Thoreau’s Cabin Reconstructed at Georgia Tech

Georgia Tech Honors Program students’ examination of Henry David Thoreau’s writings took a physical turn as School of Literature, Communication and Culture Associate Professor Hugh Crawford’s class reconstructed Thoreau’s famed cabin. 

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On Feb. 20, students in Literature, Communication and Culture Associate Professor Hugh Crawford's class raise the timber walls on a replica of Henry David Thoreau's cabin he built at Walden Pond.

Using only the instructions recorded by the author in his work, “Walden,” the class and numerous other students raised the cabin’s walls and rafters this past Saturday on the lawn in front of the College of Architecture Building.  What began as a seminar on the writings of Thoreau became a search for meaning beyond the analysis of words on a page.

“We are searching for a greater understanding of Thoreau’s experience at Walden and of knowledge embodied in practices and processes,” said Honors Program student and builder Victor Lesniewski.  “There is a case to be made for gaining a perspective on the world—an additional context for meaning—through material practices.  It means understanding that there is knowledge and intellect that cannot be represented through a graph, a lecture, or a college classroom. It is a tacit knowledge that can only be achieved through an interaction with the materiality of a tree, a tool, the world.”

Students only used tools that would have been available to Thoreau to recreate the famed cabin.  No nail guns, power saws, or pressure-treated two-by-fours—students used felling axes, broadaxes, crosscut saws, adzes, chisels, augers and bores, chalk lines, squares, froes, and mallets.  They also relied on Thoreau’s sparse instructions to guide them through the building process.

“For all his prolixity regarding his house, Thoreau provides little detail about the actual construction,” said Crawford.  “All we know is that he went to the woods in late March 1845, felled a number of white pines with his borrowed axe, squared them—probably with a borrowed broadaxe—and constructed a 10-foot by 15-foot by 8-foot timber-frame with six-by-six beams joined by mortise-and-tenon joints.”

Beginning in October, students began felling yellow pine trees from a farm near Monticello and squaring them by hand, no small undertaking considering each log weighed hundreds of pounds.  Each mortise-and-tenon joint that connects the beams took anywhere from 30 minutes to three hours to complete, and the house has more than 20 joints.  The cabin’s beams require little storage space, stacking neatly together in what could be considered an early version of flat-packing.

“Thoreau didn’t detail how much labor it took to build a cabin like this,” Lesniewski said.  “In trying to figure out how he built this, we are gaining an experience similar to Thoreau’s.”  Also informing the experience, Lesniewski added, were conversations prior to construction. “We have conducted interviews with Thoreau scholars, timber framers, and latter day Thoreaus to continue adding depth to our understanding,” he said.

The result of the class’s innovative approach to research yielded a new insight about the author.  “Many people see Henry David Thoreau as an anti-social crank who chose to spend his time alone, counting ants or measuring the ice at Walden Pond,” Crawford said. “While there is some truth in that perspective, the students have also learned how many of his activities demanded community, particularly the raising of his house.

“Thoreau spent many a long day squaring up large timbers, pausing occasionally to talk with the casual passerby. But he also needed the help of a good number of friends and townspeople to raise the frame, an activity that requires team-work, patience, and good spirits, and is usually accompanied by music, feasting, and all around good times.”  Crawford observed this sense of community first-hand.

Many students who were not enrolled in the class joined the self-dubbed Thoreau Housing Collective, their interest piqued by the ever-present crew of flannel shirt-clad Honors Program students working in front of the Architecture Building.  Often spending their weekends and afternoons with Crawford working on the cabin, more than 20 students from a wide range of colleges and majors donated thousands of hours to the project.  Many of them now find themselves with a new appreciation for the craftsmanship and skills required to build a timber-framed house.  “I had never even hammered before this, now I love it,” said Honors Program student Sarah Mudrinich.

Students will hold a March 16 poster presentation of the project during the Undergraduate Research Spring Symposium in the Student Center Ballroom, and a student video about the project is in production.  The Thoreau Housing Collective also has documented its experience at www.thoreauhouse.org, which includes movies, pictures, journals, interviews, and research.

The cabin will be displayed on campus for an indefinite amount of time.  While the ultimate fate of the structure is uncertain, the legacy of the project is already making an impact across the country.  High school students in Cincinnati used a Skype connection to hear a lecture about the project and learn more about Thoreau.  Plans for additional Skype lectures around the country may be on the horizon.  In addition, Lesniewski plans to present a summary of the experience to the American Literature Association in the coming months.

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