Building a sense of survival

Resource: A log cabin helps give Harford pupils a taste of pioneer life and a lesson about ecology.

February 08, 2004|By Sarah Merkey | Sarah Merkey,SUN STAFF

The traditional week that Harford County fifth-graders spend at Harford Glen without computers, television sets and video games is becoming more rustic -- with the addition of a log cabin.

Harford Glen is an outdoor education center in Bel Air. Part of Harford County public schools, Harford Glen provides the opportunity for fifth-graders to spend up to a week with their class, learning about ecology and the environment. The camp's staff of teachers and student counselors supervise the pupils.

Team-building activities and structures such as a student-size beaver lodge supplement the trip.

The log cabin is a "super addition" to the landscape of the camp, said Mark Herzog, assistant supervisor of science for Harford County public schools.

In spring 2000, the construction of the log cabin began; the dedication ceremony took place in April.

The Harford Glen experience is dominated by a science-based curriculum, but educators at the Glen are trying to expand its scope.

"We've been in contact with the social studies department," said Eric Cromwell, a teacher at Harford Glen. "We're hoping to integrate them further with the program; the cabin is a natural catalyst for that."

The one-room cabin, equipped with a fireplace, is used as an extra classroom.

"It is a starting point for our hike to the dam," Cromwell said. "Our whole point to the hike is looking at [environmental] impact. The cabin is a reference point."

Pupils are asked to compare the ecological effect of a modern lifestyle with that of a pioneer who might have called the log cabin home.

"There's a much stronger connection now to our social studies curriculum," Herzog said.

Educators at Harford Glen emphasize environmental stewardship.

"We use the log cabin as a focal point for that discussion," Herzog said. The campers are encouraged to look at the impact the cabin has on the environment compared with many cabins and today's homes.

Jack Shagena, a retired engineer who led the construction project, and the Harford Glen staff have plans to add another structure that will further illuminate the pioneers' lifestyles.

Shagena has been attending auctions, collecting tools that will be put to use in a carpenter's/blacksmith's shop. One tool that he has purchased is an adz, which is similar to a hatchet, but the blade is turned 90 degrees.

"We have four markers in the ground for the four corners [of the new structure]," Shagena said.

"In another year or so, I'll get the crew back up here," he said. About 12 people were involved in the construction, typically working in groups of three or four. The volunteers who built the cabin tried to limit use of modern conveniences.

"It was a lesson to all of us that we're building," said Bill Sisson, a retired electrical draftsman. "We used mostly manual tools. It made us appreciate what it was like to live back then." The first step in building the cabin was to find out how it was done hundreds of years ago.

"We actually started out that we were going to use primitive tools," Shagena said, "but it was physically too much work."

"At the rate we were going, it would have taken forever," said Ralph Monaco, another crew member.

The log cabin has a few differences that expose its 21st-century birthday.

"There's a hidden light" in the cabin, said Shagena.

Log cabins don't have much light because they don't have many windows, Shagena said. To preserve the feel of authenticity, the overhead light is hidden in the woodwork of the cabin's ceiling.

Rocks around the foundation disguise the fact that the cabin is built on several concrete piers to keep the wood from rotting. The construction crew set out to split cedar shingles for the roof, but abandoned the effort in favor of ordering commercial sawed western cedar shingles.

The Mill, a sawmill on Rekord Road, donated the oak wood for the cabin floor and the decking for the poplar porch. The rest of the cabin was constructed using about 50 logs cut from white pine trees that had to be removed when Harford Glen built new dorms for campers.

Shagena had no trouble recruiting other retirees to help him with the labor.

He relied on word-of-mouth to find willing participants. "It was surprising how many retired individuals were interested," he said. "It was just the idea of building a log cabin, something your great-great-grandparents may have done, that got them excited."

"I always wanted to build a cabin," Monaco said. "It was fun, but we're not spring chickens."

The log cabin is 12 feet by 20 feet, with a 6-foot-by-12-foot porch, two doors and three windows. Each opening was sawed out after the box frame was built.

A sash was added to the three windows; the glass was then glazed into place. Since labor was free and many of the materials were donated, the project cost less than $5,000.

The Harford Glen foundation financed the effort. "A log cabin fits right in the scheme of things [at Harford Glen]," Monaco said, "It shows the kids how people have to rely on ingenuity to survive."

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