Solid and sturdy, log cabins constitute a pervasive vision of early American life. While the reality of life within frontier log cabins differs wildly from our nostalgic imaginings, to see and step inside one conjures a multitude of associations. For master cabin-builder Dr. Sage Smith and his clients, log cabins afford a setting whereby they can reconnect with nature, partake in recreation and enjoy time with family.
Smith is not an artisan by profession. The Monroe County native is a University of Alabama-educated physician, recently retired from a 34-year medical practice in Monroeville. His interest in log cabins, however, began while he was in medical school. Smith was influenced by the writings of the reverend and scholar Wendell Berry, whose work explores humanity’s disconnect from the natural world. Industrialization pulled mankind away from our connection to the changing seasons, a farming lifestyle and the peace provided by time in the forest. But step inside a log cabin tucked perfectly amidst the trees and that separation from nature is eased, if only for a little while. More than just enjoying time in log cabins, Smith found that the action of building them — of working with his hands and creating a lasting product — has always served as his prescription for a grounded life. His cabins more than fulfill that purpose for all who experience them, as well. A visit to three of Smith’s hand-built cabins provides a glimpse into the look, feel and appeal of an enduring American construction.
Among the earliest of Smith’s cabins, which he constructed for a property other than his or his immediate family’s use, is the Inge-Baker Cabin at Pine Flat near Forest Home for Dr. George and Jane Inge. The 33-year-old weekend retreat is now being enjoyed by the children and grandchildren of the couple for whom it was constructed and served as the template for the many cabins that followed. Smith constructed two large, separate rooms out of logs on his own family land and moved those structures to the client’s property. He then connected the two log volumes with an enclosed breezeway, and porches skirt the front and rear. A chimney on the exterior and a hearth within anchors the dwelling.
Constructed 20 years after the Pine Flat cabin is the Butler, Alabama, cabin of Dr. David and K. D. Inge, brother and sister-in-law of George and Jane Inge. If settlement-era cabins were like this beauty, early Americans might not have built anything else. Situated in a park-like setting, the basic precepts remain the same. Portions of the front and rear porch are enclosed, giving the feel that the cabin was enlarged by need over the generations. The proportions are larger, and it overlooks a nice lake, as does Pine Flat.
David and K. D. Inge, one of those amazing relationships going back to high school, laughingly have two takes on their cabin. One is when it is just the two of them in residence.
K. D. says of those occasions, “David and I are outside people and feel the most peace while amidst nature, enjoying the peace and solitude it brings.” The other visits are when the entire “nest” of three grown children, their spouses and the grandchildren are all in tow. She says of those gatherings that the cabin is the center of family affair, where “there is a huge bonfire and marshmallow roasting. When one of the grandsons has killed a deer or wild pig, he’ll bring it in for all of us to see, to congratulate and to hear all of the details. It is mass pandemonium and excitement.”
The cabin of Black-Belt-area realtor Jess Martin of Beatrice is the most recently constructed of Smith’s cabins. Martin has been asked by guests the age of his home. He says many are dumbfounded when told that it is just 12 years old. He looked into living in a family house and even into log mail order kits, but neither scenario fit the bill. It was after seeing a number of Smith’s cabins that he saw a dwelling that suited his needs. As with all of Smith’s cabins, Jess Martin’s is tailored to the site and the resident. Porches engage three sides of the house. One approach overlooks a pond, a second is service-oriented along the drive and a third serves as an outdoor kitchen. There is almost as much porch space as there is enclosed living space. Nature is there for the nurturing, albeit with air-conditioning!
All of these singular, but related, cabins illustrate that Sage Smith’s constructions are not your ordinary place “up the country.” Whether made of squared or circular log, the appearance and experience of a log cabin can be the optimal setting for peaceful living. While it is not prescription, most lives could benefit from the simplicity, honesty and beauty of such places, and, most importantly, the experiences they foster.