At the turn of the 20th century, life in the Pacific Northwest was still a struggle for some. After all, while the Wild West and the Civil War were still within living memory, the American Frontier had been pushed back to the furthest corners of the continent. What’s more, the daily lives of people on that frontier remained full of hardship and difficulty. Yet that area of the U.S. still had its fair share of extraordinary sights at that time – such as these astonishing so-called “stump houses.”
At the edge of civilization, life was grueling. Working from dawn until dusk, farmers would have had to build and maintain their own homes as well as tending to their animals and crops. And that was in addition to seeing to a host of tasks that might be difficult to imagine today.
Indeed, pioneers had to do whatever was necessary in order to stay alive. Even children as young as four would be put to work to help their families. And there was no limit to the chores that they might be tasked with – from milking cows and tending to animals to fetching water and churning cream to make butter.
Part of the struggle of life lay, moreover, in simply finding the supplies to build a home. While the settlers of the Pacific Northwest lived in dense woods, home to wolves and bears, they nevertheless had to compete with logging companies in order to secure usable timber.
And although enormous trees and vast forests were being felled, this valuable lumber would be sent elsewhere. What the settlers were left with, then, was a landscape of scrap wood and stumps. As a result, they would not be building cozy log cabins; instead, with tenacity and hard work, they had to make the best of the situation at hand.
In fact, the settlers decided to make use of their landscape of stumps. You might wonder what good a tree stump would be for building a house – but these stumps were big. Cedar trees and giant redwoods, for example, could be as much as 20 feet or so across at the base.
Nevertheless, stumps twice the height of a man would be left in the ground for the simple reason that the wood could not be sold. Specifically, the uneven grain of the wood at the tree’s base meant that the timber it yielded would not pass muster with anyone looking to make money out of it.
Later settlers would wipe these stumps from the landscape, removing the debris that had been left behind by the loggers in order to create even farmland. Indeed, they would spend years of sweat and toil to uproot and burn what was left of these tree remains.
These people would spend whole summers removing stumps from their land. And a huge amount of manual labor was needed to break them down, requiring tools, animals and raw strength to heave the remnants of trees and their roots from the ground.
Various settlers did find uses for these stumps, though. Some, for instance, were turned into platforms where “stump dances” took place. Performers would play mandolins and fiddles while people danced on the newly fashioned stage. In other cases, festivals were held where partygoers would simply dance around the stump.
Meanwhile, others did something completely different: they looked at the stumps and saw the potential for a home. This might seem strange. But these people needed shelter from the cold and the rain and so appreciated that each of the stumps provided four walls that could be crafted into a crude structure.
Roofs were then placed over the stumps and doors, and windows and other features were attached to make them more serviceable. The houses could thus be used for storage or to shelter chickens or pigs – or they could become family homes.
The first stump house was actually built in 1847 by the McAllister family. They moved to Medicine Creek in Washington State and decided to create their own unique structure out of the remains of a tree. And while the McAllisters would eventually move into a more traditional home, they would continue to use the stump house as a barn.
The most well known of the stump houses, though, was located in the small community of Edgecomb on the Lennstrom family’s property. Its owner, Gustav Erik Vilhem Lennstrom, had emigrated from Sweden to America, where he married fellow Swede Brita Charlotta Westerlund.
Moving from Tacoma, Lennstrom and Westerlund settled in the Pacific Northwest, where they raised dairy cattle. And her younger sibling Johan Axel Westerlund would soon join them there. What’s more, since the newcomer was a cabinet-maker who was skilled with wood, he had the necessary skills to fashion a stump into a real home – and he soon got to work doing just that.
Westerlund hollowed out a cedar stump that was 22 feet across and finished it off by adding a roof as well as a door and a window. There was even a stovepipe extending from the top. Moreover, Westerlund took a liking to the stump house that he had built and continued to live there even though he had already built a more conventional home. For one thing, despite what it lacked in comfort, the unusual abode gave him the space to be alone.
Meanwhile, photographs taken of the house in the first decade of the 20th century would be turned into postcards, which would make the dwelling famous in the region. Then, in a plan to preserve the house in the 1930s, it was disassembled. However, so much damage was done to it in storage by insects and rodents that it had to be destroyed.
Even more extraordinarily, in 1892 in the Olympic Peninsula on the Elhwa River, William D. McDonald opened the first U.S. post office to be built from a stump. It would, furthermore, subsequently be featured in picture postcards capturing the strangeness of the enormous structure.
However, the American Frontier officially came to an end in 1890 with the full settlement of the continent. And the end of that boundary marked a drastic change in the American national identity. After all, the Frontier represented danger, opportunity and freedom – as well as a wild continent of unlimited resources – for many Americans.
The pioneers of the Pacific Northwest, though, lived at the fringes of civilization, persevering against the hardships of the wilderness. And as ancient forests of cedars and giant redwoods were felled for timber, these settlers conquered the last vestiges of the American Frontier in their own unique ways.