Thursday, May 22, 2008

Sawmill houses

A few months ago I got asked if I'd help with a possible National Register nomination for a house located in the east Texas pine forests, a really nice example of vernacular construction and style. The house is one story on stone piers (probably loose laid, but I haven't taken a close look at them yet) with a hipped roof and a veranda that runs the full width of the facade. It's got the classic deep South windows, the ones that come close to being floor to ceiling in height, front door is centered and there's a stone chimney on each side wall. It's a style I always think of as Acadian, but I'm told is referred to as French Creole. It is, in fact, a considerably down-sized version of the plantation house in the photo -- same general concept with the deep veranda, the big windows, hipped roof, but all done a whole lot smaller and minus the attic dormers. It's an east Texas vernacular farmhouse, after all, not the remnants of a high-style plantation.

The style isn't the interesting thing about the house, though. What makes it potentially NR eligible is that it's sawmill construction, and still looks it. Sawmill construction is a technique that's only possible in situations where load-bearing walls aren't going to be supporting a whole lot of weight. An alternative name for the technique is box construction. Putting it as simply as possible, there are no wall studs. As the above photo of the interior of the Klepzig Mill illustrates, there's a stringer at the top, a stringer at the bottom, and sometimes a stringer across the middle, but no vertical studs. The walls are nailed to each other at the corners. What you're seeing when you look at the vertical planks is the backside of the exterior wall. From the outside it looks like this:
The gaps between the vertical planks would be covered with battens. The technique was widely used across the South. It was fast, it was easy, it was cheap. Lumber companies often built dozens of sawmill houses for use as lumber camps or company towns as a cheap, temporary solution for workers needing housing; settlers moving into rural areas to farm used the same technique for similar reasons. Ozark National Scenic Riverways has three examples I'm familiar with: the Klepzig Mill building and springhouse (interior pictured below) associated with the Klepzig farm, and the Suzie Nichols cabin. Although the written descriptions of sawmill construction always talk about it being a 19th century transition between log cabins and balloon or platform framing, the OZAR structures are all twentieth century.
The house in east Texas in some ways is a totally typical sawmill house, while in others it's rather unusual. Among other things, it still looks like a sawmill house -- it has the original board and batten exterior. I've no doubt Sabine County had quite a few others like it built around the same time, using the same floor plan and materials, but they're all either long gone -- razed because they were too small and too old-fashioned -- or so thoroughly covered up with aluminum or vinyl siding that they're now unrecognizable.

I'll be back in east Texas next week. Here's hoping the house still looks as eligible the next time I see it as it did eight months ago.


  1. the only reason i recognized it as french creole is from watching those shows on the home improvement channel where they redo old houses and they did several in new orleans...i love that style..that's the kind of house i would love to have..east texas is beautiful but the people are a little scary...mighty mighty white
    you might say..
    wow, i think you may have my dream job..ha...

  2. ps..west is only about 200 miles or so from you...come on down..

  3. I do the historic preservation stuff as a hobby now, not as the day job, which in some ways is better than back when I got paid for it. I stumbled into the sawmill house nomination because my younger daughter works in Sabine County (She moved there last year and still suffering culture shock. Calling it mighty white is an understatement. It's also a dry county.) The house belongs to one of her co-workers, a guy who is really proud of his family history and did a great job of rehabbing his grandparents' place to make it liveable by current standards while at the same time preserving as much of the original feel as possible. I'm hoping he'll let me post some photos because it is a great looking place.

    200 miles? Isn't that considered "right next door" in Texas?

  4. no right next door is 500 miles...down the road is 200 miles..hell most of texas is at least 200 miles from anywhere..west is central texas so we are 120 miles from austin, 90 miles from dallas, and 9 miles from willie...

  5. Dear Nan, it was nice of you to weigh in at my place. I always follow intelligent, interesting commenters home and am always glad I did. I was born in Paris, Tx and had an aunt who live for a while in a small town in east Texas in the piney woods part of the state. Is this where your daughter is? Yes indeed, it's mighty white. It's what I call cracker country. I'm entitled to use this epithet because it so aptly describes my mother's family. Racist and ignorant and proud of it. Now all gone, so they won't be tracking me down. I'll check back now and then--hope you do the same. I thought you comments on my piece were smart and well written. Thanks


My space, my rules: play nice and keep it on topic.