The cabin was almost completely obscured by vines and overgrowth, sitting back off the road in Gosport, Alabama. Mobile’s Billy Bixler told Cindy and Gil Gilmore where to look, promising it was indeed a log cabin. Gil was skeptical. Having grown up and lived in the area most of his life, he was sure he knew all the antebellum log cabins in Clarke County. The dilapidated cabin had evaded much notice, however, because lap siding added perhaps 50 years ago was obscuring much of the original pine timber. As the Gilmores treaded gingerly through the brush and debris, they confirmed the find and set out to see if they could preserve it.
“I’ve always wanted an old cabin,” says Gil, who embarked on the restoration in April 2019. Fairhope architect and friend of the family Clay Adams gave the cabin a look and offered advice on how best to preserve and update it, while local contractor Josh Turner took on the work. “Josh had never restored a log structure before,” Cindy remembers, laughing, “but he said he had seen it on YouTube.” The builder thought the project would be fun and poured himself into education about such things.
After clearing away the overgrowth, trash and wildlife (rattlesnakes and a nest of baby buzzards were among the full-time residents), every piece of wood was meticulously labeled, catalogued, disassembled and moved to the Gilmores’ hunting property about 15 minutes away.
“The whole family hunts,” Cindy says, “and Gil comes out here almost daily to check on things or do some work.” The cabin was to be an addition to what their 1,000-acre property already offered — a lovely four-bedroom home overlooking a lake, with a large outdoor entertaining porch and a bunkhouse in what was once the Sunflower, Alabama, post office. (Cindy’s ancestors were postmasters.) The log cabin was moved to a spot just next to the main house and repurposed as an equipment room.
“This cabin exceeded our expectations,” Gil says, Cindy nodding in agreement.
“We’ve enjoyed it more than we thought,” she adds. “If it had been a bunkroom, we would have only used it two to three times a year, but as an equipment shed, we use it every time we get dressed and go out. We don’t keep any hunting stuff in the house anymore. We come out here to put on our boots or to get our guns. We are out here a lot and enjoying it.”
It is believed that the cabin, as well as a handful of other ones in close proximity to where the Gilmores’ structure was found, was built by slave labor in the 1830s. All are assumed to have been constructed by the same skilled hands.
In the 1950s, a sharecropper by the name of Ben Williams moved the cabin to the property on Gosport Landing Road. Williams lived in the dark, two-room cabin with his wife and 11 children, one of whom is still living today. As the chinking fell out of the walls through the years, the cracks were filled with newspaper, covered with wallpaper or patched with boards to keep out the cold. It would have been a hard life in the cabin, either as a pioneer in early Alabama or as a sharecropper in the 20th century, but the Gilmores are pleased they have preserved a small part of their local history and found a way it can have a new and happy life.
Making a plan to bring the cabin back to life
State of Disrepair
The cabin was in bad shape when the Gilmores purchased it. The back wall had a lot of rotten wood that needed to be replaced, and they planned to close up the back doors, so there was some patching to do. Hunting lockers on the inside and fake shutters on the outside conceal areas where the wood could not be salvaged or patched.
The cabin was originally two rooms with doors on the front and back, windows on each side, a small front porch, a tin roof and a lean-to out back that was added probably in the 20th century. The two rooms each had a fireplace that shared one chimney, but the Gilmores did not reconstruct that, as they planned to use the cabin as one large room.
Work in Progress
Contractor Josh Turner labeled and tagged every log, disassembled and restacked them, and put a new roof on in just one week. With no wiring or nails, nothing but the logs themselves, the task was really straightforward.
Bigger the Better
The 32-foot longleaf pine beam running the length of the cabin is purely decorative, placed there simply to preserve and display it. It was the original floor joist on the front of the cabin, which was in good shape because it had been protected under the front porch all those years. The smaller crossbeam was the header of the original interior wall. Although the size of the pine logs making up the walls vary some, most are 14 inches tall and 6 inches thick. “We’ve counted as many as 160 rings in some of these logs,” Gil says. “They could be older than that.”
Putting all the pieces back together
The craftsmanship is still visible in the tiniest of ways, like perfectly dovetailed corners or notches in the logs where the interior wall once attached.
Hunting lockers were crafted from the pine siding that had once covered the logs. Fairhope’s Will Street sourced the new flooring from the old Bryce Hospital in Tuscaloosa.
The Gilmores wanted to preserve a piece of history but also make it functional. They added heat and air as well as overhead lighting. The contractor didn’t want to drill into the logs, so the ductwork is in the floor and the wiring comes down the wall in metal piping that was etched with acid to make it look aged.
While the Gilmores may never know anything more about the skilled person who built this and other cabins in the area, they do know a decent amount about sharecropper Ben Williams. He was a talented basket weaver, and his white oak cotton pickers’ baskets are sought after today by collectors. When a friend found out the Gilmores were restoring the cabin, they gifted the couple a chair whose white oak seat was woven by Williams himself. The chair now resides in the restored cabin of its crafter.