by Dorthea Calverley
No day passes [ca. 1970] that we do not hear at least one reference to the housing shortage and we think of the scorn expressed by an old-timer about the helpless humans we have become.
George Robinson of Sexsmith had grown up in one of those country houses in England, where his father was “The Squire”. George ran away to Canada as a youth, and eventually gravitated to the Peace River Country, stoutly determined not to ask his father for money. The Peace was home to his pioneering determination and outdoor life preference, so he set out to trap for a living as soon as he made enough for a simple grubstake — a gun, an axe, and a hunting knife. A lean-to shelter served for summer and fall while he built himself a house. He had no nails, hinges or bricks and yet he made himself a door that would swing freely and hang properly and close securely. I think that later he must have got a piece of glass, but once he had shot a deer, it wasn’t necessary. He could use the dried skin to admit light, as the fur traders did in Fort Edmonton.
With the axe he cut his chosen logs, no heavier than he — a man of short stature — could push up a couple of slanted poles resting on the top of his walls. The cabin would be no higher than necessary to stand up in, because it took a shorter time and less wood to heat up when a man came in half-frozen and had to stoke a fire with precious wood through long, frigid nights.
At this point he had to stop wall building to make a door. George’s was no flimsy affair that a bear could bat down with one push of a large paw. First he selected two big trees from which he could hew two planks fourteen inches wide and two inches thick. In the edge of one he cut a groove. On the edge of the other he shaped a protruding “tongue” to fit into the groove, carving away the excess wood above and below the jutting portion. Then the two planks were driven together, side by side, the crack packed with moss. Horizontal straps held them together while the brace was made. He cut the bottom off with the axe, hewing to a line.
With knife and axe he cut away grooves near the top and bottom of the door. Into these he laid saplings, axe-squared off like a board. Now from brace to brace he cut another diagonal groove, notching the cross-braces near the ends. When a third brace was in place, an X-shaped frame was ready to peg into place — pegs and holes being shaped by the axe and knife. The tongue-and-groove joint in the centre of the door took care of shrinkage that would occur when the wood dried. The horizontal and diagonal braces kept the heavy slab from getting a “wow” in it from warping in wet-and-dry and sun.
The hinges were built onto the door. The outside slab on the left side he left longer at the top and bottom than the carefully measured distance between the threshold log, and the height of the wall he had built thus far. With his axe and knife he removed the excess wood, leaving a knob or peg protruding,
Now he reamed out a hole in his threshold log, big enough so that the knob on his door could rotate easily in it. The door was lifted and the peg dropped into place. In the underside on the next log of the wall, which was to form the lintel over the door, he carved a socket to fit over the protruding knob or peg on the top of the door. Care had to be taken to get the holes exactly over each other so that the door would swing true. George assured us that it did swing easily, and moreover the nosiest bear couldn’t smash it off its hinges although, naturally the door must open inwards to take care of the situation when snow banked high against wall and door in winter. Thus a stout lock had to be made, also of wood, with a latch that could be lifted by a thong or thumb latch. Most cabins had a homemade wooden fastening in the early days. Keyed locks were unnecessary, and in fact an insult to one’s neighbors, for a cabin must never be shut against any man who came along seeking shelter.
George didn’t tell us whether he went to town to carry or toboggan home an airtight heater, or how he managed the heating problem. He was quite capable of building a fireplace, trapper-style, of willow witches and mud.
In any case, he made his cabin snug and habitable before news of his favourite brother’s death in World War I reached him. He would have a home to come back to after he had served his country in France in the Engineers corps. Sure enough, it still stood, snug and sound, when he returned years later.