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Living Log Cabin Life

By Tom Lowrey, Senior Services Education Assistant

He grew up in Benton Harbor, and I was sent there in 1947 to teach in the Lutheran school when there was a shortage of teachers. He said, “Who’s that new girl in the choir?” and that’s how we came to be acquainted. We were married in 1949. – Marion Newman

After a two year ministry in Ohio, Reverend Leonard Newman brought his family to Michigan. They lived in Tawas City and Hemlock before they settled in Sanford, where Leonard was a minister for 24 years. Marion and Leonard raised five girls and a boy. He passed away in 2003, but his presence is very much alive in the wooded land north of Midland where he built two cabins and a beautiful log house, inhabited by Marion and frequently visited by their children. On a recent sunny spring day, Marion shared their story:

“My husband and I moved into the house in 1989. He had built it from trees that grew on our own land here. When we bought the land about 50 years ago, there were no buildings here at all. It was just wild land. Then he built a little shack so he could warm up when he was out here hunting or walking around.

“After a while Len thought that he would really like to have a traditional log cabin out here, so as he made calls around the county for his parish work, he kept an eye out for some old cabin that was falling down. He always said, ‘Once the roof is gone, you’re finished.’ So he would talk to people who owned an old log cabin and he would say, ‘You want to see it preserved?’ Finally he found a family near Clare that was willing to sell their old cabin. When the Civil War ended, a man in the Union army named David Smalley had heard about the land being given away to homesteaders, and he had come up here and built a log house on Colonville Road. David Smalley’s great grand-children agreed to let Len have it if he would take it down, take it away, and leave the land farmable, perhaps for the Amish people. So he agreed to do that. He took a flatbed trailer that he borrowed to put his tractor on, and took the tractor out there and pulled the old building down and proceeded to bring it, timber by timber, out to this land.

“He did this single-handedly. I find it almost unbelievable that someone would undertake such a thing, but he understood the inclined plane, and used a boat hoist to bring the heaviest planks up to the level where he needed them. And all I did was take pictures. He did this without any electricity out here at all. It was his chain saw and his understanding of simple machines. So he built it up using materials from the old cabin, and we never put any electricity in it. We proceeded to furnish it with hundred-year-old pieces that operated by treadle or whatever, and what makes it interesting is that we have lots of old things in the cabin. For instance, there’s a dentist’s drill that’s operated by treadle.

“Years later, when he thought about retiring, he said, ‘I think I can build us a house to retire in.’ I was not enthusiastic about that at all. I said, ‘You go ahead and build a log house for yourself, and build me a nice house up on the road,’ but I’ve grown to really like it here. Then Len began looking for old materials, and there was a barn being torn down in this area. The man said, ‘I just want some firewood in exchange for whatever you take from my barn.’ So Len took the beams, and then started looking for some cross-beams, but didn’t find anything that was long enough, so he got to thinking about the birch trees, and ended up using them. When he thought about putting in a fireplace, he knew a fellow in Hemlock who had a big stone pile that just sat there. So he brought some over here with a small trailer, a load at a time, and then we employed a stone mason to do the fireplace. We had a retired friend who was a jack-of-all-trades, and he was employed by the hour to help. So that’s how we came to have this house.

“We had a pond dug before we put any of the buildings here. We told the fellow, ‘We have $2000 to put into the pond, so dig until you reach that limit.’

“Because he used to leave food for the deer in the winter time, there were plenty of them around. Once we saw 47 at one time!

“For several years, we belonged to the Log Cabin Society, and every year we would invite people to visit our property. We had 240 people sign our guest list one Sunday afternoon. We were just hoarse from talking to all of them. Len would put himself in this cabin usually, and I’d stay in the house and have someone come in to do some hand quilting. There have been hundreds of people who’ve seen the house, but not for the last umpteen years.”

This is a beautiful time of year at the Newman home. And Marion, who once laughed about the crazy idea of living in the middle of the woods, now loves to sit on her front porch and enjoy the view.

P.S. Virginia Florey wrote a nice article about the Newmans in 2009. You can find it online at OurMidland.org. Search for “Marion Newman.”