Puzzle boxes, not pastry, fill the antique pie safe in the corner.
Pieces of the next-up puzzle cover the surface of a vintage farmhouse table.
An even bigger puzzle surrounds all of this: an 1800s log cabin that arrived in Lancaster County in enough pieces to fill a 24-foot truck.
Over seven years, Doug Brown pieced this cabin together with help from his wife and their two teenage daughters in the backyard of their Strasburg Township home. The cabin’s built from Tennessee timbers hand-hewn with a broad axe, slate from a barn that housed one of Trigger’s on-camera stand-ins and stone from the farm next door. Once someone’s home, the cabin is now a retreat to put together puzzles, a spot to share a meal cooked in a fireplace and a place to hide yard equipment.
“It’s been a getaway on our own property,” says Doug’s wife, Angela Cuthbert.
Bringing something old back to life
Doug, who’s a mason turned nurse, has long wanted a deconstructed house as a project to keep him busy.
“Take something that’s old and bring it back to life,” he says.
He appreciates working with old materials built to last, like old-growth wood. When the family moved from Lancaster city in 2012, they first looked for a log cabin home.
Rebuilding a log cabin was one way to combine these two dreams. Doug searched for a cabin online and found a promising one in pieces in Tennessee via SearchTempest, a website that searches Craigslist and eBay.
While the seller didn’t have much history to share, Doug guesses the cabin was built in the early- to mid-1800s. He liked the size (18 feet by 20 feet) and the fact that the seller was throwing in doors, windows and a fireplace mantel. The $5,000 price tag also was better than many they spotted, Angela says.
After they decided this was the one, Doug and a friend rented a truck and returned to the sprawling site straight out of “American Pickers.” They unloaded the logs, wood and windows in the driveway and there it sat as Doug collected pieces to complete the cabin.
Collecting materials near and far
Over three years, he found red sandstone cornerstones in northern Lancaster County. The farmer next door shared 15 tons of stone as they were removed from the field. Other pieces, like the wood for interior trim, came from Craigslist, eBay and online auctions. At Barnyard Boys near Peach Bottom, Doug found wide-plank white pine wood to make new doors with old materials.
Aside from hiring someone to dig the foundation, Doug handled construction with his main helper, daughter Chloe Brown, who is now 19 years old.
They worked on the cabin on weekends and sometimes after work and school. During the summer when the focus shifted to the garden, the cabin work slowed down. Two years ago as the cabin work dragged on, they decided to skip the garden and focus on finishing the cabin.
Building a cabin
There were clues that helped put together the cabin-sized puzzle. Each log had a numbered tag, but about half of the numbers had faded away. Some logs had remnants of lines spray-painted when the cabin was intact. A few photos of the cabin helped as well.
“I used these and looked at them to try to figure out what goes where,” Doug says.
They lifted the heavy logs into place with the help of scaffolding and planks, little by little.
There was plenty of heavy lifting, but one of the most stressful challenges came from a wrong color choice. Doug had spent a day building the front foundation with field stones and mortar the shade of chocolate brown.
“I came home and I was like, ‘I don’t like it,’ ” says Angela, who is a geography professor at Millersville University.
“It just didn’t work with the stone,” Doug agrees.
They mixed a few more batches to find the right color, ripped out the walls and started over. The mortar’s now not too dark and not too light.
A fun project
Over more than four years of construction, they raised the logs and filled in the mortar. They built the roof and topped it with two types of local slate. They added a front porch plus a fireplace and salvaged termite-damaged beams to make a partial loft. The cabin was finished in the summer.
“We anticipated having a party,” Angela says. “Then COVID, so no party.”
Instead, they cooked a Christmas Eve meal together on the fireplace: Doug and Angela plus Chloe and her sister Sophia, 16.
In the fireplace, Doug cooked a chicken on a string with potatoes in the coals. Below parsnips, carrots and shallots simmered in a cast-iron spider with three legs, found in an online auction.
Since then, the cabin’s become the perfect place for puzzle time.
For this family, the cabin has been a fun project: years of finding materials online, venturing out to track down furniture and putting it all together piece by piece.
“It can be frustrating at times but in the end it’s worth it,” Doug says. “It’s more about the journey than the destination. If you get somebody to build it for you, it’s not the same as doing it yourself.”