amy azzaritopast & present

past and present: log cabin + cast iron skillet project

by Amy Azzarito

cabin illustration by julia rothman

I felt it was about time that past and present look at something a little less European, and maybe a little more American. But that’s a little easier said than done when you’re talking about former European colonies. There’s nothing quite like a log cabin to symbolize pioneer-can-do-it spirit, but that very emblem of self-efficiency has it’s roots in – (I think you’ve guessed where we’re going here) Europe!

russia island of kizhi, church of the transfiguration of our savior

Although archeologists can’t say exactly when the first log cabin was built, it certainly was well before anyone built a log cabin in North America! The tradition of log building seems to originate from Scandinavia and Northern Russia.  The Russians had a particularly impressive practice of log building that dates from as early as the 16th century.  The photo above is of the Kizhi Island in Russia. The entire island, filled with impressive wooden structures, is a museum and an UNESCO World Heritage site. The Church of the Transfiguration was built without a single nail on a loose-rock foundation.

traditional southern cornbread baked in a reconditioned cast iron skillet!

But who brought the tradition of log cabin building to North America? And how’d we get from little log cabin shacks to the huge log buildings found in every American National park? And because no log cabin living would be complete without cast iron cookware, I’ve included an easy way to refurbish your cast iron skillet!

CLICK HERE for the rest of the post – including facts to know and a short reading list (and a reconditioning cast iron project with a cornbread recipe!) after the jump!

gugalun house built in sweden in 1708. the house is still owned by the descendants of the original builders. see current photos of the house here.

Log cabins were not the first type of shelter built by all American colonists. The technique of log construction wasn’t brought to North America until 1638 when the Scandinavians who settled in New Sweden (which included parts of Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania) brought the technique of log construction with them. Although some settlers threw up a cabin quickly, many pioneers took great satisfaction in their ability to build a snug and tight family home. The more complicated the cabin, the more tools required to build it, but if necessary, one could raise an entire cabin with just a felling axe.

left: american felling axe;  right: broad axe

One of the earliest examples of pioneer ingenuity were the improvements made to the felling axe (and that’s a felling axe in Julia’s illustration above!) by creating a heavier poll. In addition, after repeatedly grinding down the blade after sharpening, North Americans discovered that they could use them to cut more accurately as the blade wobbled less during the swing. The American axes were subsequently made with shorter, wider blades.

swedish cabin in drexel hill, pennsylvania

Steps to Building a Log Cabin

  1. Build a foundation out of stones (either stacked dry or motored with clay). If stones were scarce, a cabin could be set on piers of rock.
  2. Dig a root cellar 4 to 5 feet in the ground
  3. Cut selected trees and haul logs to the cabin site.
  4. Debark the logs (Bark could be sold to be used in tanning.)
  5. Hewing the logs (shaping the logs to the desired form or shape. watch a video of hand-hewing here.)
  6. Raising the Cabin (this is the step that required the neighbors’ help – along with their horses and oxen)
  7. Chinking – if the logs were round, the space between the logs was often only 2 inches large so a mixture of mud or clay could be used. if the logs were hewn, the gap would be wider and chinking might be supported with stone and sometimes slats of wood.
  8. Fireplace and Chimney Construction

As pioneers moved westward, the log cabin design changed and adapted to suit individual needs. Different ethnic groups drew on their own building traditions. For example, as the French explored parts of Canada, rather than laying the logs horizontally, they stood them vertically. For many pioneers, the log cabin (no matter how snug) was just a temporary home until a “real” home – a frame house could be built. This perception of a log cabin didn’t change until the middle of the 19th century when architects entered the picture.

camp pine knot constructed from 1876-77

camp pine knot, the adirondack museum

It’s not surprising that at the moment industry began to take over the cities, people began to develop a longing for a “simpler” lifestyle. The biggest name in Adirondack architecture was William West Durant. Durant is credited with formalizing the Adirondack style. Located on the Raquette Lake, Durant created a camp by utilizing the model of the local Adirondack lumber camps, but creating an idea of rustic luxury (glamping, anyone?)

adirondack cabin detail – camp santanoni (construction began in 1892)

Although Durant got the ball rolling, the log villa at the Santanoni Preserve was the first work of significant architecture in the Adirondacks. In 1893, Robert H. Robertson, a prominent architect who would design the world’s tallest building – New York’s Park Row Building – designed a log villa at Santanoni inspired by his experience in Japan (his father had been Lincoln’s minister to Japan). The villa consisted of five separate cabins that were united under a huge roof and connected via open breezeways.

the lobby at old faithful inn in yellowstone national park via the new york public library

In 1903, architect Robert Reamer drew up aspects of Adirondack style in his design of Old Faithful Inn at Yellowstone. During the 1930s and 40s, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) used log construction extensively in many of the country’s Federal and State parks to build every type of shelter from cabins and lean-tos to visitor centers and maintenance and support buildings – many that are still in service.

reading list
The Log Cabin: Homes of the North American Wilderness – Although it was published in 1988, this book is packed with historical information on the log cabin and was a valuable resource for this post. (And you can find used versions for less than $3 on Amazon!)

Log Houses of the World – This book is filled with fantastic images, but is more than just pretty pictures! It’s actually a great compliment to the book above as it delves into architect-designed log home and the historical tradition of log building around the world.

additional resources
school of log building
vintage and antique log cabins for sale
lumberjack show – While writing this post, I spent way too much time watching burly men practice old school lumberjack techniques. this video was one of my favorites!

facts to know

  1. During the 19th century, it seemed like you couldn’t get elected president unless you had been born in a log cabin – the ultimate political symbol of a humble beginning. Some presidents who began life in a log cabin – Millard Fillmore, Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Jackson, James Buchanan, James A. Garfield
  2. Lincoln Logs were invented in 1916 by John Lloyd Wright, son of architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
  3. The bed would have been the most prized possession, in a pioneer cabin. The bedstead would be carefully made by man of the house, while the lady would make all the bedcoverings and mattresses.


diy project!
recondition an old cast iron skillet (and bake some cornbread)!

Cooking with cast iron is an easy (and fun!) way to bring a little pioneer living into your every day life. Cast iron cookware was so highly valued in the 18th century that in her will, George Washington’s mother made sure to note who would inherit her cast iron and when Lewis and Clark set out to explore the Louisiana territory in 1804, their cast iron Dutch oven was considered one of their most important pieces of equipment.  One of the reasons that I love cooking with cast iron is that a well-seasoned pan has the same nonstick properties as teflon without all the questionable chemicals the worry that it’s leaking toxins into your dinner!

You can buy a new pre-seasoned cast iron skillet, but it’s so much more fun to find something at a junk shop or flea market and bring it back to life! (Note: There are a lot of different ways to recondition a cast iron pan. If you don’t like the method that I’ve highlighted here, you can find plenty of other options. I picked this way for it’s ease and the time frame that I was working in! Good luck!)

materials needed

  • old cast iron skillet
  • oven cleaner
  • plastic garbage bags
  • gloves and mask
  • vinegar
  • steel wool
  • crisco (or vegetable oil)
  • paper towels


I found my old cast iron skillet at Brimfield. At $20 it wasn’t the cheapest skillet around, but I was seduced by the pretty cutouts in the handle! I’m not sure who the manufacturer is, but I can just make out the patent date of June 1879.


There are plenty of methods for reconditioning cast iron, but the one that seems easiest for apartment living is the oven cleaner method. (I wanted to try the method of throwing the skillet in the fire but alas, no fireplace!) The active ingredient in oven cleaner is lye, which will burn the skin, so be careful!

Remove Old Seasoning (and gunk!) from Cast Iron:

  1. In a well-ventilated area wearing gloves and a mask, liberally spray the skillet with oven cleaner.
  2. Place the oven cleaner-soaked skillet in a large garbage bag and tie closed. (Place out of reach of pets and children)
  3. Return in a couple of days to wipe the gunk off the pan.
  4. Repeat steps 1-3 until all the old seasoning and gunk has been removed from the skillet


Here’s the cast iron skillet with all the seasoning and gunk removed. But see that red stuff on the skillet on the left? That’s rust! The skillet on the right has the rust removed.

Remove Rust:

  1. Soak cast iron in a sink filled with 1 quart vinegar for every gallon of water for 30 minutes
  2. Using a steel wool pad (or other abrasive pad), scrub the now loosened rust off the cast iron
  3. Repeat this step a few times if necessary.

OK, so now your skillet should look like it did on the day it came out of the mold! But we can’t cook with it yet! We have to season the skillet.


Season the Skillet

  1. Place skillet in a oven warmed to 150 degrees for 15 minutes.
  2. With skillet still inside oven, turn it up to 500 degrees for 45 minutes
  3. Turn oven off and remove skillet (it will be hot, hot, hot! use oven mits!!!)
  4. Light coat skillet with Crisco and return to oven for 30 minutes
  5. Every 5 minutes remove skillet from oven and wipe any excess oil drips.
  6. You are finished! The best way to keep your skillet looking great is to use it!

Skillet Rules

  1. Don’t use it to cook acidic foods (so tomatoes are out)
  2. Don’t use soap! (you’ll undo all your hard work!)
  3. The best way to clean your skillet is to just wipe it out with  paper towel. However, you can wash with hot water and a scrubby brush. After you’ve rinsed out the cast iron, place it on the stove over a flame to dry it completely, then wipe down the skillet with oil or Crisco. (You always want to dry it out completely so that rust doesn’t form!)
  4. If your cast iron really gets crusty, make a salt and oil paste and use a paper towel to rub the paste on the skillet.

Traditional Southern Cornbread
Every family has their own cornbread recipe. For this version, I called on my grandmother-in-law, a dairy farmer in Oklahoma. Warning: If you’re looking for sweet cakey cornbread, this is not it. This recipe has no sugar and is cornmeal only. It’s intended to be an accompaniment for food or used to make a southern-style turkey dressing. Consider this a starting point on your quest for the perfect family cornbread recipe!

1 teaspoon of baking powder
½ teaspoon of salt
2 cups of cornmeal (plus a bit extra to coat bottom of the pan)
1 medium-sized egg, beaten
1 ½ cups of whole milk
enough vegetable oil to coat bottom of the pan

top photo: cornmeal added to hot oil coating the bottom of the pan; bottom photo: cornbread mixture in skillet just before going into the oven

Mix your dry ingredients (cornmeal, salt, baking powder) in a bowl and add milk. (You might need a little more milk to get it to a thick pancake batter consistency). Mix in the egg. Over a medium-high flame, heat enough oil to thoroughly cover the bottom of the skillet (be liberal!). Add a layer of cornmeal and cook for a couple seconds until you get a popcorn-like smell.  This will form a crust on the bottom and make getting the bread out of the skillet easier.  Add the batter to the skillet. Bake in an oven at 400 degrees for about 15 to 20 minutes or until the top is golden brown.


Serve drizzled with a little honey or serve with your favorite southern food and use the bread to soak up all the gravy!

Suggested For You


  • wonderful post. Old Faithful Inn is one of my most favorite places ever! And to think it was mainly built in the middle of winter with horse drawn sleighs hauling materials.

  • By far the easiest way to clean old rust and gunk from cast iron is to run it through the self-cleaning cycle of your oven. All that crud falls to the bottom of the oven and you don’t have to worry about cleaning fumes. Season your pan and you’re ready to go.

  • I know everyone says not to use soap but seriously? How is that not vile?( I’m not a germophobe, I just can’t imagine just rinsing any other food prep product and putting it away..) I use cast iron almost every day and I wash it with soap – once the seasoning has taken hold there’s not enough soap in the world to get it off, the soap just takes off the food remaining in the pan, then I dry it on the burner.

  • While I admire the efficacy of the your method- it’s funny that right after you mention the albeit “questionable chemicals” in teflon- you bust out the oven cleaner!!! Not being critical- just laughing! It looks like a *very* effective method and I loved this post! I LOVE my cast iron- between both sides of my family passing away and passing it down- my parents have a BOATLOAD of castiron and they are always trying to pawn more off on me when I go home to visit- and being a gal who tends to move around- my answer is always the same- No thank! One pan is enough! But now I want to go find and restore some just for the satisfaction of seeing it come back to life! Best!

    • ita-darling – touché! i didn’t mind the oven cleaner since the active ingredient is lye! I read about one reconditioning option that suggested soaking the pan in lye – that seemed too scary to me, so oven cleaner was my way of using the lye method. What I should have said is that teflon freaks me out ’cause it always seems to inevitably end up flaking off (no matter how hard you try to get everyone in the household not to scratch it!) Now go snatch up that cast iron from your parents! :)

  • Great post! I have just rediscovered cast iron and am having a wonderful time cooking with it. For the first time in my life I have had a pork chop come out tender! Sear on both sides on the stove, and finish in the oven at 350 degrees. Just like you said, meat doesn’t stick!

    Those pre-seasoned pans are great if you don’t buy old and recondition – the factory seasoning is akin to 20 seasonings, so it’s a great start! Now that I’ve had such good luck with the 1 pan, I can’t wait to get more (and in a larger size). Thank you thank you!

  • Thanks for the invaluable information.
    I have made every faux pas imaginable with cast iron pans. First I bought a teflon coated one, and when my husband burst out laughing I promptly went out and bought an enamel coated one!
    Meanwhile, my MIL is still using the pan her mother found in a field in 1939…

  • I want an iron skillet so badly. My mom used to make cornbread about once a month with hers. I’ve seen them in thrift stores, but have always been afraid to touch them. Thanks for the tip

  • This very week, PBS is showing the Ken Burns series on National Parks, so people can get in the mood of this post every evening if they like!

    Also, one thing that is funny about this blog is that the main audience is 20-somethings.
    We 40-somethings may not have your figures anymore, but at our stage we definitely have all already tweaked our cornbread recipe into full-out, favorite, best-ever status. So there is something to be said about age!

  • I’ve stopped using all my calphalon in favor of cast iron. I love it. I have one enamel coated pot that gets the acid-y stuff. And that one is still cast iron and was given to my parents for their wedding.

    For the hesitant – thrift store cast iron is almost always salvageable and worth while!!

    I don’t use soap to scrub – but sometimes will do a sort of soapy rinse after cleaning with just hot water and a scrubby. If you’re careful the seasoning is more effective than teflon, so there’s not really food that stays there. Unless your husband scrubs off the seasoning. ;-)

  • I have 2 cast iron skillets i use all the time. if i remember correctly, i bought them used and scrubbed them, then did the oven deal where it’s heated and i kept buttering it up and wiping it down. i guess i don’t recall a lot of gunk to get off…but that was years ago. also, i do wash with warm water and sometimes soap. i find that if i dry it right away and oil it periodically it stays nice and conditioned. great post. i love the historical information you share on d*s, amy.

  • Way to touch a history junkie and a foodie all at the same time. Love this post! The photos are wonderful…a grand view into the past. I have a kitchen full of cast iorn pans, it was what my husband had when we got married two years ago. He made me toss all the old pans I had…I am so glad he did. I can’t imagine cooking with anything else.

  • Awesome post! Thanks so much for the info on how to restore a skillet! You made it sound much easier than my first attempt. :-)

  • I would never use oven cleaner on my cast iron.

    Better option is to heat the skillet with a generous amount of oil. Then remove from heat and pour a generous amount of SALT into oil and scrub with a towel (use gloves). This is the best way to restore your cast iron.

  • If you have stubborn grime, use aluminum foil as a scrubber, rinse, then dry.
    The reason you don’t want to use soap is because the soap will get into the iron and you could end up with soap-flavored food. yum.

    Great post, thank you!

  • Cooking in a cast iron skillet is all the rage right now. I just found a queso fundido recipe that you cook in one. Good stuff and easy since you use one pan.

  • How did you know that my dream is to build a log cabin in my wooded back yard!
    OK, my city code enforcement guy would have field day with that idea– but love concept anyway…

  • @deanna- THANK YOU! I have several cast iron pieces and although I avoid overly-acidic foods and follow Alton Brown’s cookware bible for seasoning, I *still* get some crusty food in the middle of the pan that I have a hard time getting off. I will definitely be giving the aluminum foil a try! Love your posts amy.

  • Thanks so much for this guide to renovating cast iron skillets! It’s so useful; I didn’t know you could bring them back from the dead. :)

  • Wow, what a marvelous post! My mother’s half of the family is Finnish. They are mostly in Helsinki but always kept a cabin in lake country. I was lucky enough to stay there with my grandparents before age caught up with them. Wood-fired sauna and a jump in the icy cold lake, blueberry picking with my grandfather, and food pulled up from the ice-lined box in the floor. It was really special, and it is wonderful to think of that heritage extended in different ways to my home here in the US. I love how you captured the log cabin as a way of living rather than just an architecture.

  • I’ve cooked with three sizes of cast iron frying pans for longer than I care to say. I always make my fresh tomato pasta sauce (with a splash of wine or balsamic) in the largest — it cooks eveything evenly and quickly in 25-35 minutes. Just wash by hand shortly afterwards in mild soap, rinse and hang up to dry.

  • My favorite way to re-season cast iron: cook some bacon in it! I put 4 0r 5 strips in, on medium heat, and let it fry up. It will take a while, but in the end you have a nice seasoned pot/pan AND BACON!!

  • I think that it is the most durable and long lasting cookware out there even when it has been abused it can be brought back to life with a little tender loving care. Try abusing a non stick, enamel coated, all clad or stainless steel cookware and you might as well chuck it. I know of cast iron skillets and Dutch ovens that have been passed down through 2 generations and are know in the hands of the 3 generation and are still a pleasure to cook in. When you look at an old cast iron piece of cookware just think of all the history that is before you!

  • I have no problem with the INSIDE of my skillet. My problem is how do I remove all the burned on gunk on the OUTSIDE of the skillet.
    It is one I bought in a thrift store and I use it a lot. Just wish it were shiny and seasoned all over. HELP.

  • Hello,
    Just wondering, what are the letters on the bottom of your skillet? I can’t quote make them out.

    • Hi John – The writing on the back of the skillet is difficult to even make out in person! Looks like it says 8&9 HFC. Then there’s something else on the bottom and the date June 10, 1879 – but really difficult to discern. -Amy

  • the Cherokee clans built log cabins before the white man came. most of the eastern native americans built them

    • John

      That’s so interesting- I’d never heard that in relation to log cabins. They have a long European history dating to times B.C. but I’m going to research the early Cherokee log cabins, too. Thanks for the tip-