A Tale of Two Cabins

Written by Davie Kean, master gardener at the T.C. Steele State Historic Site

Brown County, Indiana, is log cabin country, so it was fitting that the First Annual ‘Create it with Gingerbread’ contest featured this theme. The Dewar Cabin at T.C. Steele State Historic Site inspired staff member Mary Ann Woerner to enter the competition.

After taking careful measurements, and several photos for reference, she began constructing a scaled-down, edible version of the historic building. She enjoyed the planning of the cabin more than its construction. Perhaps Peter Dewar, the builder of the original, felt the same.

Early settlers to the area favored logs hewn from Tulip Poplar (our state tree) for their rustic cabins. It’s one of Indiana’s taller species — straight-grained and easily worked, making it an ideal building material.

Mary Ann’s cabin used different ingredients. 18 cups of flour were needed for the gingerbread dough to form the logs. The structure was then chinked with four cups of Royal Icing. She even included 18 gingerbread men, representing the numerous children of the Dewar family. Unfortunately, her dog developed a taste for gingerbread and four of the cookie-kids were short-lived.

Compare Mary Ann’s reproduction with views of the real cabin. Photos by Mary Ann Woerner.

The Dewar Cabin gets a facelift

Written by Davie Kean, master gardener at the T.C. Steele State Historic Site


Nestled in the woods just below the House of the Singing Winds is the Dewar Log Cabin. Because of its shaded location, the shingle roof didn’t weather as well as those on our other historic structures. It had become moss-covered enough to be mistaken for the original from the 1870s.

The most recent re-roofing is now complete and the fresh cedar shakes appear as a bright spot amid the bare trees. As I was helping the Sites Restoration Crew on the project, I wondered how may roofs the cabin had ‘gone through’ in 140 years. Shake shingled roofs can last from 20 to 60 years, so this may be its fifth or sixth roof.


We had the advantage of some sturdy scaffolding to make the job easier, and we certainly didn’t have to split our own shingles. I tried to remember this when my joints ached from working on the steep incline.

Although authentic looking on the outside, a lot of new technology lies under the new wooden skin — ice and water shield, black paper and a product that allows air to circulate between shingles and roof decking. Maybe this will help counteract the effects of moisture and shade.


As any homeowner knows, maintenance is never-ending, and the porch floor next in line. The oak boards to replace it have arrived, but, unfortunately, so has winter. Thinking about how the original builders had to contend with a lot more than cold weather will see me through the project.

What a beautiful day!

by Anne Fairchild, Eastern Region Program Manager for the Indiana State Museum

It is rare in downtown Madison to get much snow, let alone have it stick. For a transplanted northerner, it was quite cheerful to see a little snow before Christmas this year. Enjoy the pictures of our grounds. Happy Holidays from the Lanier Mansion State Historic Site!

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What’s Doin’ at the Dewar Cabin?

Written by Davie Kean, master gardener at the T.C. Steele State Historic Site

T.C. Steele State Historic Site is a place of many contrasts. Here, visitors can compare an earlier way of life to their own, as they tour the historic buildings and learn of the hardships the Steeles faced upon arriving in Brown County in 1907.

The site’s Dewar Log Cabin presents another contrast. It is so different from the Steeles’ House of the Singing Winds, that it’s hard to believe that both were lived in during the same early time period. The cabin’s present location — about two miles from its original spot — is within sight of the artist’s sprawling Arts & Crafts style home, but in appearance, they are miles apart.

Selma Steele purchased and moved the little cabin in 1934, wanting to preserve it as an example of local architecture. She used it as a Trailside Museum, housing objects from nature found along the same hills and valleys painted by her husband, T.C. Steele.

That’s a bit of background. Today, artists and visitors find both buildings equally appealing. Proof of the cabin’s popularity was exhibited (literally) this fall at the Great Outdoor Art Contest on Sept. 11, 2010. The log building was featured in these winning entries:

First Place Watercolor: William Borden of Hanover, Indiana

First Place Teen 13-18: Luke Sanders, Fishers, Indiana

First Place child 12 & under: James Szalkie, Indianapolis, Indiana (also, the grandson of 1st place Watercolor winner!)

Want to know more about the cabin’s history and happenings? Ask a docent for details. Visit the site and make your own comparisons. Imagine yourself as the parents of 18 children living in the Dewar Cabin — or as a content couple entertaining and hosting area artists in the House on Bracken Hill.

Eau de old stuff

 by Gaby Kienitz, Conservator

I have a secret to tell — historic artifacts smell. They often smell bad. When you get close and personal with historic artifacts like I do in the Conservation Lab, you realize they have odor issues. It’s not their fault. Dust, mold, bird droppings, mouse pee and, shall we delicately say, various “debris” from human use contribute to a potent olfactory cocktail. If I could bottle it to sell at the perfume counter it would be called “eau de old stuff.” But, I don’t mind, I’m used to the smell.

I’ve been lucky; I hear stories from friends at other museums about a collection of artifacts that smell of old cigarette smoke and even worse, a contemporary art object that smells of rotten flesh. I’ve never had to deal with objects that smell so bad they make you feel sick. This year, I hit the jackpot with artifact smells. Not because it was terrible, but because it was so very good. Enter the bee skep …

What is a bee skep exactly? Well, other than a hollow in a tree trunk (à la Winnie the Pooh), this is the traditional home of the honeybee. Those efficiently square bee boxes we’re familiar with today weren’t invented until the middle of the 19th century. For hundreds of years before, humans provided the humble, hardworking honeybee with a home that’s basically an upside-down coiled basket made of straw, held together with strips of tree saplings. After the bees move in, they create their own honeycomb, by building directly onto the inner walls of the skep.

Our bee skep is an exile from the Odd Indiana exhibit. It was intended to be part of the display of torturous farm tools, but was cut from the show several months before installation. It didn’t look like anything special when it was brought to the Conservation Lab. Heck, I didn’t even know what it was. But, when I leaned in to take a closer look at the interior, that’s when it hit me – the smell, that fabulous smell. The inside is glossy from a thin coating of wax and high on the inner dome of the skep are small hexagonal remnants of honeycomb. There is still a faint, warm smell of beeswax mingled with the sweet earthy smell of straw.

For the first time ever, I found myself wanting the smell from an object to linger. I’d love to spend my days with my nose up against the inside of the skep, making myself giddy with the smell, but then who would do the work? Although the skep was rejected from exhibition, I wanted to give it another chance. I’m hoping to have it placed on exhibit in the second floor main gallery in the summer of 2011. But, before it’s ready for exhibition it needs to be treated in the Conservation Lab; part of the lower coil on the skep has detached and there’s some straw missing.

Look for an update in the coming months on the treatment and installation of the bee skep. Until then, I’ll be keeping my nose to the skep … er …grindstone.

All photos by Anna Yu.