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Murrysville man logs history bit by bit

| Friday, May 11, 2012, 12:36 a.m.

Vicki Henry's is not your ordinary Abe Lincoln log house.

It's sided, for starters. The back half is clapboard, covered with gray Insulbrick. It isn't the prettiest.

But under that, and all across the front, which they've exposed, the house is log, and solid. The bottom timber is 18 inches high.

The house has a history. It was once part of Sewickley Manor, set on 150 acres of Unity Township. Then it was a saddle shop. Then it was the simple two-bedroom Henry thought she'd bought, back in 1990, before her husband, Toby, tore into a living room wall and saw logs.

"We've found so many interesting things," Henry says. Like the tractor scythe, in with the chinking -- the wood chips, and later clay and mortar, that filled the gaps between logs. And then some old spoons. And a letter from the 1700s, left in the steps.

And now, pulling up in an old Subaru, with his camera and his cooler full of lemonade, Jim Baughman.

Buy a log home in Westmoreland County, even without meaning to, and Jim Baughman will find his way to you, too. For almost 10 years now, ever since he said it was a shame no one knew how many log houses were left, he has canvassed the county, looking at foundations and window widths, and writing notes in the binders he keeps in the basement of his red-brick Murrysville home.

He has found 350 log houses so far. He also found five log barns.

"That surprised the heck out of me," he says, in the car again. "These old houses are all over the place."

When he started, in 1994, 10 years after he'd retired from U.S. Steel, where he ran a computing lab, Baughman barely knew where to begin. He knew nothing about architecture. He had always had an interest in history -- and a good collection of old wood hand tools -- but he was no expert.

"I'd never done anything like this before," he says. "I thought, 'Jiminy Christmas, how am I going to get the word out?'"

He talked up the idea at a meeting of the Baltzer Meyer Historical Society. The group maintains a hall, in Hempfield Township, home to maybe 100 log houses.

He wrote to other historical societies, and to the Realtor Review. He bought road maps for each of the county's municipalities. "Some of these maps," he says, "a little kid could have drawn better."

Then he started driving. He put 2,000 miles on that Subaru one year, just looking for log homes.

Frontier roots

What he found, out there on the back roads, was a Westmoreland County still clinging to its frontier roots.

He found a Jones Mills family living high on a hill, with no telephone or electricity. The women were doing their wash outside.

On Pleasant Valley Road, near Bouquet, he found a log home that has stood since 1762. The garage next to it was modeled on a 35-room stone villa in Italy. The doors came from a prison.

In Youngstown he found Duane Miller, who bought the Robert Dickey house in 1964. The place was already 165 years old, and cold.

Miller is a history buff, so he knows his home's story. Ma Wheeler once brewed moonshine there, he says. Gen. Arthur St. Clair once came in, hurt, after his wagon lost a wheel. He died just a few days later.

The Westmoreland County Historical Society still has the home's original doorknob, Miller says.

Baughman listens a bit, impressed. Then he measures the home's exterior. Then he counts the windows and asks about the addition, which Miller put on in 1968.

He does not ask to go inside. He never does.

Miller is a good find. Most folks don't know that much about their own homes, Baughman says. Some would never guess they live in log houses.

A log home is hard to keep. The chinking -- or daubing, as it is more accurately called -- needs regular maintenance. The ceilings are often low. The bees, wasps and ladybugs always get in.

For convenience, many log homes were bricked over years ago.

Baughman knew they were out there, though. His great-grandfather grew up in one. Four more were just a stone's throw from his own boyhood home, off Baughman Hollow Road in Hempfield.

A study similar to his found 290 log homes in Somerset County. Another found 400 in Bedford County. So he set to it.

The challenge now is time. Baughman is 76. He has birds to feed and a home of his own to maintain. He worries he won't finish the work.

"I don't know if I'm going to live long enough to visit all of them," he says. "So no, I really don't know where it's all going to end up."

For this trip, through Bouquet and Baggaley and into Unity Township, with his wife, Pat, in the back, the whole time reminding him to watch the road, it ends in a dirt turn-around, just down from a sprawling auto salvage yard.

"I'll tell you one thing," Baughman says. "I know a lot of the roads in Westmoreland County because of this. Part of the fun is trying to find the next place."

Pat says she likes meeting the people. Most, like Duane Miller and the Henrys, are proud of their houses and happy to talk about them. "Everywhere we went, except for maybe one place," she says, "the people have been really nice."

Now they've stopped. There's a farm off to one side, and the far edge of the auto graveyard on the other. The lot across the street, where an old log home once owned by Andrew Mellon supposedly stood, is empty.

"Well I'll be a son of a gun," Baughman says. "It's gone."

He sits a minute, smarting at the loss of the house, and of the opportunity to photograph it, to count the windows and jot his notes and add something to the story of how we got here, and how much we've changed.

He shakes his head, says, "I hate to see that. I hate to see them destroyed." Then he slaps the steering wheel and starts the quiet drive home.

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