When we think about the American frontier, images of isolation, privation and often labor can come to mind. Life on the frontier certainly was difficult and dangerous. A homesteader’s first year was often a frantic race to establish his family before winter snow began to fall. The first job was to cut timber to clear land for planting crops and provide logs for building a cabin. The homesteader’s wife and children might stay with a neighbor or even remain back east while their new house was being built and crops and garden planted. Conditions in their new log home were primitive as most cabins had only dirt floors, almost no furniture and only a small, cast iron stove for heat and cooking. However, once established in their new home pioneer families were eager to improve their cabins with siding, wooden floors, paint and plaster. Even on the frontier people did their best to follow the latest fashions and keep up with the Joneses.
German immigrants Wilhelm and Sophia Ney homesteaded along the Minnesota River just east of Henderson, MN in the 1850s. Wilhelm built a large 22’x 32’ cabin from maple and basswood logs in 1855 which served as the family’s home until he built a larger house out of local, cream colored Chaska brick. The old cabin was covered in board and batten siding and later converted into a horse barn. However, despite being used to stable horses for many decades, remnants of the original daubing and lath and lime plaster have survived on the rear wall.
Once the newly plastered walls had cured they could be white washed, painted with brightly tinted oil or calcimine paint or even covered with fashionable wallpaper bought at the local dry goods store. Indeed, some plaster, paint, siding and a new frame-and-panel door could make a log cabin look as refined as a frame house built in town. Only its thick, log walls might betray its humble beginnings. 19th century plaster was made from lime, sand and sometimes animal hair and applied in up to three coats over wooden lath. The plaster was mixed on site (the lime often coming from local deposits of limestone) and lath split or riven from trees felled in the area. Wilhelm Ney split his lath from small branches of willow trees which were abundant along the nearby Minnesota River. The lath was nailed directly to the log walls with a straw backing which allowed the lime plaster to adhere more easily.