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Log by log: Replica Elkhorn Ranch Cabin planned at site of TR Presidential Library coming together

For the past several days, a four person crew has been working to debark cottonwood logs for the Elkhorn Ranch Cabin replica being built on the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library site in Dickinson.. (Sydney Mook / The Dickinson Press) 1 / 2
Richard Bickel debarks a log to be used in the replica of the Elkhorn Ranch Cabin on Wednesday morning. (Sydney Mook / The Dickinson Press)2 / 2

Day by day, log by log, the dream of having a replica Elkhorn Ranch Cabin made with the same tools Theodore Roosevelt and his men used is coming to life.

For the past several days, the four-person crew has been working from 6 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., or sometimes a little later, to debark cottonwood logs for the replica being built on the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library site in Dickinson. However, the group, led by Richard Bickel, isn't using the typical power saws and screwdrivers that would normally be present on a construction site. Instead, they'll use the same techniques Roosevelt and his crew used to build the original cabin in the 1880s.

"The heat is part of the reason we only work (eight-hour days)," Bickel said. "You have to drink lots of water. You need to pace yourself. I don't care even if it was cold out, you still have to pace yourself."

The logs were harvested from heritage ranches along the Little Missouri River in the North Dakota Badlands. Bickel, who has been helping teach his team the techniques and tools used in the late 1800s, said the dryer the logs, the easier they become to peel and debark. He said they were able to debark 12 logs on Tuesday, which he classifies as a good day.

Each log is tagged and/or branded with the ranch or town it came from. When the cabin is completed, they hope to have some sort of area that depicts exactly where each log is in the cabin.

At least one of the logs they debarked on Wednesday had ice damage near the base. Bickel said it is possible for them to look at the rings on the log and determine what year there may have been heavy ice flow near the Little Missouri River. There was also some with beaver scarring.

Mike Jangula, Scull Construction division manager and project manager, said the next step after logs are debarked is to square and shape the logs on three sides. He said they have done test logs in the past and it took roughly one hour per foot to shape the log. So if there is a 30-foot log, it would take about 90 hours to get it properly shaped.

While Scull has built log cabins in the past, they have never taken on a major project like this where only old tools and techniques are used. Jangula said projects like this are rare. Even a task like selecting the logs is different, he said. Typically, pine would be used to make a log house because the grain of a cottonwood isn't as consistent.

The plan is to build the log cabin with a temporary roof and have it in a temporary spot until the design for the presidential library is finished. At that time, it will be deconstructed and put in its permanent location.

"The codes are such that it has to have a foundation, so it'll have a foundation but you won't be able to see it. We'll hide it with sandstone going around it," Jangula said. "We'll make it look as close as we can, but that's one of those concessions you have to make in modern day versus what they did then."

He said one of the many highlights of the project is the people he has worked with. Even meetings have been fun and enjoyable, he said.

"Everybody has a common goal in the end and that's to build this thing as close as we can to what TR did and preserve the history," Jangula said.

Going through the history of the Elkhorn Ranch Cabin has also been fun.

"It's amazing the history you learn from their day-to-day diaries in those days," Jangula said. "At times when you're doing this, especially in March when we were retrieving the logs in the snow, you could see the amount of effort it took for those guys to actually get that done."

Sydney Mook

Sydney Mook started working as the multimedia editor for The Press in January 2016.  She graduated from the University of South Dakota with a bachelor's degree in journalism and political science in three and half years in December 2015. While at the USD, she worked for the campus newspaper, The Volante, as well as the television news show, Coyote News. She also interned at South Dakota Public Broadcasting and spent the summer before her senior year interning in Fort Knox for the ROTC Cadet Summer Training program. In her spare time, Sydney enjoys cheering on the New York Yankees and the Kentucky Wildcats, as well as playing golf. If you've got an idea for a video be sure to give her a call!

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