points out adze marks in the door frame, “where the hatchet went sideways,” marveling again at the centuries-old craftsmanship. “All these things were squared up by hand,” he says. His affection for the wood led him to get every last piece of useable material from the old-growth wood, using a dentist’s drill for the most delicate operations, working especially hard to save the dovetailing on the exterior logs. His trick? Take a chainsaw, and “you do a plunge cut – it comes right in, at the very end.
“It’s got to be pretty right-on to cut off and keep the dovetail on the slab, and let go of the rest of the material,” at the same time leaving “a chunk of meat still on the log so you can rebuild the corner.”
As a result, the elegant, 150-year-old dovetail craftsmanship is preserved on the building’s exterior corners.
Careful millwork saved the skin of the furniture-grade white oak, which Mihelich put to good use as well, on inside walls and doorways. He points with particular pride to the wood’s use in an intricate design on the master-bedroom door from Spydor Wood Products’ John Herndon, former guitar player for Possum.
Old items put to new uses is a theme throughout the cabin, and most of the overhead light fixtures are repurposed farm implements – hay hooks, wagon wheels, milk-can tops, and turkey and chicken feeders. In the sleeping loft bunkroom, old chaps and spurs hang on the reclaimed barnwood walls, “but we stripped and milled it,” Mihelich says, working closely with Telluride Custom Millworks’ Chad Ballie. In the kitchen, fallow deer antlers are cabinet handles and the zinc counter has a patina “with a leather richness,” Mihelich says, running his hand over it. He remembers voicing concern when the zinc darkened up after a few uses, but the homeowner cut him off. “That’s what I like,” she told him.
An elegant roughness prevails throughout the three bedroom (with a sleeping loft), three-and-a-half bath home, most notably in its two fireplaces, in the living room and master bedroom. The stonework looks dry-stacked at first glance, but actually features “mortar-raked joints,” Mihelich says, placed so deep “you really don’t see the mortar.” All the rocks used inside and outside (mostly moss rock and Telluride Gold) came from the property; the Game of Thrones-worthy fireplace doors come from Ridgway metalworker Scott Rikkers.
The home was finished in September 2013, but Mihelich is still on the job – most recently replacing “a beautiful barnwood floor” in the master bathroom that was ruined by a leak.
“Every time I work on this house,” says Mihelich, “I’m just amazed. It’s so cozy; it’s very real. It’s not ostentatious.
“It’s such an amazing feeling. It’s magic.”