The Molalla Log House, possibly the state’s oldest structure, reveals secrets that may rewrite the first chapter of Oregon’s pioneer history. Researchers think Russians were first to build in Oregon.
MOLALLA, OREGON – The historic Fox Granary in rural Clackamas County was no secret to local history buffs— the county declared the expertly crafted log building a historic landmark in 1991. But no one realized just HOW historic it might be and today that structure, identified as the Molalla Log House, is revealing some fascinating secrets.
For six years, with the support of the Kinsman Foundation and Restore Oregon, architectural historian Pam Hayden and pioneer construction/restoration expert Gregg Olson have worked to unravel the mysteries of the Molalla Log House. Clues about its origins have led them to a startling conclusion, which, if confirmed, would rewrite the first chapter of Oregon’s Settlement.
Local records note that the Molalla Log House was moved in the 1890s to the location in which Hayden and Olson found it in a state of partial collapse. The building was put to various uses over time, including a house, animal shelter, machine shed and hay storage, until it was dismantled in 2008 to save it from further deterioration. Documented and moved safely to a local warehouse, the logs have been carefully studied to understand the builders and their techniques, and to assess rehabilitation needs.
Unraveling the Mysteries Around Who Built it
Unlike typical pioneer construction where chinking was used to fill in gaps in log cabin walls, these logs were hewn to stack so tightly together that there was no need to fill the spaces between them to keep out the weather.
The half dovetail corner notching is similar to a finely crafted cabinet. The craftsmanship displays expertise in building with Douglas fir, a soft wood unlike the hardwood used by pioneers from the east and mid-west. The roof design is also foreign to American builders and is believed to have been thatched. The house was left unfinished— windows were planned for with cuts marked in the logs, but never opened. There was one door.
Possibly Pre-dates Lewis and Clark
What Olson and Hayden thought might be an 1850s-period log building turned out to be much older. The Molalla Log House may have been built even before 1805-06, when American explorers Lewis and Clark built Fort Clatsop near the mouth of the Columbia River.
Although the date the house was constructed is not documented or confirmed, dating techniques and historic research indicate the log house may have been built between 1795 and 1810.
During this period, Russian maritime fur hunters and traders with the motivation, ability, and cultural tradition of building with logs similar to the Molalla Log House were working out of Alaska. Could the Molalla Log House have been built by persons from European Russia, familiar with the ancient building traditions known in the geography of the Baltic Sea?
It’s open to debate, but the research team believes the house was built by Russian peasant farmers in conjunction with Russia’s fur trade in Alaska. The Russian Crown intended to use the Russian fur trade in Alaska to aid in the colonization of the northwest coast of America north of the 45th parallel, even as late as 1819. Fur hunters and traders in Alaska were starving as efforts to feed them through farming failed. The fertile Willamette Valley in the foothills of the Cascades would have provided the needed landscape to establish farms to grow wheat and to hunt land based furs. Peasant farmers and craftsmen were sent by Russia’s Catherine the Great in the 1790s to Alaska to help build agricultural communities.
The Kalapuya Indians, native inhabitants occupying the Molalla area during this period, were not known for their hostilities and may have been tolerant of a small agricultural settlement.
Although much of the history of Russian America was either a secret, never documented, or lost in the 1790s, we do know that they had the knowledge, the wherewithal, and the motivation to briefly occupy land in Willamette Valley between 1795 and 1810.
At the request of project advisors, Olson and Hayden published a treatise in 2012 documenting their knowledge of the building, entitled: Molalla Log House-Fox Granary, Theory of the Origins of a Potential Surviving Relic of a 1790s Russian Occupation of the Oregon Country.
Continued Investigation is Needed
Subsequent research and analysis of the building continues. Hayden and Olson are reaching out to the greater community in hopes to increase their understanding about the building’s origins. Although a careful theory has been developed, the research team are asking others to come forth who may have any additional information that might help solve the mystery of the Molalla Log House.
The definitive questions about the Molalla Log House remain:
- Why was this hand hewn log house built on the northeastern edge of the Willamette Valley in the late 1700s or early 1800s?
- Who were the builders and what was their motivation to construct a log house for a brief occupation in the Molalla area c.1800?
The building was moved in 1892 and the original site remains unknown. Historic research has led the research team to speculate that house was originally built two miles north of where it was found, near Rock Creek and four miles west of the Molalla River in Clackamas County. Preliminary archeological investigation in 2013 was not successful in linking the Molalla Log House to the area of speculation. Further investigation may reveal additional information in the future.
Searching for a New Site for the Log House
The house is in the final stages of rehabilitation. It is being fitted and stacked in a warehouse in preparation for reconstruction once a suitable steward and site is found for the building. Regardless of its potential intriguing history, the building is important for preservation and interpretation because of its age, design and craftsmanship. It exhibits an ancient efficient and foreign building tradition, unknown previously in Oregon.
The rehabilitation work will be complete by April 2015. A secure site is needed where the log building will be protected and under cover. An entity also is needed to take on the long-term stewardship for public education and interpretation of this extraordinary Oregon historic treasure.
The Kinsman Foundation has funded the dismantling and rehabilitation of the log house since 2008. The National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Clackamas County Cultural Coalition funded a preliminary Archeological Survey. The Molalla Area Historical Society and Restore Oregon have provided support and acted as fiscal sponsors for the project. Project Advisors have supported the project through their expertise in the fields of architectural history, archeology, history, dendrochronology and historic preservation. Dozens of additional volunteers have donated their time and expertise. Doug Babb, CFM, assisted with public outreach.
The educational program to be presented by this research team on February 18th at Portland’s Architectural Heritage Center will feature slides and discussion, sharing information about what is known to date about this mysterious building, which is believed to have been built during a time undocumented in Oregon history.
Gregg Olson and Pam Hayden have worked as at team at all junctures to unravel the building’s unique origins and rehabilitate the physical structure.
Gregg’s business is Historic Building Repair. He is an expert in log buildings, having studied both in England and Oregon. Along with other aspects of Gregg’s work in historic preservation, he has restored several of Oregon’s oldest log buildings.
Pam Hayden is a retired specialist in historic preservation and has worked to identify, preserve and protect historic resources in Clackamas County for over 30 years. She is this project’s coordinator for grants and has been responsible for conducting the historic research.