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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Old Illinois Houses

John Drury

reprinted by
The University of Chicago Press
Chicago and London, 1977

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Sarah Lincoln
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

[image ALT: A photograph of a small log cabin. It has a single story and an attic with a window; on the right side part of a porch is seen. It is an early‑19c log cabin in Charleston, Illinois.]

Ed Paul

James Rennels Cabin, Charleston, Built 1832.

 p46  Only a Few Left

Although numerous replicas of log cabins, such as the ones at New Salem State Park and Lincoln Log Cabin State Park, are in existence, not many originals of this kind of abode survive. It is for this reason and the fact that they once played an important role in the housing development of Illinois, that they deserve study.

Perhaps the best way to discuss the log cabin would be to select an outstanding example from among the few which are still standing. One of the best preserved, and one of the oldest of its type, is in a park in Charleston, seat of Coles County and of the Eastern Illinois State College and scene of one of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. This city is also on the Lincoln National Memorial Highway, which follows the path of the Lincoln family in moving from Indiana to Illinois in 1830.

Not only is this cabin a good example of what these primitive dwellings were like, but it has historical associations with Abraham Lincoln and other leaders of early Illinois. It is said that Lincoln often visited the cabin when he was traveling the judicial circuit as a lawyer, for in that day it was not far from his stepmother's house in Coles County.

Although this cabin is one of the principal sights of Charleston, being located on landscaped grounds in Morton Park, it does not stand on its original site. It was moved to this spot in 1926 from the place where it was built more than a century ago. Now the Sally Lincoln Chapter house of the Daughters of the American Revolution, the cabin is attractively furnished with authentic pioneer household articles — spinning wheels, candle molds, walnut chests — of log-cabin era in American history.

This dwelling was built in 1832 by James Rennels, a young Kentuckian who, like Lincoln's father, had come up to Indiana and afterward moved into Illinois. He was one of the first settlers of Coles County, taking up his residence here only a few years after John Parker and his sons established themselves in the region which bordered the Embarrassº River. This area later became Hutton Township, named after John Hutton, another early settler.

The Lincoln family, including Abe, moved into this part of the county at about the time James Rennels built his cabin. Here Rennels and his wife, who was the daughter of Joel Connolly, another early Coles County settler, reared a family of five boys and four girls. In the vicinity lived Rennels' father, John Rennels, who had followed his son from Kentucky. In time the vicinity became known as Rennels Settlement.

 p47 When he built his cabin James Rennels followed the construction methods of his time; the same methods used by Thomas Lincoln and his son Abe in building their log house. As almost every schoolboy of today knows, these cabins were made by placing logs horizontally on top of each other to form the walls. Not so noticeable to school children, however, is the fact that these logs were roughly squared with an adz and dovetailed into each other at the corners. Spaces between the logs were "chinked" with clay or mortar.

As to the origin of the log cabin, which was a form of construction unknown to the Pilgrims of Massachusetts in the seventeenth century, historians have learned little. One authority, the late Thomas E. Tallmadge, in his Architecture in Old Chicago, writes: "The log house, as we know it, was probably introduced into Delaware by the Swedes not before 1720." Other authorities point out that it was an outgrowth of the French style of vertical-log house introduced into the Mississippi Valley by the first white men to visit this region, the French explorers from Canada.

And so, under the elms of the attractive little park in Charleston, the Rennels cabin survives as an interesting link in the chain of housing development in Illinois.

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Page updated: 3 Dec 07