Oregon’s Oldest House Is Being Restored near Canby

It’s been many things: a house, an animal shelter, a machine shed, the historic Fox Granary. Now, it’s a place for the imagination to wander, as one’s eyes trace the ancient wood grains and the marks of ax blades that fell more than 200 years ago.

But the Molalla Log House, which is in the process of being restored at the Hopkins Demonstration Forest near Canby, is something else as well: an unsolved mystery.

Who built it? When, and why? These questions have consumed many experts on the history of the Pacific Northwest — and some of the answers have helped redefine it.

Early evidence — through cultural anthropology, dendrochronology and other scientific analysis of the timbers themselves — suggesting that the structure could be well over 200 years old stunned historians, according to project steward Pam Hayden, who, along with pioneer log house restorer Gregg Olson, has been one of the driving forces to preserve it for the past 30 years.

Architectural historian Pam Hayden has helped lead the effort to preserve the Molalla Log House for more than 30 years. Photo by Tyler Francke.

“They looked at the tree rings and saw evidence that it could be really old, as old as 1795,” Hayden recalled. “That was just mind-blowing because there’s no documentation in Clackamas County that there were Europeans here at that time.”

If true, the structure, which measures only 18 by 25 feet, would predate Lewis and Clark’s 1804 expedition by a decade.

It was discovered in 1984, in a “really remote area” on Rock Creek, four miles south of Molalla. Rich Isberg, who owns the property, donated the cabin and has worked with the team that is restoring it.

At that time, it was in pretty good shape, Hayden said. But its roof (its fourth, at least, since 1892) began to deteriorate, and by 2007, it was in danger of collapse.

A number of groups swung into action, including Restore Oregon, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Clackamas County Cultural Coalition, the Molalla River Alliance and Molalla Area Historical Society, to support the restoration and preservation efforts.

Hayden estimated that more than $200,000 in grants have been funneled to the work, much of it from the Kinsman Foundation.

Believed to be the oldest structure in Oregon, the Molalla Log House is being restored at the Hopkins Demonstration Forest. Photo by Tyler Francke.

The Hopkins Demonstration Forest, owned and managed by the nonprofit Forests Forever, Inc., emerged as a candidate for the structure’s permanent home and was, in Hayden’s view, a “perfect” setting.

Several forestry experts with the Oregon State University Extension Service serve on Forest Forever’s board or are involved with the educational programs at Hopkins.

The forest boasts historic landscape and geography similar to the Molalla area, is adjacent to a year-round creek and lies in the foothills of the Cascades — between two major trails leading to early American Indian trading centers: one at Willamette Falls and the other near Mount Hood.

“Hopkins Demonstration Forest is just a gorgeous environment,” Hayden said, standing outside the historic house last week. “We got really lucky.”

Olson and his team led the removal from the Molalla area and are conducting a careful reconstruction of the building at Hopkins. A number of the original timbers were rotten and had to be replaced.

The unusual construction uses a “half-dovetail notching” technique, which holds the building tightly together without nails. Photo by Tyler Francke.

With old-growth Douglas Fir donated to the effort, and using antique tools and techniques, the craftsmen attempt to replicate the original builders, whose identities they can still only guess at.

“It’s a mystery,” Hayden said. “We don’t know for sure. It’s called controlled speculation. You look at all the data: the way the building’s built, the age of the logs. Then you look at the culture of the people who could have built it and when they could have come. And you make some speculation, that this is what could have happened.”

Her best guess? The Molalla Log House was built by Canadian fur traders and hunters, who traversed the Rocky Mountains as part of the early overland fur trade in the Oregon Territory in the late 18th century.

“It was a very active time for the fur trade,” she said. “They were building structures across Canada and into the Rocky Mountains. It could have been some of those folks, with Scottish or English heritage.”

That the log cabin was made by foreigners is not in doubt: It’s unlike any other pioneer construction that has been found in Oregon. Hand-hewn, the beams fit together almost seamlessly, utilizing a technique known as “half-dovetail notching” that holds the building tightly together, without the need for nails or chinking to fill in gaps.

Some of the original timbers have had to be replaced, using old-growth fir and antique tools. Others have been repaired. Photo by Tyler Francke.

“In a lot of pioneer buildings, you would find spaces between the logs, either because the craftsmanship wasn’t as good or there was shrinkage over time, and they would have to daub it with all sorts of things to fortify it against the weather,” Hayden said. “This was so fortified, it would have kept out arrows and even musket balls. It’s a very efficient, almost military-like structure.”

Some more recent finds offer clues. A very similar building, the “Prince’s Cabin,” was discovered in the Walla Walla area and is believed to date back to the 1830s. Historians have linked it to the Métis people and the Frenchtown era of log buildings in that area.

And, drawings depicting the village houses of freemen and their Métis families outside of Fort Vancouver in the 1840s resemble the scale and structure of the Molalla Log House and its later additions from the early 19th century.

Iroquois reservation log houses and Métis houses from the 19th century in New York and Canada were of similar craft.

Most likely, the original builders lived in it for only a short time — possibly just a single winter — before moving on, without a trace. But, Hayden is certain, it did not stay empty for long.

The Molalla Log House is believed to have been first built in the mid- to late 1790s. Historians are not sure where. Photo by Tyler Francke.

“My colleague, Gregg, is fond of saying, ‘This was the best house in the Willamette Valley at the time,'” she said with a laugh. “There’s no way no one would have lived in it, if it had been abandoned.”

Though Hayden, Olson, the volunteer craftsmen and dozens of historians and other experts have now seen the structure taken apart, log by log, and carefully put back together, they are no closer to being certain of the building’s origins. Hayden believes it will always be a mystery.

The process, however, has revealed much about the personalities of the men who built it, 230 years ago.

“He [Olson] could tell how many there were because some were right-handed, some were left-handed,” she said. “Some were much more precise. But most of all, there’s certainly evidence of very highly qualified, expert craftsmen. So whoever these people were, they brought builders with them. They were prepared to build.”

The site is closed to the public right now, for safety reasons, but will be open for demonstrations once the restoration is complete, hopefully by the fall.

Though the coronavirus pandemic has clouded the picture of what school will look like for most areas in the upcoming academic year, the Hopkins Demonstration Forest hosts thousands of students during normal years, and this is likely to resume at some point. An educational film is also in the works.

For more from Pam Hayden, see Episode 192 of the Canby Now Podcast, “This Old House”:

Help us build a sustainable news organization to serve Canby for generations to come! Let us know if you can support our efforts to expand our operations and keep all of our content paywall-free. #SwimWithTheCurrent!