In the middle of the woods in rural Missouri, an old cabin slowly rots away. When Richard Aiken visits to take a look, he can barely tell where the trash ends and the building begins. But with a little imagination and a lot of hard work, he will transform it into something amazing.
Aiken is a man of many and varied talents. He has a Ph.D. in mathematics and another in chemical engineering. What’s more, he has a medical degree to boot. Amazingly, he’s also found time to write a book and moonlight as an opera singer, before rekindling a love of competitive sports at the ripe age of 65.
Yet despite all these impressive life skills, Aiken himself is strikingly down-to-earth. Amusingly, he even refers to himself on Facebook as the “Hillbilly Vegan.” And, like many people wanting to escape our hectic modern world, he has always dreamed of one day owning his own humble abode in a forest somewhere.
However, Aiken soon discovered that his dream came at a price. He began searching for a cabin, but he quickly found that all of them came with astronomical price tags. Fate, however, intervened and offered him an opportunity too good to resist.
In Missouri, Billy Howell was trying to work out what to do with an abandoned cabin on his land. He had lived in the shack with his wife for around 40 years, but the couple had moved out at some point in the 1990s. Since then, the cabin had been left to rot and decay.
So, it must have been a great relief when Howell saw an advert posted by Aiken. Howell quickly replied, saying that Aiken could take the shack off his hands for free. However, when Aiken came to see the building, he found a wreck covered in rubble with a tumbledown roof. Nevertheless, he saw its potential and gave Howell $100 for the structure.
As the new owner of the cabin, Aiken soon got to work. Now, his research revealed that the property was likely built in the 1830s, so he knew that he was working with something of an antique. Slowly, then, he began to pick through the debris and reveal the treasure hiding underneath.
“This cabin was a real find,” Aiken told SF Globe. “It was two stories, with a very large ‘pen’ of about 21-22 feet square. The material was massive white oak beams, hand hewn and squared with half dovetail notches. Most logs were in excellent condition.”
However, there was one problem with the cabin – it was in the wrong place. Indeed, Aiken and his wife Mary had already fallen in love with a plot of land in the Ozark Mountains. Mary, in fact, was so taken with the spot that she had cried tears of happiness when they discovered it.
Undaunted, Aiken decided that there was a simple solution. He painstakingly cataloged each and every piece of the cabin, transporting the entire dismantled structure to his dream location. Then, work on the restoration began.
The Aikens, moreover, knew that they wanted a cellar under the property where they could store provisions and wine. They subsequently started digging, but they soon hit a snag. At just six feet, they struck bedrock and could go no further. As a solution, then, the house was elevated by a few feet.
Aiken’s overall aim, meanwhile, was to reconstruct the cabin as authentically as possible. So, with the exception of a concrete floor in the cellar, everything was made from natural materials. So, when he needed new pieces of wood for the construction, Aiken sourced them from trees growing nearby.
White oak, hickory, ash and cedar were all used to restore the cabin to its former glory. And although Aiken regretted having to take materials from living trees, he told SF Globe that he considered these instances to be “unfortunate but necessary sacrifices.”
Slowly, then, the cabin began to take shape. A rustic porch was added to the outside of the building – an ideal place to listen for bullfrogs and song birds, according to Aiken. Eventually, though, he plans to use the front porch as a bandstand for musical shows.
The bulk of the cabin was made up of solid logs. However, there were gaps between them due to their old and rustic nature. So, to fill them in, Aiken used chicken wire covered in daub. But even this, he says, was done in a traditional style, with a daub made up from an antiquated formula of cement, sand and lime.
Inside, Aiken built a Rumford hearth – a style of fireplace common in the early 19th century and known to be particularly efficient at heating rooms. Indeed, the Aikens’ one apparently emits so much heat that they are able to cook vegetables by merely arranging them around the edges of the hearth.
Although the cabin is basic, Aiken made his own mark by including lots of incredible detail. A fallen oak trunk was used to craft a set of stairs into the loft, while all the windows and doors were constructed by a craftsman and shipped in. Even the metal hardware, in fact, was made from hand-wrought iron.
So, in 2013 – ten years after Aiken started the project – the cabin was finally finished. With the help of his family and some Amish people who lived nearby, Aiken had managed to create his dream home. Today, the cabin serves as a cozy retreat for the Aiken family. And, unsurprisingly, it gets plenty of use.
In a display of pride over his father’s accomplishments, Aiken’s son subsequently posted some images of the cabin on Reddit. Commenters on the site were amazed by the renovation project, with several expressing the desire to do something similar themselves. What’s more, there were even enquiries from users keen to know if they could rent the cabin out.
For Aiken, however, the whole experience has been a philosophical one. Although the process was sometimes tough, he came to view the project as something akin to meditation. “I hope I shall never finish working with this log cabin,” he told the SF Globe. “Never stop the silence.”